Clusters, Class, Culture and Unfair Advantages

I just finished reading J.D. Vance’s excellent book Hillbilly Elegy, and had that funny feeling when you find the story arc of someone else’s life eerily paralleling yours.hillbilly elegy

Vance’s book and the story of my own life suggest that there is an archetypal journey (a pattern of human nature) that describes the flight from a dysfunctional family and the escape from the constraints of cluster, class and culture.

Here’s how my story unfolded.

Limited Horizons
I grew up in New York in a single-parent household that teetered on the bottom end of lower middle-class in what today we’d call “working class.”

In my neighborhood, successful entrepreneurship meant small businesses entrepreneurs. Before my parents divorced they had owned a small grocery store. One neighbor owned the corner drug store, and another had a furniture store, though most of our neighbors were simply employees with 9-5 jobs in retail and construction. No one I knew had a white-collar job let alone were executives. (Eating out meant a slice of pizza or as a treat, a deli. I wouldn’t eat in a real restaurant until I went to college. I would then discover that this thing called “salad” was ordered before the main course.)

No one I knew had ever started a company (other than a small business). None of the relatives of my parents’ generation had gone to college. The highest aspirations immigrant parents had for their children in my social class were: doctor, lawyer or an accountant – and to drive a Cadillac and live in a house in the suburbs.

Graduating high school our collective aspirations weren’t much higher. Our overworked guidance counselors were adept at slotting most kids on the bottom of the deck into potential blue-collar jobs. In my graduating class of 1,000 students, the “smart kids” wanted to be teachers. A few even aspired to be writers, poets or scientists. The guidance counselors steered them into good state schools.

I was pretty much on my own in high school, which was a huge improvement over the previous 5 years. (Having interludes of normalcy by visiting my aunt’s house a few miles away was one of my havens of sanity and stability. Watching her family having dinner together or listening to them describe their weekend outings or vacations, I remember thinking how weird their family was. It would take me a long time to realize that this is what normal families do together.) My mother was rarely home and never asked about or looked at my homework. I signed (forged) all my report cards. My final grades in my senior year classes were four “mercy” 65’s (the minimum passing grade) and one 98. Most of my classmates who opted for college went to the local colleges or New York State University schools. (The Vietnam War was raging, but going to college gave you a draft deferment.)

Interestingly, none of us believed our possibilities were limited, yet in hindsight our first barrier was that knowledge was local – constrained by our culture and cluster. (Forty years later when the Internet has made knowledge global, we’ve run into the second barrier – just knowing about things is not the great equalizer we expected. We’ve rediscovered that career choices are referential and experiential. Just because you read about it does not mean you know how to apply it to your own life. We still tend to gravitate to careers we’re exposed to in local clusters, and bound by our class and culture.)

In short, even though it was 15 miles into midtown Manhattan, our horizons were limited, and mine, perhaps even more limited. (I would visit my first museum in Manhattan only years later when I returned to New York with my girlfriend showing me around as a tourist.)

The notion of having an idea and building a company was unimaginable. We weren’t dumber than the kids who eventually would populate Silicon Valley, but our career trajectories had been flattened by the limited knowledge and expectations of our cluster, class and culture.

(A cluster is a concentration of interconnected businesses in a specific field in one city or region. Silicon Valley is an innovation cluster that makes hardware, software, biotech and semiconductors. Detroit is an automotive cluster, Hollywood an entertainment cluster, New York City for media and financial services, etc. Class is short for “social class” and refers to wealth, but also to education and social status.Culture is the shared beliefs of others around you. Culture has a strong correlation with class but also is influenced by ethnicity, religion, region, etc.)

Fly Away
Unlike my peers with stable families who stayed in New York, my untenable home life provided the escape velocity for me to leave New York. I wanted to get as far away from it as I could. However, filling out a college application was a mystery to me — What were the right colleges to apply to and how should I answer the questions on the application?  Somehow I figured out how to apply to school in Michigan. (Pre-infinite information on the Internet about colleges, I picked Michigan because I saw them play football on TV, but I ended up applying to the wrong school in Michigan – my first time around I ended up in Michigan State not the University of Michigan. Lucky for me as I never would have been accepted. After the Air Force I found the right Michigan.)

But once I made it to college I was lost. I had none of the discipline, study skills and preparation I needed. After one semester, I dropped out when my girlfriend said, “Some of us actually want to be here and are working hard to learn something,” and I realized she was right. I had no idea why I was in school. Some small voice in the back of my head said that to survive I needed some sort of structure in my life, and had to learn some marketable skills.

In the middle of a Michigan winter, I stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked to Miami, the warmest place I could think of. I had no idea what would be at the end of the highway. But that day I began a pattern that I still follow—stick out your thumb and see where the road takes you.

