Many people in technology today, especially those of a certain age, can point to the seminal 2011 article written by Marc Andreessen, “Software is Eating the World.” In it, Andreessen predicted the rise of software-based systems, and the influence software development (and developers) would have on nearly every business environment.
Today, in an era of Netflix and video streaming, Linux and open-source computing, Mavenir and OpenRAN wireless networks, and countless others, the impact of software is still being felt across all industries.
Andreessen’s article was inspiring and prescient, but it was less impactful than a previous essay (more than an article), written by the inimitable Tom Wolfe who profiled the rise and influence of Robert Noyce, founder of Intel.
It is worth re-reading not just for the masterful way that Wolfe writes, but also for the manner in which Wolfe traces the rise of the West Coast business culture, values and even the dress code to Robert Noyce’s tenure in a place that was not yet known as Silicon Valley.
First published in 1983 in Esquire magazine, “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” remains the best short history of Silicon Valley. You can find the original here at Esquire Classics. Noyce was the (joint) inventor of the integrated circuit (“microchip”) and one of the founders of Intel. You’ve no doubt heard of Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, but it is Noyce who stands above them both. His invention changed the world yet his is not a household name.
One of the must enduring elements of the story is Noyce’s origins in the Midwest. Wolfe claimed that he wanted to understand why a titan of a new industry would hail from a small, Iowa town that had little to do with science, engineering or that technology thingy. Wolfe writes:
Just why was it that small-town boys from the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers? Noyce concluded it was because in a small town you became a technician, a tinker, an engineer, and an inventor, by necessity. “In a small town,” Noyce liked to say, “when something breaks down, you don’t wait around for a new part, because it’s not coming. You make it yourself.”
Wolfe’s article is memorable forty years later for two reasons. The first is Wolfe’s writing style and wit. His is a distinctive style and, if he really enjoys his subject as he seems to with Noyce, his enthusiasm and playfulness with words are on full display.
The second thing that stands out, at least for those of us who hail from the West Coast, is how Wolfe contrasts the business practices between the east and west coasts of America through the practice and humility of Mr. Noyce. He writes:
Nobody had ever seen a limousine and a chauffeur out there before. But that wasn’t what fixed the day in everybody’s memory. It was the fact that the driver stayed out there for almost eight hours, doing nothing. He stayed out there in his uniform, with his visored hat on, in the front seat of the limousine, all day, doing nothing but waiting for a man who was somewhere inside. John Carter was inside having a terrific chief executive officer’s time for himself. He took a tour of the plant, he held conferences, he looked at figures, he nodded with satisfaction, he beamed his urbane Fifty-seventh Street Biggie CEO charm. And the driver sat out there all day engaged in the task of supporting a visored cap with his head. People started leaving their workbenches and going to the front windows just to take a look at this phenomenon. It seemed that bizarre. Here was a serf who did nothing all day but wait outside a door in order to be at the service of the haunches of his master instantly, whenever those haunches and the paunch and the jowls might decide to reappear. It wasn’t merely that this little peek at the New York-style corporate high life was unusual out here in the brown hills of the Santa Clara Valley. It was that it seemed terribly wrong.
If you love language, and know Tom Wolfe from his later works, “The Right Stuff,” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” (to name just two), you will enjoy his take on the early titans of San Jose. Note that Noyce, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove and their crowd all precedes the inimitable Steve Jobs at Apple. But as Andreessen does with software, Wolfe presages the coming of a new type of business executive, much different than the last.
It may be a long read but I assure that it is well worth it. Here’s a link to a Stanford edition of it. Here’s a link to a podcast.