As the dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, Saxenian's got an eye for how information flows over computer networks, within organizations and between people.
Saxenian, a self-described economic geographer, charts the circulation of ideas in the global technology community in her book "The New Argonauts," which was published by Harvard University Press this spring. Specifically, she hypothesizes that immigrants from Taiwan, China, India and Israel who were trained in the United States as engineers moved to Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s and then back to their respective homes to cross-pollinate cultures and industries.
Saxenian, 51, joined the School of Information Management at UC Berkeley as a professor in 1995, shortly after the specialty school was created as one of the first in the country to combine library and computer sciences. In 2004, Saxenian, who holds degrees in economics from Williams College and political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was asked to become dean.
During her two years as dean, the program has evolved to take a multidisciplinary approach to education. CNET News.com spoke to Saxenian about her theories and her idea of what it means to be a technology professional in today's world.
Q: Who are the New Argonauts?
Saxenian: These are people coming to the United States mainly in the past couple of decades for engineering graduate degrees. They are the best and brightest from places like India and China, and they've been sucked into the Silicon Valley labor market because it's grown so fast and absorbed so much skill.
They have been marinated in Silicon Valley and learn how the start-up culture works here. Then they started going back to places like Taiwan, India and China to start companies, or maybe set up a development lab or work with policymakers to set up venture firms.
But they also do something different. They go back to their own counterparts, people they might have gone to high school with or grew up with, who are now running high-tech companies or running the government in those places. Then they share ideas. This is the brain circulation.
What are the advantages of this kind of cycle?
Saxenian: The pluses are these are regions that have historically been peripheral. And this allows peripheral regions to enter the global technology economy very quickly. They link into the production networks of suppliers of components and software that eventually turn into leading-edge technology products.
For example, we see Israel providing security and networking software now. There's also been a shift from Taiwan, a Silicon Valley sibling. It started out in the 1980s providing low-cost assembly and manufacturing, and over time became a Silicon Valley partner because companies there innovated in process and manufacturing to such an extent that their expertise is unparalleled in the world now.
It's a massive transfer of talent in a way that creates new opportunities for new regions.
Can you give me an example of an Argonaut?
Saxenian: From Taiwan, Ronald Chwang. He came to Silicon Valley after getting a graduate degree in the United States and began working for Acer in its early days. His career started in Silicon Valley, then he worked in Taiwan, then came back to run Acer. Now he runs Acer Technology Ventures. His career really spans both regions.
Min Wu, who came and worked first at Intel and then various semiconductor companies, started a company in Taiwan. But he kept a development center here. He's a classic example.
There are large numbers of people in China, especially in Shanghai, who started in the U.S. semiconductor industry, but who are now doing chip design or manufacturing business here.
How has this affected the United States?
Saxenian: It's obviously forced the U.S. economy to adapt because essentially if you look at the globalization process, in the late '90s, we had tremendous shortages in technology expertise. That's when these New Argonauts came in to do this work--programming, software development and so on. Then when they set up activities in their own countries, the first motivation here was finding skill. But that's meant that there's a whole layer of jobs that disappeared from the United States. Really, that's forced us to move up market in this industry, meaning that people with basic programming, software skills aren't going to find work. Those jobs are gone. Now you need to bring in specialty design know-how.
I believe Silicon Valley has gone through booms and busts before, and each time it's been forced to adapt. I would say that as in the shift from semiconductors to PCs, then from PCs to software, then from software to the Internet, we're seeing a new generation of Internet-related business, moving beyond the first-generation companies like eBay, Amazon and Yahoo to providing content to mobile devices, new forms of search, and so on.
What makes for a thriving technology community like Silicon Valley? Is it government incentives, cash resources or access to engineers and universities?
Saxenian: It is certainly not government incentives. Silicon Valley has evolved over the past 40 years to be a rich community of skill and social networks that allow people to come together, come up with new ideas, and implement them very quickly.
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