The Genesis of the Career Entrepreneur

I have begun in earnest to read through Annalee Saxenian’s “Regional Advantage,” charting the computer industry’s genesis in both Silicon Valley and along Boston’s Route 128. As she explains, the culture of work and the resulting firm structures in Silicon Valley differed significantly from those in Boston, giving it critical advantages to become the preeminent region of technology development.

Even in the early days of the 1950s and 1960s, the West Coast had a far more open and decentralized network of employees, which contributed to intense knowledge sharing. Employees moved between competitors and would even help arch rivals solve problems. By way of contrast, Boston’s regional structure was based on hierarchical and independent firms. Knowledge in this region was located vertically within the company, which severely limited its ability to spillover and create new opportunities.

According to one executive:

“Here in Silicon Valley there’s a far greater loyalty to one’s craft than to one’s company. A company is just a vehicle which allows you to work. If you’re a circuit designer it’s more important for you to do excellent work.” [emphasis added]

From the beginning, the culture of work in the Valley was ad hoc and fluid. Engineers, programmers and other technical manufacturers became their own career entrepreneurs. Silicon Valley thus presaged by decades the labor market that we increasingly find ourselves in that has become a cause of concern. As a side comment, Saxenian mentions that many Silicon Valley workers far more rooted in the region than others. While the company man of the 1950s might move among the various arms of the firm to gain experience, which could be in different states, in the Valley, you would just move down the street. To me, that speaks volumes to the importance of regional knowledge hubs.

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