What Mecca is to Muslims and Disneyworld to children, is Silicon Valley to geeks . That’s why I think every geek should go on a pilgrimage, at least once in his life, to the Holy Land of California.
To make it easier, I want to offer the notes from my penultimate trip to California as a “Geek’s Guide to Silicon Valley”. Because of work, I am lucky enough to have to go to California from time to time. In the spring of this year, I got Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Due to flight issues, I had to stay an extra day, which I took advantage of to get to know the region better. It is this one-day trip that you will accompany me throughout this article.
What is and where is Silicon Valley?
The first thing we should be clear about, before we start, is what exactly Silicon Valley is and where it is located.
The city of San Francisco is located at the tip of a peninsula that almost closes off the San Francisco Bay Area. All of the land surrounding the bay is called the “Bay Area” and the southeast corner of the peninsula (from San Mateo to San Jose and Los Gatos) is known as “Silicon Valley”.
The “Silicon Valley” is composed of a multitude of small towns that are conurbated, that is, you do not notice the passage from one town to another. In practical terms, it is as if all of Silicon Valley were a single city. However, this is not the case, and each of these cities has its own personality and function within the valley, as we will see.
One of the main arteries of the valley is “El Camino Real”. Today it is a long avenue that runs from north to south, and along which we will move on our virtual journey. It was originally the road built and followed by Spanish settlers and missionaries who first came to these lands to establish missions and ranches. These missions and ranches ended up being the nuclei around which the cities of the valley were formed.
The Heart of Silicon Valley: Palo Alto
My hotel was in Palo Alto , so I went to pick up the car I had rented to start the trip. On the way to the agency, I passed by a park where one of the most important symbols of the region is located: Palo Alto.
These are two coastal sequoias that gave their name to the city and around which the first settlements grew. They are the same trees that we see on the Stanford University coat of arms and on the city’s coat of arms. One was struck by lightning, but the other is still standing, so the first stop on my pilgrimage was to sit in the shade of the tree that saw the Silicon Valley grow and give its name.
It was spring, a fantastic time to visit California. The whole region was in flower and the smell of the redwoods permeated the whole atmosphere. As soon as I entered the park, which was just behind my hotel, and half hidden, was El Palo Alto in whose shadow I sat for a while.
Palo Alto “downtown”
Continuing south, you arrive at the official entrance to the city of Palo Alto. This gazebo that welcomes you is right across from El Camino Real. On one side is “Palo Alto Downtown”, that is, the urban center , and on the other side of the Camino, is the famous University.
We start by taking a walk through the center of Palo Alto, along University Avenue. Most of the buildings are two-storey and almost all are commercial: this is where the city’s nightlife is concentrated, which has a markedly university feel. If you’re hungry, try a hamburger at Umami Burger, or a Hibachi Steak at Cheesecake Factory or just a beer at the Joya’s bar. At this very trendy bar, I was at a party hosted by Yahoo.
I turned around and headed back to the Camino Real to pick up the car. On the way, and by surprise, I came across a building that today houses the A9.com search engine (the one behind Amazon searches).
As easily as in Spain you find bars, there you find technology companies .
This building has a lot of history, as it was the site of the first Facebook offices . In fact, a taxi driver who took me several times to the current Facebook headquarters, told me that he met Zuckerberg when he arrived in California. He was staying at the same hotel as me and hired her to take him to see several offices in downtown Palo Alto. The first thing she did was to make him green for wanting to go in a taxi to a place so close, and then when she asked him what he did, he got angry and called him “loser” (something like a sucker): how can you think of copying My Space? No comment.
This is one of the magical things about Silicon Valley: all those characters that from a distance seem half mythical, there they are the day to day and you can find them on the street at any time. In fact, it is common to see Zuckerberg (who is known to lead a very simple life) riding his bike in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
When I wasn’t on Facebook with that visionary cab driver, I was with another Mexican cab driver. This gentleman, had worked in the past in a limousine company and knew all the main CEOs of the companies in Silicon Valley. I laughed a lot with his gossip about how disgusting Larry Ellison was or how sickly cheap Steve Jobs was. 😉
Once in the car, I decide to go to the next stop on the trip. It is absolutely mandatory for all those who we programmed for iOS : Stanford University. There are many of us who learned from Stanford courses, taught by gurus like Alan Cannistraro or Paul Hegarty.
The Stanford campus is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. In the middle of a large park, in what used to be a ranch, are the very Californian style buildings: inspired by the architecture of the Spanish missions. I recommend that you leave your car where you can and continue on foot. Ideally, you should head for the large walkway that leads to the main entrance: Palm Drive or Paseo de las Palmeras.
