Dr. Mashey, who considers himself an "ancient" Unix person, has a PhD in computer science from Pennsylvania State University.
Starting out as a software designer in Bell Labs, he moved on to sales and marketing and has visited over 50 countries. He is now half-retired, advising venture capitalists and companies. He has also given over 500 public talks. Dr. Mashey is on the board of trustees at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
Here is a summary of his talk:
1. To begin, Dr. Mashey gave a brief overview of California's history.
He noted that the population of California is atypical of the USA - younger, more Asian and more Hispanic. 36 million people live there, which is 12% of the total population, but they produce 17% of the GDP and attract 40% of the total venture capital (30% in the San Francisco Bay area alone!). Its economy is ranked somewhere between 7th and 10th in the world.
California's leadership also departs from the norm. The current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a Republican, but his wife is a member of one of the most powerful Democrat families (Kennedy) in the nation.
Attorney General Jerry Brown has actually sued the Federal government before. The state of California has immense clout - it sets the emission control rules for the whole of USA, and sometimes can decide its own foreign policy! However, California can be experimental, unruly and chaotic at times.
The people of California are special, because these are the descendants of immigrants who moved there for opportunities or to escape rules. It is like an isolated "island" away from the populous east coast - in fact the population only started to increase significantly after the Second World War.
There is a selection for risk takers.
In the San Francisco Bay area, the selection pressure is even higher, since this was the focal point during the Gold Rush era. As a result, it is a special beneficiary of inward brain drain from all over the USA.
2. Silicon Valley itself is 700 sq km in area (about the size of Singapore). The geography of this region is important, because it is shaped like a bowl that pushes people together. Dr. Mashey noted this is opposite to the other major technology centre in the USA - Boston - where the geography pushes people apart into the suburbia.
There are a few key figures in the history of the Silicon Valley - Frederick Terman, an engineering professor at Stanford University, played a major role by attracting top minds to come to California.
Years ago, Terman himself planned to head east to become an assistant professor at MIT, but had to remain in California because of a bout of tuberculosis, which he later recovered from. As a result, he joined Stanford.
This turned out to be lucky accident.
In 1956 he convinced William Shockley (co-inventor of the transistor) to return to San Francisco, hoping that the Shockley would help to jump start the electronics industry in the valley.
Unfortunately, Shockley was an impossible person to work with - his researchers soon fell out with him. In 1957 eight of them left and formed their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor, which would end up spinning off many famous electronics giants such as Intel and AMD.
In addition, Terman's own PhD students William Hewlett and David Packard would later establish the Hewlett Packard company.
Then Dr. Mashey highlighted some cultural differences between Boston and the Silicon Valley. East coast companies tend to be vertically integrated. In Boston you are expected to be an employee for life, and if you switch companies people will hate you.
In the Silicon Valley on the other hand, it is common to switch companies and the animosity does not last - you may be foes now but friends later. Thus, closely-knitted personal networks is a key feature of the Silicon Valley culture.
The risk-taking, entrepreneurial culture in the Silicon Valley is unique and not a US-wide phenomenon. Sometimes it can be taken to an extreme, when the Silicon Valley acts crazy. The internet boom and bust (dot-com bubble) stems from an incredible sense of over-optimism and belief in perpetual growth.
3. Next, Dr. Mashey listed the key reasons for the success of the Silicon Valley.
Education is strong in California, although Dr. Mashey thought that the quality of education at the K-12 level (Kindergarten to Grade-12) is quite variable throughout the state and can be better.
At the university level, the University of California and Stanford University are very strong centres of educational excellence, often ranked within the top 20 in the world today.
Stanford in particular is a hotbed of entrepreneurial spirit. Students look forward to creating their own start-ups, join start-ups, or join big companies when they graduate.
As a private university, Stanford has more autonomy than state schools, and has become very smart about technology licensing. Start-ups nurtured by Stanford get good financial support in return for stock options. In effect, Stanford University acts like a venture capitalist firm, and it is a successful strategy - for example it owns a lot of Google stock.
On top of that, it is common at Stanford for the faculty to start companies during their sabbaticals. When they return to teaching, they
In addition, the administration places a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary work, using grant policies to encourage members of different faculties to collaborate on a project. Stanford President John Hennessy said that the "first 50 years of the last century belonged to physicists, the second 50 years to us computer folks, and the next century belongs to biologists."
There are other, less obvious reasons why Silicon Valley works.
One easily overlooked feature is the availability of cheap, flexible space for cash-strapped start-ups. Sometimes all you need is a grubby office with an internet connection. Dr. Mashey observed that in some other technology clusters, the workspaces are too pretty and too expensive to be practical. In the Silicon Valley, space is limited - buildings are often recycled to meet new needs.
Also, banks must understand start-ups. How can a new company possibly have five years of receipts in order to get a loan?
The right kind of lawyers is very important. They need to be familiar with start-ups, venture capitalists, patents and technology. Dr. Mashey gave an example of a Silicon Valley law firm that specializes in discouraging companies from fighting costly lawsuits with each other, opting to benefit incrementally from their growth, rather than to benefit quickly from their demise.
Some other quirky reasons: Fry's Electronics, a superstore that sells a wide selection of loose electronic parts for a low price, lets tinkerers assemble their own contraptions on a shoestring budget.
And Weird Stuff, which sells surplus hardware, old computers and other assorted junk - another haven for computer geeks.
Dr. Mashey then offered some advice for governments that are interested in replicating the success at Silicon Valley.
He felt that governments should not only make it easy to start a business (the registration paperwork should not take months!) but also make it easy to end a business. The latter process is difficult in many European countries, impeding their chances of success.
He stressed that governments cannot edict creativity and entrepreneurship. They should try to stay out of the way. But they can promote entrepreneurship by publicizing success stories, hailing entrepreneurs as heroes, and offering prizes as an incentive. A good example of this is the DARPA smart car competition.
4. In conclusion, Dr. Mashey emphasized that Silicon Valley is hard to duplicate. It was a sleepy backwater place just 50 years ago, but due to a combination of lucky accidents of great individuals like Frederick Terman, the risk-taking culture and smart investments, good results have been achieved.
During the Q&A, an audience member asked him if Singapore could make it too.
Dr. Mashey replied jokingly: "No", which drew hysterical laughter from the audience.
He then clarified his opinion by noting that Singapore had also emerged from nearly nothing 50 years ago, and is one of the relatively few places in the world that had many good features in place.
However he cautioned that: "I'm not sure that I see the right amount of discipline and looseness in Singapore," possibly alluding to the strict government control here.
He then ended his talk by emphasizing that nurturing entrepreneurs is a complicated process, but places that want to do better must be prepared to use this strategy.