Long Form: Silicon Valley’s immaturity problem
The perils of Silicon Valley’s youth mentality
In 1902, J.M. Barrie penned the story “The Little White Bird” introducing the world to the iconic character Peter Pan. In Mr. Barrie’s fictional novel, young Peter spends his everlasting childhood having adventures on the island of Neverland engaging with fairies, pirates, and the green card holders who were unable to re-enter America after President Trump’s travel ban.
Mr. Barrie created Mr. Pan to be a free spirit, being far too juvenile to be disturbed by the burden of education and the grown-up appreciation of moral, civic, and fiscal responsibility. If modern day playwrights were searching for an appropriate backdrop that would be embody the zero-fucks mentality of P-squared, they should look no further than to a 20-mile strip south of San Francisco.
Home to the unsubstantiated, but overused, concept of disruption, an avenue for acceptable failure , and the mecca of foosball tables Silicon Valley has become a nerd paradise where the young, brainiest, and capital-hungry can retreat.
There is no shortage of opportunity for the young and restless. Since 2010, Silicon Valley has grown at an annual rate of 4.5%, recovering all Bay Area jobs lost from the Great Recession, and contributing to over 33% of economic growth experienced in the California counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco.
The influx of jobs has changed the demographics of what was once an agricultural driven region. Backing up their ageist rhetoric, Silicon Valley likes to hire young. While the average engineer age in the U.S. hovers around 40, most engineers in Palo Alto are under 30. Only 4.6% of Silicon Valley developers are between the ages of 40 and 50, and only 9.1% are between 35 and 39 years old. Last year 30% of American business school graduates went to work for a technology firm, more than double the prior year.
This should be welcoming news. Silicon Valley enthusiasts argue that the Northern California region offers a place for the intellectually curious, an incubator for the disorganized young mind, a platform for the next Mark Zuckerberg, a safe space to experiment and fail, and a tech mecca for the nerdiest of nerds.
Yet, what comes to mind upon hearing this rationalization is a quote from Jean-Paul Sarte. The late author quipped, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Has Silicon Valley become a responsible financial leader? Has the tech sector been civic minded in their endeavors? Are young people getting the professional and personal development to succeed? Have they grown into a Christopher Nolan protagonist who fights injustice, has exceptional moral clarity, and is the hero we need?
No. No. No. And fuck no.
With the newly amassed wealth and power, Silicon Valley hasn’t grown into a laudable role model. Instead, the former valley of middle class agricultural workers has morphed into ecosystem of immaturity that shuns civic duty, misunderstands imperative professional and social values, and is often unable to be financially accountable.
Silicon Valley’s issue with civic engagement can at times be summed up as a chicken or the egg paradox. Do apolitical brainiacs enter the Valley or does the tech haven create a culture of political apathy? It seems to be a little bit of both.
A post-election study commissioned by WalletHub examined how politically active each state was in the 2016 election. The survey examined voter turnout, congressional engagement, and political voluntarism. The results show California coming in 38th. While most regions in the Golden State fared well it was San Francisco and Palo Alto that were seemingly indifferent to this year’s election. (10% of SF residents and 22% of Palo Alto residents voted for Trump while 65% neither voted, interacted with an elected officer, or participated in the electoral process)
But this is by no means a fresh observation. Across all regions, youth voter turnout has historically been lower than any other cohort. What makes Silicon Valley’s dangerous is not their political apathy, but their lust for political anarchy.
In kid like fashion, instead of dealing with issues logically and diplomatically, tech titans are skirting laws or dismissing the importance of our legislative institutions.
Distraught with the immigration system, numerous venture capitalists created the idea of Blueseed, a Silicon Valley-based startup company to create a startup community located on a vessel stationed in international waters near the coast of Silicon Valley. The intended location (12 nautical miles from the coast of California) would enable non-U.S. startup entrepreneurs to work on their ventures without the need for a US work visa (H1B), while living in proximity to Silicon Valley and using relatively easier to obtain business and tourism visas to travel to the mainland.
Promptly after Donald Trump’s presidential victory Shervin Pishevar, a prominent investor and cofounder of Hyperloop One, floated the idea of a Calexit when he tweeted that he would fund an effort for California to secede. He called on others in Silicon Valley to help create a new country (“New California” he dubbed). He argued, “It’s the most patriotic thing I can do…The country is [at] a serious crossroads.”
After the latest government shutdown, venture capitalist multimillionaire and former Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya echoed a common Valley sentiment when he alleged, “ It’s becoming excruciatingly, obviously clear to everyone else that where value is created is no longer in New York, it’s no longer in Washington, it’s no longer in LA. It’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Companies are transcending power now. We are becoming the eminent vehicles for change and influence, and capital structures that matter. If companies shut down, the stock market would collapse. If the government shuts down, nothing happens and we all move on, because it just doesn’t matter. Stasis in the government is actually good for all of us.” (Note: Some techies actively work to improve civic engagement)
Mr. Palihapitiya must have been an early Amazon Web Services investor, because his head is in the clouds. A running government is necessary to produce Social Security checks, maintain National Parks, provide economic subsidies for low income families, paying 800,000 apolitical bureaucrats for doing important national security work, doling out college aid assistance, public health services, NASA science research, delivering mail, and running veteran services.
