Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Giving Tech its Due

Am I the only person who sometimes feels like Santa Clara has multiple personality disorder?

I saw this headline this morning in FierceCIO:TechWatch: AMD scoffs at Nvidia’s 'huge, monolithic' approach.

(Hang on, I'm getting to the MPD;)

Here are two tech giants that will decide how we see the next generation of computer graphics -- that means games, online video -- who both are headquartered in Santa Clara. But how often does this reality about Santa Clara enter into our community conversation? I don't ever get asked when the Santa Clara Weekly is going to add a tech news column. But at least once a month someone asks me when the paper is going to bring back to society column.

Now I have nothing against society news. But I think our public conversation needs to be informed by the fact that world-changing technology makes its home here -- especially as the General Plan update is getting under way. It's not just enough to pay lip service to tech businesses. We need to start acting like what they do is at least as important as the price of real estate.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Santa Clara – A Livable Town

About four years ago, when I interviewed Gary Gillmor for the Weekly, the former mayor described Santa Clara's character this way:

"The personality of Santa Clara is a true middle class community. We cut our city up with the transportation -- Central expressway, Lawrence expressway… We created jobs, we created a tax base. [By contrast] the personality of Los Altos, Saratoga -- they don’t want any industry."

(Cue apoplectic blasts from those who see Gillmor as the evil genie who popped the lid on Pandora's box and let out a swarm of developers.)

Having grown up in one – Brooklyn, NY in the 1950s and 60s -- I'm a big fan of comfortable-for-ordinary-folks communities. And in 2008, what it takes to create or preserve one is different than what it took in 1958.

I've had many conversations on the middle-class-ness of Santa Clara. It comes up whenever you're talking about development – high density or otherwise -- "affordable" housing, or urban planning.

Lots of people pay lip service to this idea, but the pious jaw music is often just a lead in for objecting to whatever project or plan is at hand. I can't help but observe that many who are most hostile to policies and projects that might retain Santa Clara's middle-class quality, wouldn't be here in the first place if it hadn't been that kind of city.

Let me tell you how I came to Santa Clara 25 years ago. (I recognize that some will rest their case against development on this alone.)

It was the tech boom of the 1980s and my new employer, a now-defunct software company, had just moved from pricier real estate in Sunnyvale to brand new – and cheaper -- digs on Mission College Blvd. I rented an apartment 15 minutes away on San Tomas – even in rush hour – and a stone's throw from the Acapulco. My husband and I lived there for three pleasantly affordable years and only moved when we bought our townhouse.

The townhouse was in a new development and within our budget -- unlike the single family detached houses we had looked at. Now, we were hardly struggling at the lower rungs of the Valley economy. My husband was an HR manager for a national retailer and I was a software product manager.

I'm sure there were people then who didn’t want us moving in, as there are people who would prefer not to have my new neighbors moving in. But my new neighbors are the people who make Silicon Valley an exceptionally interesting place.

You know, the kind of place where you might have Dave Packard or the Steves Wozniak and Jobs tinkering in the garage next door, inventing new industries in the process. Way back when ordinary people could still afford to live in Palo Alto and Cupertino.

For example, right next door to me lives Lasandra Brill, author of the Marketing in a Web 2.0 World blog. Brill is not only an evangelist for these new generation ways of bringing things to market, she likely invented some of them, too.

Down the street a bit lives Ivaylo Lenkov, another "Web 2.0" pioneer. You haven't heard his name, but Lenkov is changing the equation for building and operating your website. Lenkov's start-up SiteKreator – also based in Santa Clara -- lets anybody create a professional-looking website by clicking-and-pointing, without any technical knowledge. The price is right, too – the entry level is free.

Another guy you might have found yourself sharing a lunch time walk to the roach coach with is serial entrepreneur Jon Fisher, whose third startup, Internet security company Bharosa, was right next door to the Santa Clara Weekly office. Last year Oracle bought Bharosa and Fisher has gone on to, among other things, teaching the secrets of his success to aspiring entrepreneurs.

They all chose Santa Clara for the same reasons I did – it was a comfortable, affordable town, plus it's easy to do business here.

When I'm having this conversation about livability, I often ask people, "Would you want Santa Clara to be like Los Altos or Woodside?" And sometimes they answer, "What's wrong with Los Altos and Woodside."

Now, I have friends living in both those towns and I don't hold it against them. They made their beds and now they have to lie in them, not to mention paying PG&E and driving 30, 45 minutes to work somewhere else. But by my middle-class barometer, there's plenty wrong with those towns.

First, your neighbors have so much free floating anxiety about the value of their real estate that they will torment you ceaselessly about the color you paint your window frames, the height of your fence or your magnolia tree, your nocturnal escapades in the hot tub, or your kid's friends.

One Los Altos couple I know practically had to put blackout shades on the front of their house to keep the neighbors across the street from spying on their social life to see if they were entertaining "undesirables" -- if you know what I mean and I think you do. My friends, you see, had moved there from San Jose, and you never know about those people.

The deed to their house still has archaic covenants specifying that blacks, Asians and Mexicans will only go to the back door. Santa Clara, on the other hand, was home to one of the county's first black community leaders, William James, and elected him sergeant-at-arms for the volunteer fire department.

Second, those towns are like living in a museum.

Sure your next-door neighbor could be some guy (and it will almost certainly be a guy, and often a shiny new trophy wife) who changed the semiconductor industry, developed the first commercially successful database software or wrote the first online shopping cart program. But these triumphs happened 10, 20, 30 years ago or longer. Learn about it at the Tech or Computer History Museum – it's cheaper.

Right here in Santa Clara I'm next door to people who are doing things today that are changing business and the world now. And that makes it an exceptionally interesting place to be. So my view is, let's make sure that future Brills, Fishers and Lenkovs will always be attracted to this comfortable-for-ordinary-people town.

And for those who disagree? Well there's always Woodside.