Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tips to visit Silicon Valley and San Francisco

My investments are quietly tracking to prediction, I keep being busy, and still no inspiration to write about financial markets. My dear audience will have to bear with another off-topic article, also written in long flights while cris-crossing the U.S. I hope that since I will be talking about Silicon Valley and its companies, it would still catch a little of the attention of the people interested in investing in those companies.

I recently had a business trip to California. About the southern leg, I was so busy that I was barely able to squeeze a few hours to go to any touristic destination, and by chance it happened to be "Inspiration Point" in Corona Del Mar. That's quite an awesome place to watch a sunset. There I swam for the first time in the waters of the Pacific ocean, despite my friends' words of caution against swimming there without protection for the supposedly too cold water, but several months of adaptation to the really cold Chicago winter made it merely refreshing and relaxing after a busy day.

Anyway, I also had to go to the "Bay Area", and had the whole Sunday to go around. The first thing that really impressed me is how nice and cool the weather is all along the South Bay, and my friends who live up to Mountain View tell me that it is nice and cool year round, that only in San José and Silicon Valley itself it may get hot a few days in the summer, but that the South Bay area is cool all the time.

My businesses were substantially closer to the San José International Airport than to the San Francisco International, but since I am attracted to places with History and personality, I chose to go to the SFO instead. There is a very nice Creative Commons picture of the SFO passenger terminals by "druchoy" at flickr that I had seen a while ago,
SFO at night

that then I had the chance to see in real life from the plane when I arrived, at night, and with the benefit of more context. Anyway, my arrival to San Francisco couldn't be more auspicious, not only could I see the airport at night in full splendor, I was already sick of the warm/hot southern California weather and the lack of rain, but just arriving, there was a drizzle, so, I got welcomed by the city with everything I was yearning for: an uplifting aerial view of the city and Bay, cool/cold and humid weather.

In my initial plan, I wasn't going to rent a car, so, I took public transportation, but discovered that it is a rather tedious sequence of transfers to get to where I was going: You must take the train in the terminal that will take you to the Bart train, then you must take the Bart train in the direction of the city, once you are in San Bruno then transfer to a train in the opposite direction towards Millbrae... to then finally wait for the Caltrain and still spend about an hour without internet until you finally arrive to Mountain View; so, if you ever go through the SFO to Silicon Valley, rent a car!.

To me, the whole area between Tiburón and San José (Tiburón, Sausalito, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, ..., Palo Alto (where the Stanford University is), Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Santa Clara and San José), feels like a very large University: The people is young, cultured, informal, nice to talk to, the radio plays eclectic music, shops are hip, and things are expensive, in all, an absolutely lovely place, although how expensive life is in the region really put me off. Another thing is that almost everybody uses Apple for computers and players, and it is nice that, at least in "Castro Street" in Mountain View, you have good free wi-fi courtesy of Google.

In case you are wondering, yes, I went to the Googleplex, it was within walking distance to where I was staying, and yes, I went walking there. The problem is that I didn't get past the receptionist, because when I arrived —on time!— to meet my partners, our business with Google was already done, so, I didn't get to know much about the place. When all of us were walking to the car in the visitors parking lot, I couldn't help but to notice how full it was, that there was a valet parking, an African American who sits below a round white tent with the Google colors. Ah!, and there were interesting license plate decorations, like a frame that said "Proud member of Pixar Animation Studios". On my insistence, we took a quick detour and went to AMD. The difference of atmosphere was more than noticeable, among other things the visitor lot was practically empty. Anyway, perhaps we arrived just at lunch time: I really wanted to see if I could get inside, so, I concocted a very goofy excuse: I presented myself to the receptionist as an investor who wanted to talk with someone in Investor Relations, naturally, the woman didn't do anything but tell me that it was lunch time and most people was out; so, I used and even more laughable "plan B": I told her that I was also an Engineer interested in working for the company, if someone from Human Resources could talk to me; then she said "Oh!, give me a minute and I will give you the telephone number of Human Resources so that you can set up an appointment". While she was doing that, I stared at the Ferrari formula 1 that they have at the entrance; the red really makes contrast with all the AMD Green in the building. By the way, I have always loved F1, but I have never seen up close a F1 car, it surprised me how small they are; I am not even 6 feet tall and still it seems it would be difficult for me to get into such small cockpit. On our way to San José, we went by the 101 to a place that has large buildings of Yahoo, WebEx, Intel, and Sun Microsystems. This large and beautiful Webex building set me off to think about what other products Webex makes, because it is unfathomable for me that a mediocre piece of junk used for remote collaboration has made so much money, leading me to think that or their customers are stupid, or the company somehow exploits the system; about the whole game of selling "puffware", about how startups ceased to be incubators of game-changing technologies to become hustlers that want to become as sexy a target for acquisition as possible; about the rat race of people living beyond their means in the opulence I was seeing... I will finish the thought in a minute.