At the end of the walk we find the archway, which we have seen so many times in Stanford courses.
Once past the arch, there is a courtyard and at the back of it, there is the crown jewel of Stanford: Memorial Church. This church in the center of the campus was built by Jane Stanford in memory of her husband Leland Stanford.
Stanford University, which was one of the first in California, has been vital in the creation of Silicon Valley. From the beginning it has required its students to seek practical applications to the knowledge they have acquired and even now it is going to start investing in the “startups” created by the alumni.
I took a long walk around the campus, passing in front of the computer building, called by the way, William Gates .
Menlo Park and Facebook
Imbued with “stanfordian” wisdom, continue your journey to Menlo Park. If Palo Alto and Mountain View are the heart of Silicon Valley, Menlo Park is the wallet. There you will find the largest concentration of venture capital firms in the world. The money that finances the startups in the valley comes from Menlo Park.
Before boarding for San Francisco, I was in Bogotá teaching an intensive iOS course from AGBO. By chance, I met some Texan investors who wanted to learn about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Colombia. We talked for a while and I told them that I would be in their country next week, specifically in Menlo Park. They immediately told me that I would love it and that I would be amazed to see that Menlo Park is the only place in the world where you can lose track of the Ferraris you see on the street. They lied.
Although I saw quite a few Ferraris, they are clearly out of fashion and what you get now are the Tesla, the science fiction electric cars produced by Elon Musk (another of the great visionaries of the valley).
A short distance from my hotel was a Tesla dealership (not far from the headquarters of SRI, the company that created Siri). There were a lot of S models on display, the crown jewel, which had just been launched.
The Facebook headquarters is quite far east, on the shores of the bay. In another of those typical Silicon Valley omelette turns, the buildings that today are the main Facebook headquarters, were once the headquarters of Sun Microsystems.
It is a huge, diamond-shaped campus with a street and square in the centre. With over 3,500 employees (inhabitants?) it is a whole city.
At the entrance, there’s a huge sign with the “address” 1 Hacker Way. It’s a joke with Zuckerberg’s philosophy of exalting “Hacker” (not “cracker”) values. I have to say I love it.
In the central area of the campus there is a street where social life is done in the social network: we all met in the bars and restaurants (all of them free).
Something very common in Silicon Valley, and of which Facebook and Google are perhaps the best examples, is that companies try to give their employees the best possible working conditions . This includes all kinds of free services , such as breakfast, lunch or dinner, gym, massages, transportation and even laundry.
In addition, every so often you find areas where they have drinks and food, so that if you need anything, you always have it within easy reach of your workplace.
This doesn’t mean that Facebook employees are just joking around, eating and drinking nonstop. You work hard and learn a lot. An example of this is “The Weekly Push” magazine. This is a magazine that publishes an article every week explaining how some of the tools that the application is built with work, and that you can find in the strangest places.
On Facebook I was working, teaching an iOS development course of the Big Nerd Ranch . While I was there I made the same life as the other inhabitants of that city. That’s why I had breakfast and lunch on Facebook, which had better service than the hotel.
It wasn’t all going to be work, and at lunchtime we used to take advantage of the sun to have lunch outdoors.
A mobile company
Right now Facebook is going through a huge change as it adapts to Zuckerberg’s new strategy: Facebook has to be a mobile company. Most of the connections to Facebook and most of the advertising revenue comes from mobile devices. This has led Facebook to multiply its hiring of iOS developers worldwide, completely altering the job market in Silicon Valley.
He hires mobile developers all over the world and the only brake he has found is the US immigration law. To solve this problem, they have opened a new centre in London to create another development team. At the helm of this fledgling group is none other than Alan Cannistraro , the famous former teacher of Stanford’s first iOS development course, who recently left Apple (after creating some of the first iPhone apps). This opens a lot of possibilities for iOS developers in Europe .
If you go on Facebook, be sure to pay a visit to the company. All the large technology companies in Silicon Valley (with one exception, as we will see later) allow guided tours of their facilities.
Once you’ve visited Facebook and Menlo Park, it’s time to continue south to Cupertino. We’ll see that in the next installment of this section, where we’ll visit the headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop, the bar where Steve Jobs met with Scott Forstall to design the iPhone and eat bagels, we’ll have a beer at BJ’s (a restaurant known as 2 Infinite Loop, because of the number of Apple employees who frequent it) and we’ll eat a steak of brontosaurus in the Outback, Steve Wozniak’s favorite restaurant, where you can often find it. See you soon at Cupertino!