Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Silicon Valley Musings

You know how, when you read an article on a topic you know well, you get excited at first, and then get progressively more frustrated at the things it gets wrong or fails to address? Well, that's how I felt when reading an article in the current New Yorker magazine titled "Can Silicon Valley Embrace Politics?" (Weirdly enough, even though it's a current article, it's already gone behind a paywall. Usually the New Yorker is good about keeping them up for two weeks after an issue comes out. I don't know if this is an exception for this article, or a new policy. Anyways, you'll need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing, but you'll get the gist from the intro at the link.)

First of all, I need to make the standard disclaimers: I can only write about my own personal experience, which I'll cheerful admit may not be representative of the industry as a whole. I've worked in tech for over a decade (wow!) and in the Bay Area since 2005. I've worked from the south end (Los Gatos) to the north (San Francisco), but have exclusively worked for smaller companies with anywhere from 3 to 50 employees. I don't have first-hand experience of working for the titans like Apple, Google, or Facebook, which George Packer focuses on in his article. I do have friends at those companies, and have visited their campuses, so I have some familiarity even if I don't have much direct knowledge.

And actually, that's a great place for me to start. Packer writes that "Though tech companies promote an open and connected world, they are extremely secretive, preventing outsiders from learning the most basic facts about their internal workings." Well... I don't think that's true. Just last week, I and about two hundred other random engineers dropped by Twitter's headquarters for a series of lightning tech talks. It was held in their commons, and we could see the literal blueprints on the walls showing the next several months of construction on their new mid-Market home. The Twitter engineers talked about their testing process, the risk/reward evaluation they have to make for supporting new features, how they decide whether to open-source something like their AFNetworking modifications for iOS. And this was hardly an isolated case. I've wandered on Google's campus, walked through eBay's parking lots, sat in on Mobile Monday events hosted at dozens of the Valley's largest and smallest companies. Granted, I have the advantage of actually living here, but companies like Google are actually surprisingly open about many of their activities, such as writing blog posts detailing how they operate their data centers.

So, yeah, I was pretty surprised to read Packer describe them as "secretive." I think that Silicon Valley tech companies are far more open and collaborative than their counterparts elsewhere in the country, and would go so far as to say that it's probably the single most important factor in explaining the Valley's global dominance. The atmosphere out here is incredibly exciting and collegial: workers at various companies are constantly meeting one another socially, chatting with each other over drinks or coffee, coming up with new ideas tangentially related to their day jobs. That's what gives the Valley its energy and dynamism: the constant cross-pollination between companies as people collaborate, leave their old companies to start new ones, hire new people, and then those new hires start the cycle again.

Granted, Google isn't going to divulge details on its search algorithms (though it gives more information than you would think), and Facebook won't reveal an upcoming acquisition, but the industry out here is far more open and less secretive than what you'll find in New York City, the Massachusetts Route 128 corridor, the Research Triangle, or any of the other tech hubs in the country (or, I think, the world). (In Overland Park near Kansas City, Sprint's headquarters resemble a fortress, complete with walls and guard towers. The first job I had in that city, with a small company of fewer than 50 people, required a magnetized keycard to enter our office. In contrast, most Silicon Valley headquarters are laid out like college campuses, and it's easy to visit a friend during the day.) The tech industry as a whole doesn't strike me as especially secretive... granted, they're more secretive than the entertainment industry or academia, but much less so than defense contractors or banking.

I should backtrack here and admit that, for the most part, I agree with Packer's overall thesis: that the Valley is insufficiently politically engaged, and that the local tech boom has created a highly stratified society of the super-rich and the very poor. In both cases, though, I think the piece suffers by failing to make comparisons to other locales or industries that would help show just how far behind the Valley is. In the former case, he paints a picture of tech workers as being isolated and apolitical. He quotes one person as saying that people out here "Don't read The Economist." Well... yeah, we do. And The Atlantic, and the New Yorker, and McSweeney's. Again, I can only speak to my personal experience, but the people I've met here (both in the tech industry and outside of it) are smart and politically aware. I'll grant that there is a large amount of cynicism, that "politicians can't get good things done," but that's hardly unique to Silicon Valley. Compared to the communities I've been part of in Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City, I'd say that the Bay Area tech community is more politically engaged. It's certainly possible that we're less politically active than the tech community in New York City or Washington, D. C. Again, I would have appreciated some point of comparison in the article.

