Silicon Valley, Bully Bosses and How We Work Today
How the tech industry's early days inspired the transformation of the modern workplace
Richard Eisenberg is the senior Web editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Assistant Managing Editor for the site. Follow him on Twitter @richeis315.
But Shockley Semiconductor Co. might have been right up there if its founder, William Shockley, hadn’t been such a workplace bully.
That’s one of my takeaways from the fascinating PBS American Experience program Silicon Valley, premiering Feb. 5 (check local listings). The program recounts how “the Valley” came to exist in the late 1950s and ’60s — what director/editor/co-producer Randall MacLowry calls “a revolutionary moment in time.”
Silicon Valley also led me to realize that the way those tech companies bloomed affects the way we work today in five key ways.
It Started With One Abusive Boss
Back to Shockley.
In 1956, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist brought together eight of the nation’s brightest young scientists and engineers to develop a revolutionary technology — the transistor. They all worked together south of San Francisco in California’s Santa Clara Valley, an area best known for its apricot, cherry and almond orchards.
(MORE: What to Do When You Work for a Bully)
One of Shockley’s key players: Bob Noyce, then a 28-year-old research manager at Philco, who went on to found Intel in 1968. (Read the classic 1983 Tom Wolfe article about Noyce in Esquire.)
But Shockley became increasingly abusive and authoritarian.
His team “knew how good they were, and Shockley was treating them as if they were children,” Michael S. Malone, a veteran Silicon Valley writer and entrepreneur, says in the program. “These guys all joined on the belief that they would stay there forever. And it really took the incredibly bad management skills of Bill Shockley … to alienate them so badly that they would contemplate, just, you know, stepping out the front door into the abyss.”
That’s exactly what happened. Noyce and his colleagues soon defected and formed Fairchild Semiconductor. (You need to watch Silicon Valley to find out why Fairchild didn’t become one of today’s tech giants.)
As Next Avenue blogger Nancy Collamer has noted: High stress levels due to a workplace bully can undermine your performance at work and harm your health. By leaving Shockley, his company's refugees preserved their sanity, maximized their talents and went on to become fabulously rich.
Lessons for Bullied Employees
I asked Malone what lesson the rest of us can learn from the Shockley tale. “The only time you should work for a bully is if he’s a genius and you’re willing to put up with it to succeed in the long run — the classic case was Steve Jobs," Malone says. “Otherwise, leave. Maybe start your own company. Life’s too short.”
When you watch Silicon Valley, you’ll see that Noyce and the other tech pioneers were the catalysts of huge changes in how many of us work, for better and for worse — and I don’t mean the laptops, desktops, cellphones and tablets we use to get our jobs done.
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Because of the Silicon Valley forefathers (there were few women in management in the early days):
1. Many of today’s companies are flatter and, to some extent, friendlier. “When Noyce and the others left Shockley, most companies were run as hierarchies — the East Coast model,” MacLowry told me.
But Silicon Valley founders in the ’50s and ’60s made a point of democratizing their new companies, MacLowry says, using a business model based on meritocracy and teamwork.
“America has always drawn its generative energy from the positive tension and constructive conflict that a wide variety of people and their ideas produce," says Jeff DeGraff, clinical professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. "Silicon Valley is simply the latest version of this very American way of innovating.”
2. Firms, especially in the tech world, often offer some staffers stock options and profit-sharing plans. Each of the eight co-founders of Fairchild Semiconductor got stock options worth nearly $300,000, which works out to about $2 million today. When Noyce founded Intel, stock options were offered companywide.
Stock options and profit-sharing help employers keep valuable employees by giving them a piece of the company and a stake in its success, Malone says.
Chrysler, for example, just awarded every one of its employees a $2,250 profit-sharing check.
3. Workspaces are often wide open — a collection of cubicles, not a series of paneled offices and mahogany doors. Some say Intel created the look of the modern corporation. “I went to visit Noyce there and you’d go through a rabbit warren of cubicles and there would be Bob,” Malone recalls. “He’d have his National Medal of Science on the wall of his cubicle like other people have pictures of their dogs and families.”
4. Few of us work for the same company for our entire careers. “Silicon Valley showed us that you can break out on your own and be successful,” MacLowry says.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people born in the late ’50s and early ’60s have changed jobs 11 times, on average.
The downside: Few of us are allowed to stay at the same company for our entire careers even if we want to, due to routine layoffs, particularly of older, highly paid employees.
5. Employers crave young employees. They’re deemed to be more energetic than older workers and, of course, tend to get paid less.
In Silicon Valley today, there’s more than anecdotal evidence that employers there discriminate against older engineers. As I wrote in an earlier Next Avenue blog, an article in The Bay Citizen described how out-of-work engineers with decades of experience have found it nearly impossible to get job interviews with many Silicon Valley companies.
(MORE: Why You Need to Take Career Risks)
But one of Silicon Valley’s hallmarks hasn’t caught on in much of America: The embrace of failure.
“Of all the innovations of Silicon Valley, I think it’s the one that has been least adopted,” Malone says. “In most places here and around the world, there’s still a stigma attached to failing. But in Silicon Valley, the death rate of startups is 90 percent. In Silicon Valley, failing is kind of a badge of honor.”