Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Steve Jobs said Silicon Valley needs serendipity, but is it even possible in a Zoom world?

Just before the pandemic, companies like Nvidia were building huge, open collaborative workspaces in Silicon Valley. With most of the workforce stuck at home, can the spirit of serendipitous collaboration survive in a Zoom world?

apple-ceo-tim-cook-in-steve-jobs-theater-june-22nd-2020.jpg

Late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs stressed the importance of serendipity in Silicon Valley, by which he meant chance, unplanned encounters in person between tech employees. His successor, Tim Cook, Monday held a virtual conference for developers in front of the empty seats of the Steve Jobs Theater on Apple's Cupertino campus.

Apple Inc.

The late Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that when he commissioned the headquarters for the animated film studio Pixar, in East Bay, Jobs made sure it was an open structure, where everything converged on an atrium. Jobs believed, as Isaacson described it, that creativity is a result of serendipity. Serendipity is the specific word he used, and to Jobs, it meant in-person meetings. Jobs wanted the workplace to be optimally conducive to creating those chance encounters.

"There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat — that's crazy," Jobs is quoted as having said. "Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."

Like many things Jobs advocated, serendipity became a staple in Silicon Valley. The giant, gleaming mothership of Apple headquarters in Cupertino, which Jobs helped design before his death in 2011, is a monument to that philosophy.

Serendipity, however, may not survive in a Zoom world.

Monday, Jobs's hand-picked successor, Tim Cook, opened the annual Apple developer conference by standing in front of an empty auditorium, the Steve Jobs theater, built to house 921 people. Apple made the event an online-only affair this year as California remains in partial lockdown amidst COVID-19.

Such innovative handling of a pandemic is fascinating, and perhaps it will be the norm for some time to come, at least for group activities. 

But will it allow Silicon Valley the kind of random encounters Jobs believed are essential?

"Serendipity is in danger of being lost in the Zoom world,"  Andrew Feldman, chief executive of AI chip startup Cerebras Systems, located a short ways from Stanford University, told ZDNet. "It's a casualty of planning."

Serendipity was introduced to the English language by the 18th-century writer Horace Walpole, who referred to making discoveries by accident. Jobs, in Jobsian fashion, believed serendipity could be engineered. Silicon Valley's tech leaders are now grappling with a new challenge, how to engineer serendipity in a greatly constrained environment.

"I think what people are trying to figure out is how you create non-work-related, informal interactions on a platform like Zoom," said Tim Cabral, chief financial officer of cloud software vendor Veeva Systems, based in Pleasanton, California.

"One of the things that I told my team was, the thing that I'm going to miss is the open door policy and just hallway conversation, or the walk-up, five-minute discussion, question, whatever," said Cabaral, contrasting traditional office culture to work-at-home.

Cabral's solution has been a virtual open-door policy.

"Every day at nine o'clock in the morning, and at four o'clock in the afternoon, when I don't have other scheduled meetings, I have open office hours on Zoom," said Cabral. The experiment has "worked okay" so far, though it's been an adjustment for people given that video is associated with planned meetings.

"People don't think about Zoom as social interaction, they think about it as business meetings, and so they didn't know what to do with it," Cabral observed.

The unbounded capacity of online video holds the prospect of huge gatherings, but can they replicate the wide-open communal spaces that were becoming more and more common just before the pandemic?

One of the last big tech venues built in recent years, the $370 million headquarters in Santa Clara of computer chip titan Nvidia, designed by architecture firm Gensler, called "Endeavor," is a kind of Mecca of physical meet-ups. The 500,000-square-foot space features a collection of swooping, soaring catwalks and embankments overlooking a central plaza, paths for employees to move amongst one another on their way from open cubicle clusters to areas of stadium seating, plus a variety of nooks, bars, and terraced platforms. It is a breathtaking site, a kind of ode to physical interaction. 

Nvidia is building an even-larger structure next-door to Endeavor, named Voyager, that expected to be completed in the next couple of years.

How do you re-create that vast in-person forum on a computer screen?

Cloud software maker Five9, based in San Ramon, California, which sells call center technology, has implemented a kind of social roulette on Slack, with help from startup Donut Technologies. 

nvidia-endeavor.jpg

Nvidia's "Endeavor" campus in Santa Clara, a 500,000-square-foot polygon with tons of open spaces, is a kind of ode to in-person interaction. What happens now in a world drifting more and more to remote work?

Nvidia Inc.