I managed to find a job at the Miami International Airport loading racehorses onto cargo planes. I didn’t like the horses, but the airplanes caught my interest. A technician took me under his wing and gave me my first tutorial on electronics, radar and navigation. I was hooked. For the first time in my life, I found something I was passionate about. And the irony is that if I hadn’t dropped out, I would never have found this passion…the one that began my career. If I hadn’t discovered something I truly loved to do, I might be driving a cab at the Miami airport.

While college had been someone else’s dream, learning electronics became mine.

So I enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War to learn how to repair electronics. I didn’t tell my family I had enlisted (I told them I was going camping) figuring that if I couldn’t make it through basic training, no one would know. (It turns out my unconscious search for a stable, structured environment is a common theme among many military recruits.)

After nine months in electronics school, when most everyone else was being sent overseas to a war zone, I was assigned to one of the cushiest bases in the Air Force, right outside of Miami.

My first week on the base our shop chief announced: “We’re looking for some volunteers to go to Thailand.” I still remember the laughter and comments from my fellow airmen: “You got to be kidding, leave Miami for a war in Southeast Asia?” Others wisely remembered the first rule in the military: never volunteer for anything. Listening to them, I realized they were right. Not volunteering was the sane path of safety, certainty and comfort. So I stepped forward, raised my hand—and I said, “I’ll go.”f-105g wild weasel

I was going to see where the road would take me. Volunteering for the unknown, which meant leaving the security of what I knew would continually change my life. People talk about getting lucky breaks in their careers. I’m living proof that the “lucky breaks” theory is simply wrong. You get to make your own luck. 80% of success in your career will come from just showing up. The world is run by those who show up…not those who wait to be asked.

For four years I worked within a “cluster” of like-minded individuals (the Air Force) who shared the same mission. More importantly, as an electronics technician, I was now hanging out with a crowd of pretty smart guys (the military was then all guys) repairing complex electronics and microwave systems. basic training
We tutored each other, read books together, went onadventures together and learned together. And while most of us came from totally different backgrounds (I never knew you put salt of watermelon, that Spam was food or muffuletta was a sandwich), as far as the military was concerned, we were all the same “class” – enlisted men – denoted by the rank on our sleeves. And what I didn’t realize at the time is that I was being mentored some of the senior enlisted guys a decade or two older than me. I’m not sure it was a conscious effort on their part, (I know it wasn’t on mine) but what people don’t realize is that mentorship is a two-way street. While I was learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what I was giving back to them was equally important. I was bringing fresh insights to their data. This pattern of mentorship would continue and profoundly impact my career in Silicon Valley.f-105g wild weasel

So here I was 19, my first days of adulthood, in the middle of a confusing and unpredictable war zone learning how to repair electronics as fast as I could. It was everything life could throw at you at one time with minimum direction and almost no rules. (Service in the military is a life and death lottery. While we were living the good life in Thailand, the Army and Marines were pounding the jungle every day in Vietnam. Some of them saw death up close. 58,000 didn’t come back – their average age was 22.)steve in Thailand 2 ARL-46

A few years of this sifted and sorted us in a way that foreshadowed our future career paths. It turned out that the skills I had learned growing up in order to survive in constant disorder turned out to be what I needed to excel in this environment: comfort in working in chaos and uncertainty (heck, that was how I woke up every day), pattern recognition (if you couldn’t see it coming before others, you were screwed) and the ability to shut down external distractions and relentlessly focus on a single problem (staying sane in my home life.)  While I might have refined these skills in a different environment, the sink-or-swim daily exigencies of the Vietnam War honed them to a fine point.

These would be the identical skills I would need to succeed in Silicon Valley. Though I would pay the cost of having learned them for the rest of my life.

While the paths of our lives would radically diverge, for the first time I had a sense of a cluster, class and culture where it felt like I belonged. The Air Force turned out to be the first melting pot I would encounter (Silicon Valley the next) where individuals from different classes and culture had the opportunity to share a common goal and move beyond the environment they grew up in (foreshadowing Silicon Valley startup culture.)

When I came back from Southeast Asia, I was assigned to a Strategic Air Command base with nuclear armed B-52s in Michigan where the Calvin Ball rules of a war zone — “do what you need to do to get the job done” — no longer applied. It was now, “follow the rules exactly” – not something I was really good at. Realizing that this wasn’t the long-term profession for me, I left after my four years were up, having learned electronics and gained awareness of a larger world and career paths.

Silicon Valley
I now found myself back in school in Michigan, and my girlfriend who first told me to leave as an undergraduate was now my wife working on her Ph.D. Within a year I would drop out again (a divorce, and an extreme lack of interest in theory and more desire for practice – more payback for learning survival versus social skills). It would be the last time I would spend on a college campus as a student. It would take 25 years to return to a campus — this time teaching at Berkeley, Stanford, NYU and Columbia.

