The latest unemployment figures are in for Santa Clara County, California - aka Silicon Valley - and it doesn't look good: 11.8 percent in the county is among the highest in the entire San Francisco Bay Area region.
Still, reporting from the front lines here, I can say that the doom-and-gloom is not filling the air. Instead, there's a hint of Silicon Valley optimism in the air, the feeling that good things are in the future and that these tough times won't last forever.The latest example of this optimism comes from a Wired Magazine piece with the headline, "Laid Off? It's Good for You and Good for the Tech Industry." The piece correctly notes that foreclosures and bankruptcies are plaguing the region just the same as other parts of the country and that tech jobs have also taken a hit with the Valley losing nearly 10,000 tech jobs in the past year.
So why are northern Californians still smiling and telling everyone we meet to "Have a Nice Day?" It has to be more than just the near-perfect weather conditions. Consider this excerpt from the Wired piece:
Valley culture has an unwritten rule that if you don't like a job, or if you think your company isn't going anywhere, you leave. Instead of hanging around the office whining, you walk out the door and find something better and cooler to do. Because skilled tech workers are hard to find and interesting companies abound, employees, not employers, call the shots. This was true at Apple in 1984, and it's still true at Facebook today.
At a recent tweet-up just outside San Francisco, I had a chance to mingle and talk to folks working in different areas of the tech industry. Yes, there were people who had been laid off and certainly they were concerned about it. But those same people were talking about the connections they had at startups scattered across the Valley.
They weren't talking about the Facebook and Twitter-like startups, though. The startups they're talking about are the ones that are still off-the-grid, ideas that found investors and are still in stealth mode building the technology and thinking about where to go when the companies outgrow a garage.
OK, maybe these startups don't have the resources to do some massive hiring and bring that unemployment figure back down to a respectable level - yet. But this is Silicon Valley USA, a place where innovation is king. Just the idea that there are companies out there that are innovating and, eventually, will need people to help it grow is encouraging. Sure, times may be bad now - but imagine what's brewing in the dorm rooms at Stanford, in the lofts of San Francisco's SOMA District, in the garages of a San Jose neighborhood. Consider this other take-away from the Wired piece:
...there are still plenty of opportunities out there for Valley types: Facebook widgets, iPhone apps, Twitter tools, and cloud services are exploding. And getting in on that action doesn't require a huge outlay of cash. If you can't find a team to join, why not start your own? Individuals or small groups can make a good iPhone app; useful Web tools can be built with Amazon Web Services and user-generated content. Sure, financing is tight now, but these fields have oodles of potential, meaning the money will come as the economy rebounds. You'll likely face lean times for a while, but there's a good chance of making a bundle down the road.
For anyone who's not from here, the Silicon Valley way of thinking is hard to grasp. A former colleague at the Washington Post once told me, "They speak a completely different language out there." It sounds like optimism but wreaks of arrogance, he said.
Recalling that conversation with my former colleague, I went back and re-read the Wired piece. Oooh, maybe we do come across as arrogant - confident that, regardless of what's happening in Detroit, Manhattan or other hard hit areas, Silicon Valley will rebound and rise again.
Is that arrogance? Or is it optimism? I'm tainted because I've been around this region my entire life. So, let me end this post with an invitation to chime in on Silicon Valley's way of thinking. What's your take? Chime in on the talkbacks.