Silicon Valley can be beaten.

I have struggled, for years, to figure out whether Silicon Valley can be beaten. That is, can that toxic society be outperformed, shown up, and replaced by something with that has better moral values and that is more conducive to technical excellence? I’m starting to suspect that the answer is “yes”, and I’m starting to get a sense of what that might look like.

Some history

The original Silicon Valley, of the 1970s, is gone. To get started, it required cheap real estate and, more importantly, a laid-back and accepting cultural climate, completely opposite of what exists now. You can’t have a decent culture when middle-class houses sell for millions, when cutthroat behavior is the norm, and when so many silly cosmetic “defects” (if they can even be called that) such as being “too old” to program (no such thing exists) can be used as justification to deny someone a job. The old Silicon Valley was built by people who were passionate about technology; the new one is run by MBAs who can’t get private equity jobs and end up in venture capital or as executives in VCs’ portfolio companies.

The current Silicon Valley is a cultural failure, with no values other than growth at all costs. It doesn’t even value technology itself, other than as a means for aggressive personal advancement. This culture says: be a “unicorn”. It says: take reckless risks, and hire and fire fast, and behave as if it weren’t peoples’ lives in the balance, but just currencies in a video game.

Silicon Valley also isn’t selective enough. It’s exclusionary in all sorts of stupid ways related to age, gender, and social class, but it failed to be selective on the things that actually matter. It didn’t keep out the sexism and ageism and crassness of its colonial overseers (the mainstream business culture) out. Rather, it allowed those illnesses to metastasize into something that makes the old corporate culture, from the Mad Men era, appear civilized in comparison. It fails to be selective on culture, allowing the worst kinds of corporate crudeness– like bonuses paid in cash that is wrapped in bacon, because apparently vegetarians, Jews, and Muslims don’t count– in; but it also fails to be selective with regard to people, because its major decision makers are too intellectually limited to recognize talent, and therefore operate according to nepotism and pedigree. Any idiot who went to the right schools and has the right connections can swoop in as a founder and manage nerds. It doesn’t matter if that person is an idiot; he just has to convince half-retired businessmen called “venture capitalists”, investing other peoples’ money, to like him. Likewise, on housing: talented, objectively desirable, people get pushed out by when they have children, but any douchebag with a couple million to blow can live there. California, to be blunt, failed because it was too accepting. It didn’t reject people whom it should have known would trample its values. Burning Man’s “we are all one tribe” mentality was admirable, but it needed, at some point, to stop the billionaires from dragging in what didn’t belong, and it didn’t, and now Burning Man has been invaded by the worst kinds of people. I don’t think that this transformation can be reversed, any more than one can un-mix sewage and wine.

I would argue, in fact, that California won in the latter half of the 20th century because of its former culture of inclusiveness, but that it was too inclusive and therefore didn’t last, and that its loss of integrity came from it letting in too much of the old, Establishment culture. If you’re going to build something, you need, preemptively, to exclude the people who’ll set themselves up as the new elite and exclude you.

The fatal flaw of the California and, possibly, of the United States, is that it bought in fully to the market state and that it failed to reject. To make it clear, I’m not advocating the rejection of people, but of culture and of power. With culture, one needs to block out the bad stuff before get it gets in; and, to the tasteless expressions and derivations of power, you need to say, “Your money is no good here”. I have no belief in superior or inferior people, but there are superior and inferior cultures (if one does not believe this, then one gives up on improving one’s own culture) and it’s important to recognize this. Moreover, almost always money, power, and influence of an unsavory kind should be rejected, even if it seems expedient in the short term to let them in. For example, the U.S. doesn’t have to let every crooked overseas billionaire own residential real estate in this country, and its doing so has damaged many of the nation’s best cities.

The biggest problem with failure-to-reject is there will always be rejection, one way or another. Ideas and interests conflict. If a nation accepts the will of the market state and cedes too much (such as the right for non-resident non-citizens to own property there) to the global wealthy, then it is rejecting its own people’s right to live there at affordable prices. Fifty years ago, California may have been the epitome of inclusion and novelty. Now it’s traffic-ridden, expensive, and stratified. This has the emergent effect of rejecting people who might otherwise belong in a place that intends to be a capital of technology (as absurd as that very notion may have proven itself to be). Talented, hard-working people get pushed out because they can’t afford to raise a family there. At the same time, the worst non-resident billionaires in the world can buy houses, that they do not intend to set foot in, as insurance policies in case their own people rise up against them.