The likes of Messrs Pishevar and Palihaptiya don’t lack the intelligence to understand the vital role of government. They simply lack the maturity to understand a world outside theirs.
Why? Because when your skills are cultivated in a setting that has a has an emphasis on being in a perpetual fun state, misguided wellness packages, and a barrage of happy hour events you lose out on the importance of dealing with tough issues, in a mature manner, such as separating work from play and developing a mental framework to honestly assess real life situations.
Last August when Business Insider took a tour of the Yelp’s New York headquarters there was no discussion of their consumer review platform, rising complaints from restaurants, or their new online delivery platform. Instead, C-level executives highlighted the music through the office, the karaoke machines, the six gongs, and the ever-important Stonehenge meeting spot. The columnist quipped, “When you think of an office, foosball tables, karaoke machines, beer kegs, and free snacks probably don’t come to mind … that is, unless you work at Yelp.”
But that’s not true. Silicon Valley’s extravagant office designs have been well documented. Tech workers now believe start of the equipment and fully stocked kitchens are now the norm. The need for companies to attract top talent in a shrinking talent pool has pushed tech organizations to splurge on exuberant benefits such as Zynga’s dog park, JibJab Media Service laundry service , Facebook’s onsite barbershop, and Google’s decked out cafe.
This, ultimately, is a disservice to the professional growth of an already socially underdeveloped group of people. For starters, technology companies fare no better at retaining talent than any other sector. Secondly, extending these benefits when scaling at such a rapid pace, as many tech companies do, isn’t a sustainable practice. Third, numerous studies have shown these benefits provide no bottomline value (People usually stick with a job because of its intellectual challenges and not because of a climbing wall). But more importantly, building a utopian stress free culture hinders the much-needed personal growth young adults need.
Life is complex and messy. Valley techies are doing an enormous disservice to the personal growth of their employees. When all your needs are met, you lose out on the chance to productively pontificate. You fail to build the maturity to deal with the challenges of life. Further, mundane tasks help you to build important altruistic traits. Walking your dog and running errands builds empathy and your ability to care about other people’s time. Talking to your barbershop and local bartender helps you build the important skill of small talk. Humans thrive when they find beauty in the ordinary. This is all lost when you think there is a diminishing need to immerse yourself in the real world.
So, why should the overall public care about the juvenile behavior of a few white collars workers nestled in Northern California?
For starters, other areas have aggressively tried to duplicate the Silicon Valley economic model. (Fellow 775ers, the idea of Reno being dubbed the next Silicon Valley has been examined time, after time, after time).
More importantly, Silicon Valley companies have a larger piece of the economic pie these days. Roughly 4% of US workers stem from an organization based in the Valley, tech contributes roughly 67% R & D expenditure in America, and nearly half of the companies valued over $1 billion reside in Silicon Valley. The total value of Bay area tech companies worth more than $1 billion is now over $3 trillion. For seven weeks in late fall, the five largest public corporations in the world by market capitalization were all tech companies.
Yet, Silicon Valley has handled this financial responsibility poorly. Companies are regularly overvalued, there are numerous horror stories where young entrepreneurs mismanaged company finances, and many are naïve to the overall economic impact they have on their local community. Even Silicon Valley’s most beloved baby CEO, 26 year old Snapchat douchebag Evan Spiegal, has struggled to retain talent and deal with his company’s IPO valuation.
But in their defense, this is not entirely the fault of young tech wonks. The ecosystem around Silicon Valley has romanticized start-up culture and has failed to provide adequate training for geeky 20 year old’s to manage high valued businesses. Additionally, the matured and successful Silicon Valley leaders regularly fail to behave like adults.
Five years ago, former PayPal founder Peter Thiel and current Google CEO Eric Schmidt agreed to engage in a debate for Fortune Magazine. What should have been an evening where two Silicon Valley juggernauts discussed world-class innovated ideas and provided insights into the future of technology, turned into name calling and petty semantics. (Mr. Thiel argued, on four occasions, that since Google has so much free cash, they should label themselves a bank and not a tech company. Even after Mr. Schmidt kindly refuted this fallacy, Mr. Thiel would not drop this point)
Why did two people, of great intellect and sure first-ballot High Tech Hall of Famers, forgo thoughtful debate and resort to a discussion that had the same sincerity, name calling, and trolling as a Facebook political post?
Because in Silicon Valley, the act of brilliant minds engaging in childish behavior, is more of a feature than a bug.