Could Howard County be the Silicon Valley of cybersecurity? Part 2

6 minute read

In part 1 of this article I addressed the question (originally raised by HoCo Rising), could Howard County be the Silicon Valley of cybersecurity? My initial answers were no and, yet again, no. But, Frank, I hear you say, that’s just the way things are now. Couldn’t we do something about this? So it’s on to…

Answer #3: It’s complicated … but expert opinion suggests that the answer is still no.

Which region will be the next Silicon Valley and why is a question that’s brought forth a million answers (literally). Why Silicon Valley exists in its present form, what are the key factors in its success and whether its success is replicable elsewhere are all questions that have been debated ad nauseam. For purposes of this post I’ll skip all the speculation on where the next Silicon Valley will arise (New York! Detroit! Boulder! Europe! China! Russia! Chile! nowhere and everywhere!) and focus on two interesting and (at least superficially) contradictory answers.

The first is the essay The Next Silicon Valley by Bradford Cross and Russell Jurney, two Silicon Valley technologists. Their essay, which is really a mini-history of Silicon Valley over the last hundred years, resists easy summary. However one of their key points is that the roots of today’s Silicon Valley run very deep, and that a particular combination of high technology, an egalitarian startup culture, and entrepreneurial businesses emerged in the San Francisco bay area very early in the 20th century. That proto-Silicon Valley was then jump-started by the infusion of massive Federal military spending during World War II and afterward. a point often overlooked by modern Silicon Valley boosters. However Silicon Valley eventually found commercial markets for its products and services and outgrew its dependence on Federal spending, to the point where a typical Silicon Valley company today derives at most 5-10% of its revenues from government customers.

According to Cross and Jurney, the path to Silicon Valley’s success was highly dependent on particular historical contingencies, and is apparent only in hindsight. No one could have looked at San Francisco or Stanford at the dawning of the 20th century and laid out a reasonable plan to arrive at the economy of today. That in turn implies that trying to create and implement a rational plan to turn one’s own community into another Silicon Valley is essentially a fool’s errand:

... those circumstances that made the Valley possible are actually difficult or impossible to achieve elsewhere because they require fundamental changes to regional culture. The culture of the Bay Area arose as a response to its unique situation by the diverse peoples that make up its population. A plan bent on reproducing Silicon Valley starting at the gold rush of 1849 would be more rational than a plan that attempts to leapfrog into the 1980s.

Well, that’s not very useful advice, is it? Let’s turn to a second source, the essay How to be Silicon Valley by the entrepreneur Paul Graham, co-founder of the Silicon Valley-based Y Combinator startup fund. Unlike Cross and Jurney, Graham seems to offer a simple approach to creating your very own Silicon Valley; however as we’ll see his advice gets progressively more complicated and difficult to follow.

Graham’s basic recipe is quite simple though: There are only two essential ingredients for another Silicon Valley, rich people and nerds. The rich people provide funding (Graham doesn’t think government funding of startups will work: Bureaucrats by their nature are the exact opposite sort of people from startup investors. The idea of them making startup investments is comic.) and the nerds create things.

But wait a minute. You can’t just start with just any old rich people, you need exactly the right kind. Startup investors are a distinct type of rich people. They tend to have a lot of experience themselves in the technology business. You also have to be a place where rich people want to live; for example, despite having lots of nerds, Pittsburgh and Ithaca aren’t startup havens because [the] weather is terrible, particularly in winter, and there’s no interesting old city to make up for it, as there is in Boston. And then to attract nerds you need at least one world-class university (It has to be good enough to act as a magnet, drawing the best people from thousands of miles away. And that means it has to stand up to existing magnets like MIT and Stanford.) and (as with rich people) that university has to be in a place where nerds want to live.

Where do nerds of all ages and income levels like to live? … [They] like well-preserved old neighborhoods instead of cookie-cutter suburbs, and locally-owned shops and restaurants instead of national chains. … [They] want to live somewhere with personality. What does personality mean in this context? I think it’s the feeling that each building is the work of a distinct group of people. A town with personality is one that doesn’t feel mass-produced. But it has to be the right kind of personality: What nerds like is the kind of town where people walk around smiling. … They like cafes instead of clubs; used bookshops instead of fashionable clothing shops; hiking instead of dancing; sunlight instead of tall buildings. A nerd’s idea of paradise is Berkeley or Boulder.

Whoa, this is getting complicated. Is that all? No, it also has to be a place that attracts young people (It’s the young nerds who start startups, so it’s those specifically the city has to appeal to. The startup hubs in the US are all young-feeling towns. … What you can’t have, if you want to create a silicon valley, is a large, existing population of stodgy people.) and tolerates odd ideas and odd people (… a place that tolerates oddness in the search for the new is exactly what you want in a startup hub, because economically that’s what startups are. … [A] town that gets praised for being solid or representing traditional values may be a fine place to live, but it’s never going to succeed as a startup hub.).

Oh, and it has to have a thriving center: To attract the young, a town must have an intact center. … My guess is that no city with a dead center could be turned into a startup hub. Young people don’t want to live in the suburbs. And they especially don’t want to live in planned communities, suburban or otherwise: … if you want to make a startup hub—or any town to attract the creative class—you probably have to ban large development projects. When a large tract has been developed by a single organization, you can always tell.

Graham ends up working his way into something very like Cross and Jurney’s position that Silicon Valleys can’t be made, they grow out of somewhat unique historical circumstances: … startups beget startups. People who work for startups start their own. People who get rich from startups fund new ones. I suspect this kind of organic growth is the only way to produce a startup hub, because it’s the only way to grow the expertise you need. … [You] need time to grow a silicon valley. Because he’s a problem solver at heart, Graham doesn’t want to throw up his hands and declare the problem insoluble (… a town that could exert enough pull over the right people could resist and perhaps even surpass Silicon Valley) but he’s set a pretty high bar for anywhere else that wants to be the next Silicon Valley.

So where does this leave Howard County? Not in a very good place, I’m afraid. I’ll come back for a final attempt at an answer in the concluding part 3 of this article.