Breaking Bad, Microsoft, & Ecosystems
Breaking Bad is a television show that takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have enjoyed watching the show because of the quality of writing, acting and directing… but there is something else. I have enjoyed watching Breaking Bad because I grew up ~200 miles away from where it is filmed, and thus the backdrop that the story takes place upon is eerily familiar.
The first thing to note is that the main character, Walter White, is a Caltech-educated scientist that previously had worked at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. These are very real and historically important scientific centers. For instance, a large percentage of US rocketry and atomic bomb research and development occurred in this area. Wernher Von Braun himself was based in this vicinity for an extended period during the post-war years.
This ecosystem attracts a great deal of scientific talent to the area. (Coincidentally, my high school physics teacher was formerly a scientist at Los Alamos who worked on classified research previous to career change.)
Most people don’t realize that Microsoft was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Why Albuquerque? Because that is where MITS was located. Why was MITS located in Albuquerque? The MITS founders were model rocket enthusiasts/scientists that formerly worked at a “Laser Division of the Weapons Laboratory” at the Air Force base in Albuquerque. The MITS personal computer kit which so excited Gates and Allen was an outgrowth of their mail-order model rocket business. Think about it: a 19 year old Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and moved to Albuquerque for these guys. (This is what the staff of Albuquerque-era Microsoft looked like).
The original Microsoft office was in a low-slung building in Albuquerque that would fit right in with the locations that Breaking Bad filmed scenes in. Take a look at the Google Street View. Here is a Google Map showing the filming locations that were used in Breaking Bad. As you can see, several filming locations are within walking distance of the birthplace of Microsoft.
Vibrant tech ecosystems such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, and NYC are something that various civic leaders have attempted to replicate in different locations. These efforts have met with mixed success. The oft-quoted properties of a successful startup ecosystem are ample technical talent, local research universities/labs, and access to capital.
But what other factors matter? Exactly how much are tech ecosystems inordinately affected by the minor decisions of tech forefathers? If Microsoft had stayed in Albuquerque, would parallel universe versions of the Breaking Bad characters work in the tech business? Could Walter White have started an incubator/seed fund? Would Saul Goodman be negotiating Series A term sheets for his clients? Would Jesse Pinkman be a successful “bizdev hustler”?
I know this is an absurd point to make, but is it really any more absurd than a 1970s mail-order model rocket company, located in an Albuquerque strip mall, directly leading to the creation of Microsoft, and thus the 2nd richest man in the world? The truth is stranger than fiction.