Seriously Sound Science™
On Comparing Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas
Though I was born and raised in Silicon Valley, I moved to Austin, Texas and lived there for 10 of the last 15 years. I did find a surprising number of geographic, cultural and political similarities to the San Francisco bay area, which I describe below.
Austin has been described as "Silicon Hills" and "the Silicon Valley of the south". All major microprocessor makers have Austin offices, and Austin is by far the most formidable domestic competitor to Silicon Valley.
Even so, Austin today still has only three major semiconductor fabricators (A.M.D., Freescale and Samsung) and at most only one top-tier computer company (I.B.M.). Austin's two largest computer game developers (Origin Systems and Iguana Entertainment, my former employer) were sold to out-of-state companies and both ultimately closed in 2004. There still remain jobs for software developers, but most at only a vocational level.
Austin is a fun town, but it continues to lack significant local competition, thus lacking the vitality found in Silicon Valley.
However common, comparisons between only the cities of Austin and San José are ultimately deceptive. Despite its size, San José is a relatively minor player in Silicon Valley, whereas Austin contains nearly all of the industry within its immediate area. Fair comparisons should include all significant cities within each region.
Silicon Valley effectively radiates from Stanford University (adjacent to Palo Alto) along the peninsula northwest to San Francisco and southeast to San Jose, with its extremities extending as far as Berkeley and Santa Cruz. I include most of northern Santa Clara County (which is very large), and the counties of Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo. I consider as "fringe" areas the counties of Contra Costa, Santa Cruz and Solano.
Similarly, I define central Texas as the region radiating from the University of Texas at Austin and extending as far south as San Antonio. I include Travis County (which includes all of Austin) plus Hays and Williamson counties. I consider as "fringe" areas the counties of Bastrop, Caldwell, and those around San Antonio, which is roughly twice as far from Austin as San Francisco is from San Jose.
To help define Silicon Valley and central Texas, I use the metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) for the regions – as specified by the United States Office of Management and Budget Statistical Policy Office in its Metropolitan Areas of the United States and Puerto Rico (Attachments to OMB Bulletin No. 99-04) – summarized in the table below. Daggers (†) mark areas on the periphery of each region of interest, and double daggers (‡) mark those that are outside.
† along fringe of area
In promoting Austin, sources including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (of which I am currently a member) often publish a number of reports. Some I find very misleading, such as comparisons between the number of patents issued to inventors in San José and Austin.
Numbers of Patents Issued
Austin often ranks second (2001, 2003) or third (2005, 2006) behind San José. In 2006, San José inventors received more than twice as many patents as those in Austin. But when comparing their regions, the cities of Silicon Valley had nine times as many as those in central Texas. (California inventors had five times as many patents issued as those in Texas.) Considering the difference in their populations, the number of patents issued per capita is more than three times higher in Silicon Valley than it is in central Texas.
In Sunnyvale, Silicon Valley also has a branch patent library, the only one outside the nation's capital.
Austin is a college town. It houses the headquarters of all of the state's college systems, the University of Texas at Austin – the system's main campus, with nearly more students than the combination of Stanford University and the University of California's Berkeley and Santa Cruz campuses – plus several smaller universities. In sharp contrast, San José has only a state university that has become a filtering organization (regularly loosing its better instructors to nearby De Anza College, which offers better reputation and pay) and ultimately contributes nothing to Silicon Valley.
Anticipating that I might one day start a family, one reason why I moved to Austin was to escape California's poor K-12 schools, which had been described to me as 49th best out of 50 states. I had no reason to doubt that claim, especially considering my own experiences with those schools and that a former colleague, moving from the east coast, had been given additional compensation so his children could attend schools comparable to those they left. However, the actions of the Texas Education Agency in 1984 and again in 2007 clearly undermine science education and violate federal law.
As summarized in the table below, the workforce of Austin's 40 largest employers in 2002 (the most-recent data available to me at the time of this writing) included 57% in the public sector and 43% in the private sector. One quarter of those employees worked for electronic technology companies, 10% of them for Dell.
In the table below (and as above), daggers (†) mark areas on the periphery of each region of interest, and double daggers (‡) mark those that are outside.
