a regular Post-Gazette column
I recently heard the Pittsburgh Technology Council's Steve Zylstra on WDUQ lamenting the subaverage growth of high-tech industry in the Pittsburgh region. I lament it too, but I don't share Steve's belief that the university research in the region makes it natural to expect the flowering of high-tech industry.
I had a ringside seat to the flowering of Silicon Valley for 15 years around the 1970s. I worked at Xerox PARC, a research lab famous for inventing the personal computer, the Ethernet, laser printing and many other innovations. Also famous is Xerox's failure to exploit these inventions for profit. Multiple books analyze this failure, and I've pondered it myself.
The failure begins with a misunderstanding of the process of technology transfer. Idealists think that it is like a precision relay race in which the scientists pass the ideas to the engineers, who develop the products and pass them to the marketers, who explain them to the eager buying public. In fact, tech transfer is more like some other kind of races.
It can be like a bicycle race in which the leader meets more wind resistance than the followers, and the best strategy is to be a fast follower who sprints ahead at the end. For example, IBM executed this strategy beautifully when it took over the PC market from Apple. Microsoft did it to Apple again in adopting the Windows interface that, by the way, was invented by us at Xerox. In other words, it might actually be harder for the originator of a technology to exploit it than it is for someone else. Why should that be?
First, when someone "steals" an idea, he has some crucial advantages over someone who owns it or is given it. First, he gets glory. Prometheus is a hero because he stole fire from the gods. Marco Polo is a hero in the West because he brought various Chinese inventions such as spaghetti to Italy. Millions of Chinese who simply adopted spaghetti eating are forgotten.
Second, the technology thief has the freedom to modify the ideas since he's under no obligation to the originator. If Steve Jobs, who took the ideas for the Macintosh from Xerox PARC, had been a Xerox marketer, management might have forced him to swallow a lot of the ideas that weren't marketable at the time. Because he had complete freedom of action, he could exercise his marketing genius, picking and choosing what he needed.
Technology transfer can look like a greased pig race, where the idea is the pig and the racers are all trying to catch it. Sometimes the pig escapes them all. Generally, creation of products, high-technology or not, is a random Darwinian process that no one, including the inventors of the new ideas, can control.
The reason some great products come out of Silicon Valley is that there is a huge community of engineers and business people contesting for success. Of course, the scientists at Stanford help stimulate the process; but they are less crucial than they would tell you.
The same goes for Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. So what are the crucial ingredients for success in the technology business if university research isn't? Investment money is one. But Pittsburgh has enough, and we can bring it in when needed. A talented work force that can sell the stuff, as well as make it, is another. We have a sufficient number of such people and can import them.
Compared with Silicon Valley, we don't have enough risk takers -- people who start or join enterprises that are long shots, people with the nerve to steal ideas. High technology is a risky, evolutionary process in which there are nine failures for every success.
So we need lots of people to try, and we should expect many to fail. Maybe we don't need more failures, but I'd like to see more because it would be a sign that people were taking risks. Andrew Carnegie and the Mellons took big risks and made big bucks. A lot of other people, now long forgotten, took risks and failed.
Many factors other than one's talent, training and judgment can affect the outcome of a business, so individuals must roll the dice if the region is to succeed. In Silicon Valley, failed entrepreneurs are treated with respect because they have learned lessons that will help them or someone else succeed. Some of the mega-wealthy there failed several times before winning.
So if you see a failure in your neighborhood, buy him a drink and
tell him to try again. Or have one yourself, and take a chance.