Automotive Offices in Silicon Valley

This map of Silicon Valley appeared in Computerworld two years ago. Now there are even more automotive companies in the Bay Area.

One topic that has come up now and again for me is the intersection of Silicon Valley and the automotive industry. There are a lot of angles to this topic, but one thing I have generally been impressed by is how traditional automotive companies run their Silicon Valley offices.

There are a lot of obstacles to overcome: cost of living, new employees, veteran employees, communication with headquarters, division of labor across teams, multi-time-zone meetings.

The companies I’ve seen that do this well — and a surprising number of them seem to do it well — have the right mix of veteran managers and younger line engineers.

It’s hard to say exactly what that mix is, and it can vary considerably depending on the purpose of the office. Small offices focused primarily on technology scouting can tilt pretty far toward veteran managers on rotation from headquarters. Larger offices that are performing significant engineering work in Silicon Valley often succeed with a larger share of actual Silicon Valley engineers on the payroll.

The veteran managers provide access to the internal corporate social networks and informal power structures that facilitate progress in any organization.

The Silicon Valley engineers provide some of the raw engineering talent for which the Valley is famous, and perhaps also access to, “how Silicon Valley works”. “This is how we solved this problem at my last startup,” for example.

Another surprise is the number of junior engineers who went to school outside of the Bay Area, were hired by a traditional automotive company, and then shipped straight to California. These engineers have some of the attributes of veteran employees — their current automotive employer is the only employer they’ve ever known — and some attributes of traditional Silicon Valley engineers — youth and migration and audacity.

If I had to stick my finger in the wind and call a number, I’d say maybe 1/3 veteran managers and 2/3 Silicon Valley engineers (also marketers, business development, etc.) is the right mix, but it would interesting to have firmer numbers on this. It also seems like a good case study for a business school.

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