In this blog, I’ve talked about an initiative called ICT Toronto, whose goal is to move Toronto from it’s number 3 position in terms of people who work for information and communications technologies to number 2 (currently, Boston is 4th, New York has the number 2 position and the San Francisco Bay Area is number 1). I’ve also discussed my worry that ICT Toronto are going about it the wrong way, by talking only to whom they perceive as the “big players” in tech — the IBMs, Ciscos, Microsofts — which are foreign-owned companies who treat us as branch offices and not sources of innovation. They’re ignoring the smaller companies: the start-ups where the innovation really happens. I went so far as to state that “not only is ICT Toronto’s task too important to be left to ICT Toronto; I think that we will have to accomplish that task in spite of ICT Toronto.”
I closed my rant about ICT Toronto with these suggestions for Toronto’s tech community:
- Work! Without actual technology to promote, there’s no point in promoting it. Keep on cranking out code, designing sites, working on projects, sharpening your skills and go beyond 9-to-5 development. What made Silicon Valley great was its people’s dedication to their craft that went beyond marking enough time at work to fill a 40-hour week to get a paycheque.
- Blog! The reason we remember Marco Polo and not his father and uncle is because he wrote down his experiences about travelling to China while they didn’t. The rule still holds today: if you’re a techie in the Toronto area and you’re working on an interesting project or can write tutorials or report on developments in the tech world, blog! Tech blogging will help boost Toronto’s tech presence on the web far better than a stack of glossy ICT Toronto brochures sitting in an investment bank’s recycling bin. (ANd make sure to mention that you’re from the Toronto area!)
- Socialize! Computing is just a fancy branch of mathmematics, and mathematician Paul Erdos (you should read his biography, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers) proved that math was a social activity. Get out there and meet with other developers in the area — this city has all kinds of meetings, user groups and gatherings of that nature. Meet your fellow geeks and exchange ideas! Remember, Silicon Valley is as much a product of its after-work gatherings as the work done in the garage.
This leads me to Paul Graham’s latest essay, How to Be Silicon Valley, which begins with:
Could you reproduce Silicon Valley elsewhere, or is there something unique about it?
It wouldn’t be surprising if it were hard to reproduce in other countries, because you couldn’t reproduce it in most of the US either. What does it take to make a silicon valley even here?
What it takes is the right people. If you could get the right ten thousand people to move from Silicon Valley to Buffalo, Buffalo would become Silicon Valley.
That’s a striking departure from the past. Up till a couple decades ago, geography was destiny for cities. All great cities were located on waterways, because cities made money by trade, and water was the only economical way to ship.
Now you could make a great city anywhere, if you could get the right people to move there. So the question of how to make a silicon valley becomes: who are the right people, and how do you get them to move?
Graham goes on by stating that you need only two types of people to create a tech hub:
- Rich people.
Graham explains: “Few startups happen in Miami, for example, because although it’s full of rich people, it has few nerds. It’s not the kind of place nerds like. Whereas Pittsburgh has the opposite problem: plenty of nerds, but no rich people.”
what you don’t need, he says, are:
- Bureaucrats. “Most things bureaucrats do, they do badly. We just don’t notice usually, because they only have to compete against other bureaucrats. But as startup investors they’d have to compete against pros with a great deal more experience and motivation.”
- Buildings. “Building office buildings for technology companies won’t get you a silicon valley, because the key stage in the life of a startup happens before they want that kind of space. The key stage is when they’re three guys operating out of an apartment. Wherever the startup is when it gets funded, it will stay. The defining quality of Silicon Valley is not that Intel or Apple or Google have offices there, but that they were started there.”
What are the qualities of a tech hub city? Graham says they are:
- Universities. “What nerds like is other nerds. Smart people will go wherever other smart people are. And in particular, to great universities. In theory there could be other ways to attract them, but so far universities seem to be indispensable. Within the US, there are no technology hubs without first-rate universities– or at least, first-rate computer science departments.”
- Personality. Graham stresses the importance of having a creative class: “A lot of nerd tastes they share with the creative class in general. For example, they like well-preserved old neighborhoods instead of cookie-cutter suburbs, and locally-owned shops and restaurants instead of national chains. Like the rest of the creative class, they want to live somewhere with personality.”
- Things that appeal to nerds. According to Graham, that’s things like “the kind of town where people walk around smiling”, “a town where the smart people are really smart, but you don’t have to pay as much for that” and “quiter pleasures…They like cafes instead of clubs; used bookshops instead of fashionable clothing shops; hiking instead of dancing; sunlight instead of tall buildings. A nerd’s idea of paradise is Berkeley or Boulder.”
- Youth and liberalism. “That’s the connection between technology and liberalism. Without exception the high-tech cities in the US are also the most liberal. But it’s not because liberals are smarter that this is so. It’s because liberal cities tolerate odd ideas, and smart people by definition have odd ideas.”
- Time. Based on the Silicon Valley story, it’s going to take time. Startups beget startups and form a chain reaction, and that’s can’t be done on the 6- to 18-month timeframes we’re used to dealing with.
I’m not so sure about the “quieter pleasures” thing: consider the large contingent of nerds who like raves, goth clubs and metal, or the heavy nerd contingent at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge, owned by Jamie Zawinski, an alpha geek. I can see the local conservatives blanching at the idea that liberalism and tech excellence are connected.
If you’re interested in boosting your own city’s high-tech sector (I certainly am), I strongly encourage you to go check out Paul Graham’s essay. I’d also like to see some discussion in the comments, so please, comment!