I recently read a very interesting article in the NY Times Magazine - Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem. “In start-up land, the young barely talk to the old (and vice versa). That makes for a lot of cool apps. But great technology? Not so much,” says its tagline. Its author, Yiren Lu, graduated from Harvard last year with a degree in math and is currently a masters student in computer science at Columbia.
I really enjoyed the article. Ms Lu is a very good writer, storyteller and ethnographer, i.e., a kind of cultural anthropologist. Her article chronicles what she calls the Smart Kids and their Sexting Apps culture of Silicon Valley, a youth bubble combined with “a frenzied bubble of app-making and an even vaguer dread that what we are making might not be that meaningful.”
“There is a sense among them of manifest destiny, of This is our time,” she writes. What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they hit 35 and are officially over the hill?, asks a member of Quora, a popular question-answer site. “Despite its breathtaking arrogance, the question resonates; it articulates concerns about tech being, if not ageist, then at least increasingly youth-fetishizing.”
This question brought to mind don’t trust anyone over the age of 30, a phrase that embodied the generation gap of another era, the sixties, when societal and cultural battles were fought in a number of areas, including civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the feminist movement. While the generation gap Ms Lu writes about deals with very different, less weighty issues, there are a few similarities.
One is the youth culture. She notes that the median age of HP employees is 39, compared to 26 at Facebook. “The valley has always been a hard-charging, ever-optimistic place, full of people who are passionate about ideas that require some suspension of disbelief. But in the last 10 years in particular, there has been an exacerbation of the qualities for which it’s been both feted and mocked: Valuations are absurdly high for companies with no revenue. The founders are younger; the pace is faster.”
In general, transformational change requires such a passionate, suspension of disbelief, something that is easier when you are young, have few family responsibilities and can thus devote much of your time to your cause or career. Also, change often involves taking risks in your career and personal life, which is also easier when, in addition to being young and independent, you have safety nets to fall back on if needed, like a degree from a good university and the financial support from well-off parents. Not surprisingly, most of the Silicon Valley young people portrayed in the article are well educated and relatively affluent, as were many of the young people involved in the sixties counterculture.
“On a certain level, the old-guard-new-guard divide is both natural and inevitable,” she notes. “Young people like to be among young people; they like to work on products (consumer brands) that their friends use and in environments where they feel acutely the side effects of growth.” But, there is another important force at work: “to a software engineer in his 20s, with endless opportunities, what matters most is not salary, or stability, or job security, but cool. Cool exists at the ineffable confluence of smart people, big money and compelling product.”
Why are there so few older engineers in these startups? Are they being discriminated against, or have they failed to keep their skills up to date? “Older engineers form a smaller percentage of employees at top new-guard companies, not because they don’t have the skills, but because they simply don’t want to. . . there is a basic cultural disconnect. . . If you are 50, no matter how good your coding skills, you probably do not want to be called a ninja and go on bar crawls every weekend with your colleagues, which is exactly what many of my friends do.”
The rift is not just between younger and older, but “between old and new, hardware and software, enterprise companies that sell to other businesses and consumer companies that sell directly to the masses. . . In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests. . . The talent - and there’s a ton of it - flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps. . .”
How about products and problems requiring deep technical expertise? “The sense that it is no longer necessary to have particularly deep domain knowledge before founding your own start-up is real; that and the willingness of venture capitalists to finance Mark Zuckerberg look-alikes are changing the landscape of tech products. There are more platforms, more websites, more pat solutions to serious problems - here’s an app that can fix drug addiction! promote fiscal responsibility! advance childhood literacy! . . . Even as the pool of founders has grown and diversified, the products themselves seem more homogeneous, more pedestrian.”
Is this just another manifestation of the forces of creative destruction, where new disruptive ideas and companies do away with and replace older ones? Or, is this a kind-of reincarnation of the dot-com bubble, where exciting new technologies, - then the Internet and Web, now mobile and cloud, - will lead to a few great innovations and companies, as well as many bad ones?
As the Internet frenzy intensified in the mid-1990s, people experimented with many new models - some of which turned out to be very innovative, and some rather silly. Part of the buzz in the air was that in the Internet-based new economy, born-to-the-Web startups had an inherent advantage over existing, brick-and-mortar businesses. Because of their grounding in the physical world, it was thought they could not possibly compete in this fast-moving digital space and were therefore headed for extinction.
I still remember a conversation in Paris in 1997 with the CIO of a major European retail chain who told me that they had just spent a lot of money remodeling their stores and were wondering if they had done the right thing, given all this new economy talk. We were at a meeting in a very nice hotel, built in the mid-19th century, and I remember saying, as I stared at the beautiful painted ceilings in the conference room, that in my opinion the digital and physical worlds would nicely coexist with each other for a long time to come.
This coexistence between legacy and new became the basis for IBM’s e-business strategy, which we succinctly defined as Web + IT, that is, the combination of the industrial-strength IT infrastructures widely used in business and government with the new universal reach and connectivity of the Web. Every business would benefit from embracing the Internet, not just startups. Any institution, by integrating its existing databases and applications with a web front end, could now reach its customers, employees, suppliers and partners at any time of the day or night, no matter where they were. Anyone with a browser and an Internet connection was now able to access information and transactions of all sorts. Our view was not always popular during the dot-com bubble, but once the bubble burst a few years later, it was clear that we had developed the right strategy and had given our customer the right advice.
A similar set of dynamics between youth and experience, and between new and legacy seems to now be at play in the conflicts Ms Lu writes about. “Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix healthcare.gov, want to work for a sexting app?”
The answer, she says, is part excitement, part prestige, and part being able to hang out with young, talented people like them. “Smart kids want to work for a sexting app because other smart kids want to work for the same sexting app. . . But that presumes that the talent at older companies is somehow subpar, less technically proficient, than it is at their younger counterparts. . . There are thousands of engineers working at big corporations in Silicon Valley, many with years of experience and proven track records of creating code. Many of them have also been through several cycles of layoffs, as older companies divest assets and shave costs. So why are start-ups constantly bemoaning a shortage of talent?”
“The easiest explanations are mismatched skill sets or cultural friction. Older engineers are not smart in the way that start-ups want them to be - or, if they are, they have reservations about the start-up lifestyle. Both these reasons are symptomatic of how far apart the two sides have drifted. If there are whole swaths of engineering talent whose skills or styles cannot be integrated into a company, then maybe that operation has been limiting itself.”
Web apps could not exist without sophisticated IT infrastructures and platforms, and those infrastructures and platforms are more valuable the more compelling web apps they attract. The old guard and the new guard need each other. As in the past, these issues and conflicts will sort themselves out over time. It’s all part of the very messy world of innovation, startups, markets, . . . and perhaps of growing up and no longer being quite so carefree.