Mike's Blog

Musings on Tech and Life

What has Silicon Valley become?

PBS recently aired a really great documentary on the history of Silicon Valley. The show focuses on Robert Noyce, and his journey to founding Intel. Immediately after watching the documentary, I was in awe. A group consisting of Noyce and seven other brilliant engineers was essentially responsible for inventing and commercializing the integrated circuit, the foundation for almost all all modern electronics. They managed to make this industry-changing invention within the span of four years, transforming the environment around them into a hotbed of innovation. In many ways, Noyce and his team founded Silicon Valley.

Today’s Silicon Valley embodies many of the principles Noyce introduced: knowledge trumps hierarchy, a handshake is as good as a contract, and employees should participate in the success of a company. These principles weren’t prevalent before Silicon Valley. Rigid hierarchies were the norm, employees were expected to stay at a job for 30 years, and most of the time, the employees of the company were not vested in its success. Silicon Valley is an amazing place to work in large part because of this culture that Noyce created.

One of Noyce’s principles which unfortunately hasn’t endured is the culture of bringing together extremely talented academics to build really important products. Most of today’s “hot” Silicon Valley companies are founded by college dropouts who while smart, don’t have any special knowledge or talent beyond knowing how to write code, aren’t the “best of their field” like Noyce was, and just want to get rich quick. It feels like Silicon Valley is defined by “The Social Network” – start a website or write an app, drop out of college, and become a millionaire overnight.

Noyce and his team were first focused on building technologies to defeat the USSR (the transistors first made their way onto missile computers). After this, they focused on inventing a new technology which would make the world vastly more efficient (the integrated circuit), by allowing rote computations to be performed easily and cheaply. What problems is Silicon Valley focused on today? How to broadcast 140 character messages to the world? How to compose silent video clips? How to share pictures for 10 seconds to your friends? This is downright depressing compared to what Noyce built.

I sincerely hope that Silicon Valley will have a renissance and start developing “real technology” again. I hope that physicists, chemists and truly brilliant engineers will rule the Valley, instead of college dropouts.

The moment you become content is the moment you retire

It was February of my junior year in college. I had been interning for Apple since the summer of my freshman year, working remotely part-time during the school year. I was having a blast- I was working on amazing products which my friends and I used every day. Being out in 1 Infinite Loop, eating lunch at Caffé Macs, laying on the grass in 80 degree sunny weather was nirvana. I was excited to continue my internship full-time during the coming summer.

My research advisor asked me what my plans were for the summer. I told him my plans to return to Apple. He kept on prodding me not to go back, saying I should try something new, get a different perspective. I kept blowing him off, telling him he didn’t understand, that I was having a blast at Apple, and no other place would measure up. After several weeks of trying to convince me, he told me:

The moment you become content is the moment you retire.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to his comment. But then I thought. I realized I was content. Was I ready to retire at the ripe age of 20? I decided to go to Facebook that summer. And I’ve never looked back.

Why I Chose New York

This semester, I’m graduating from a great school (Hook ‘Em!). Being in the tech field, the natural place to work after graduation is Silicon Valley. I’ve spent the past three summers out in the Valley interning for Apple and Facebook, where I had a blast, and met some of my best friends. After reflection on my experiences in Silicon Valley, however, I realized that it is not the ideal place for me. Instead of Silicon Valley, I decided to go to New York City, where I’ll be working for Palantir. My decision boiled down to three reasons: a more diverse group of people, a higher percentage of females, and a lack of a commute.

Silicon Valley is great because of the high density of talent. Want to meet the person who developed that open source project? Chances are he’s not more than a half hour away from you (and is probably happy to grab a beer). This is great, but it comes at the price of diversity.  You’re surrounded by engineers, engineers, and … engineers. Of course there are people in the Valley who aren’t engineers, but the density of engineers makes it hard to be surrounded by them. The biggest issue with the homogeneity is that it creates groupthink. Everyone (ok, not everyone, but a lot of people) talk about and focus on the same things (social media, group messaging, daily deals, etc.). At some point in my life, I am going to start a company. I’m convinced it’s not healthy to be surrounded by the same stale ideas that everyone is trying. I want to be surrounded by people who are in the finance, fashion, publishing, movie industries. I’m sure there are a lot of really interesting problems in these fields which I am woefully unaware of, not being involved in those industries. Being surrounded by a diverse group of people is a great way to get exposed to a variety of problems which most engineers aren’t remotely aware of because they are off in the ivory tower that is Silicon Valley.

A direct result of the lack of diversity is that there are very few women in Silicon Valley. A highly unscientific study found that the ratio was about 3 males : 2 females. Settling down isn’t on my immediate horizon, but I want to be in a place where going on dates is a reasonable possibility. NYC has much more favorable odds: Census data pegs the ratio at roughly 52% females : 48% males. (A note to those who will undoubtedly criticize me for talking about gender in Silicon Valley: this blog post is about why I chose New York, being a straight male.)

To mitigate the lack of diversity, some engineers choose to live in San Francisco. This solves a lot of the above problems — but it comes at a cost. A 1:30h commute. Each way. Every day. For those keeping count, that’s 15 hours a week commuting, every single day, for years on end. I don’t want to spend almost two full work days per week on a bus, no matter how comfortable its leather seats are. In NYC, I’ll have a 5-10 minute walk to the office, hardly a commute.

NYC is not all roses. There are tradeoffs: I realize that I’m not going to be employee #1 at the next Facebook or Google working out of NYC. Also, the weather is a lot worse than the Valley. These tradeoffs seem minor compared to the benefits I’ll gain: more diversity, a better dating scene, and essentially no commute. To engineers who are just graduating or who are looking for internships, I encourage you to consider NYC. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Silicon Valley, but not a lot of people talk about the downsides.