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Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley

Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment

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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.

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oaklandj says:

Wonderful interview!

Sillama says:

This is History that you’ll never learn in school! Amazing!

Yechiel Gordon says:

So, this guy used his considerable skills to help the US government kill about 3 million people in Indochina, and that’s what Tablet calls Tikkun Olam.

This guy reminds me of the stereotypical “Irish uncle” who’s sitting at a table boasting about his own accomplishes, beer in hand, and you sit there and you know half or more is trumped-up bullshit.

The whole “I worked on the most secret thing ever”. This is hilarious. This assumes he has full clearance at the level of a president to know that, and he obviously does not/did not have presidential clearance.

Then there’s the whole “they did stupid stuff compared to me” which he repeats like 3x times.
Again, notice the self-deluding grandeur.

He at least seems to have enough insight that he and Jobs were never a match because both were jerks. Except that Jobs was at least a talented one(and yes, he was extremely talented before his 13 years of exile too, Apple went to hell post-Scully).

The Jewish angle is more interesting, I think. (But then again if I didn’t think so, why would I spend my time reading Tablet?).
But it’s also less about meritocracy than this guy seems to suggest.
Here’s a look at a photo from 2011.

Jobs’ dead but otherwise, most of the picture is intact. Schmidt at that time was already executive chairman:

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9210359/Jobs_Zuckerberg_get_prime_spots_at_Obama_dinner

Doesn’t look super diverse to me. Also, you have Mayer, Rometty and Whitman as women CEOs of Yahoo!, IBM and HP respectively. Neither company is exactly in the small leagues even if neither is really that dynamic these days. All are WASPs though.

And as for the Jews, well; Zuckerberg’s intermarried. Page intermarried. And Page himself idolized his father, which came very clearly out through his latest speech at the Google I/O this summer when he admiringly described how his father fought hard to get him into robotics shows. Page’s father was a WASP dad – and a brilliant computer scientist professor at that – who married a Jewish woman.
Brin was the only guy who married Jewish out of the trio, even if his wife’s Jewish background is shaky at best(her own father was/is a WASP and her mother hardly cared for her Jewish background).

It’s true that there are more Jews in the valley now, but the depressing part is that they’re Jews by accident and most of them are intermarrying/assimilating with reckless abandon, even more so than the average secular American Jew.

Does anyone honestly expect that the children of Google’s CEO or Facebook’s CEO will be raised Jewish when the mothers are both non-converting gentiles?
Larry Page prefers to go to the burning man festival rather than going to the synagogue. I guess we can be happy that he was born as one of us but he leads his life as if he views it as something completely insignificant, which may be closer to the truth. In brief, this is a cultural issue, reflected in large part in the broader secular Jewish community, rather than any quesiton about meritocracy.

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Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley

Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment