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A closer look at Silicon Valley: What makes tech's most famous cluster tick?

Nestled in the heart of Mountain View, Nimble Storage is a company blessed with more than just good views of the rocky peaks of Santa Cruz. It is also part of the Bay Area just south of San Francisco that represents the heart of Silicon Valley. Home to many of the world’s largest tech corporations, this is the area that birthed Google, Apple and YouTube, where townspeople drive around in Teslas, and where the sun shines so bright they do so wearing sunglasses - even in December.

So when catching up with the VP of worldwide marketing at Nimble Storage, Dan Leary, at Nimble HQ, it was hard not to feel a twinge of bitterness when he looked out the window at the palm trees swaying in the breeze and shivered: “It really is freezing today!”

To a Brit coming from a country where 10 degrees is bikini beach weather, it seems laughable that Silicon Valley struggles with anything remotely weather-related. When Leary says that upon first moving to the Valley it rained twice in 18 months so he could drive around in his Alpha Romeo convertible and never had to put the top up, the lifestyle of the businesses that come here starts to become clear.

“We have a great advantage in that we have the fantastic weather,” smiles Leary. “We’ve got a great environment, we can be at the ocean as soon as we want, and all that helps. But I think it’s just a unique set of history [that sets Silicon Valley apart]. The right people at the right time started here and it all kind of came out of it from there.”

The history of the area is indeed extraordinary. As Leary puts it: “This was the birth place of most of the venture capital industry, which is sort of its life blood. You need lots of capital and people who are willing to take big risks on big ideas and know that many of them are going to fail, but also know that they’re waiting for that big idea that’s going to make it and change the world in a fundamental way. A lot of it came out of the early industry that was here.”

The stories of these early entrepreneurs have become the stuff of legend. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as a famous example, started Google at the local Stanford University, graduating and working together out of a garage in Menlo Park before moving into offices in Palo Alto with just eight employees.

Leary looks even further back at the early engineers of Silicon Valley, who sowed the seeds for what would soon become the epicentre of technological innovation.

“There was a group that came out of old semiconductor companies – which coincidentally is where Silicon Valley got its name from, from the silicon part of the industry. So there was this one company called Fairchild Semiconductor, and this group of people called the ‘Traitorous Eight’ left Fairchild to start their own company and you can follow this amazing web of the companies they created and then the offshoots of those companies and how different things came along as the Internet became big and this area was the first place to really help build it," he reveals.

“I think it’s just because of the way that things started here that that encouraged more people to come, and that encouraged more people to invest and that made the next set of people stay here.”

Leary himself has been in the valley for 20 years, and has immersed himself in a culture that he describes as totally “unique," a place where things go on “that don’t happen in other parts of the country or world." But what is it really that’s so original and special about Silicon Valley?

“It’s partly the great universities, we’ve got Stanford right in our back yard that produces people with all kinds of technological knowledge,” he says. “But it’s also the unique combination of having investors here, people who want to take risks.”

Then there’s the lifestyle itself. “Here it’s considered normal to leave your job after two years and go and explore that next dream, to take the risk at starting something new. I know if you’re on the east coast of the US and you go, ‘Yeah I’ve just quit and I’m going to go do my own thing,’ people pull horrified faces and go ‘What? How are you going to live? Are you going to have any money?’ Here, people go ‘that’s great! Who are you going to be working with?’”

It all comes together to create the type of place that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. Skilled employees move from place to place, picking up new skills and building a web of connections that spread ideas and innovation all the way up to San Francisco. An infrastructure is created that supports startups not only with the cash flow and legal education required to begin a business, but a source of optimism and creativity that flourishing companies thrive off.

It’s a potent mix, and something that international talent from all over the world flocks to become part of. Nimble Storage itself has cherry picked employees from all over the world, with eight countries represented in its first 10 employees alone. As Leary remembers: “We had Poland, the UK, China, India, the US...I was one of the first 10 and I was the only one that was actually native to the US.”

The founder of Nimble himself, Umesh Maheshwari, graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the world’s most prestigious tech institutions, and, as Leary asks proudly: “Where did he want to come? Silicon Valley.”

Now a fully-fledged entrepreneur, Maheshwari has helped create 500 jobs with Nimble, a company that was recently listed by LinkedIn as one of the Valley's most in-demand startups.

“I think that’s the kind of story that plays out over and over here,” nods Leary. “We ‘ve been trying to do more to let our immigration policies help people do that because in my view the more smart, educated, driven entrepreneurs we can have come here, the better.”

So the Valley, baking in the Californian sun, has become a quite literal melting pot of global talent and culture. Is there the chance though that this talent pool could boil over? Or even run dry?

“I think the Valley is going to continue spreading and getting bigger because there’s more going on than there ever has been before," Leary assures me. “I think it’s just going to continue to grow and evolve because Silicon Valley is just brilliant at continuing to find ways to reinvent itself – you only need to look at the success of Tesla, the car company!”

“Really, if something becomes old or stale, someone figures out a way to break through that. We’ve always found a way to do that in the past, and I think we’ll continue to do that in the future.”