In Defense of Silicon Valley’s Culture

maxresdefault

The ongoing complaints about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley tech startups is growing louder. Most recently, Carlos Bueno criticizes companies for building uniform cultures where employers only hire their friends [1]. He points to Max Levchin’s following statement:

The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible [2].

Silicon Valley’s very monolithic culture is really made up of multiple components encompassing values, demographics, and priorities. Two of these are admirable; one is symptomatic of a more global problem that has little to do with Silicon Valley at all.

Values

zappos

When a business defines its company culture, it’s really talking about values — a code of conduct to guide decision-making as the company grows.

Amazon, for example, has a culture of frugality for the sake of bringing low prices to the customer. Someone who values extravagant hedonism would not do well there.

Zappos has a culture of delivering happiness. If they were to hire executives from Comcast, that would certainly add diversity but things probably wouldn’t work out.

Delivering Human Suffering
Delivering Human Suffering

When it comes to company culture, there is no room for diversity. If team members have no values in common with each other, anarchy serves as the implicit catch-all.

Note that culture has nothing to do with demographics, although it is expected that people with similar backgrounds will have similar life values.

Priorities

Facebook's Campus Ice Cream Shoppe
Facebook’s Campus Ice Cream Shoppe

Tech companies are notorious for their bubbly perks: laundry service, designer bottled water, group parkour classes, on-demand call girls, and the like. These are not to be confused with company culture.

The perks are really indicative of priorities: The company wants you here at all hours of the day. We provide an on-site Disneyland so you have no excuse to ever go home. We recognize that you will eventually grow up and leave us so we intend to squeeze every last drop of energy out of you while you’re young.

When I started working at Intel, we had catered lunches every Wednesday and apples and bananas in the morning to encourage healthy eating habits. Budget cuts required that the catered lunches and fruit be terminated. Their priorities? We’re bleeding to death and have no intent to right this sinking ship, so maybe you should go home and spend some time with your family so that they don’t hate you when you’re laid off in a few months.

Bueno’s lambaste of a startup that discriminates against overdressed applicants and interviewees who don’t go out for drinks with the team has nothing to do with culture, but priorities. Will this person sacrifice their nights and weekends and lives for the company in times of need? A candidate who couldn’t be bothered to take 20 seconds to browse the company website photos and dress accordingly is unlikely to do so.

What to Wear

Demographics

The industry’s lack of demographic diversity spans gender, race, age, and academic background.

Some years back, I was on some Women in Computer Science committee at Harvard discussing how we might recruit more women for the graduate program. There are plenty of qualified female computer science students out there, said the Director of Admissions. We just need to work harder to reach them.

No, there are not. The nationwide percentage of female computer science undergraduates is hovering somewhere below 20%. No matter which way you slice it, women in the tech industry will represent a distinct minority. Study the ethnic makeup of computer science students and this goes a long way toward further explaining Silicon Valley’s demographics.

women2

In the Valley, it’s hard enough to recruit any talent, let alone minority talent. As a female CTO, I would love to have more female engineers on my team, but I recognize that we can’t hire something out of nothing.

The Exclusion Principle

I don’t know if those who criticize Silicon Valley’s culture have ever worked at an early-stage startup, or assembled an organization of any sort. The whole basis for congregation depends on a common culture. Why would a group of individuals with nothing in common get together? They wouldn’t.

America today is beautifully diverse, but the thirteen original colonies were not. In fact, any diversity in our country’s early days was either enslaved or eradicated by smallpox. We became ethnically diverse because immigrants came over who want to be a part of the existing culture.

Max Levchin does a fine job of explaining his rationale behind opposing diversity: “At an early-stage startup, speed is your most valuable weapon…Diversity of thought in an early-stage team can be an inhibitor of speed.”

Max Levchin's college classmates and early Paypal team
The early Paypal team, who coincidentally represent the same demographic distribution as Max Levchin’s college classmates.

A company isn’t born with a predefined culture, and a large part of building a startup is the process of evolving the culture from the early employees and their shared values [3]. If the early employees are sufficiently diverse in thinking, then culture evolves straight into a primordial soup.

What to do about diversity, then? Bueno points out that there is a large untapped talent pool neglected by Silicon Valley companies, because those in the pool don’t fit into existing company cultures. Why on earth are these people waiting to be hired by elitist young males? It’s high time they self-organized to form their own exclusionary startups.

Addendum

The real problem does not lie with startup hiring practices, but fundraising. It takes money to build a team. In the last 3 years, 80% of the startups funded by the top five VC firms had team members from one of either Stanford, Harvard, or MIT. And over 95% were founded by men.

Demographically-diverse teams can’t take a random walk down Sand Hill and raise a seed round off a vague pipe dream the way a team of Stanford CS grads can. They can, however, generate unassailable revenue and growth numbers. That would be a good culture hack.

References:

1. The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt big time: its own culture –qz.com

2. The Trick Max Levchin Used to Hire the Best Engineers at PayPal –First Round Review

3. Programming Your Culture –Ben Horowitz

One thought on “In Defense of Silicon Valley’s Culture

Leave a Reply