Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem & The Myths of Innovation (NYTimes.com)
This essay in the NYTimes, Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem by Yiren Lu, is a kaleidoscopic essay on culture divide, and the angst of being smart, young and successful in Silicon Valley. It’s a well written but strange essay in that she seems unsure about where she lands on many of the issues she’s raising. It also suffers from her youth, which is fair given that that’s what the essay is about.
Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix healthcare.gov, want to work for a sexting app?
If Sean Parker, Mark Zuckerberg, and (young) Bill Gates are your heroes, your choices are obvious to you. But there are also plenty of social startups, ventures aimed at doing good as well as profiting, but Lu doesn’t mention them. And that’s her primary blindspot: she sees dichotomies on age and attitude, rather than spectrums.
He does answer her own question later – identity:
As an enterprise start-up, Meraki has been impeded by its distance from the web scene. It simply does not have the same recognition as a consumer company whose products users (and potential recruits) interact with every day. “You say, ‘I work at Pinterest,’ and people know what that is — they use Pinterest,” Biswas said. “You tell them you work at Meraki, and they’re a little more reserved. They’re like, ‘What’s that?’
The company you work for is an easy way to impress people and impress yourself. If you value this where you work hinges on how popular the company is, not what it does or what contribution you might be able to make there.
Before the web more bright engineers chose to stay in academia where they could work on problems that took a long time to solve, if they were solvable at all. The financial and cultural rewards today for leaving school and joining a startup has shifted that balance away from long term work (or for doing that work in academia, rather than a corporate research lab). Those pressures have always been there but they’ve intensified.
Scientists, including computer scientists, argue real innovations are fundamental developments like the laser, the satellite, the mouse, Ethernet, cellular networks, WiFi, even Object Oriented Programming. These are contributions that took years to develop and provided a breakthrough that enabled thousands of other inventions, including the web. And by developing these ideas in academia they become available to the world, not a corporation. What inventions does your average startup enable for the world? Usually none. Most startups die or are acquired and mothballed, their IP locked forever in a corporate cave.
Lu correctly mentions that the Web has made the barrier to entry for starting companies and releasing applications lower than ever in history. She writes:
“The sense that it is no longer necessary to have particularly deep domain knowledge before founding your own start-up is real.”
That alone explains the draw for anyone with ambition: for the first time in history you can launch a product to the entire planet in 6 months with the primary expense being your time. Many of these startups hope to become a fad, a viral trend, which means they are shallow by design. Many have the primary goal of simply learning what they are capable of and starting a company is a great way to do that.
But the typical startup is very high up on the tree of innovation, providing little for others to build on, and capitalizing on contributions from hundreds of forgotten people. There is little wrong with this, it’s just not interesting on the scale of the future if you are interested in more fundamental kinds of progress.
Dalrymple’s description makes sense, but its implied recommendation — that new and old need to embrace each other — is difficult to put into practice. Several of Cisco’s previous attempts to reach out to the new guard, like the Flip video camera and the Cius tablet, were busts. The phrase that’s constantly repeated in the valley is “innovate or die.” Innovation, everyone seems to agree, is the answer. The problem is that so many “innovations” — Intel’s “creative collaboration” with the rapper will.i.am, for instance — are just some stuffy vice president’s approximation of cool. That is to say, they’re hardly innovative at all.
Lu gets lost in the meaninglessness of the word innovation. The fact that a product was a bust doesn’t mean it necessarily failed at breaking new ground or developing new ideas, it merely means it failed in the marketplace. And celebrity collaboration is marketing, as it’s generally paid for by marketing and advertising budgets with the singular goal being attention.
These failures say nothing about the challenges of old and young. While the average age at Cisco, IBM and Microsoft are much higher than Google or Facebook, all of those older companies successfully hire thousands of top new graduates every year: they are simply graduates who have different ambitions and values. However I’d agree with Lu it’s less common to see older engineers join startups, but the reasons for this are multiple and she mentions some of them in her meandering way.
Many people crave opportunity. Many people crave stability. Some of this is linked to age, but not all of it.
The success of self-educated savants like Sean Parker, who founded Napster and became Facebook’s first president with no college education to speak of, set the template.
Lu desperately needs to read about survivorship bias and that a hero is not a template. A hero can be an inspiration but should never be used, without careful examination of others who did nearly everything the same as the hero did but failed, as part of a trend or a playbook.
In perhaps the most ignorant notion in the piece, Lu quotes a friend:
“Never before has the idea itself been powerful enough that one can get away with a lacking implementation,” she wrote. Her 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.
This is hubris and youthful ignorance doing a blindfolded dance together. Lacking implementations is precisely what startups have shipped since the beginning of software startups (now approximated and acronymized as MVP). The web itself began with a shockingly limited feature set compared to desktop publishing tools at the time (or arguably, even now). The web had to reinvent table layout, only to abandon it years later in favor of an approximation of the kind of positioning system that had been around for years.
For the last 30 years everyone has bemoaned how Microsoft succeeded with third rate engineering. Or look at ShamWow or hundreds of other hyped ‘inventions’. The very notion of advertising can be cynically defined as ideas trumping implementation.
The lesson from innovation history is the best idea doesn’t necessarily win. Nor does the best implementation. You can do everything right and still fail, and do many things wrong and do very well. Marketplaces are chaotic and unfair. The personal lesson here is if you place meaning on success in the market, you will always be chasing meaning instead of making it for yourself.
Since analysis, Scott. You could write a book about your last paragraph. The best idea doesn’t necessarily win any more than the “best “actors, musicians, and writers become the most successful.
I had many similar reactions. Lu’s comment about healthcare.gov vs. sexting apps hits on something important, but I don’t think her read is accurate. From my experience, there are almost too many people interested in doing good but are unsure how to get into making a living at it. It is a huge focus for design schools, business schools, and I’d imagine there’s something equivalent in tech. However current networks and contracting practices are not set up to match up projects with the right talent. Though the process seems more accessible to people on the front-end (design, ux, ui), the bulk of the development on healthcare.gov (and the part that went wrong) went to big govt contractors who likely get these projects with teams of lobbyists and proposal writers. So you’d have to have been working at a huge bureaucratic corporation that works on defense contracts, likely in DC, to happen to be in a position to work on healthcare.gov. That’s just not a position a young tech person driven to help others would be in.
BTW, I’m pretty sure Yiren Lu is a woman.
Good point. She seems an odd choice for writing about the age gap, given her age, unless it was paired with another essay from someone with the opposite biases.
Thanks for the catch – I corrected my he/she mistake.
There are still some ‘his’s that need to be corrected to ‘her’s.
Thanks. I believe they’re all corrected now.