Silicon Valley: the way we were

July 16, 2014

The “traitorous eight”

Way back before Google and Facebook and even before Apple, eight brainy engineers defected from a semiconductor company to start their own transistor business. Led by the brilliant Robert Noyce, they were the men who made silicon king and who started the movement that became Silicon Valley. If you’re wondering how Silicon Valley came to be, this is how.

"I've been here all along!"

“I’ve been here all along!”

Noyce and Gordon Moore invented the microchip and also founded one of the biggest names in the Valley: Intel.  Yes, it was a BIG name back in the day and its president, Andy Grove, was a big personality. His strict arrive-every-morning-by-8am rules were legend. I once had a girlfriend who had the perfect way to circumvent this. She’d leave her coat and purse in the car and walk in as if she’d arrived hours ago and had just been to another building.  Sly.  The roots of Silicon Valley go deeper than indulgent management and frisbee in the halls.

When I got to Silicon Valley in 1984, semiconductors still reigned supreme and within a few years I ended up working for a division of one of the biggest names: National Semiconductor. Tech was still way traditional back in those days. Men and women both wore business suits to the office. We worked long hours in dreary cubicles alongside engineers and sales support staff.

Casual Friday T-shirt

Casual Friday T-shirt

When Casual Fridays came along–we could wear “business casual” to work– it was a big deal. Men could sport Izod shirts and women wore slacks. Whoopee!

Then I moved into the disk drive industry–that was the height of mass storage in those days. (The cloud? Not even conceived of. ) Things didn’t loosen up much at that workplace, though. Except for sales meetings. Oh, those sales meetings! Drink and drugs and the exchange of room keys, yes those WERE the days!


Horrific bow blouse

The new TV show, Halt and Catch Fire, tries to recapture those days, and while it’s getting good reviews,  the first couple episodes were….boring. The 1980s aren’t far enough in the past to make for interesting period drama, like Mad Men. The clothes weren’t as cool, either–they were stodgy, the furniture was stodgy and if you weren’t part of the shiny, sweaty, drug-fueled Studio 54 disco crowd back then, well, you, too, were stodgy.

Remember the blouses with big bows tied under our chins?  Horrible. What WERE we thinking?

“Meh!” to the show.  But living it? The mid-1980s into the late 1990s had their own excitement. The Valley was the center of the universe as far as we were concerned and we always felt rooted in the work of the Traitorous Eight, those big brains who started the whole thing.

And then, times changed.

Along with the new millennium came the dot-com boom…

…with 22-year old company presidents and free food and frisbees at work.  Every day was Casual Friday and more. While we had been lucky to get reduced rates at a local gym, these new upstart companies tried to outdo each other with amenities like massages at work, in-house yoga and a zen room. It was not a good scene for us old-school tech workers in our 40s and 50s who climbed the corporate ladder one rung at a time, instead of leaping to the top with no career experience.

I was reminded of all this when I recently participated in some research for PayPal at their perfectly modern high-tech campus.  Young people strolled the green manicured grounds near a water feature and bridge.  I walked into the lobby and saw this:


Paypl elevYes, these are the elevators at PayPal.

Paypal elev cuI marveled at how far we’ve come from the days when Silicon was king and a new king, at that.  As a young professional in her 30s working in the most exciting place on earth, I had no idea that the workplaces of the future would be so…




I sat down at a table near the water with two young professional women. Oh, so young and earnest. So bright and professional. They were me, I thought, or rather, I was them all those years ago, before they were even born.

Sitting there with them, I realized that there’s nothing left of our old high-tech world, not really. The Valley moved on long ago and our world would be considered quaint and even irrelevant.

Although it was our generation of workers that built the computer revolution. The world didn’t just begin with the internet,  you know.

Most of the time I don’t feel old, but that day, looking around PayPal, talking with these modern versions of myself, I did. I felt old.

I know one day those two women and their peers will be my age. What seems so contemporary and fun about their workplace will be supplanted by something even more modern, although I can’t conceive of what that might be.

Then again, I couldn’t conceive of this, either:

google1Or that one day I’d be retired and long removed from the tech world.

Progress requires change. And no one prepares you for the day when change has outpaced your experience and even your memories.

If you’re interested in old Silicon Valley, I’ve got some reading for you.

HERE is the Atlantic’s take. And a story by WIRED about the roots of the Valley.



39 comments on “Silicon Valley: the way we were
  1. kim tackett says:

    Our “gorilla client” has always been Intel. We’ve been with them since the early 80’s…I know of which you speak!

  2. Wow, so interesting – and amazing how fast the world changes. That feels like a lifetime ago.

  3. You got me thinking about what ifs, Carol. What if I had stayed in the Bay Area past that summer my boyfriend’s big plans stranded us in the Bay Area way back in the late 1970s. I think perhaps we worked together in an alternate universe.

