Your senses switch to overdrive on Silicon Valley’s boulevard of dreams. Blossoming oleanders the size of camper vans line the median. Towering eucalyptus trees exude a mentholated scent as Sand Hill Road gently slopes down toward the San Francisco Bay from the Santa Cruz Mountains and edges Stanford’s idyllic campus. All along Sand Hill, basking in the sun, are the offices of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms, the ones that place bets from the high hundred-thousands to the many, many millions, each one in the hope that a young, ambitious company might, with help, become the next LinkedIn, Salesforce.com or even Google.
A consortium of Canadian universities and the local consulate have organized a Canada Day event at a conference centre on this storied road. Bottles of Molson are available at the bar, as are Niagara and Okanagan wines—coals to Newcastle. A pianist plays CanCon hits like Constant Craving while some of the Bay Area’s estimated 350,000 Canadians—yes, 350,000—mingle.
These are the faces of brain drain: This one hails from Vancouver and came down to work at Pixar; that one is a Québécois executive at Yahoo, who is taking some ribbing about his company’s slide to second-tier status: “Oh, is that still around?”
The talk is of immigration status—“Are you on an H1B visa or a TN?”—and impossibly high housing costs. “There was nothing—nothing—in Palo Alto for less than $1.5 million.” There’s some trading of coming-to-California stories—flying in from frigid, slush-coloured Toronto in February to find a warm, fragrant, technicolour spring well under way, and then dressing too formally on the first day at the office.
One of the expat community’s many tech stars, Mozilla’s CEO Gary Kovacs, takes to the podium to speak about his feelings for his home and native. His father was a Hungarian refugee who fled to Canada in 1956, and got a second chance at life there. “I’ll always be grateful to Canada,” Kovacs says, “the opportunities it provided, the education.”
Firefox, the browser produced by the company he now heads, was the volunteer effort of a bunch of idealistic programmers who wanted to challenge the hegemony of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. When he applied for the job, Kovacs sensed the interviewers believed (rightly or wrongly) that a Canadian was more likely to respect that founding collectivist ethos. Indeed, Mozilla and Wikipedia—both run by Canadians—between them hold the tattered shreds of Web 1.0’s up-with-people, information-wants-to-be-free idealism, as everyone in Web 2.0 tries frantically to—a word of the times—“monetize” everything and then find the ideal exit.
There are Canadians engaged in every aspect and every level of the tech sphere here, at all the major players: hardware, software, computer games, networks, Internet, e-commerce and mobile; Google, Zynga, Apple, Electronic Arts, Oracle, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, Cisco. “The hidden minority,” one person called them.
Some of them are a little smug, particularly during what passes for winter here, about their escape from Canada. But for most, thoughts often turn homeward. They hope the tech scene in Canada reaches full maturity, that the flagship tech company RIM doesn’t implode, that a symbiotic relationship develops between the high-level Canadians down here and those back at home, “in-country”—the term used to refer to all indigenous tech scenes, whether they be in India, Israel or north of the 49th. As in, “People ask me, ‘Can I remain in-country or do I need to be here, in the Valley?’” In-country. As if this place, Silicon Valley, were somehow not itself in a country, but beyond earthly jurisdiction, a silicon Shangri-La.
And, indeed, sometimes it does feel that way—exceptional, extra-national. On the streets of Mountain View or Palo Alto, everyone wears the same tired geek-chic look but their skins are in variant shades and, wandering about, you hear Hebrew, Serbian, Urdu, Chinese, Russian, Korean, French, German—Babel. The rest of California and the nation as a whole may be hurting, but the downturn didn’t really touch Silicon Valley. About the only time the machinations in Washington register is when Obama flies in to top up his campaign coffers.
On a sunny fall day, I visit the deluxe and quirky Googleplex in Mountain View. This is the mothership, the chief of Google’s 60 offices worldwide. Its 24,000 employees last year brought in revenues of $38 billion (all currency in U.S. dollars). HQ is a set of glass buildings on a vast flat campus near the Bay, and you have to be careful not to park in the spots reserved for Expectant Mothers. Near reception, a screen shows a globe with dots of light wherever people are presently inputting Google searches, realizing in a digital way the racist cliché of Africa as the dark continent. Nearby, there’s a machine that prints and binds out-of-copyright books on request—Frankenstein lies in the output tray.