As Five9 CEO Rowan Trollope explained, "myself, my leadership team, and hundreds of other Five9 employees are in a Slack channel called Virtual Coffee, and what Donut does is, it will introduce you every two weeks to a random person in that Slack channel, and you have a meeting, a 15 minute, 20 minute, let's grab a cup of coffee, virtually."

Many Five9 employees have joined, and so, "it's an example of leveraging technology to manufacture serendipity in a remote world," said Trollope. 

The loss of in-person interactions manifests in other parts of the tech world, not just the Valley. Bristol, England, which has emerged as a tech hub in the U.K. in recent years, has its own characteristic startup culture that includes the very British ritual of high tea, as Nigel Toon, chief executive of AI chip designer Graphcore explained in a recent interview with ZDNet

People still "tend to go for tea no matter the pandemic," Toon said, "and lots or interesting conversation will happen."

Graphcore has always been a big user of tools like Slack, he said, and never forced anyone to come into the office in normal times. In that respect, "we've built a working style and a work culture that allows some of that serendipity to happen online using some of these productivity tools."

"But, I think, ultimately, it is an issue," Toon conceded of the threat to serendipity. "I think it is important, people getting together around the whiteboard; I'm sure all tech companies, everybody remote working, there's probably a 15%, 20% hit on productivity, would be my guess."

Serendipity also has a bearing on the education that tech professionals receive. 

"We'll never return to where we were," Internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock told ZDNet in May, reflecting on the vast social changes taking place in higher education. Kleinrock, a professor at UCLA, noted that the quarantine is "challenging at a deeper level the value of a campus-based college education," including "how much college education is social interaction versus putting stuff in your head."

The pandemic is proving that "online education works," at least for some settings, noted Kleinrock. 

Still, something may be lost in not having in-person interactions, he observed. Kleinrock recalled his days as a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s. His fellow engineering students would teach one another their respective skills at the blackboard. "That was a wonderful environment just rubbing elbows, learning," he said. "You don't get that in this environment now, you see."

In the opinion of Feldman, the Cerebras CEO, it may be a deeper question of rethinking fundamental ways in which teams operate. 

"Leaders need to think carefully about how to replicate the inadvertent but exceptionally productive conversations that in the past took place in the lunch room and at conferences."

Feldman cautions that serendipity might have more to do with the kinds of tech work that inherently involve cross-pollination. In contexts where inventors work in a more solitary fashion, it may be less important. 

"Cross-pollination is particularly helpful if the innovation is a synthesis of different things, techniques borrowed from different fields," observed Feldman. 

To be sure, the new remote world can bring gains, and there are some in the Valley who believe that the end result will be a net positive.

"One of the wonderful things for me in this current situation is, it really forces you to rethink what you do and how you do it." said Gary Dickerson, chief executive of semiconductor equipment maker Applied Materials, in Santa Clara.

"I've been a big advocate of reinventing how we work."

Dickerson doesn't mind spending less time getting on a plane these days. Although most of the staff still works from home, Dickerson goes into the Applied offices three or four days a week.

"The serendipity thing, I get it," he said, "but for me, personally, I think I'm better now, I'm more creative."

Applied's teams "have the time to focus now rather than being distracted or spending time on airplanes or jet-lagged coming back," he added. 

"In some ways, I think the communications are even better, more focused," said Dickerson. "We can think deeper, we have time to dig into different things."

If many people in the Valley warm to the benefits that Dickerson describes, then the prevailing attitude, when combined with fears of the virus, could tend to favor a permanent or at least semi-permanent culture of remote work.

Trollope, the CEO of Five9, whose business is selling software to enable contact centers to let employees work from home, thinks such jobs will stay at home rather than go back to office buildings. He noted a number of efficiencies, including the ability of at-home call operators to schedule their days more flexibly. They can choose to spend hours in the middle of the day handling household and parental responsibility, and take calls during the hours they choose. 

Still, Trollope sees a reckoning. Some of the work world, especially employees focused on careers, will realize things have gone too far in the direction of isolation, he predicted. 

"Most people are going to have swung so far to the work-from-home world, believing that it's going to solve all of these problems," said Trollope. "There's probably a handful of these other factors where the pendulum will swing back more towards at-work, or at-work, in-person, for certain kinds of jobs."

Being physically present with a few colleagues may at some point become an edge for ambitious workers, an asymmetry in career potential.

"All of a sudden, you've got the advantage, you walk out of the meeting, you're clapping the boss on the back, let's go to lunch next week."

"That's going to create an effect that ratchets back up the need to be in person, because people want to get ahead in their careers," he predicted.

"If Joe's in the office, Mary is going to want to be in the office, too."