Silicon Valley has been lost. That war is over, and the bad guys won. The mainstream business culture, or “the Establishment”, has colonized it and repurposed it outright. The metastatic entity that has taken it over is a loosely-connected network of powerful investors (of other peoples’ money, mostly) who all talk to each other and decide, as a group, which of their disposable companies will be selected to die, and which will be turned into “unicorns” or sold to massive companies. They’ve managed to create a company-like entity in which they’re the real executives, but through the magic of disposable companies, they’re able not only to convince their middle management (founders) that they’re quasi-autonomous entrepreneurs, but to limit their own legal risk as investors rather than executives. Corporate managers can’t legally discriminate based on age, gender or race, but venture capitalists can. Information about founders’ health history and family background is frequently shared by VCs, when such things would never be discussed in a traditional corporation, because HR would prevent it.

The VC-funded ecosystem is the first postmodern corporate entity, and it concentrates American passive capital (“dumb money”) in a tiny, congested region of the country, and an increasing number of talented young people are being drawn into that machine because of its false promises regarding professional autonomy, technical excellence, and the likelihood of life-changing wealth. In reality, these companies often provide less professional autonomy than larger, wealthier corporations; the few of those newly founded companies that value technical excellence are an oddity and often inaccessible without an advanced degree; and those not born into the connections have far worse odds of life-changing wealth than they’d have if they joined more stable companies like investment banks and hedge funds.

Silicon Valley’s VC-funded meta-company is starting to hurt the world in ways that would be unimaginable, 20 years ago. For just one of many examples, let’s talk about the open-plan office, a destructive practice (for cognitively intense work) that has metastasized beyond the VC-funded world, spilling out into large companies. Silicon Valley loves open-plan offices, because VC-funded companies need continually to manage up into investors, until those companies are pawned off to a corporate giant like Google or to the investing public. While counter-productive to creativity and intolerable after age 40 (or after a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, which is where the open-plan lifestyle leads) the open-plan environment looks busy. It’s atrocious, but it photographs well, and it remains in place because it shows a good look on the one day per year that the investors actually come on-site.

To me, the growth of the open-plan monster establishes that most corporate programmers are more useful as office ornamentation than for the work that they actually do. Their job is to make the company look productive, more than it is to solve technical problems. When I noticed that programmers at Fortune 500 companies were being crammed into panic-box, bull-pen offices because it was what the “hip” startups were doing, I realized that Silicon Valley needed to be destroyed. Open plan offices are discriminatory, immature, malevolent and anti-intellectual. We need to take the Valley down– at least, be must demolish the impression that it is a leader in culture and innovation– before it destroys the whole economy. The Valley, alas, won’t be destroyed until it is outperformed. So let’s talk about that.

Imitation does not lead to victory

A large number of cities wish to become “the next Silicon Valley” and see themselves getting there by playing by the Valley’s rules. That’s a mistake. It’s a recipe for brain drain. There’s nothing exciting about creating a replica. If a random city were to start pumping itself up as “the next Silicon Valley”, or as a future startup hub without distinguishing itself in a meaningful way, then it would find most of its best people moving away for “the real thing” as soon as they had their first glints of success. In fact, that’s often what we see in second-tier locations that have tried to make themselves into “the next tech hub” via conventional means.

On the other hand, there’s growing consensus (or, to use a more correct term, acknowledgement) around the fact that Silicon Valley’s culture is toxic. Between the sexism and classism and ageism, the horrendous management ideas (e.g. Scrum and open-plan offices), the founder-quality issues, and the obsession with financial growth (unicorns!) at the expense of all else, it’s a place and arena that has lost its values. Increasingly, true technologists look at the culture of the VC-funded world and realize that it has to die, because marketing experiments using technology have won the decade while the larger goal of improving the human condition has been forgotten. To be a technologist used to mean that one wanted to invest in humanity’s total capital; now, the industry has been swarmed by champion value-capturers. Consequently, the short-term “next quarter” mentality, couched in juvenile lingo about “failing fast”, has won and to have vision is to make oneself a pariah.

