The long stretch between San Jose and Palo Alto has never had much trouble attracting the top talent and the best ideas to create some of the world's most important tech companies -- until now.
But the pull of San Francisco -- attracting young superstars, hot startups, major established companies and an increasing share of venture money -- is threatening to create a new center of gravity for technology.
It won't happen right away. After all, most of the top tech firms, including 10-year-old Facebook, are still outside San Francisco. But much of the excitement in the tech world has shifted north, creating the possibility that the seeds of the next innovation cycle are taking root in that city.
The urban shift is also changing Silicon Valley.
Companies on the Peninsula and in the South Bay are ferrying employees up and down Highway 101 in spiffy shuttles, and opening up satellite offices in San Francisco. They are sprucing up campuses and work spaces, offering new perks and reshaping how work is done, all to appeal to a new kind of tech worker and stay on innovation's cutting edge.
Having a San Francisco "employee strategy" is Silicon Valley's biggest challenge, said Jeff Clavier, founder and managing partner of SoftTech VC, a venture firm.
"Everything you can," said Clavier, "you push as a perk for your employees to make it more interesting for them to come down to the office." In this and future columns, I'll be exploring the ways in which San Francisco's tech boom is influencing the broader Silicon Valley -- which we define as Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
Giants such as Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Google and Facebook are in large part the result of innovative cultures that brought together talented workers and great ideas to create dynamic and innovative companies. And those cultures were shaped by the geography of what I'll call the traditional Silicon Valley -- that stretch between San Jose and Palo Alto -- marked by an abundance of office space, easy access to parking and leafy, remote suburbs.
HP was spread over bucolic acres, which allowed the company to give workers offices with doors. That geography informed the famed HP Way, an egalitarian office culture that respected the worker.
Tucked along Highway 280 in Cupertino, Apple combined the isolation of a think tank with the feel of a college campus to create an iconoclastic corporate headquarters that celebrated the Silicon Valley rebel.
Google spread out along the west side of Highway 101 in buildings once used by Silicon Graphics to create its own mini village, accessible by bike and foot. Its culture -- open, accessible and futuristic -- is influenced by the wide-open spaces of the bay and Moffett Field, a symbol of experimentation and exploration.
Then something changed. Young tech workers, with their careers less tied to long-term employment at any one company, now want to live and often work in San Francisco.
"That was my No. 1 thing," said Jialin Luh, a 32-year-old product marketing manager, about her job search criteria. "I love the city. I like the energy and consider myself an edgy person. ... If I moved out of the city, I might become really boring."
Now tech firms are sprouting in San Francisco, and the gritty, frantic and condensed urban environment is shaping the development of the new wave of tech companies like Twitter, Airbnb and Salesforce.com.
Square, for instance, wanted to promote a collaborative and open work culture, so it ditched cubicles to allow employees on a team, engineers and designers alike, to sit side by side at long wood tables, echoing the feel of a crowded city cafe. In fact, the layout of the company's headquarters is like a city grid, with a main boulevard and conference rooms named after San Francisco streets.
And for some, San Francisco represents the best of both worlds. Noting that there are now almost 2,000 new firms in San Francisco, Marc Benioff, the co-founder of Salesforce.com, said the company gets the "great energy of the city but we have the virtual extension of the Valley."
San Francisco-based companies might have a high-end coffee bar with a full-time barista or video game terminals and roof gardens, but they don't tout these perks the way Valley firms do. They highlight access to the city as their biggest draw.
And they look to the city for something nebulous but valuable as well: A daily jolt they say does not exist in a cloistered world like Silicon Valley. When they step out of an office on Market Street, for instance, workers bump into people from other tech companies and those outside the industry, an especially useful experience for companies making apps and technology for consumers.
"We want people to go out and explore the city and go see a show after work," said Rachel Walker, a spokeswoman for Yelp. The city is one of Yelp's oldest markets and ranks as one of the top places where Yelp is used. "It does help to be in a place where so many people are using the product."
In Silicon Valley, some employers are trying to capture that energy.
"What is happening in San Francisco is driving the need to create a sense of place," said Kevin Schaeffer, a principal at Gensler, an architecture and design firm behind the Facebook campus in Menlo Park and other South Bay campus remodels. "What people are craving is to see more people that they interact with more."
