Monday, January 18, 2010

Addressing An Aggravating Issue

If I were boss of the world, my first order would be for all high-tech CEOs to have to drive themselves to a randomly chosen office on one of their own campuses. Then they'd see just how difficult it is for outsiders to find where the heck they’re going.

If you've ever been to Silicon Valley, you know that it's the land of expansive campuses of tilt-up buildings, so-called because they're low buildings, usually two to three stories, the walls of which were lifted up into place, not unlike an Amish barn raising (though with mechanical assistance).

Because the valley was originally farmland, valley real estate tends to be spread out, separated only by parking lots. As the industry has consolidated, you have more and more employees clustered into clusters of buildings — most of which have addresses that are either marginally visible, non-existent, or just plain obtuse.

I visited one high-tech company (which, like the others, shall remain nameless, since I am a contractor to many of them) last month using the address on its Web site. What its Web site failed to include was the directional designation of the street.

Now, there are two problems here. First — I'm embarrassed to admit — I had traveled this particular street thousands of times and had never noticed a) that it had a directional designation and b) that at what thoroughfare it switched from one to the other. When a street is a mile from your house, you don't look at those things. Also, I was fairly confident that I knew the general area where this company's offices were — except I was wrong. They had been there at one time, of course, but had moved; as I'm fond of saying, don’t tell me what’s there now — tell me what was there 20 years ago, and I'll find it.

Second, directional designations present a special challenge in Silicon Valley because of the way the peninsula curves between San Jose and San Francisco. The direction you frequently think is north is actually west. Even though I grew up here, I'm still surprised to see the sun set where it does.

Okay, so last month's lost-in-the-valley was on me. But this month, I headed out to another company, looking for the number I was given by my contact there. When the buildings on the street shifted to residences, and the number of digits dropped by one, I knew I had crossed over into the next town. I pulled over, punched the address into my GPS (which, believe me, is no guarantee of finding anything), and headed back. The GPS cheerily told me that I was approaching my destination on the right, and then said, "You have arrived."

The only problem: the location at which I had arrived was not leased by the company I was looking for. Suspecting that I was at least close, I turned into the next driveway — which had a completely different street address from the one I was looking for — and discovered that while the buildings were numbered, none of them had their actual street address on them. I called my contact (thank goodness for cell phones), and he said he'd come get me.

This is not a random occurrence. I've been to Silicon Valley buildings that do have clearly labeled address numbers, but they were set back far enough from the road that the numbers weren't visible until you'd already arrived. I’ve been to buildings where the address numbers are like bas-relief ornamentation that's impossible to see unless you’re standing underneath it or know to look up at the corner of the sixth floor.

And to be fair, I shouldn't vilify Silicon Valley alone. I once visited a company north of New York City that purposefully, as a security measure, had absolutely no signage identifying itself. A defense contractor? No, it was online service Prodigy, which gives you some idea of the high regard in which its executives held themselves. Incidentally, this was the company that was vilified for pioneering online advertising, and while it died a sad, lonely death, the Web looks today what Prodigy looked like 20 years ago. Irony sucks.

There is another challenge here in the valley. The original cities grew from their original downtowns into farmland until their boundaries met and melded: there are streets that run from one side of the valley to the other, but may have two or three names along the way, a vestige of the old days. Of course, municipal leaders could improve this, but they choose not to. It means actually collaborating with counterparts in other cities and possibly looking weak because if the street is changed from what it was in city A to what it is in city B. This means the businesses on the street in city A have to change their advertising, their stationery, and so on, and that gets the business owners angry at the municipal leaders — who, if they can be voted out of office, avoid that sort of outcome like the plague.

So if we can't control the names of the streets, that means it's doubly important for companies to make it easier to find their damn offices.


  1. all I can say, is you've managed quite well in Boston, and in australia, so it is beyond comical the troubles you have in your native land....a Valley oddity I guess?

  2. Boston cured me of driving in cities ever again. For life. It also made me doubt all public transit lines officially designated with the color green... and made clear to me that I had, simply had to print out detailed directions to every place I was going to in that city -- even if it was around the corner, or walking, or taking public transit. True insanity, even for a MA native. I stop their hat.