It’s becoming obvious that the status quo needs to die. So what will replace it? Smart people pile into places like Silicon Valley in their 20s, and most leave in their 30s and 40s, but they don’t all go to the same place in that outbound phase. Some go to Seattle, others to Chicago, still others to Austin, others to North Carolina or Colorado. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it prevents urban congestion, but it also prevents an obvious successor “hub” from showing the Valley that it ain’t all that. In terms of what shall replace the VC-funded monstrosity, there seems likewise to be no obvious replacement in any one place. Talent concentrates, and then most of it is discarded by a business elite that realizes that too much talent is dangerous to its interests (you might get unions! or a new elite with better values!) and the talent doesn’t seem to re-concentrate in one place.

One could conceivably choose an affordable city like Chicago or Portland or Philadelphia and announce that that place is going to be where the Valley’s best go when they become adults and can’t stand the juvenile culture anymore, and maybe something would happen. To me, though, it seems that it’s going to take a lot more. There are many cities that could step in and become the Silicon Valley For Adults, but it doesn’t seem that there’s one obvious winner, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe Silicon Valley’s arrogant dismissal of all other locations equally as second-class citizens in technology is something that did us all a service, because maybe the successor shouldn’t be one physical place. Anyway, building a new startup scene that’s defined as “not San Francisco” isn’t enough. We can all agree that the Silicon Valley scene is toxic, because it is; even still, negative definitions aren’t inspiring. Besides, should Silicon Valley’s successor even be location-dependent in the first place? Won’t that just risk making yet another place self-referential and obnoxious?

We need a different attitude. We might need a core location– perhaps an affordable but talent-rich city in the Midwest– when things are starting out, but our goal should be to transcend one physical place and, eventually, one country. For the long game, we need to accept that no location ever had anything close to a monopoly on quality people, and transcend the placism of the old regime. That’s actually very hard to do, because while remote work is a solved problem, remote leadership requires a degree of multilateral trust that forms over time and is often incompatible with “unicorn” growth. Moreover, no company will be able to manage up into the short-attention-span Silicon Valley cadre without being parked in one location, preferably no more than an hour away from the man-child Versailles that is Sand Hill Road.

Chutzpah: or, why Tel Aviv will outlive Mountain View

I’ve spent years studying the economic, geographical, and historical forces that choose winners and losers among locations. The long-term forecast of Silicon Valley isn’t good. As soon as there’s a downturn, people will abandon it. It’s a place where people go to make money, but no one really cares about the place. What happened to the people who did care about their communities, in the Bay Area? They were priced out a long time ago. After a crash, I don’t see it likely that they come back.

What’s considered to be the second-most vital startup environment? Many people cite Israel. I was discussing this with a friend who has lived in Russia, Israel, and now the U.S., and from the conversation, I got a sense of why Israel is so entrepreneurial. The root concept is: culture of substance. A culture of substance keeps a region vital, and prevents fragility. The selfish “party” culture that one gets in the absence of substance, on the other hand, makes for a place that will be abandoned as soon as there is any difficulty there.

When you have a culture of substance, you trust that the people around you will support you even if you have a difficult year, become unpopular, or suffer a career setback. This allows people to take entrepreneurial risks that they might avoid in other cultures, and supports the famous Israeli chutzpah. Nordic nations, beset by frigid winters that force a person to reflect on one’s own mortality and, therefore, our interconnectedness through life and death, also have a culture of substance. (The issue, in many European countries, is a lack of capital.) The United States is very large and the country certainly has cultures of substance within it, but there is also a profound culture of commercialism and superficiality that one must sometimes contend with, and the latter dominates the upper echelons of the corporate world.

The Bay Area had a culture of substance at one time, but it’s been driven out by the Damasos sent West by the Establishment to manage nerds, the colonial overseers who are now the champion value-capturers in Silicon Valley. Cities that have sold themselves out to the global rich, like Dubai, are also going to score poorly on the culture-of-substance scale. Other cities that conserve their creative energy, like Budapest, do well. With the VC-funded Silicon Valley, the majority of an entire industry has lost its culture of substance. It doesn’t have values; it has slogans.

