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Rubrik: Campus Life

Creativity and product development in Silicon Valley
Free rein in Silicon Valley

Published: 01.02.2007 06:00
Modified: 01.02.2007 08:08
For Christian Bürgin it was the crowning conclusion of his thesis; for Céline Ray it was a brilliant prelude to her own: the two doctoral students from the Centre for Product Development and Autonomous Systems Lab of ETH Zurich spent a couple of months in Silicon Valley last autumn finding out why the IT firms based there are so highly successful.

Peter Rüegg

Christian Bürgin und Céline Ray’s enthusiasm about the American think tank in California is still noticeable even though they returned from Silicon Valley about two months ago. “The Valley is so innovative and simply beautiful,” says Ray. However she says Silicon Valley is also somehow chaotic and unstructured, and adds “You have to see it with your own eyes.” Ray and Bürgin spent the time from August to November in California, tracking down the secret of the success of Silicon Valley and its companies. The two doctoral students from the Centre for Product Development and Autonomous Systems Lab of ETH Zurich made official visits to 20 California-based companies and interviewed their representatives. In addition to these official appointments, the doctoral students from ETH Zurich questioned the high-tech citadel’s players in numerous informal conversations and interviews . Their interest focused on the corporate structures that enable creative activity and encourage novel ideas. According to Bürgin, “Primarily we studied the creative component of product development.” .

Hanging around, chatting, exchanging information

One of the secrets of success appears to be that many business enterprises in Silicon Valley encourage the unofficial exchange of information among their staff. The ETH Zurich doctoral students say Google in particular lives by the motto “hang out and meet people”. The Internet giant has installed public spaces, bars and conference rooms for this purpose. The company also organises concerts at weekends.

The pair was astonished to find that Google allows its staff to meet other employees at any time. Bürgin says that to Swiss eyes that would not look like work. “To us a good employee is one who sits in front of his/her computer all day long. And someone who meets colleagues during working hours is regarded as lazy.” However, this attitude impedes the important exchange of information. Moreover, Google’s headquarters offices are separated only by glass walls. “Everyone is visible from everywhere. That means you can see immediately who is there and who is not," says Bürgin.

Google looks after everything

Employees never need to leave the campus. Ray says that Google has built a whole town around the workplaces, and adds that “you can really find everything you need there, like doctors or car repair workshops.” There are snackbars every 200 feet, and you can have a massage in every building on the campus.

Swissnex: contacts were worth their weight in gold

(per) Céline Ray and Christian Bürgin would have had a hard time of it in Silicon Valley without the Swissnex organisation. They arranged their stay through this annexe institution of the Swiss Consulate - with no complications or bureaucracy. Bürgin stresses that “organising an exchange program with another university would have needed much more effort.” Swissnex is based in San Francisco. This outpost of the Swiss Consulate General sees itself as a link between industry and science for the three nations of Switzerland, Canada and the US. ETH Zurich is an associate group of Swissnex and is also represented on the strategy committee through Gerhard Schmitt, Vice-president for Planning and Logistics. Swissnex has very good contacts with local industries and organises numerous events from symposia to wine-tastings to cultivate and strengthen these links. (1)

Christian Bürgin tests the thinkers’ corner at the IT company IDEO (Photo: C. Ray).

Visualising and building prototypes at an early stage is another of Silicon Valley’s secret recipes. The motto is: fail early, succeed fast. Staff are encouraged to put their ideas down on paper or to build a prototype as quickly as possible. Making a distinction between ideas and people is another important principle noticed by the two ETH doctoral students. This allows ideas to be criticised without criticising the person behind them.

Attending a social event at six a.m.

The social environment is also particularly important. In Silicon Valley numerous events of every kind take place all the time at which different people belonging to various companies, from risk capital financiers to researchers, meet to exchange information and thus bring each other up to date. It astonishes Bürgin that “there is hardly any topic of conversation apart from business at meetings of this kind.” Even at an evening barbecue people talk only about their business ideas. Social events also occasionally take place at six in the morning. Céline Ray adds that in Silicon Valley there are so many people with their own start-up companies and involved in the IT business in one way or another that there are always interesting individuals to talk to at informal gatherings. Ray, who is from Western Switzerland, says “Silicon Valley has a critical mass of good people.”

The mentality and culture of the USA is another helpful factor. “Americans are more pushy, will talk to anyone and care less about etiquette than we Europeans.” According to Christian Bürgin, they always address each other by first names, regardless of age and seniority.

Swisscom is constructing a meeting point building

Silicon Valley has inspired Swisscom. The company is now constructing a building in Switzerland whose main aim is to enable staff to meet informally. It is intended to create a new kind of communication between employees. Ray thinks that “in theory the need for such meeting points is undisputed, but it is put into practice far too rarely.”

The results of their own investigations will now be incorporated into their theses – and possibly into the design of their present working environment in the CLA building, where offices line long narrow corridors and are separated by thick walls and heavy doors. Bürgin says “That is not optimum, and it impedes interaction.” So that’s why the pair is contemplating setting up a meeting point to allow the occupants to make contact with their fellow researchers – on an informal basis, of course. As a first step, Ray aims to gain an overview of the situation to understand how people feel at their workplaces and whether they interact sufficiently with other colleagues. However, she already clearly sees that the information flow needs great improvement.

(1 The web site of Swissnex: (

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