We are all familiar with the advantages of remote work, latest when we were hit by Corona-19. And many of us believe that work from home will continue even after the pandemic.
However, I would like to share with you the negative side of remote work. There may be no richer Silicon Valley story than this:
It was 2004, Mark Zuckerberg’s summer of craziness. At 20, he and five buddies had rented a Palo Alto home, where they partied and wrote code for Facebook. One day, as Zuckerberg and the guys were strolling the neighborhood, he saw a familiar face. It was Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, the music sharing service. By coincidence, Parker, at loose ends and contemplating his next move, was staying at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, just up the street from the Facebook pad. The very next week, the big-thinking, smooth-talking Parker moved in with Zuckerberg and began introducing him around Silicon Valley. By the end of the summer, he had paved the way to Facebook’s first big investment — $500,000 from Peter Thiel.
Thiel, who grew up in Silicon Valley and graduated from Stanford, had only recently landed a substantial payday himself. It went back to a providential lecture he delivered in 1998 at Stanford. One of the half dozen or so people present was a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant named Max Levchin — not a student, but a newcomer from Illinois who was there mostly to bask in the air conditioning and escape the sweltering summer heat. Afterward, Levchin approached Thiel. After a bit of chatting, Thiel asked why the young man was in town. “Probably gonna start a company,” Levchin said. “Oh, great,” Thiel replied, and suggested the two meet up the next day and talk more over smoothies. And the consequence?
In 2002, eBay paid $1.5 billion for the resulting startup — Paypal, making the two men and several partners rich. Over the subsequent years, Paypal vets including Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman went on to found YouTube, Tesla, SpaceX, LinkedIn, Yelp, and Palantir.
Perhaps no phenomenon is more studied, marveled, and desired in the world of high tech and science than the mystery of serendipity. My Oxford Dictionary explains serendipity as ‘The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.’
But now Silicon Valley seems to be under a little-noticed threat. Amid Covid-19, the deep recession, and renewed antitrust pressure from Congress and regulators, the Valley faces a very different challenge — the disruption of its very essence, the serendipitous encounter. The culprit is a rush by many of the Valley’s leading companies to permanently lock in the coronavirus-led shift to remote work.
If engineers, designers, and venture capitalists are geographically disbanding, working via the cloud instead of walking Google’s halls, surfacing at Buck’s Restaurant, or the cafes on University Avenue, how will future serendipity happen?
And while it’s true that serendipitous moments are usually prosaic and not Hollywood-worthy, you don’t need many lightning strikes when the outcomes are multibillion dollar tech companies. In every town, in every country in the world, childhood friends go into business together, but only rarely are those pals Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, growing up in the 1960s in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino and going on to create Apple.
If the founders, engineers, and designers in such startups are laboring entirely or largely from their own homes, and miss their moment, doesn’t Big Tech potentially lose its next big growth machine?
Entrepreneurs say that, at least currently, the answer is yes — the work-from-home mandate has probably put classic serendipity out of reach for Silicon Valley’s budding companies.
If serendipity’s explosive impact in creating the tech world as we know it has been biased in practice, a question is whether anyone should be vexed over its possible diminishment.
No one knows exactly what such a new system might look like. If a demise of serendipity leads to Silicon Valley’s decline, the world is unlikely to get an equal substitute. We may simply lose our engine of technological advancement.
If the past is instructive, the pandemic will pass and many daily routines will return. Hordes of people will return to the office, but large numbers won’t. Some will pick up and move. At that point, today’s effort to digitalize serendipity will pick up more urgency. Video conferencing and other software will get better, and some companies will claim their product fosters the unscripted moment in truly innovative ways, blind to demographics.
The message I am trying to get across with these examples is that in the Philippines we need to culture serendipity in our creative enclaves in Cebu, Makati, Pasig, QC, Iloilo, Baguio, CdO and a few more. We will have to find a smart balance between people working from home and people to ‘bump’ into each other to discuss ‘crazy’ ideas and developments. And we need to save the start-up ecosystem.
Let me have your views on this; email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.