The Day the Sky
remember the day the sky turned black. It was an ordinary afternoon in April, 1973. I was walking home from class at Grant Elementary School in Los Altos, CA. Ahead of me, a huge plume of black smoke billowed in the northern sky.
I sprinted home, hopped on my bike, and pedaled off in the general direction of the smoke. At first, I headed north, then east into nearby Sunnyvale, and then north again.
I continued to zigzag through the streets of Sunnyvale until I reached Mary Avenue. I turned left, crossed a set of railroad tracks, and abruptly stopped at a dead end. I could see the smoke still rising behind an abandoned lot filled with waist-high weeds and a few dilapidated nursery sheds.
But I was stuck at the dead end and could go no further. I dejectedly turned around and headed home.
I learned later that the fire was caused by a mid-air collision over Sunnyvale Municipal Golf Course. A Navy P-3C Orion aircraft and a Convair CV-990 jet had been mistakenly directed to land on the same runway at nearby Moffett Field in Mountain View. Tragically, 16 people died.
In hindsight, it was probably best that I never made it to the crash site. But I never forgot about that weed-filled lot on Mary Avenue. I would visit that same spot again some day.
Rising from the Ashes
In some ways, the plane crash site was a phoenix-like marker for Silicon Valley. Within a three-mile radius of the crash, Intel, AMD, National Semiconductor, and several other companies, were in the process of transforming Silicon Valley into a high tech mecca. In a garage in nearby Los Altos, two young tech prodigies were forming a company that would become a household name and forever change Silicon Valley – and the world.
A few years after the plane crash, I had a paper route for the San Jose Mercury News. My two best friends, Dave and Rob, also had routes, and I regularly substituted for them. Our afternoon routes meandered through the quiet, tree-lined streets of south Los Altos.
About midway through Dave’s route was an ordinary-looking beige house on Crist Avenue. Between 1975 and 1977, I rode past the address at 11161 Crist Avenue dozens of times.
I didn’t know it then, but inside that house, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were busy working on Apple's first computer, the Apple 1. Both Wozniak (who designed the Apple 1) and Jobs (who created a business around it) graduated from Homestead High School and co-founded Apple Computer with Ronald Wayne in April, 1976.
I graduated from Homestead a few years later, in 1980, the same year Apple became a publicly traded company. Four years later, I graduated from Fresno State with a degree in Journalism and worked as a sportswriter for several years.
The Valley’s Dark Side
In 1987, I switched careers and began working at the Space and Range Systems division of Ford Aerospace in Sunnyvale. At the time, the aerospace business was booming in Silicon Valley.
I drove a tan 1986 Toyota pickup to work each day and parked it on Crossman Avenue near the main entrance to Ford Aerospace. My truck was hard to miss. I had it raised and outfitted with a hefty set of extra-large off-road tires.
I felt safe and secure driving that truck. But any feelings I had of security – at least in the vicinity of Ford Aerospace – were about to change.
In the middle of the afternoon of February 16, 1988, I was talking with my boss in his office directly adjacent to Crossman Avenue. I remember gazing out the front window and seeing several members of a SWAT team sprint across the front lawn and crouch down behind my truck.
What in the world was going on?
A few moments later, our division’s security director came charging into my boss’s office.
“Hey guys, get out of here – fast! Gunshots are being fired across the street!”
I scrambled down the hallway and ducked into my cubicle. For the next several hours, my co-workers and I sat nervously on the floor and listened to radio reports of the events unfolding around us.
It all felt surreal.
On that ordinary Tuesday afternoon, one of the most horrific workplace slayings in U.S. history took place just across the street from where I huddled in my cubicle.
Richard Farley, who had been fired from aerospace company ESL a year-and-a-half earlier for stalking and harassing a female co-worker, walked into the company’s main lobby with an armful of automatic weapons and more than 1000 rounds of ammunition.
During the ensuing five hours, Farley methodically shot and killed seven people and wounded four others. He finally surrendered to police in exchange for a sandwich and a Diet Pepsi.
In 1993, CBS released a movie portraying the events of that day, and the days leading up to it, called "I Can Make You Love Me," starring Richard Thomas and Brooke Shields. The movie was later released on video and renamed "Stalking Laura."
Today Farley is on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
In the aftermath of that dark afternoon, I pondered the fate of the people who had lost their lives or been injured. I had likely walked past some of them during my regular lunch-time walks along Crossman Avenue or shared the road with them on my morning commute.
Calamity and death had never felt so real, so close, and so personal. My perspective of life radically changed that day.
I was not the same 11-year-kid who desperately wanted to see that airplane crash back in 1973.
