Toronto (a.k.a. Accordion City)

On Becoming Silicon Valley, Part 5

I got a lot of interesting responses to the How to be Silicon Valley article I wrote last month in the comments to that article, via email and in real-life face-to-face conversation. The article pointed to Paul Graham’s article of the same title, in which he talked about how it might be possible for a region to recreate the conditions that made Silicon Valley what it is.

I thought I’d pick up on that topic again, since it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart as a programmer, a technical evangelist, a proud citizen of Accordion City and (ugh) a marketer.

David Janes’ Take

David Janes is a developer in Toronto who’s worked with the likes of Algorithmics Incorporated and is now part of BlogMatrix, a small company that develops a platform that allows people to create dynamic websites using structured blogging, podcasting, support for all sorts of data formats and internationalization. In his blog, Ranting and Roaring, he added some points of his own to Paul Graham’s recipe for Silicon Valley:

  • Big Tech: there’s lot of big tech companies in Silicon Valley. The Old West wasn’t all cowboys, it was mostly ranchers. People need somewhere to go that will pay them when their first, second and third startups fail. Startups need a place to draw employees from, once they get past the first dozen.
  • Geography: south of San Francisco, it’s easy to get from anywhere to anywhere along the 101, 280 and 82. San Francisco is a traffic dead end, which is why we here a lot more about the strip malled Mountain View than the more beautiful (as I remember it) San Rafael.
  • Age integration: one thing I’ve noticed at conferences and camps I’ve gone to in the Bay Area is age integration. It’s not weird or unusual to be 40 years old, or 50, or 30 or 60. You are what you can do, not what you look like.

I would also add the CalTrain to the list of routes along the San Francisco-San Jose axis. I much preferred riding the CalTrain and hacking away on my laptop, catching up on my email or reading than fighting my way down the 101 (or more often, sitting still in the 101 in stalled traffic on a warm afternoon). I’d have to think about a little bit more about the Toronto-and-area geography before commenting on it more, but I think I can say that we do a better job with public transport than the Valley does; California is heavily into their car culture.

I’ll talk about Big Tech later as well.

As for age integration, that’s something we’re going to have to work on. Like David, I also observed while living in San Francisco that the Valley has its share of eminences grises — old-timers who date back to the glory days of PARC and the Homebrew Computer Club. Aside from a lecherous chickenhawk phreaker who will go unnamed, the greybeards were not only welcomed, but treated as respected elder statesmen of the tech community.

I’ll have to do some research and see what sort of elder statesmen we have locally, but we probably do have some out there. I know that we’ve produced such bright lights as Jim Butterfield (does anyone remember the days of the Toronto PET Users’ Group?) and Brad Templeton, so it’s likely that we do have techie elder statesment in our midst. We need to do the outreach to ensure that it’s not just young hip geeks talking to other young hip geeks.

The other thing we can do is just wait. We’ve already got some prominent techies with greying temples, and even I — less than 2 years away from 40 — have been sprouting more grey in my well-gelled mane and the ol’ goatee as of late.

David also points to some problems with Toronto that could use some shoring up before it can become a high-tech hub:

  1. Personality. I agree — a lot of the vitality of Toronto is done in spite of rather than because of the people in charge of urban design here.
  2. The Commercial Concentration Tax, aka “Let’s f*ck Toronto and move all big businesses to 905” tax. I concur again. I had an interesting conversation last weekend with a guy who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence used to be a bit of hellhole of a town where they practically rolled up the sidewalks at night, which was a good thing — at night, you were likely to get mugged. He told me that the revitalization of Providence is largely credited to “Buddy” Cianci, the (ahem) colourful mayor, who turned the town around and made it both safe and a destination, largely by making it more business-friendly. This is the one aspect of Jane Jacobs’ theories that arts grads and Socialist “Worker” readers always miss: what’s good for businesses large and small is often good for the city and its people.
  3. Geography. “Downtown Toronto is great for young people, but every meter you move away from the subway line, not so great for people with families. Liberty Village would be a great place to put BlogMatrix, if we really started making a go of it except I’d be commuting — within Toronto! — for 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day. Wilson station through Finch has great subway access, but the North York sector of Toronto (Mel Lastman Square, bah) is soulless as Dundas Square.”
  4. Youth and the aversion to “enterpriseyness”. I agree again: “Possibly because the previous two points, the two TorCamps and one TorDemoCamp I have attended have skewed pretty young. Not that there’s any thing wrong with that, except for at the DemoCamp when there was a moderate amount of sneering at a enterprise level app. Believe it or not kid, there’s important issues out there that need solving that are important, even though you’ve never heard of them. And ‘enterprise’ doesn’t (have to) mean boring and process-laden, it means it has to scale scale scale. Just like that Web 2.0 app you’re plugging away at. Just because it works with 5 people doesn’t mean it’s going to work for 50,000 ‘with a little more hardware’.”

I’ll write more about this next week. As always, your comments are welcome and encouraged! Fire away!

One reply on “On Becoming Silicon Valley, Part 5”

On age integration:

Outreach sounds appealing, but do the people actually exist to be outreached to? Although I’m one of the rare over-40s who is part of (for lack of a better term) Toronto’s Web 2.0 community, most of my agemates are settled into managerial roles at medium to large corporations. I may have been headed down that road myself until the smallish firm I worked for was acquired by a huge one and I developed an allergy to the bureaucracy and politics and Dilbert-ish-ness. So I only like working for small companies, but I’m unusual that way. Also, I only like working on new things, rather than squeezing another dollar out of an old product, but that too seems unusual in my demographic. (In Toronto, that is – as David Janes mentions, things are different in the Bay Area. You mention Brad Templeton – well, he moved there long ago.)

Whatever the reasons for this situation, I’m dubious that one would find many “elder statesmen” who would have more than a casual interest in this community. But I hope I’m wrong.

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