By this time, I had already gone to the SFO to rent a car and driven back to Mountain View. You don't even need a GPS to go around the place, there is a freeway, the 101, that goes all along the South Bay, and if you don't want to drive freeways to get to know the place, you can drive along "El Camino Real", it is about 50% and 100% slower, with traffic lights, but I think the drive along "El Camino" is so scenic and nice to see the trees and shops, that it may even be worth it. You can open your window and breathe the air of the place, the freeway would be too noisy.

My friends wanted to go places like Larry Ellison's mansion, but I didn't feel inclined to do that, so, we split and I left with an old friend of mine who studies at Stanford to get to know San Francisco. It was Sunday in the late afternoon. I drove in "El Camino" for as long as she let me, but since we wanted to cross the Golden Gate before sunset, I took the 101. It is beautiful just before the bridge, there is a nice park, and after the bridge, the Golden Gate Vista Point. I went there not looking for photographs, but I must say that one hour before sunset, the view from there is spectacular: At the right, the Golden Gate bridge, below, the deep blue of the Bay waters, at the top, the light blue of the sky, and in the middle, a bright Yellow strip, the outline of San Francisco with its world-renowned skyscrapers. To improve upon perfection, we had dinner right on the shores of the bay in a restaurant in Sausalito, from where we could see the lights of the houses in Berkeley and Oakland already lit for the evening.

Now, I advise to arrive to San Francisco on Sunday at noon or so. Since typically the day you arrive to a city you don't do much in the way of businesses, you may go through the i80 to the island of Yerba Buena, and go around Treasure Island before continuing to Berkeley, to see the University, to then take the Richmond-San Rafael bridge (i580), and drive through the "Paradise Drive" (very winding road and not so well maintained, but still scenic) until you get to Tiburón or Sausalito, and from there, Vista Point, cross the Golden Gate, and enjoy nightlife in San Francisco, that is, the opposite direction of what I did. Doing this, you will have the rest of the week to hang around in Silicon Valley, go to Stanford, and do whatever your business may be.

After I left, while in the plane, I went on to meditate about all the people I met in my trip, the significance of technology for the economy of the region, and the whole region itself. It occurred to me that the people and companies based in there better be extraordinarily productive, because in almost any other place it would be way cheaper to do whatever it is they do, I was thinking of my friend who just bought a minuscule apartment for half a million and needs to keep paying her mortgage, but she is working on one of these startups that has just been acquired and the new owners set basically unrealistic revenue and profit schedules which mean that all the original employees are working mad hours; if they succeed, they just survive, if they don't, though luck, some more roadkills of the frenetic spin of mergers and acquisitions; unfortunately, it is a rat's race in which nothing of substance matters but the impression you cause on prospective buyers. I fear that very soon places in China and other countries that produce legions of excellent engineers are going to be overtaking Silicon Valley in innovation, it just doesn't make sense to develop an innovation there if it costs 20 times or more what it would cost to do it somewhere else, it makes me think whether I went there at the beginning of the decline.