Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs liked to hang out with an older generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs because, he claimed, “you can’t really understand what is going on now unless you understand what came before.” For the rest of us, Leslie Berlin’s sweeping new history of the Valley is the next best thing.
Berlin’s book, Troublemakers, is particularly essential reading at a time when the U.S. tech industry is facing an unprecedented crisis over sexism, declining political clout, and social media platforms run amok.
Some of its story is familiar. For example, Berlin recounts how Jobs and other techies drank deeply from the Bay Area’s counter culture as they built great products and set fire to corporate flimflam. The book also describes the “traitorous eight” (who ditched their mentor to launch Fairchild Semiconductor, and then famous firms of their own), and recounts the ahead-of-their-time inventions of Xerox’s PARC lab.
Much of what Berlin recounts, though, is less well known. Her research reveals how Silicon Valley in the 1970s created a staggering amount of innovation not just in computer related fields—networking, video games, software—but other ones like biotechnology, venture capital, marketing and intellectual property.
The Valley attracted people who did things differently (and often defiantly), and came together to upend conventional views of what it meant to work in a company or a research lab or a university. While tech legends like Jobs and Intel’s Andy Grove turn up frequently in Troublemakers, Berlin rejects “great man” theories of history in favor of lesser-known figures who together made the value what it is.
Overall, the book does a masterful job explaining profound discoveries like recombinant DNA and microprocessors, while also keeping up a brisk narrative that’s aided by off-color accounts of naked hot tub meetings and pot-addled programmers. While Berlin prefers history to moralizing, such stories recounted in Troublemakers makes it clear the current outcry about sexism in the Valley is deeply-rooted.
For example, Sandra Kurtzig, a CEO and the first woman to take a company public, was often mistaken for a “booth babe” at conference shows, while male engineers across the industry have long been quick to punish any female intrusion on their power or prestige. Meanwhile, Berlin’s accounts show how, even in the 1970s, the hotshots of Silicon Valley appeared to care little about the lower income people nearby who they displaced with their wealth, technology and sprawling corporate compounds.
Today, as the tech industry comes to grips with its current crisis, Troublemakers provides a welcome long view of Silicon Valley’s triumphs and troubles.