clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


What makes Silicon Valley tick? If you read the business press, you'd probably say technology and innovation. The cynics who live here might say venture capital.

But before the money, even before the technology, there's that most human of qualities: ego.Without some incredibly huge egos, Silicon Valley simply would not exist. Technology provides the backdrop, but you'll still find ego versus ego at the root of most confrontations. Technology, vision and money help, but few companies survive here without a big ego.

But even in Our Valley of Executive Pique some egos stand out. I began pondering the ego factor the other day while driving down Highway 101, Silicon Valley's own Route 66. The disappearance of Larry Ellison's billboard got me started.

It wasn't exactly Larry's billboard. Forbes magazine erected it to proclaim that Ellison had been a devoted reader since 1972. Of course, back then Ellison was just a programmer and now he runs Oracle, the huge Silicon Valley-based database company.

But the billboard had been there so long, I started to suspect Ellison really was paying for its upkeep. The tales of Ellison's escapades, both business and especially personal, are legendary and libelous. No one wants to go to court, so I'll just give you my own description of Ellison, as quoted in USA Today: "smarmy."

Not that he's a bad guy or anything. But he is the undisputed heavyweight-champion egoist out here. It's a title he wrestled away from his friend, Steve Jobs.

Back in his Apple days, Jobs was a terror, but he mellowed out quite a bit during his NeXT troubles. But now, with his Pixar paper billions in hand, will he challenge Ellison for his rightful crown? All signs and portents seem to say yes.

However, the real egos of Silicon Valley belong to those leaders still untainted by the bitter fruit of failure. More than a few people I really like have become awfully haughty after that first taste of success. Typically, this occurs after the IPO but before reality bites. Witness General Magic, where once-mighty egos deflated - or departed - as the stock price sunk.

Luckily, big successes don't always beget big egos. Microsoft, for one, isn't known as a place where giant egos rule. Bill Gates is just too wrapped up in facts to become an egomaniac. Netscape doesn't traffic in facts as much as Microsoft does, but it's been running so hard that no one has had time to develop a huge ego. Most of the folks at Netscape - from Marc Andreessen on down - are still genuinely nice.

But back to ego-squishing. There's nothing like a big defeat to add a dose of humility to someone's character. I didn't know either John Sculley during his Apple days or Philippe Kahn at Borland. Recently, after the fall, I've become friends with both. Neither resembles the terrible tales I've heard from their pasts. Each would, I think, agree that their troubles have made them easier to work with and nicer people.

So when I analyze companies and success factors in the PC industry, I usually begin with the human element. The Oracle-Microsoft battle essentially boils down to a bad case of Bill-envy. As Microsoft methodically crushed Borland a few years ago, the bad blood between Kahn and Gates seemed partly to blame. And during his Apple years, Jobs ticked off just about anybody who entered his reality-distortion field.

I mention this not to beat up anyone - it takes a sizable ego to do what I do, after all - but to remind you that vision, technology and even money aren't always what makes Silicon Valley turn.

It's often something much more human. And by analyzing the personal element, you may well find the seeds of both success and failure. c. 1996 Windows Sources