Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley
Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment
Here I was working on projects that were hundreds of thousands of people, big national projects, but these other entrepreneurs were doing stupidly simple things, but it was their own ideas. And I found that a lot more interesting.
It strikes me that you came from this intensely urban and insular New York Jewish world, and then you end up in a series of places—Michigan State, Thailand, the NRO/CIA black world, Silicon Valley, none of which were exactly hotbeds of Jewish life.
I’m in the middle of Thailand and every so often you saw an officer and if he was a pilot it was cool, but any time there was an inspection you’re worried. Some general decided to inspect one day, and the guy steps in front of me and says, “Son, are you Jewish?” I look, and its Gen. Goldberg. I said “Yes, sir.” He said, “Step over here,” and I go, “What?” He says, “What the hell are you doing in the military?” I didn’t know what to say. I was so naïve, I didn’t understand there were no Jews around me; I was having too much fun.
When I started doing start-ups, I think it was Fortune who described me as a “sharp New York business man.” And my COO who was the biggest WASP ever said, “I think they just called you a Jew in Fortune.” But I never thought of it as an ethnic thing. I thought of it as an aggressive New Yorker thing.
So, you’re there, at the legendary homebrew computer club in the Valley, the place where what we think of now as the Valley really gets started, and there’s this kid named Bill Gates, who just started a company called Microsoft. And he sends his famous letter around to all the hobbyists, explaining that there is a thing called copyright, and in fact he’s not going to share his stuff for free with the community, because he wants to get paid. Was that a turning point in the culture of the Valley?
I was a hardware guy at the time. I was interested in what people were doing, and it was silly stupid stuff compared to what I was working on, but it was more about the culture. I was more getting the gestalt of: There’s something happening here, and I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
The most famous photo of the pay-it-forward community is a pre-Apple Steve Jobs who had found the chairman of Intel in the phone book in 1974. His name was Robert Noyce. The man founded Fairchild and Intel and helps invent the microchip—he was like the head of Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! all in one. Noyce was 55, Jobs was 24, and there’s a picture of them having dinner with Noyce clearly bemused, and he became Jobs’ mentor. And when Jobs was CEO he never made a big deal of it, but he mentored Zuckerberg, and a whole generation of Silicon Valley CEOs. It’s an understood, underground thing you don’t talk about. It’s kind of like Tikkun Olam, the Tikkun Olam of Silicon Valley. A good mitzvah.
We articulate it because we teach it and because I have to explain it to foreign visitors. But it is really missing from other cultures. It grew up because it was a necessity, and it didn’t exist on the east coast. You owe it to the next generation.
I should mention here that I own the record for the shortest interview with Steve Jobs ever. My best friend worked for Steve Jobs for many years. When they were at Next, Jobs went through 15 VPs of marketing, and my friend connected us. So, Jobs used to love to take walks for interviews, so we go for a walk and we’re maybe 100 yards into this and I realize that he is the biggest asshole I’ve ever met, and he doesn’t want a head of marketing, he just wants someone to do what he wants them to do. I was thinking “What a jerk, I would never work for him.” And then Jobs goes, “What do you say we turn around?” Because he had come to the same conclusion.
In hindsight, he was the best head of marketing, but my ego couldn’t carry it at the time. In his 13 years of exile, he turned from a kid who thought his shit didn’t stink and grew into a great manager.
But take me back to pay-it-forward culture. Why here? There are so many geographically distinct business cultures, like the oil business in Dallas and Houston—why don’t they have a pay-it-forward culture there?
Because most of them are zero-sum games. In Silicon Valley it was, “I can win and you can win.”
You don’t agree that Bill Gates changed that?
It’s very funny. I think you can compare Bill Gates to the open-source community. There are two models. One is the Bill Gates model, and the other is the open-source model, and they seem to co-exist just fine.
How long have you been married to your second wife? Do you have kids?
Twenty-two years. We have two daughters. My youngest goes to Bucknell, she’s a junior. My oldest is working on being an OT.
Why was it important for you to them to be raised as Jews?
When I was growing up, my mother’s younger brother, who I met once in my life, “married a goy.” It was in the 1950s. My mother didn’t talk to him because he was disowned by the family. His kids were my age, and they were growing up in California with no religion at all. I thought, how wonderful!
But then I met his kids when they were my age, and they said it was the worst thing that ever happened. They had no identity. This was like finding out my father was an idiot. It was the same type of shock; finding out a belief I had for a decade was just false.
For Sharon Kleinbaum—friend of Christine Quinn, partner to Randi Weingarten—the personal is political