Having lived most of my life in the Midwest, I have noticed a significant difference in the political atmosphere out here, but it's a difference in kind and not degree. Compared to much of the country, there's a remarkably high level of consensus on many issues that otherwise divide communities. Pretty much everyone out here supports same-sex marriage, even the few Republicans I know. There's broad support for progressive tax policy, even though this area benefited hugely from George W. Bush-style tax cuts. There's no local disbelief in global warming. All local politicians are pro-choice. And so, there just aren't very high local stakes for these kinds of issues. If someone is very committed to a cause, they're likely to support a national candidate, or someone in a more competitive state (I've gotten in the habit of backing some Minnesotan candidates and causes), but there isn't much outlet for those emotional political issues here.

When there are issues that affect people locally, of course, they get very engaged. Everyone I know (in tech or out) has an opinion on San Francisco's sit/lie ordinance. (For the record, my circle is roughly 75% in favor, 25% opposed.) There's regular tension between anti-growth and smart-growth forces. (Should we build more high-rise developments to support dense urban living?) Everyone cares about high-speed rail. (Almost every tech worker I know supports it; non-tech people are roughly evenly split.)

I can't quite tell if Packer is arguing that the rank-and-file is politically disengaged, or that the big companies themselves aren't politically active, or both. I don't see the evidence of individual disengagement... tech people here write checks, and quit their jobs to join the Obama campaign, and drive to Sacramento to support marriage equality. I suppose a stronger case could be made for the big companies' not being involved in politics, but again, I have to wonder who Packer is comparing them to. The oil companies? Koch Industries? Unilever? I certainly agree that Silicon Valley could do more than it does, but so could everyone. I do wonder what other industries might be good to emulate... the entertainment industry obviously is very engaged in politics, but I feel like there must be some other ones that may also be fairly positively engaged, like retail and housing. I would have loved to see some numbers around the portion of Silicon Valley's wealth that goes to charity and politics, compared with numbers from other industries.

Speaking of wealth, the aspect of Packer's article that I was most on board with was the bifurcated local economy. San Francisco is one of the best places in the world to live if you're young and have money: you can eat amazing fourteen-dollar sandwiches from Tartine Bakery, and live in a ten-million-dollar condo with 1500 square feet and views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and use TaskRabbit to hire someone to pick up a pair of twenty-sided dice in time for tonight's Dungeons & Dragons game. It's also one of the less painful places to live if you're destitute: the weather is temperate year-round, the city provides a lot of services, and many local groups advocate for the homeless. For people in the middle, though, the city can seem impossible. Rent prices are insane and housing prices even worse. The cost of living is nearly the highest in the country, and non-tech jobs just don't pay enough to cover it. The trend is continuing, too. San Francisco is becoming even more attractive for young tech workers, thanks to relatively new additions like the Valley shuttle buses, so the median income keeps creeping up, and lower incomes keep getting squeezed out.

Ever since moving out here, I've actively promulgated a fantasy: I want everyone who I like to move out here, so they can enjoy the beautiful weather, the awesome culture, and, more importantly, I won't need to fly east to visit them. I've since come to realize that this is an even more selfish fantasy than I had first thought. Visiting the Bay Area can be a dream. Living here can be a hardship, unless you're fortunate enough to land a good job.

So, what should we do about this? It's really the same old problem of gentrification, just written even larger with more money. San Francisco already does a lot with tools like rent control, without which I'm sure there would be even fewer lower-middle-class families living in the city. And like any example of gentrification, it can be really hard to untangle the positive benefits of increasing wealth with the negative impacts on the neighborhood's existing diversity and character.

