Awhile ago I read this article about culture in silicon valley – and namely the next thing silicon valley needed to disrupt was its own culture. You know as opposed to fixing pies or solving the problem with an app that addresses squeaky movie seats.
The author’s basic theme is silicon valley has become a “Mirrortocracy” (yes, I love that term) where people just hire folks like them. That means young and white with intermittent asian and fitting in with everyone else despite the supposed commitment to diversity and meritocracy. His theme is that, silicon valley culture – The Culture as he calls it – is amazingly insular.
It’s easy to believe it:
- Max Levichin discouraged diversity.
- Mark Zuckerberg pretty much said young people are smarter.
- And lately we’re seeing articles on how diverse Silicon Valley isn’t.
It’s easy to believe there really is a problem here, that there’s the insular Culture that is walling things off, looking inward. I think he’s right – but there’s more to it. I want to explore that as I think there’s more to this.
FIrst, I think The Culture does exist. I live in Silicon Valley, and it’s obvious as the next iPhone release that there is a culture that is, well, The Culture. It’s insular, inbred, talks mainly to itself and it’s VC backers, is demographically homogenous, rather young, and . . . focused on a limited set of issues. Trust me, we talk about this in Silicon Valley.
(At times, using obscenities).
However, The Culture is not the culture of Silicon Valley as a whole. The Culture is part of several subcultures in Silicon Valley – which is something else you notice when you live here. There’s a kind of “metaculture” of Silicon Valley or a rather ephemeral culture, and then there’s strong, distinct, at times conflicting, subcultures. Some of them are so distinct they almost seem barely aware of each other.
A grand example was that recently I knew three people who left to work at startups. Of course when discussing it I usually mention these startups are actually highly practical (related to security APIs and data processing respectively). At times it seems necessary to note “no they’re not going to work for OrbitalRabbitLaser.com, they do real stuff.”
Something is a bit weird when you have to explain to people there aren’t stupid startups. But in their own culture that’s mostly what they’re used to.
So I think The Culture exists. I’ve heard it, seen it, and in a few cases interacted with it. But it’s not the only subculture in Silicon Valley or tech in general.
And actually, that makes the problem somewhat different . . . and brings in new issues I’d like to discuss.
See I think The Culture is real. But beyond the issues it presents of a rather inbred mentality, the fact it’s part of many other subcultures brings in new issues I’d like to highlight.
I talk to recruiters. I hear from recruiters. I talk jobs. It’s part of the whole Geek Job Guru thing I do after all.
And, as my regular readers, friends, an people I talk to randomly know, everyone is looking for talent. Especially senior talent – at five years experience you’re good, past ten you are in demand.
And everyone is complaining that they can’t find people.
However a concern I have is that with the subcultures in the valley and tech- especially The Culture and others – that people are looking and recruiting in highly limited spheres. They’re looking within their culture and recruiting within their culture and missing a lot of people.
It’s not hard to find people with insane lists of requirements for recruits or jobs, and a little too often “Are You Part Of My Culture” comes into it. Now sure i’m all for culture fit, but seriously, at some point you have to make a choice – exact fit or someone who can do the bloody job.
(And to note the smart managers I work with often recruit personality. A person will fit in eventually if the personality fits even if they don’t like basketball like you do.)
But recuiting is going to be a pain when it’s within your culture – and right now you have several cultural substrata that are limiting their recruiting. On the flip side, some people are only looking within their subcultures, creating more limits.
No wonder you hear so much complaining.
Another issue of having divisions among Silicon Valley culture in general, and these cultures and The Culture in particular is talent development. There’s different kinds, levels, and focuses on talent and skill development among subcultures.
The latest disruptive technology is probably not going to help you engineer a migration of ancient servers to the cloud. The latest hot open source tool isn’t going to help when someone uses another set of tools due to long-term adaption and you’re not familiar with them.
This makes it harder to migrate from subculture to subculture, it makes recruiting harder. It also means that there are radically different developments of talent that further divide cultures, companies, and efforts.
For that matter you have to wonder just what needed talents no one is cultivating as it’s not in their limited areas of interest . . .
Talent and knowledge development have a massive siloing effect – and it’s been that way for awhile (as any Oracle guru knows). Right now these distinct cultures and The Culture are developing different talent sets – which means mismatch in recruiting, in efforts, and in compatibility.
That sound you hear is recruiters screaming even louder.
It also means that it’s harder to communicate, which also means . . .
I get the impression cultures in Silicon Valley don’t interact as much as they should, and The Culture is especially self-reflective. That’s not good for tech culture as a whole because we’re not only not talking to each other, we’re not learning to bridge gaps, and we’re not learning to work together.
We might not know each other exists. Or care. Take it from the guy who’s had to act as “interpreter among age groups.”
Needless to say when you’re kind of defining the future of technology, working with things that affect billions, it’s definitely worth talking to as many people as possible.
First of all The Culture seems to largely talk to itself, and many people talk about The Culture. But when one group is engaged in a talkathon, I find it tends to lead to others to do the same – if only to talk about “those guys.”
We really don’t need that. This subcultural division in general – and The Culture in particular- encourage bad communication habits. We work in tech, reaching out should be habit.
If we don’t learn to reach out to each other, how can we reach out to others?
As a guy so white and straight I referred to myself once as “Full Metal Hugh Beaumont” I not sadly when people note that in too many cases Silicon Valley is seen as very white, very male, and at times a bit odd politically and culturally. I get it. I know it.
It’s not good.
Right now we’ve got a lot of very powerful technology, right now we’ve go a lot of needed innovations, right now there’s a lot going on. Right now we need more people in science and technology, and more diversity so we get more points of view and empower more people.
What we do not need people writing Silicon Valley off as some Bunch of White Guys You Can’t Trust. Think of how people talk about banking, and now ask how close that gets to talk about tech (even when it’s right). Now ramp that up with a few more years of bitterness and division and you have a problem.
And this doesn’t just apply to The Culture, we all get tarred with that brush. Every time some techno-libertarian with no sense of the real world spouts off an insane theory that says “I am a privleged white guy who doesn’t get it” we all are assumed to be like that guy. The Culture and worst traits associated with it make us all look bad.
Again, just think of banking. This is highly personal, but I love technology and being in tech and I don’t want us to be the bad guys.
Lack Of Imagination
Now mostly i’ll say The Culture has this problem – namely it all seems the same over and over again. But when one subculture is inbred, it can drag others along with it – or convince people they’re not unimaginative as they’re not “those guys”
So right now there’s one culture in Silicon Valley that seems highly unimaginative, but that unimaginative nature just drags others down – or gives them a scapegoat whn they’re not original.
And we need imagination. We need to keep thinking. The world’s got a lot of problems, tech is pretty inbred, and we need our minds working. We need people to get imaginative, and we can’t let The Chlture, or chest-thumping pride in how we’re not The Culture distract us.
Now frankly I don’t know what’ll happen to The Culture. I can see it getting so inbred it’s really separate from anything else – and then likely ending disastrously (again think banking). But I’d rather not see that happen.
I also think Silicon Valley and tech culture needs to talk to each other more – and outside of the sphere. We work in people’s lives and we have to open our cultures and our minds up to talk.
The Culture is a problem, but divided subcultures in Silicon Valley and Tech are a far larger problem that The Culture is just a single factor in.
As for solving it, well . . . that’s going to take some efforts. Part of the reason I wrote this is to just detail the problem . . .
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.