Italy, a fundamental part of Silicon Valley

L'Italia, parte fondamentale della Silicon Valley

Jan 13, 2020 448 ITA ENG

The stories of the successful Italians in Silicon Valley have a meaning that goes far beyond the simple yet wonderful description of our compatriots who see their talent recognized in the most innovative and competitive environment in the world. These stories convey that innovation and competition are perfectly combined with Italianism, and for this reason they should be pursued and supported much more than what is done in Italy.

That's why we are grateful to Silvia Veronese for writing the beautiful book "La valle del silicio" and for being the protagonist of this interview on We the Italians, which we are particularly pleased about.

Silvia, first of all, tell us something about you. Where were you born, what brought you to Silicon Valley, and what do you do now?

My family is from Verona, and that's where I was born not too many years ago, but I've been around a lot. Ten years in Brescia, then near Piacenza and Aosta Valley, study in Pavia, first job in Milan. Then came, almost by chance, a job offer from IBM Milan and one from IBM New York. In New York the position was the so-called 'post-doc', which would have allowed me to work in the field of scientific research.  

So I said to myself, "Why not?" and I ended up working in the field of quantum chemistry (which is absolutely not my specialization, since I am a mathematician) and more precisely in the team that built the first parallel computer, capable at that time of executing operations of several orders of magnitude faster than the computers of that time. It was the dawn of artificial intelligence. That was the same computer that beat Garik Kasparov, chess world champion and considered by many the greatest player of all time.

Between NY and Silicon Valley there was a stop in the middle of about 10 years at the University of Utah, where I taught and did research in the Mathematics Department. These were very interesting years because these were the dawn of Big Data (which at the time was not that), where the development of new computer architectures made it possible to create increasingly precise mathematical models in all fields, from medicine to biology to economics.

I didn't move to Silicon Valley because of its fame and its name. That was another one of those serendipitous "why not?" moments, in 2000. If you move from Utah to California you can do it by driving, and even there it was an invitation, from someone who later became a dear colleague and friend. We created our first startup; it was the time of the Internet. We would measure the performance of the Internet, the speed at which the various sites were reachable by users. An office in Menlo Park as big as a closet, IKEA furniture that we assembled ourselves, and access to Yahoo's data center, which then became our first customer. We were a physics and mathematics group at Stanford, working on everything, there were no defined roles, writing software, working with clients, and at the same time courting VCs, the Venture Capitalists, to get the next round of funds. Since that time the things I ventured in other jobs: another startup (in the field of high frequency trading), consulting, and board member of various startups. Today I'm Senior Vice President for Thales, a large multinational company that develops artificial intelligence and machine learning systems in aerospace, telecommunications (Thales produces SIM cards in mobile phones), security and defense.

How did you come up with the idea to write the book?

It was a couple of years ago. I'd say it was almost a challenge to myself. I was never cut out for writing, and honestly, I've had a bitter memory of it since school. In those days there was no literary vein, it was hard to write and fill the two fateful exam sheets with thoughts that were not trivial. What we didn't understand at the time (or at least I didn't understand) is that the act of writing is not only for us, but by writing we become messengers. Writing is not an end in itself; it is a way to send a message of change and reflection to those who read it. Over the years, and being far from Italy, you want to tell stories, to capture what is escaping in this society. To capture the "humans of the Silicon Valley", or rather the Italians of Silicon Valley.

The occasion for the book then came when the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation announced an initiative for special projects through the Comites. I wrote the proposal in less than half an hour, one evening after work. Absolutely in a hurry, with lots of ideas and maybe even lots of dreams. Sent to the Consulate in San Francisco, the proposal was accepted almost immediately. And then, with that unawareness of how I get into something bigger than myself, I really had to do the book.

The book tells the stories of some of the great Italians in Silicon Valley: entrepreneurs, academics, visionary innovators... please, tell us some of these stories.

There is the story of Janet Napolitano, a woman who is not easy to forget, the first woman to hold the position of Secretary of National Security of the United States. She tells, in the words of her grandfather who landed at Ellis Island, how she regrets not speaking Italian well: because, as she told me, "in my days we had to integrate as soon as possible so as not to be marginalized".

And then there is the story of Federico Faggin, who is the best living representation of those who believe in themselves and their intuitions. Federico, pioneer and creator of the first microprocessors, tells with incredible simplicity how he is studying knowledge. Bill Gates once said about him: "Before Faggin, Silicon Valley was simply the Valley."