At one point in the article, Packer describes a coffee meeting he had in Four Barrel, sipping single-origin coffee while surrounded by the casually hip. I immediately perked up at that: my office is just two doors away from Four Barrel, and I think it's a fascinating focal point for what's going on in the Mission, both good and bad. Packer does a great job at briefly and accurately conveying the atmosphere of the Valencia Street corridor: young tech workers with Apple devices, shopping at boutique stores and gourmet restaurants. While he was waiting in line for half an hour to get a coffee, Packer may have glanced at the buildings across the street from Four Barrel. He doesn't write about them, and there's no particular reason why he would have: they look like the kind of new mid-rise condo development that would house these young elites. He may have been surprised to learn that this is actually a public housing development: these nice-looking, well-kept buildings on one of the hottest blocks in the city are reserved for the use of the city's poorest and least enfranchised residents.

And... I'm not sure what to do with that fascinating nugget. The reason San Francisco has so much money to spend on its virtuous social programs is because so many wealthy people live here and help fund their budget. This block of Valencia in particular has benefited in very substantial ways from the changing demographics: I've chatted with people who have lived here for decades, and remember when this was considered a bad part of town. But then places like Four Barrel moved in, and trendy spenders started hanging out, and then more shops started opening up to cater to those people, and the city rebuilt the old projects, and it's now a fun, comfortable, safe space to wander. And yet, Packer is definitely right when he writes about how the Latino population in the neighborhood is shrinking, and families who have lived here for a long time are increasingly finding it hard to find affordable rent, or even shops that provide useful services. Again, it's the same old story of gentrification, and I wish I knew how to "solve" it such that everyone could get what they want and nobody has to leave.

While on the subject of Latinos, Packer quotes Mitch Kapor (of Lotus Notes) saying that "asking questions about the lack of racial and gender diversity in tech companies leaves people in Silicon Valley intensely uncomfortable." I think he's definitely right about the lack of racial diversity: it's absolutely shameful how few African-Americans and Latinos are employed in high-tech positions. It's something we need to do much better on. However, I have (again, in my own limited personal experience) noticed a huge improvement in the last few years on addressing gender diversity. It's definitely a problem: at my previous company, we had hired over twenty (!!) men before hiring our first woman. Companies now openly talk about combating the "Dave ratio" (the ratio of men named "Dave" to women in a company; a 1:1 or worse ratio is shockingly common) and are explicitly describing their need to improve representation. Larger companies are addressing every stage of the pipeline: getting more school-age girls interested in science and math, encouraging college women to pursue STEM careers, setting up internship programs specifically for female programmers, and proactively recruiting woman developers. Smaller companies like my own make greater efforts to seek out female developers, and even use terms like "affirmative action" that would have been anathema a few years ago. While there is still a very long way to go in improving the situation, it feels great to see more traction now that companies are discussing it. I was delighted when my own sister enrolled in the fantastic Hackbright program, and landed a great programming job within a few weeks of graduation.

But, the point still stands that we have a long way to go to even begin to approach parity, and we need to start taking similar initiatives to improve racial and cultural diversity. The tech industry in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, lags far behind most other American industries on both counts.

Um. I think that's all I had to say. I worry a little that I'm just a sensitive San Franciscan getting defensive when a writer from New York criticizes my town and my career, but I do have to admit that he's right about at least a few things. My biggest complaint is that he doesn't offer much perspective in how San Francisco compares to other cities in America, or how the tech industry compares to other industries; some objective figures on our miserliness or apathy would have impressed me much more than scattered anecdotes and interviews. Then again, I am a privileged tech guy, so that's exactly what you would expect me to say.


  1. Big companies in Silicon Valley seem extremely unengaged in terms of political lobbying. In all other industries, the political agenda of the industry leaders gets accomplished almost invisibly. But the tech industry seems curiously helpless in terms of getting its legislative agenda enacted. For instance, the tech industry wants certain kinds of immigration re: h1-b visas. And so they make a big public stink about it. But that's not the way the big boys do it. The big boys just pay off the right lobbying firm and their provisions get slid into the bill somewhere in committee.

    Of course, I don't know if it's necesarily a bad thing that the tech industry isn't as greasy and doesn't get as many government handouts as, say, the oil industry.

  2. Yeah, Packer touches on that at the end of the article. There's a new political group that's been created by Facebook and other tech giants, with the horrendous name of It's getting things done the old-fashioned way: hiring expensive lobbyists, cutting unpalatable political deals, etc. The overall tone of the article seems to be, "Look, Silicon Valley is abandoning its idealism and finally joining the dirty world of real politics! Isn't that great?!"