I found a job in Ann Arbor working as a field engineer. Decades later, I realized that thebroadband network company where I worked, installing high-speed process control networks in automobile assembly plants and steel mills (before Ethernet existed), was one of the few pioneering startups in Ann Arbor. It would turn out to be the first of many bridges to somewhere else.

One day the company sent me and an engineer across the country, to a city none of us had ever heard of – San Jose, California – to install a process control system in a Ford Assembly plant. (We were so clueless about where San Jose was that at first the company admin got me tickets to San Jose Puerto Rico.)

Getting off the plane and into our rental car headed to our motel we tuned the radio to the local music station and a commercial came on blaring, “scientists, engineers, technicians, Intel is hiring…” We almost drove off the road. Did we just hear this right? Someone is advertising electronics jobs on the radio?  And then the music came back on like this was just another ad. WTF?

To put our reaction in context, in Ann Arbor there really wasn’t much of an electronics cluster (a few machine vision companies), so for amusement each week a few of us would scour the local newspaper for electronics job listings to see if other companies were paying any better than ours. It was a good week when we would find one or two listings.  What kind of place were we in that advertised for engineers on the radio?

After we checked into our motel, I bought the Sunday edition of the local newspaper – the San Jose Mercury News. I was a bit confused why this newspaper was thicker than the Sunday New York Times. In our room, as my roommate grabbed the shower first, I turned on the TV and started flipping through the paper. First section – normal news, second section – normal sports, third section – normal arts/entertainment, fourth section –  classified ads and more classified ads and more classified ads and more classified ads. In fact, there were 48 pages of classified ads (I counted them several times) and almost all of them were for scientists, engineers, technicians, and tech support – woah.

Just as I was trying to process what I was seeing in the newspaper, thinking this couldn’t be real, the TV program switched to an ad and snapped my head right out of the newspaper with an earsplitting – “Engineers, looking for a better job? Four-Phase Systems is hiring…”

I leapt off the bed, banged on the bathroom door, dragged my roommate out of the shower, and with a towel wrapped around him we both stared at the TV and caught the last few seconds of the TV commercial. There would be several more during our stay. We spent that evening reading every one of the 48 pages of job listings.

The next day, working at the Ford assembly plant, I kept wondering, “Where the hell was I?  How come none us had ever heard of this place?”  (The answer was that Silicon Valley at the time was primarily building military weapons systems, semiconductors and test equipment, all business-to-business sales with no products aimed at consumers.)

After our work in San Jose was done, the engineer who came out with me flew back home. (For decades I couldn’t understand why. All he said was, “My parents are in Michigan.”)  With nothing holding me to any place, I stayed, started interviewing and got my first job in the Valley.

My horizons of cluster, class and culture were about to expand once again. I felt like I was in on a secret no one else had yet understood. In phone calls to my friends back in Ann Arbor I tried to explain what was happening here, but to be fair even I didn’t understand we were standing at ground zero of inventing the future. Here was an environment where what you could accomplish meant more than who you knew. Technologists were running companies, as no serious MBAs would go near these places, and investors were company builders, teaching founders how to grow revenue and profit. While I would struggle for years accepting help from others (in my previous life it always came with strings) those who succeeded paid it forward by sharing what they had learned with new arrivals like me.

Endlessly curious, I drank from the firehose of opportunity that was the valley. I went from startups in military intelligence to microprocessors to supercomputers to video games to enterprise software. I was always learning. There were times I worried that my boss might find out how much I loved my job…and if he did, he might make me pay to work there. To be honest, I would have gladly done so.  While I earned a good salary, I got up and went to work every day not because of the pay, but because I loved what I did.

As an entrepreneur in my 20s and 30s, I was lucky to have four extraordinary mentors, each brilliant in his own field and each a decade or two older than me. For the next four decades I would work for them, be mentored by them, co-found companies with them and get funded by them.

In Silicon Valley in the 1970s, I had come pretty far from someone who had puzzled through how to fill out a college application. Though the imprints of how I grew up would always be with me, (many detrimental) through intuition, curiosity and luck, I had started to move beyond the cluster, class and culture of my youth.


In reading Hillbilly Elegy I realized that my story is not just my story, it’s a recurring archetypal journey about lucky individuals — those whose brain chemistry is wired for resilience and tenacity and who manage to flee from a dysfunctional family and escape from the constraints of cluster, class and culture. They come out of this with a compulsive, relentless and tenacious drive to succeed.  And they channel all this into whatever activity they can find outside of their home – sports, business, or …entrepreneurship.

Lessons Learned

  • Your local environment – cluster, class and culture – shape your initial trajectory
    • Some people who don’t have the advantages of  cluster, class and culture growing up will seek them out
  • It takes a lot of escape velocity to break out
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