A New World Order
The effects of those events were far-reaching. By 1993, aerospace companies throughout Silicon Valley and California were going bankrupt, merged, or sold into parts.
I knew it was time to find a new line of work.
In 1995, I landed a job at EPIC Technology, an Electronic Design Automation (EDA) company in nearby Santa Clara. EPIC was located less than a mile from Ford Aerospace.
But from my point of view, the aerospace industry and the EDA industry were two completely different worlds.
At Ford Aerospace, I had worked on several defense-related, satellite network communication and surveillance systems, including a program that was linked to the ill-fated Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as “Star Wars.”
The EDA industry, on the other hand, is closely associated with the first successful commercial application of the integrated circuit (IC) by Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1959.
The founders of Fairchild (famously dubbed the "Traitorous Eight") had left nearby Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View, CA to form their own company in 1957. The men later founded a number of pioneering companies in Silicon Valley, including Intel and AMD.
The IC proved to be a foundational footstep of innovation in Silicon Valley. Today, EDA vendors provide chip designers with software tools that enable them to design and test increasingly complex and ever-smaller ICs that are used in everything from cellphones to automobiles to dog collars.
In late 1995, EPIC Technology moved into a Spanish-style building at the corner of Mary Avenue and Central Expressway in Sunnyvale. Soon after we moved, construction began nearby on set of buildings intended for another EDA company, Synopsys.
One morning in early 1997, I arrived for work as usual at EPIC. As I entered the building, a co-worker approached me with a mock tone of authority.
“Hey, where’s your Synopsys badge?!” he demanded.
“Synopsys badge?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you hear? We’ve been bought by Synopsys.”
The sale was finalized a few months later and within a year I moved into the main Synopsys campus on Middlefield Road in Mountain View.
But my journey still had some unexpected turns ahead.
Boom, Bust, Rinse, Repeat
In the years leading up to 2000, Silicon Valley was undergoing yet another massive transformation. The dot-com boom had shifted into high gear, and high tech firms throughout the valley were aggressively – and sometimes creatively – competing for a limited supply of experienced workers.
I noticed that one particular company, Interwoven, a Sunnyvale-based Web content management firm, offered a unique hiring bonus – a two-year lease on a BMW Z3 convertible roadster.
After some prodding from a friend, I sent my resume to Interwoven.
I didn't expect to hear back from them.
Yet, less than two months later, I was driving a new car to my new job at Interwoven, which was located less than a half-mile from my boyhood home in Los Altos.
There was one slight hitch to the deal. As an option to the car, Interwoven also offered a cash bonus to new hires. As it turned out, I was the only one who actually chose the car.
I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.
For the next several months, I was constantly interviewed and photographed driving my metallic black BMW Z3 convertible roadster. One morning, a TV crew from Austria showed up at my doorstep.
The car had become a shiny, extravagant symbol of the booming technology business in Silicon Valley.
Actually, the best part of working at Interwoven wasn't the BMW – it was the job. Soon after joining the company, I had the opportunity to work on a book project with Interwoven CEO Martin Brauns. In the process, I got to know Martin, Interwoven founder Peng Ong, Engineering VP Jack Jia, and several other key people who helped Interwoven rise from a humble start-up to become the fastest-growing software company in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom.
Unfortunately, in the spring of 2001, the dot-com bubble burst. The book project was shelved and I returned to my normal technical writing gig at Interwoven.
The ensuing recession hit Silicon Valley hard, especially Interwoven.
In 2002, a recruiter from Synopsys called me. Would I consider returning to Synopsys?
I was soon working at Synopsys again and eventually moved into one of the gleaming, glass-wrapped buildings at Synopsys’ Sunnyvale campus on North Mary Avenue.
I was quite familiar with that particular area. It had once been a vast field of weeds and old nursery sheds – the same spot I had encountered 31 years earlier while chasing the smoke from the plane crash on the golf course.
Mary Avenue is named after Mary Ann Murphy Carroll (see Photo A below). Mary was one of three daughters of Martin Murphy Jr, the founder of Sunnyvale. The Murphy family was part of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party – the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada into California in 1844.
A video (courtesy of CBS Channel 5 News) is provided below that shows the aftermath after the mid-air collision that occurred on April 16, 1973 over Sunnyvale Municipal Golf Course.
The DVD cover for "Stalking Laura" is shown below.
The places, companies, and events mentioned in this article are all located within a four-mile radius of Synopsys' Building 2 on Mary Avenue (see the graphic below).
Namesake of Mary Ave
Plane Crash Aftermath
DVD cover for "Stalking Laura"
Places and Locations
1950 View of Sunnyvale
2014 View of Sunnyvale