  4. pia says:

    I worked for a computerized litigation company when main frames were the size of a large corn silo. Everyone was my age–young. We kept getting promoted. Most of my friends thought they found the ticket to eternal employment. I kept telling them “we were hired for six weeks. Each year is a bonus.” They didn’t believe me until they were laid off.
    Yet it was the most fun any of us ever had at a job that turned into a career (I worked for other companies in the industry.) Worked six days a week often 12 hours–hung out together after work. Married people’s spouses joined us. Many met their spouses. My best friends are still from that job that truly was the beginning of my real adult life.
    I have never believed in lifetime employment. I have always believed in having as many skill sets as possible and saving on your own. Those three things saved me.
    I have no idea why I wrote such a long almost off the pont comment. Loved your post and something about you Carol! : )

  5. Karen says:

    This is fascinating, Carol! I’ll pass it along to my son, who works here: Since he started programming when he was 5, and entered the workforce during the dot-com boom, my view of tech has been skewed…Ottawa, where we live, has been called “Silicon Valley North,” but I can see from your post that it’s always been a pale shadow of the real thing.

    • Yes, after the Valley developed every city in the world wanted to be a Silicon something, it seemed. But this all started with a strange alchemy of Stanford and Berkeley for brain trust and a handful of guys in suits who were smart as shi t and started a revolution. It’s all here, most of it, anyway. Google, Apple, Facebook, Ebay… when my nephew and a friend visited we on our way home from the airport we stopped at half a dozen places so they could pose for shots. I twas all here. It’s a magical place.

  6. New title: the way we wore.

  7. Fascinating perspective on Silicon Valley. I remember back in the 1980s when my office installed computers. I’m still scrambling to learn the updates.

    • I know–I was hired for my job in 1981 because I had actually USED a computer in grad school. When we had decks of cards that had to go to the “computer center” to be processed!

  8. Ken Weliever says:

    Interesting read! Wish I had known enough to buy some Intel stock back in those days! $5K would be worth about 900K today!

  9. Lisa Froman says:

    Ha, this is me ….trying to straddle the two worlds in my little cubicle. Interesting to read; enjoyed it. I think you have had a fascinating life ( still do).

  10. Great post on change. Niche industries change. But we are part of that process. You are different than those in tech today precisely because you are the sum of your experience — which included being in Silicon Valley in the 80s. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. Ruth Curran says:

    Interesting history and makes you wonder what and where the next big turn will be! And, yes, I had that horrendous blouse too but mine was yellow!

  12. Diane says:

    A vast and interesting world far beyond any of my experiences! I’m off to read more . . .

  13. Lana says:

    I always learn something new on your blog – I had no idea how Silicon Valley came to be. I began my very first corporate job in 1989 in the fashion industry and I had several of those lovely blouses. I really hope they never come back!

  14. Roz Warren says:

    Fascinating. Got so absorbed in reading this post that now I’m late for work!

  15. Roz Warren says:

    And speaking of 6 degrees of separation, one of my former pals was good friends with Penny Noyce, the daughter of Robert Noyce. I think she was a writer. Small(ish) world!

  16. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    I worked at an old stodgy bank in those days. Not cool, and we did wear those godawful blouses with our conservative suits,

  17. I worked for Pepsi in those days. they were acquiring other businesses, restaurants, sporting goods etc…
    I so remember when we were ‘allowed’ to finally wear slacks. I started to write something about that the other day and got sidetracked.
    And those bow blouses, awful!
    For me I go back and forth between feeling old and feeling like I am at the beginning of something new and exciting.

  18. Tammy says:

    Time waits for no man or woman. My mom was assured a position “for life” when she worked as the chief telex operator for Texaco. Then came the invention of the fax which got outgunned by email which then provided scans. She never quite recovered. Progress is brutal to the system.

  19. I HAD THAT SAME UGLY BLOUSE!!! Even one in blue, I still have the horrible pictures to prove it! Even the term “blouse” is dated! Great,post as always Carol!

  20. Growing up in that area, I still remember when it was primarily cherry and apricot orchards. When I was a little girl, maybe 5th grade, I went on a school field trip to National Semi. The father of one of my classmates worked there and we were riveted by the fact they used REAL gold on the chips. 🙂 It seemed strange (and often sad) to watch Sunnyvale and Cupertino grow into Silicon Valley and transform the once rich farm land into even richer tech land. In the mid-80’s I began my career in telecom, calling on many of the then small companies that are now household names. Funny how quickly the times and fashions change. (I remember the day my boss told me to be sure I kept a skirt in my office if I was going to wear slacks to work–just in case our V.P. showed up. Uh-huh.)

    • Yes, my ex husband also remembers when it was called The Valley of the Heart’s Delight. Now, it’s a sterile city, no charm at all. But it does have the brain power that drives stuff now and i suppose you can’t have everything. We’re here because I had a base of friends here and because of its proximity to all the fun stuff–Monterey Peninsula, San Francisco, Tahoe etc. It’s an ideal location. But on the outside it could be anywhere.

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