Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley
Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment
I’m curious about why you joined the U.S. military at the height of the Vietnam War.
When I was in high school I was thought of as a stupid kid. There were smart kids and stupid kids and my sister said, “You know, you’re not stupid. You just learn differently.” But I never did a day of homework. My mother was never home. She was a bookkeeper and went out dancing every night; I have no idea what she did. I raised myself, essentially.
My sister ran away from home when she was 16. She was great for me when I needed it though. She said, “No, you aren’t dumb. There’s an organization called Mensa, just take the test for me.” It was at Herald Square, I took the exam and she was pissed because I had a better score than she did. It gave me some confidence. I still remember the last year in high school I got four 65s and one 98. The 98 was in the first computer class they offered in high school. And then they used to give this thing called the Regents scholarship test, so I took the test, and I’m looking for my name in the bottom, I’m there 30 minutes looking for my name until I found it, and I was third in my class. I got a scholarship to SUNY. I didn’t want to go to Buffalo, so I chose Michigan State to be a pre-med.
What was a “computer” back then? And why did you leave school?
Punch-cards. It was just a notion of being able to control a device.
As for why I left, I had a girlfriend my first year in Michigan State, and I’m on scholarship and she’s working her ass off. Here I’m screwing around, not really interested. She says, “Why are you wasting your time? Some of us are working our asses off. You ought to leave!” And I said, “How far can I go?”
So, I hitchhiked to Miami. The next-to-last ride I got down there was from some guys in a Volkswagen Beetle, and they gave me their phone number and names just in case something didn’t work out. I went to visit my friend and he said, “I hope you aren’t staying because I just threw out the last guy who was on my floor.” So, I called up the guys in the Beetle, and I stayed on their couch—and they turned out to be Buddhists. The next morning I woke up to chanting, and then when they were done they told me there was a job at the airport and asked me if I wanted to come. So, I started working at the Miami International Airport loading racehorses onto cargo planes.
There I got interested in the avionics on the planes. I would take home manuals and ask the guys, “Where do you learn this stuff?” They said they learned it in the air force. I ended up joining the military and went through a year of training in Mississippi. Everybody was getting assigned to Thailand, Vietnam, whatever, so my turn comes up, I get assigned to—Miami. So, I go back to Miami, and I’m placed at the Homestead Airforce Base. I was there a week, and our chief said, “Hey, listen; they’re calling for volunteers in Thailand. Any volunteers?” In the military the rule is you don’t volunteer for anything. But who the hell wants to be in Miami. I want to go to Thailand!
So, I volunteered to go to Southeast Asia, which turned out to be the best thing I ever did in my life.
How long were you there?
A year and a half. I worked on fighter planes and wild weasel. By the time I left Thailand I was supervising 15 other technicians. I was good at pattern recognition, and fixing things is pattern recognition. After a while you see enough stuff, you have enough data, and you know the odds of fixing something.
Were you strictly military in Thailand?
When I was in the air force I was strictly military. At my first company in Silicon Valley, I went to Korea and another undisclosed location as a civilian.
How did you get spotted into the black world track?
So, you’re not going to believe this, but they’re all accidents. My accidents happen through volunteering; I show up for a lot more than most people. “80 percent of life is showing up,” I think that’s a Woody Allen line—but it’s absolutely true. So, when I came out to Silicon Valley I was working for a company in Ann Arbor, and they said, “Well, the valley’s in San Jose”—and I remember our secretary got us tickets for San Jose, Puerto Rico. Because no one had heard of Silicon Valley.
So, I go out there, and the first night was surrealistic. We get off the plane me and another engineer—a Palestinian from Dearborn. The company we were with was so cheap we had to share a hotel room. We’re driving in the rental car and all of a sudden an ad comes on the radio—scientists, engineers, Intel is hiring! So, it’s Sunday and I buy this newspaper called The San Jose News, and for some reason it’s thicker than the Sunday New York Times. I still remember 48 pages of help wanted ads. Then we turn on the TV and see more help wanted ads.
I take in all this stuff, and it’s the blizzard of ’78 in Ann Arbor. Why the hell would I go back? So, I interview all week and get a job as a lab technician, and I fly back to quit, drive out to California and get to my new job, and they told me the guy who hired me was fired and he had no authority to give me a job. The entrepreneur in me thank god, said, “Well, are you hiring for any jobs?” And the poor HR woman took pity on me, and she said you could talk to a new manager in the department, they’re looking for a new training instructor. I go, “I taught before in the military … not really … but sure, absolutely!” And the guy said, “You’re hired!”
For Sharon Kleinbaum—friend of Christine Quinn, partner to Randi Weingarten—the personal is political