I discovered from Luca Maestri, Apple's CFO, who gets up at 4:30 in the morning, that working at Apple is like belonging to an army and, at the same time, to a monastery. Because iron discipline is necessary in everything you do. But Luca doesn't lose his Italianness. Among the billions he manages for Apple, he also finds time to join the Juventus club in Silicon Valley with his friends.

I was so fascinated by the story of Michele Battelli who was able to marry his work at Google with the mountains. He climbed Everest in the infamous year of the earthquake that killed more than 9000 people in Nepal. Although we didn't know each other at the time, we almost met in Kathmandu; my daughter and I had arrived there to work with the communities in the Everest valley that had been most affected. He was returning from his expedition where he had lost his partner in an avalanche.

And among scientists and innovators, there are also artists. There is the story of Carlo Di Lanno, the Billy Elliot of America, who started out from a small town near Naples, with enormous sacrifices by his family, and is now the Principal Dancer of San Francisco Ballet.

What is the typically Italian common element that has allowed these compatriots of ours to succeed in such a competitive environment as Silicon Valley?

The Italian brings with him the Renaissance genetics of being able to act under the most diverse circumstances. To be successful you need to transform and adapt. Silicon Valley is a relatively small place. It's just a little bit bigger than Rome. Now think of a place where 60-70% of people work in the same field, either high-tech or bio-tech. Relationships are very close, there are no "6 degrees of separation" here, there are 2, 3 at most. Italian people excel in social relations and we excel in science, thanks to our schools and our tradition in science. In the end, it is a combination of many qualities that helps us.

One of the concepts your book insists on is failure: "Failure is a symbol of progress, not a stigma." We know that in Italy, unfortunately, it is the opposite, and it is a big mistake. How can we reverse the approach here too? 

Unfortunately, the stigma of failure is something that permeates Italy. From an early age we are obsessed with the threat of "not making a good impression". In my opinion, in Italy we can't let go of the image and really be ourselves. It almost seems that each of us builds a Facebook-like image, always cheerful, always happy and always on holiday. What Italians in Italy don't understand is that you learn more by observing others, not trying to be ahead of everyone. We need to change the way people, young people in particular, are rewarded. And above all, create more dynamism in the system. Let's give up the permanent position. But let's be clear: failure is not a pleasant thing. It's not the goal. It's not what we have to aspire to. Failure is not part of the educational process, as it is to make mistakes. When a child learns to walk, takes one step at a time, falls and cries, that's not failure. If the child does not get up and does not want to learn to walk, that is failure. Making mistakes during a growth process is part of how we learn. And what we call here "trial and error."

What would you transplant from Italy to America?

Food. The art, the beauty of our cities. The respect for history and traditions. Our school.

And what if you had to take something American and put it into the macrocosm formed by the Italian environment, economy, society, business and culture?

The pioneer spirit, positive attitude, social mobility, respect for diversity.

What is the future of Silicon Valley, in general and in particular with reference to the Italians who live and work there?

First of all you have to define what Silicon Valley is: is it a place, a name for a certain type of industry or a group of people united by time, geography and a common mission? I hope that this area will continue to thrive on ideas, but above all I hope that Silicon Valley will become an example to be replicated in Europe and in Italy. I hope that a similar model will be copied and adapted. We must try to create points of interest, think tanks that allow those who want to brainstorm to try and try again.

In the book you write that the Italians of Silicon Valley "did not close a door behind them, they did not run away from anything, but opened a door in the future, they followed an opportunity. Immensely grateful and proud to be Italian, they have never forgotten Italy and count on coming back". What must Italy do to facilitate their return, your return?

I want to dispel a myth, a myth that perhaps was created at the beginning of the century when the Italian left by ship for America and never came back. The new generation of the 21st century is made of people who come and go from Italy. They live here for a few months, but they are connected to their alma mater, to their city. They participate in entrepreneurial activities, organize, help in schools, and serve as inspiration to young students.  Look at the example of Fabrizio Capobianco who directed his company from here, but with engineers in Pavia, or like Andrea Carcano from Nozumi Networks who did something similar. There are also examples like Massimo Sgrelli and Luigi Baietti, Italian venture capitalists that look for investors here, to propose Italian startups to them. In Italy, the contribution of the Italians of Silicon Valley is starting to be felt, because we are all looking for the opportunity and it doesn't have to be abroad. Not everyone is coming back, but what matters is to continue to open the channels of collaboration. 

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