Of course, it takes some work for an office park in Menlo Park's baylands to feel like a city. But that didn't stop Facebook from trying, and to a large extent, succeeding.
In renovating its campus, the former Sun Microsystems' headquarters, Facebook's architects looked to San Francisco's Mission District and downtown Palo Alto. They envisioned an environment like a city street, where accidental meetings take place and residents are constantly altering the environment, like the murals in the Mission.
The final result works. When I walk around Facebook, it feels urban in a small-town way. There is a bike repair shop, a bank with tellers, a pop-up store with a new merchant every day, and a juice store on what appears to be a typical retail street. But there's also a grittier element too, with what's essentially Facebook graffiti scrawled on walls.
Other Silicon Valley firms have worked to make their campuses destinations, not just because they are worried about attracting and retaining workers but because they hope that employees will do their work differently and better.
Intuit's campus at Mountain View's North Bayshore was known by some as "the Ikea office," a maze of unconnected buildings separated by a sea of parking lots. The office space was a drawback, especially for new recruits.
"That became the 'burning platform' to make changes," said Jan Penagos, the head of workplace design at Intuit, the company behind TurboTax and Quicken.
The result is that Intuit is transforming all its offices. Its headquarters, another Gensler project, has amenities in one building called the Campus Center, a 22-acre site that includes cafeterias with a pizza oven, a fitness center and something called "TechKnow," where tech support hangs out and which is modeled after the Apple Genius bar.
But it also includes couches, coffee shops and "flexible" spaces with movable whiteboards, walls and furniture. The multiple kinds of spaces have helped nudge employees to give up having an assigned desk. Now more are assigned only to a building, said Penagos, who carries any documents she needs in a rolling suitcase. It's part of the effort to make Intuit, founded in 1983, feel like a nimble startup. "We want our employees to think of the entire campus as their work space, not just their assigned seat," she said.
The effect is that there is a buzz at Intuit, something that Chris Chapo, Intuit's vice president of data science and analytics, appreciates.
"I am not just stuck in my little place," said Chapo, who has worked at Apple and J.C. Penney. "Now I hear all the time people collaborating and working together, and that helps my team but also the people walking by."
Duncan Wannamaker, 25, who joined Intuit as his first job out of college, said he feared corporate life would be like the 1999 movie "Office Space," which satirized a software firm. But he describes the new Intuit work spaces as "non-stuffy." "Many of my meetings take place in bean bags or lounge chairs," he said.
Some of these changes may seem artificial -- like recreating Manhattan in a Las Vegas casino -- but the goal is that by including some urban startup features at the office, companies are betting that employees will feel more creative and do better work.
Patty McCord, the former director of talent acquisition at Netflix and now a consultant, added that valley workplaces are becoming more urban as a reflection of the consumer bent of this tech boom, the idea that "now tech is for everyone."
"The nature of work has changed profoundly along with the nature of products we are making now," she said.
Young companies without the cachet of a Facebook have to work hard to attract young workers with a lot of choices. Some, like Evernote, the note-taking application firm, take their workplace as seriously as their products.
The private company is housed in a nondescript former bank in Redwood City. Overlooking Highway 101 at the end of a cul-de-sac, the firm is hidden by a Kmart.
But step inside, and the company feels like another world.
Next to the receptionist's desk is an espresso bar, where executives including the chief executive do shifts making cappuccinos and holding office hours. The company sees the building as its product, said Jeff Zwerner, Evernote's vice president of brand.
To create more "density," as Zwerner calls it, the company took down walls, put workers at long desks with no dividers, and like Intuit and Square, set up mini-breakout spaces for quick meetings. That design appeals to younger workers, who want opportunities to collaborate, he said. There is also a fake pop-up storefront and plants growing up the walls.
"We're curating how an employee is taken care of to maximize their output and happiness and quality of life," Zwerner said. "It really changes what it means to be working."
How well this effort by South Bay companies will work remains to be seen. But there are early signs of progress.
Luh, the die-hard San Franciscan, agreed to interview at Evernote despite her determination not to commute.
It wasn't San Francisco's mid-Market district or South Park. But she could see herself working in the office with its big windows and treadmill desks.
"If it hadn't been as beautifully designed and well-lit I am not sure I would have gone further in the process."
She took the job.