The culture-of-substance advantage explains why Israel and Finland don’t suffer severe brain drain at the hands of Silicon Valley, while the most suburbanized, denatured stretches of the United States do. Moving from a subdivision to an office park doesn’t feel like a step down; moving out of a genuine community where one has support, does. I think, however, that it explains a lot more. A culture of substance encourages people to integrate their ethics, relationships, creativity, and work. It opposes the siloization of human life that allows people to be one person in the office and an entirely different person at home. It makes the rotten culture of the VC-funded world in Silicon Valley impossible, because it disallows a person from doing something unethical and calling it “just business”. In a culture of substance, you don’t betray your friend because you think he’s inconvenient to your immediate career goals.

In comparison to the flash- and marketing-driven Silicon Valley, Israel is far more focused on fundamental research. I think that some of the ideas that we’ll need, if we wish to defeat Silicon Valley, originated in the Israeli kibbutzim. The kibbutzim were residential, communal farms founded on socialistic principles, and the movement transformed a stretch of land that most had thought of as a non-productive waste into a beautiful, wealthy country. Obviously, farming requires physical presence, so the kibbutzim were mostly residential. What we create, to replace Silicon Valley, will have to be geographically distributed. Membership is intended to be lifelong, while residence in one location rarely is. Moreover, while it will have to be very selective when it comes to values and merit, it will be ethnically, religiously, racially, and gender/gender-preference inclusive as a constitutional requirement.

Most modern Israelis don’t live in kibbutzim, and the kibbutzim have had to evolve with a high-technology society, so most of them are no longer residential or purely socialistic. However, the egalitarian ethos of the kibbutzim has enabled an Israeli chutzpah that encourages risk-taking and economic growth. From everything that I’ve read and heard about Israel’s startup culture, Israel’s strength seems to come from a “we’re in this together” attitude and a pay-it-forward mentality. Unlike in the Valley, where people are constantly sizing each other up for social rank, and where introductions and access are resources to be hoarded, the prevailing tendency of Israelis to help each other out and to pool resources.

Where does the chutzpah come from? One trait that I find admirable about Jewish culture is the emphasis on virtue as its own reward. Judaism is generally agnostic on the existence of an afterlife: you should be virtuous for its own sake, and not to achieve some supernatural reward. Moreover, to have doubts about the existence of God is almost expected as a phase in life. Judaism, in most interpretations, considers it no offense to disbelieve, and you’ll never be driven out of the community if you are agnostic or an atheist. Membership in many Jewish communities is held to be deeper than the fluctuations of one’s theological convictions. The kibbutzim, likewise, have a never-turn-your-back ethos. They’re hard to get into, but once you’re in, you’ll be a member for life, even if you become sick and unable to work. Although Israel is now a capitalistic, technologically advanced country, that spirit has lived on. When you know that your brethren will never abandon you, you can have chutzpah, you can take risks, and you can create.

For a contrast, examine Silicon Valley, where simply not being happy is cause for a person to be ostracized, fired, and discarded. In cultures of substance, it’s accepted as normal that one will not always be happy, and that there will be good years and bad ones. Cultures that emerge in the absence of substance, like most corporate cultures, drive out the “morale risks”, as well as the eccentrics and the perceived troublemakers, first.

When you’re backed by a community that won’t turn its back on you no matter what, you’re also capable of great creativity. This was observed in celibate or ascetic 19th-century American Christian movements and often attributed to self-denial or sexual sublimation. Whether this is a wholly accurate depiction, it seems either way that creative anti-fragility emerges in a community that accepts life’s difficulties, and treats failure in good faith as a lesson rather than a stigma. Israel is possibly the hardest place in the developed world to live, because, in addition to the heritage of having been set in a harsh desert climate with no natural resources, it’s been under attack for decades. It’s a place where people wouldn’t survive if they didn’t have each others’ backs. California is a place where people go because they want easy lives and clement weather– and, prima facie, there isn’t anything wrong with that. Israel is a place where people go, knowing that life will be difficult, because there is something there that they value.

