Silicon Valley’s First Founder Was Its Worst

William Shockley (center) with John Bardeen (left) and Walter Brattain (right), the inventors of the transistor.

Wikimedia Commons

Every time I read about the misdeedsof Silicon Valley’s latest bad-boy leader—whether it’s Uber’s unscrupulous Travis Kalanick, pharma provocateur Martin Shkreli, or disgraced VC Justin Caldbeck—I wonder: Is this all William Shockley’s fault?

Scott Rosenberg is an editor at Backchannel.

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Misbehavior doesn’t flourish in a vacuum; it’s usually a product of family dynamics. And more than any other individual, Shockley was the founding father of Silicon Valley. Today he is a mostly dishonored patriarch, for good reason: He spent the second half of his career, from the 1960s on, espousing a racist eugenics agenda, taking occasional breaks to help promote a high-IQ sperm bank. He ended up a disgraced bigot—ostracized and (as his biographer speculates ) perhaps mentally ill.

Genetics wasn’t even his field—he was a physicist. After leading the Nobel-winning team at Bell Labs that invented the transistor, Shockley gathered a platoon of young engineering hotshots and decamped for Palo Alto, CA, where he’d spent part of his youth and his mother still resided. There, in 1956, he launched his own company, Shockley Semiconductor—and, as the saying goes, “put the silicon in Silicon Valley.” Although the region already harbored tech innovators like Hewlett-Packard and research juggernauts like Stanford University, Shockley is why the Valley today grows chips instead of apricots.

But Shockley Semiconductor failed miserably, largely because its founder was the tech industry’s original bad boss. Shockley was an archetypal mis-manager, driving his employees so crazy that they quit en masse after just one year and started their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. That company became the root of the tech industry’s corporate family tree and begat Intel, Kleiner Perkins, and other iconic firms.

Photos of Shockley present us with the stereotype of a bespectacled 1950s research scientist. But in his arrogance, his enthusiasms, and his blind spots, he prefigured some of the least appealing traits of today’s tech bros. He had a great eye for technical talent—but then he’d put recruits through a grueling battery of psychological tests in the name of what today might be called “data-driven management.” He micromanaged research plans and made employees take polygraph tests. (You’ll find all this and more in Broken Genius , Joel Shurkin’s Shockley biography.)

Not all of his management ideas were ridiculous. His scientists grumbled when he insisted they work a “PhD production line” themselves—but, as historian Leslie Berlin points out in her biography of Fairchild Semiconductor cofounder Robert Noyce , keeping experts close to the factory floor is now standard operating procedure. Nonetheless, what mattered most to the fate of Shockley Semiconductor was that its founder’s obtuse, arbitrary decisions alienated his team and blocked it from shipping actual products.

The deeper you look into Shockley’s character, the more it seems to foreshadow the idiosyncrasies and failings of his Silicon Valley descendants. He fancied himself a practical joker, and never tired of pulling deceptive, sometimes mean tricks on colleagues, students, and visitors. In today’s parlance, he was a troll. A lifelong bodybuilder and rock-climber, he kept meticulous track of his progress in notebooks that treated his personal physical culture like a lab experiment—in other words, he was an early devotee of the “quantified self.”

He carried the same metrical mindset to his work. Applying lessons he learned during the Second World War, where he worked as a naval operations expert and figured out ingenious ways to defeat Hitler’s submarine onslaught, Shockley aimed to bring an evidence-based scientific approach to every aspect of his new company’s operations. Anticipating the “radical transparency” fad of today’s tech-management trendsetters, he publicly posted every employee’s salary—with predictably unhappy results.

Most of all, Shockley was what we might today call a media hacker. He understood how to pull the levers of the publicity machine. When he sat for a publicity photo with the two colleagues who had done the actual work of inventing the transistor, he made sure to seat himself in the center—with his hands on the test equipment that, his collaborators later fumed, he’d never before touched. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, he turned the same media-manipulation savvy in a darker direction: He hung his Nobel prestige over the argument that IQ differences are baked into the genetics of race, giving prejudice an intellectual cover that white supremacists today are still citing. The eugenics campaign kept his name in the headlines—and also assured that the industry he’d founded would never honor his name.

You can’t blame Shockley for all the misbehaviorof our own era’s Bosses from Hell; most of today’s young CEOs have probably never heard of him. But his cautionary tale is worth reviewing at a time when the tech industry places so many of its bets (and billions) in the hands of technical visionaries. When we’re lucky, we discover that these leaders also possess the skill and sensitivity to build great, ethical companies. Just as often, however, we find that they’re more in the Shockley vein: Paranoid, narcissistic, and capricious to an extent that overwhelmingly outweighs the technical value they bring to the game.

The traditional industry antidote for such bad-apple leadership has been the one modeled by the so-called “traitorous eight” who forsook Shockley: Start your own company! That formative act remains Silicon Valley’s answer to all the world’s problems, and it’s powerful. (It’s also one reason that the spread of non-compete clauses in employment contracts is rightly painted as kryptonite to tech-fueled economic growth .)

But the startup system that this set of white-guy founders kicked off has been grinding out companies for decades now, and it’s done a lousy job of widening opportunities for people who don’t fit their mold. For the tech industry to begin to deliver on the promise of inclusion, it’s going to have to end its infatuation with the antisocial nerd-wizard stereotype. It needs to exorcise Shockley’s ghost. Every time an insensitive or unprincipled founder or leader expects a free pass on account of technical brilliance, we should stop and remember the lessons of Shockley Semiconductor: Being Nobel brilliant doesn’t get you to square one when it comes to managing people. Genius minus ethics can’t make a company thrive.

Backchannel is a digital magazine that delivers readers the most revealing technology stories in a single weekly dispatch: no fluff. Learn morehere.

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