Sunday, March 16, 2014

Silicon Valley Generation Gap

If you can tear yourself away from obsessing over Malaysia Air Flight 370, there's a fairly well-written article in this weekend's New York Times Magazine by Yiren Lu: Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem (In the printed copy of the magazine, the article is titled: A Tale of Two Valleys).

The article looks at the various ways you can classify the high-tech industry along different axes:

The rapid consumer-ification of tech, led by Facebook and Google, has created a deep rift between old and new, hardware and software, enterprise companies that sell to other businesses and consumer companies that sell directly to the masses.

Although these are all valid ways to discriminate and compare and contrast, the article focuses on a different breakdown, perhaps hinted at slightly by "old and new": young vs old.

This is something I've definitely noticed myself over the last 5 years or so: the times are definitely changing; the people who are building the next products and companies and organizations are a new generation, who literally grew up on the web.

My earliest memories of using a web browser on the Internet are from the summer of 1993 (it was Lynx, a completely text-mode browser, at the time), so we're roughly at the 20th anniversary of the Web, and that means that this year's college graduates probably had graphical web browsers in their homes by the time they were in kindergarden.

Lu's article poses a pretty blunt question to this fresh new generation:

This summer in San Francisco, I’m living with three roommates, also students doing tech internships in the valley, two at Google and one at the news aggregator Flipboard. For better or worse, these are the kinds of companies that seem to be winning the recruiting race, and if the traditional lament at Ivy League schools has been that the best talent goes to Wall Street, a newer one is taking shape: Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix, want to work for a sexting app?

It's a great question, and it makes me think of Steve Yegge's equally blunt keynote at the 2011 OSCON, in which Yegge challenges his audience to stop making "cat-picture webapps," and consider doing work that matters.

But back to Lu's article, which goes on to wonder whether we're getting what we reward:

as a group, my peers feel more restless, more constantly in search of the next big thing — in part because start-ups select for and reward these impulses, which also spur the successive exoduses from Yahoo to Google, from Google to Facebook, from Facebook to younger, hipper companies.

It does seem like it's more than just "the bubble is back." Lu, who did her undergraduate work at Harvard, has been watching the recent explosion in interest first-hand:

Tech hasn’t been pedestrianized — it’s been democratized. The doors to start-up-dom have been thrown wide open. At Harvard, enrollment in the introductory computer-science course, CS50, has soared. Last semester, 39 percent of the students in the class were women, and 73 percent had never coded before.
(I'm not sure if that's 73 percent of the women, or 73 percent of the students in the class, but either way it's a bit surprising that it's still the case that so many people are just getting into programming when they arrive at college.)

One of the watershed changes that Lu highlights is clearly a recent development: computer technology has become so advanced and powerful and inexpensive and straightforward to deploy that it's no longer necessary that a technology company be all about technology. In fact, modern "technology" companies are increasingly not about technology at all. Lu notes:

Recently, an engineer at a funded-to-the-gills start-up in San Francisco texted me to grumble about his company’s software architecture. Its code base was bug-ridden and disorganized — yet the business was enjoying tremendous revenue and momentum. “Never before has the idea itself been powerful enough that one can get away with a lacking implementation,” he wrote. His remark underscores a change wrought by the new guard that the old guard will have to adapt to. Tech is no longer primarily technology driven; it is idea driven.

But of course, much of it is not even idea-driven, it is driven by an older story, one that is all too familiar, one that could have been written by Fitzgerald or Salinger 75 years ago, or even by Dickens or Bronte 75 years before that:

One of Stripe’s founders rowed five seat in the boat I coxed freshman year in college; the other is his older brother. Among the employee profiles posted on its website, I count three of my former teaching fellows, a hiking leader, two crushes. Silicon Valley is an order of magnitude bigger than it was 30 years ago, but still, the start-up world is intimate and clubby, with top talent marshaled at elite universities and behemoths like Facebook and Google. These days, a new college graduate arriving in the valley is merely stepping into his existing network. He will have friends from summer internships, friends from school, friends from the ever-increasing collection of incubators and fellowships. His transition will be smoothed by a hefty relocation package and cheerful emails from the young female H.R. staff at his hot web-consumer start-up.

