My oldest boy has lived in three places: Boston, Dublin, and now Pittsburgh, as a student at Carnegie Mellon. He loves change and is generally really open-minded, so he surprised me with an exchange we had last night. (I’m down in Pittsburgh visiting him.) He’d just returned from a week-long trip to San Francisco. He visited design offices in the city with classmates, and he also had a summer internship interview with VMware. CMU grads have been telling him how great it is to work in Silicon Valley, so he was eager to spend a day touring around the place.
He borrowed a car, and dutifully drove himself to a raft of legendary tech campuses, from Google, to HP, to Apple, to eBay. He parked in the lots of the famous companies. He penetrated as far into the buildings and campuses as he was allowed. For a kid, he had a decent enough look-see at the Valley’s overall architectural/external vibe. (Kids make $200K college choice decisions with less research, after all.) I was excited for him, because I love doing business in San Francisco, and have told him that a few times myself. (And he if he ever moves there, I’ll have yet another reason to visit.) However, here’s our conversation.
Me: How did it go? How’d you like Silicon Valley?
He: Well, it’s really just a bunch of big office buildings with stuff in between. It’s like……Waltham.*
Me: (After I laughed at the apt analogy) But hold on. How about Palo Alto? It has a cute little town.
He: Well it’s like one big Whole Foods. Interesting, expensive. But it’s like buying culture, rather than finding it.
Ouch. But here’s his frame of reference–and I think it goes beyond a college student’s “chain stores are soul destroying” simplicity. Last night he took us to a brew pub in Pittsburgh that is a converted church. It was like going to an old fashioned speak-easy. Other than a dirt-colored unlit sign, there was absolutely no indication of the hive of activity inside the place. The stained glass windows had been covered up and I was highly skeptical when he led us to the old double doors of the church. Not a peep of sound through the 3″ thick wood, not a crack of light from within. Then WHAM! Half of Pittsburgh, mid-revel.
This is the kind of place he’s grown up around. Palo Alto can’t suddenly sprout 150-year-old Gothic style churches cum brew pubs. It’s just not a level playing field.
Anyway, my son is a person you discover in layers. He kind of makes you work at it. Not to be provocative or annoying. He just doesn’t mind if you don’t “get” him all in one go. I guess he likes his cities that way too.
*Waltham is suburban high-tech central for Boston. No one aspires to work in that rather dull location, but it just works out that many people do. Central, cheap, and lots of office space. And my son happens to know Waltham well…he spent a summer delivering catered lunches to offices, mainly to venture capital firms in Waltham.