How Silicon Valley came to be

Union City Mayor Mark Green congratulates Teresa M.D. Cox, an Ohlone College trustee and a Fremont economic development commissioner, after she interviews Roy L. Clay Sr. Both Cox and Clay received proclamations from the City of Fremont,
I’ve known Roy Clay for more than 20 years, but every time I hear him, he stuns me with more amazing information about his impact on global technology.
Yesterday, he joined us for a conversation, moderated by another pacesetter, engineer Teresa Cox, speciifically directed to high school and college students, as we screened the documentary Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge.
It is most interesting because a couple of hours later, the San Jose Mercury News posted an article which reported that African-Americans had declined to 1.5 percent of computer workers in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, by 2008.
A couple of UC-Berkeley researchers put the onus on African-Americans, inferring that blacks have not had the talent to compete in high technology. Blog postings for the article continued the same theme.
Clay put things in perspective. “I first began programming in January 1956, which means that Bill Gates was three months old in diapers.”
By 1958, Clay was a programmer for the supercomputers at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).
“There was no discipline of computer science back then,” he recalled.
Next, Clay was manager of Fortran and Cobol programming for Control Data Corp.
Cox, the first black woman to win a bachelors in nuclear engineering, remembered working with Fortran in college. She was very impressed that Clay had helped to design the computer languages at the core of much of today’s programming.
In 1965, David Packard hired Clay to be first manager of computer research and development for Hewlett-Packard.
“I hired the first graduates in computer science from Stanford,” recalled Clay.
While at HP, Clay designed the first fault-tolerant computer for Holiday Inn’s reservation system, but Bill Hewlett cancelled the order because he did not want to enter that line of business.
A few years later, Clay’s product became the core of Silicon Valley’s first big venture deal, Tandem Computers. “That was really the beginning of Silicon Valley, when entrepreneurs could find a way to get capital,” said Clay. “Before that, if you had an invention, you had to go to a big company to get them to pursue it.”
Eventually, Tandem was acquired by Compaq, which was then acquired by Hewlett-Packard. “It cost them $20 billion to buy back something they had in the beginning,” Clay calculated.
After consulting with Kleiner Perkins on such deals as Compaq and Intel, Clay launched his own firm Rod-L Electronics in 1977.
“Every electronics product sold in the developed world is tested by one of the machines I make,” noted Clay. The dielectric withstand tester is a product that sends an 120 volt surge through an electronic product to determine whether it will short-circuit and create a fire hazard.
But contrary to those who feel that only “the best and brightest” can work in high technology, Clay hired the first 50 graduates from the OIC-West program in East Palo Alto, including candidates without high school diplomas. His company recently passed its 30 year milestone and is still the rare manufacturing firm in the Valley.

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