Mr. President-elect, when it comes to high-tech, you are missing the point. Already.
One might imagine — given that the electronics industry is America’s largest manufacturing employer, the key dynamo of all the country’s economic expansions of the last decades and about the only positive force in its international trade balance — that presidents may actually take the time to learn something about the subject.
I doubt that presidents Reagan or Bush ever knew the difference between gate arrays and Gatorade. Bill Clinton, in his usual manner, made a few empty gestures in the right direction (the White House Web site), but he never did seem to get it himself — indeed, a few well-chosen URLs might have saved him from impeachment.
Of Clinton’s two memorable gestures toward tech, NAFTA and Web-enabling the schools, the former was a GOP initiative and the latter showed he knew nothing about the digital economy.
Cluelessness Not, in Itself, a Bad Thing
Of the two candidates in the most recent, endless, election, Al Gore obviously understood tech far better than George W.
In fact, to my mind, the single most surprising image of the whole campaign (besides Al’s drunken dancing on loser night) was the cocktail napkin doodling Gore did on information technology for Red Herring magazine. Unfortunately, the doodle, like the campaign, showed that Gore got technology, but he didn’t get tech. His was the statist world of business book gurus, not the entrepreneurial reality of high tech’s mean streets.
In the end, he would have been a disaster for U.S. electronics, smothering it to death in a well-meaning regulatory embrace.
That brings us to our new president. On the campaign trail, and in the debates, George W. proved, in regards to tech, to be … well, clueless. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. After all, many veteran Silicon Valleyites would argue that the worst thing that ever happened to this town was that we got noticed by Washington. Up until then — say, 1985 — we had a pretty free run.
And that Wild West era put in place most of the structures that keep the Valley thriving to this day — in spite of Washington’s endless and usually misguided meddling.
Invited to Austin for All the Wrong Reasons
So the real question is: will Dubya listen to the right people?
And there, so far, the news isn’t good.
It’s one thing to bring in experienced veterans to fill your Cabinet. In a snake pit like D.C. the more experienced jungle fighters you have on your team the greater the likelihood of your survival.
Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way in high-tech. There, extra stripes on your sleeve are usually a liability. For proof of that, look at a list of the most important tech companies of each of the last five decades. The one thing leaps out at you is that almost no company ever makes the list twice.
In other words, if you are on top of the pile today, chances are you’ll be an also-ran tomorrow. Remember how Microsoft was going to rule the world? How Apple was going to come back and reclaim the field? How Intel was unstoppable? How Amazon was the Next Big Thing?
If you want to know where high-tech is going, never ask the current winners. They can only tell you where it’s been. Instead, seek out the hot insiders, the fast-moving newcomers, and the mavericks. And the only way to find them is to know the industry intimately.
The Way Things Were
That brings us to last week in Austin, where George W. Bush held his first high-tech summit. I only had to read the invite list, and see their satisfied faces on TV, to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. It was the standard line-up of starchy past-their-primes, bouillabaissee with a few obvious campaign contributors and just enough of the right folks (Carol Bartz, Jim Morgan, Gregory Slayton) to make you assume they were invited for all the wrong reasons.
Consider the list. Michael Dell of Dell Computer, premier player in the world’s most spectacularly dying high tech industry. Craig Barrett of Intel, a smart boss dangerously lacking in the blood lust needed to win in chips — Athlon anybody? Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, who used the occasion to argue for more women in technology — when she should have been back in Palo Alto proving that a woman won’t run the world’s greatest company into the ground. Neo-V.C. Jim Barksdale, who tarnished the jewel in the Valley’s crown, Netscape. Steve Case of AOL, a late arrival who managed to muscle his way in — proving once again that it never hurts to be a motorcade away from Capitol Hill. Lou Gerstner, who managed, after 15 years, to get IBM back in personal computer just as the industry is going out.
John Chambers of Cisco, perhaps the country’s best businessman, was also there. He told reporters that the crucial issue of our time was “the availability of a skilled workforce,” i.e., let more immigrants in, rather than force us to train aging locals. Chambers might take a look at all the skilled workers working at those army of new competitors that have Cisco in their gunsights.
Close Your Eyes and Point
The individual who got the most attention, though, was Floyd Kvamme, whose name rings in ears of Valleyites out of some antediluvian past. The handsome, polyglot Kvamme was one of the bright young things at Fairchild 40 years ago. He jumped to National Semiconductor, where he ran its ill-fated mainframe computer operation; then on to Apple, where he was rumored to be in line for the CEO slot until he got squeezed out during the Jobs-Sculley contretemps (actually, not a bad recommendation). After that he became a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins — one so successful that no one’s heard much of him in a dozen years.
But Kvamme has always been politically astute. And easily the smartest thing he’s done in years was to buck Democratic Silicon Valley (and arch-Dem partner John Doerr) and back the Bush team early. His reward, it is rumored, will be the job of Technology Czar in the new administration.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve liked and respected Floyd for 20 years. But is he the future of Silicon Valley and high-tech? Or merely a shining example of tech’s past getting a trophy for exhibiting that loyalty the Bushes so love? At least he’ll be able to explain to Dubya how chips work. As for the impact of these summit attendees on the new president, one can only have dark thoughts. Bush reportedly came out of the meeting and told Americans to hold on to their tech stocks. Swell, and to think I was starting to get optimistic about the economy.
Some wise man once said that he’d rather be governed by people randomly selected from the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. I feel the same way about technology policy. Mr. President, the next time you have a tech summit, for your invitation list please just close your eyes and point at pages in the American Electronics Association directory. You, and we, will be much better off.
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com. And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail or through an ongoing bulletin board.