Here’s the question that a very good friend and I debated recently: is the tech industry in Silicon Valley in any sense a celebrity-driven culture? You know, in the sense that the film industry in Hollywood is celebrity-driven.
We initially had opposing answers, but then realized that that it all hinged on how you define Silicon Valley, and if we defined it the same way we got roughly the same answer.
So let’s divide Silicon Valley up into two (overlapping!) groups: yappers and shippers.
Yappers are people who talk (or write) about technology, or the industry, or the people of the Valley. They blog, go to conferences, speak on panels, do radio shows, write manifestos, go to parties, and generally … yap. (Note that there is no such thing as a successful yet invisible yapper.)
Shippers are people who, by sweat of brow, get “product” out the door. Product can mean: boxes, chips, operating systems, websites, web services, mobile apps, open-source software, proprietary software … Anything that connects users with CPU cycles and actually lets them do stuff that they want to do. If shippers didn’t ship, then yappers would have nothing to yap about. (Note that successful yet (mostly) invisible shippers are everywhere.)
Now, let me hasten with a not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that disclaimer: we need yappers. Not nearly as much as we need shippers, but we need them. Just as an example: in my own sub-industry (web search engines), John Battelle is a yapper par excellence, and does a great job sparking really useful conversations and (through his book) public understanding of that industry, which is a good thing. Danny Sullivan is another example.
Also (and I can’t stress this enough) the sets do intersect somewhat. The only things that stop people from being both yappers and shippers are: 1) limitations of individual skill and inclination (some people are born to do one or the other), and 2) limitations of time (you can both yap and ship on the same day, but not at exactly the same moment).
OK, now back to our question – is Silicon Valley a celebrity culture? If you’re inclined to define the Valley as the set of yappers (which may include some shippers), then the answer is clearly yes. If you define the Valley to be the set of shippers (which may include some yappers), then the answer is no. Simple, isn’t it? 🙂
(Postscript: I may have been a bit hard on Hollywood in defining it as the prototypical celebrity culture. It is, of course, since in a sense the film industry is _about_ celebrity in a way that the tech industry is not. But other than that, it must be very parallel, with celebs and critics being vastly outnumbered by the people working on the high-tech, high-skill business of getting movies made.)