Tales of nudists and nerds: what our IT industry could learn from Silicon Valley

Here’s what’s ‘wrong’ with Jordan’s IT scene: there’s not enough weird people in it! Even the young computer science graduates who join our IT companies are not weird enough. In fact most of them are not weird at all.

What does weirdness got to do with it? Everything. Take Bill Gates for example, then show me a Jordanian IT student who’s willing to drop out of university during freshman year to go and start a software company. Would anyone’s dad in Jordan even allow such ‘craziness’.

Over the past few years now, we keep hearing stories about this organization or that group of investors wanting to do technology parks/cyber cities/silicon villages etc.. And ‘oh the envy’ when we visit the Internet City in Dubai. “Now THAT’s progress!” we collectively say. Well, if you’re interested in the real estate business and in building glass boxes with nice landscaping and artificial ponds, then be my guest and build. But that’s not what Silicon Valley is about.

Dubai Internet City is nothing more than a collection of regional offices of global and some regional technology companies. And hey, all luck to them. There’s nothing wrong with that. But can anyone tell me if the whole ‘city’ produced any technology patents since it was incepted.

So here’s the obvious lesson for anyone thinking of a Jordan Internet City or similar project. That game is already over. Dubai won it. Of course there is always people who just love to imitate other’s successes. And Dubai is such a sexy model for all of us right now.

The alternative is to learn from the ‘real’ Silicon Valley to start a culture of real innovation and, hopefully, real value creation. It’s about very smart engineers, weirdoes, technology fanatics, investors, R&D, innovation and T-shirts. The first thing that should be banned from any Jordanian Silicon Valley is suits. Suits say: business rules. T-shirts say: everything goes! And that’s the mindset of the crazy engineers who gave us the microchip, the personal computer and the internet.

Talking about T-shirts, here’s a story about one: in the introduction the book ‘The Nudist on the Late Shift’, in which author Po Bronson chronicles the crazy internet bubble days of the late 90’s, he recalls a 1996 encounter with David Filo, who, with Jerry Yang, co-founded Yahoo a year or so earlier. Drowning in stacks of memos, publications and other junk there he was: David Filo, 30 years old, net worth US$ 1Billion, wearing a T-shirt. Not a Yahoo T-shirt but one from Excite!, which was Yahoo’s major competitor at the time.

The comparison to our local IT scene is not fair of course. First of all, we don’t have technology billionaires. We might have some technology millionaires but most of these are really technology traders and not innovators.

Bronson’s book is a brilliant portrait of the Valley during the dot com boom. Read it if you want to know why there’s the word ‘nudist’ in its title (also read the book’s introduction on pobronson.com).

Zoom back to 1992 and read what Robert X. Cringley wrote in his best-selling book ‘Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions,Battle Foreign Competition, And Still Can’t Get a Date’. Although quite old, the book, written with a heavy dose of wit and sarcasm, is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the culture of Silicon Valley. The book was also the basis for a TV series entitled ‘Triumph of the Nerds’.

Cringley writes: “America’s advantage in the PC business doesn’t come from our educational system, from our fluoridated water, or, Lord knows, from our tax structure. And it doesn’t come from some innate ability to run big companies with thousands of employees and billions in sales. The main thing America has had going for it is the high-tech start-up, and, of course, our incredible willingness to fail.”

The brilliant programmers of Silicon Valley are not afraid to go and work for the next crazy start-up creating the next wave of disruptively creative technology. If the start-up fails, they can find a new job with a ‘normal’ company within weeks. And investors reward failed entrepreneurs with investments in their next idea. Spectacular failure to do something great, so the thinking goes, teaches more than normal success.

Contrast that with most Jordanian start-ups. They are born ‘normal’ and their founders wear suits as soon as they can, to go on sales visits.

Even building normal companies in a developing society like ours is admirable. It provides jobs and creates a fair amount of value. But real value creation comes from innovation. And that needs a triumph of the nerds.

3 Responses to “Tales of nudists and nerds: what our IT industry could learn from Silicon Valley”

  1. Zaid Amireh Says:

    Dear Ahmad, give me ONE company in Jordan that has an R&D dept!
    there isn’t simply because they are all afraid of long term investments and they just want the money to flow, thats why I’m leaving this country to find a better place.
    Geeks, nerds and computer freaks just can’t survive in this innovation-less enviroment, thats why they all leave.
    now if you know of a company that admires nerds and geeks then please tell, I’ll try my luck with them.

  2. Ali Abunimah Says:

    Dear Ahmad, I just discovered your fascinating and beautifully designed and written blog while searching for “skype” and “jordan” on google. I look forward to reading more. My problem is I just got to Jordan, visiting my parents. Have been using Skype for a few days and all of a sudden it doesn’t work any more. So I was looking for help and insight into that and whether certain telecom companies have the capability of blocking this technology.

  3. Muneer Hussain Says:

    Dear Ahmed,
    Thanks for the in-depth picture of the technical infrstructure and the social and traditional road blocks that is keeping innovation at bay in your country.

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