* formerly of Silicon Valley
Central Texas differs from Silicon Valley in that it has worse civic management, primarily in the areas of public safety and transportation. In addition, with Texas firmly planted within the "Bible Belt" (and as described above), its policies toward K-12 science education currently violate federal law.
Though it employs nearly 10% of its own available workforce, the City of Austin employs significantly fewer peace officers per capita than prescribed national standards. (California is not inherently any safer, but is generally better-policed than Austin.) Because Austin also compensates them less surrounding communities, its better officers seek employment outside Austin. These factors result in very low standard of public safety, effectively shifting burden to local schools, other employers and residents themselves.
In July 2007, Austin appointed police chief Art Acevedo, whom it recruited from southern California. I am very encouraged by his affable personality and his efforts so far, but he clearly has much work ahead.
Concealed Handgun Licenses
Following the deaths of 24 people in the October 16, 1991 multiple shooting at a Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, one of the survivors had Texas adopt a very sensible systems of training and licensing its citizens to carry concealed handguns. The program has been very successful and today roughly 10% of the state's population has these concealed handgun licenses, which are also honored by a growing number – already more than half – of other states. Though pending legislation in several states would change this, licensees may not yet carry concealed handguns on most school campuses, so the program cannot yet deter or mitigate armed rampages such as those of Seung-Hui Cho killing 32 people on April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killing 15 on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School, or Charles Whitman killing 13 people on August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin.
California still greatly limits even its law-abiding citizens from arming themselves; unfortunately, this sometimes turns them into violent crime victims, which are often technology workers. For example, on February 16, 1988 – roughly six months after leaving a job across the street in my own home town of Sunnyvale, California – former employee of Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory (E.S.L.) Richard Farley shot and killed seven people and wounded four others, including a female colleague with whom he had become obsessed. On May 26, 1992, Charles "Chuck" Geschke – co-founder and president of Adobe Systems – was kidnapped at gunpoint in the company's parking lot in Mountain View and then held for ransom for four days.
Motor Vehicle Safety
Motor vehicle collisions cause significant devastation and are the nation's leading killer for many age groups, and these problems seem to be magnified in Austin. Apparently intended to deter crime (see above), businesses indiscriminately flood their properties with light, resulting significant light pollution (unlike Silicon Valley, which limits this to enable its Lick Observatory to continue operation); this poses hazards to drivers on nearby highways and diminishes the appearance of stars at night. Motorists often make erratic maneuvers at the last possible moment, apparently due in part to inadequate roadway signage, which are often only visible then. Automobile theft is not treated as seriously as comparable debilitating crimes such as horse theft, for which convicts may apparently still face execution. Despite the devastation they will likely cause, about half of Austin's drivers are estimated to be unlicensed and/or uninsured, and these are not treated as serious crimes. (Illegal immigration likely contributes to the problem, and political stigma surrounding the issue likely contributes to the lack of punishment.) Drunk driving is apparently treated as a local joke; local peace officers estimate that as many as half of Austin's drivers at any given time are intoxicated beyond legal limits.
Other Transportation Issues
Austin has the worst traffic problems of any U.S. city its size. It also does some very dumb things that just add to the problem.
Unlike California voters, who in 2001 successfully defeated a plan to create the Mid-State Tollway on its State Route 84, central Texas has become burdened with toll roads. Limited resources combined with the push for rapid construction of toll roads has stopped construction of other needed roadways, some already in progress.
Those who impose tolls on new and existing roads justify them based on the state's lack of revenue. However, this could be corrected easily by redefining the state's motor vehicle fuel tax as a percentage of total sale (rather than a fixed price per gallon) so that it would automatically track price inflation.
Light Rail Transit
Though Austin voters denied its light rail transit plan in November 2000, Austin's Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is building a light rail transit system anyway.
In conclusion, Austin – and Texas as a whole – demonstrates much of the same provincial attitude and general mismanagement that drove me to leave San José. The smaller size of its region and Austin's dominance within it leaves fewer municipalities to choose from than Silicon Valley. Austin offers greater educational opportunities for working students at the four-year level, but fewer at the two-year level. At least outside of San José, Silicon Valley continues to offer better stability via more employment opportunities and better overall intellectual and economic vitality.
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