They've spent nearly five years producing a three-part series, "Silicon Valley: The Untold Story," which premiered March 19 on the Science Channel. The documentary features interviews with some well-known players in the Silicon Valley tech world: Steve Wozniak, Eric Schmidt, Gordon Moore, Kara Swisher, Jan Koum, and Kim Polese, to name a few.
The Almanac recently sat down with Mr. Schwarz to chat about what he's learned about Silicon Valley while producing the series.
One of the big questions the documentary asks is: What is it about the region that makes it an innovation hotspot?
Ever since the Gold Rush, California has attracted dreamers, immigrants, risk-takers, and yes, people seeking to get rich quickly, Mr. Schwarz said.
That mindset of rugged individualism has led to the myth of the heroic "founder," a notion he asserts is simplistic.
"Silicon Valley tends to be told as the stories of a series of generally genius entrepreneurs: young men who through the force of sheer brilliance manage to create extraordinary projects and change the world, when in fact, the story is more complicated than that," he said.
"Those success stories in general would have been unlikely to happen, had it not been for the place they were living and working, and the supporting ecosystem that made their success possible."
The region took off in the 1950s and 60s, when government contracts with companies like Lockheed Corporation drew communities of engineers to the region, some of whom would go on to create their own companies.
Educational institutions, too, like U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Santa Cruz and Santa Clara University, helped to build a tech-savvy workforce in the region. Stanford especially has supported entrepreneurship by university affiliates, he said, offering a fairly generous approach to intellectual property and mentorship by faculty to young entrepreneurs. The Stanford Research Institute (SRI International now) in 1946 was launched with the purpose of using science and innovation for local economic growth.
"People think of Silicon Valley as an example of capitalism at its best, which in some ways it is. At the same time, most of those successes wouldn't have been possible without government infrastructure and research," he said.
One key question the documentary seeks to answer is why Silicon Valley is so resilient. The region has been home to a series of tech-related booms and busts, yet every time a bust threatens to collapse Silicon Valley, Mr. Schwarz said, there's been a pattern of some new technology or company that develops to offer people new jobs.
"People think, 'It's over. The Valley is collapsing' — and they have good reason to. The busts have been bad, and a lot of people have lost jobs," he said. "What's remarkable is that the Valley seems to have the ability to keep reinventing itself and create new industries that people haven't imagined before."
What successful companies seem to have in common, he said, are that they create something that people really want and they have the right combination of funders and collaborators, the time and the ability to adapt from an original concept, successful business and product strategies, tenacity and, in many cases, a substantial stroke of luck.
Mr. Schwarz said he's got some unanswered questions still. One is: What is the impact of Silicon Valley companies' successes on our social and political lives?
If history has one lesson for the future of the Valley, he said, it's "how challenging it is to know what the next big thing is going to be." In his research, he learned that so often, people have been dead wrong about what the future holds. There was a time when many people in Silicon Valley thought the internet would not be consequential.
Offers that in retrospect look like sure bets, he said, may not have been obvious at the time. For example, he said, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak tried to sell the original Apple computer to Hewlett Packard five times, but was rejected.
A couple of other observations he offered: Success stories are the exception — not the rule; and today, the costs of starting companies are much lower than they used to be.
"Silicon Valley: The Untold Story" is funded by a variety of foundations, government and nongovernment agencies, individuals, and corporate donors. A major contributor to the project is the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Additional materials to promote classroom learning about the history of Silicon Valley in conjunction with the documentary are available through the Computer History Museum.
Where to watch it
After the series premieres on the Science Channel on March 19, it will be available to subscribers to most cable services on the Science Channel website or via the Science Go app, and is scheduled to be rebroadcast on the Science Channel Saturday, March 24, from 9 a.m. to noon and Monday, March 26, from midnight to 3 a.m. On the Discovery Channel, it is scheduled from 6 to 9 a.m. Sunday, April 1.
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