Worse than the clubbiness, it's the incessant need to be trendy and hip that seems oh so incredibly depressing and shallow:

Young people like to be among young people; they like to work on products (consumer brands) that their friends use and in environments where they feel acutely the side effects of growth.


to a software engineer in his 20s, with endless opportunities, what matters most is not salary, or stability, or job security, but cool.

Perhaps the saddest part of it all is that, in those few examples that Lu is able to find where people tried to break out of this trendy mosh-pit of social app-making startups, they chose ... Wall Street?

Andrew, was a sophomore at the University of Chicago and trying to decide on a major. He was interested in computer science, having taken the online version of CS50, Harvard’s introductory computer-science course, in his spare time. But his parents, both software engineers, wanted him to choose finance. They thought that being a software engineer meant drowning in a technical quagmire, being someone else’s code monkey. Their view of tech was shaped by their years of experience at old-guard companies, where a few cynosures (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, etc.) got most of the money and the glory.

I'm not that old, but I know I'm part of another generation now. I was around when computers were still new, when people were just starting to wonder what changes they might bring, and how the world might change.

And, in so many ways, the world did change.

It's just too bad that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lu recalls her days at Harvard:

In 2010, the year I took the CS50, the hottest final project was a dating app called CrimsonSpark. By entering an email address, you could “spark” classmates you were interested in, and if they sparked you back, both of you would be notified.
and notes that
The central concept, though, was alluring: It connected people who wanted to sleep together.

Will I be around to see a time when Harvard undergraduates taking Computer Science classes won't choose, as their homework assignment, a hookup app?

Dunno. This is college, after all, and that behavior is surely nothing new.

So I take heart in reading (will this shock you?) this year's annual letter from none other than Bill Gates, who calls for new investment, not in a better app for getting a taxi ride home from the bar, but in things that really do matter:

It is very hard to know exactly which investments will spark economic growth, especially in the near term. However, we do know that aid drives improvements in health, agriculture, and infrastructure that correlate strongly with growth in the long run. Health aid saves lives and allows children to develop mentally and physically, which will pay off within a generation. Studies show that these children become healthier adults who work more productively.

Improvements in health care, agriculture, and education: what a concept!

It's all food for thought, and I know in some ways I'm picking on Lu's article unfairly, but the problem is real, and deserves attention, and her article inspired me to write about it.

For whatever that's worth.


  1. Apparently, $120,000 is now an entry-level wage for Bay Area startups, due to the high cost of living. I don't know whether that's internet exaggeration, but consider that, if you go to Latvia or Bulgaria, you'll find plenty of good young programmers willing to work for $6000 a year. Sillicon Valley's unique selling point used to be the concentration of perceived talent—but is it still unique in an era where your colleague in Riga is just a Skype call away?

    If you want to start a software company, there are places in the world where it's cheaper to start, where your employees aren't poached away continuously, where, most importantly, it's cheap to fail. Your software doesn't have to be revolutionary to satisfy your investors.

    If we assume that the unique virtue of Sillicon Valley is now the availability of Venture Capital. What would we expect it to look like? Capital raises the stakes of the poker game, not the level of play. You'd expect to see big buyouts that are essentially redistributions of investor capital. You'd expect startups to avoid niches that merely provide utility to their customers in favor of addictive memes that hold the promise of exponential growth.

    Don't get me wrong, the United States, and Sillicon Valley in particular, still attracts and concentrates some of the smartest people in the world, and there's a lot of pressure on those people to provide miracles. I'm sure they'll produce many more Revolutions in the years to come. But from my perspective, there's no incentive for them to focus on utility.

  2. My summary of the article: "With interviews the way they are, the new-guard companies are basically saying, ‘We don’t care about the fact that you have 30 years of experience — that doesn’t matter to us.’ Older engineers often don’t react well to this."