The #1 and #2 startup hubs in the world could not be more different. The first, when it began, was so admirably inclusive that it inadvertently invited in its own destruction by failing to recognize the bad intentions of the Establishment, and by therefore inviting in those who became its colonial bosses. The second comes from a community that also values inclusion and social justice, but that has learned the hard way that it needs to protect itself. A common metaphor for the Israeli character is the sabra, or cactus: thick-skinned and tough on the exterior, but sweet and delicate on the inside. The character of Silicon Valley, on the other hand, is sweet on the outside but toxic on the inside.

Cultures of substance are anti-fragile, while cultures without substance (such as Silicon Valley) are brittle. Silicon Valley venture capitalists stop returning your calls at the first sign of trouble. If your reputation takes a hit, they don’t back you or take your side, but they move on to a younger, not-yet-challenged person. In fact, what I find most unpleasant about the California character is the social institution of mandatory happiness. In the passive-aggressive culture that dominates the VC-funded world, the thinking is: if you’re not smiling and energetic at all times, you must be a loser. Something I’ve observed in people who come from Eastern Europe and Israel, is that you aren’t abandoned if you’re unhappy. Negative or difficult emotions are accepted as a part of life, rather than being ignored and stigmatized by people who’d prefer to pretend that they don’t exist.

A culture of substance values people based on their character, not their popularity or success, because it understands implicitly that those fluctuate over the years. A culture of substance exerts itself to make the people of character successful, rather than assuming that people who succeed are of good character, and that those who fail are not. If you fail in good faith, in a culture of substance, you’re not discarded. The attitude is: that happens, we’ll help you get back on your feet, and let’s get on with it. The color-negative of a culture of substance is a party culture where you’re constantly required to remain popular and “cool” or you will be tossed out like yesterday’s dogshit. Silicon Valley is the latter kind. Sure, you can distract yourself from the day’s work by attending a jungle-themed launch party with a 600-pound caged tiger; but if you haven’t had enough of a personal take to be independently wealthy by age 40, you’re tossed out. Over time, this leaves Silicon Valley with cultural and moral blind spots, and drives it toward hubris and fragility.

If you look at cultures of substance, the attitude of not abandoning people based on fluctuations in their success and popularity makes them anti-fragile, meaning that they become stronger under adversity. Silicon Valley is the opposite. Silicon Valley stopped leading in actual innovation a couple decades ago. Snapchat is simply not on the same level as the integrated circuit. The odd brand of “nerd chic” (which is neither) is the only thing that the Valley has. It has an image that draws people in and enables that system to abuse people for five to ten years. After the next crash in the VC-funded technology market, Silicon Valley will probably collapse. There is nothing to hold it together. Anything other than continuing good fortune will cause what communities exist within it to fall apart.

Of course, Silicon Valley people love to claim that “failure is good” and that it’s not stigmatized to fail in good faith. That was probably true at one time, but it’s not true now. Sure, an entrepreneur can bounce back from a failure– if he gets a good reference from his social superiors (investors). If not, he’s screwed. Engineers have even less of a chance to recover. Technology companies are notorious for disguising layoffs as “low-performer initiatives”, meaning that the company chooses to save its reputation at the expense of the people it must let go. “Fail fast” is often an excuse for sloppy hiring-and-firing, and being “scrappy” is often a justification for below-market salaries (offset by future-oriented promises– equity, rapid promotion, investor contact– that are often never delivered) and nonexistent severance compensation. In general, Silicon Valley’s “failure is OK” attitude is code for “it’s OK for me to fail you“, the “me” in that statement referring to investors and founders, and the “you” referring to the engineers and technologists who’ve been rendered a peasant class. If you fail in good faith, you recover if and only if your patrons in the investor class aren’t bored with you. A kibbutz won’t abandon you if you get sick and have a bad year, and even though most Israelis no longer live in kibbutzim, that ethical impulse remains within their society. Bay Area VCs, on the other hand, will stop returning your calls if they catch even a whiff of a possibility that other VCs don’t like you.

When you have faith that your colleagues will not abandon you no matter what, you can innovate. You can take genuine risks and put yourself out there to do things right. When you’re trying to execute a social climb in a culture where “fail fast” is just a code word for “disposable companies”, you can’t.


Israel is a place where people, from all over the world, go to live. The Bay Area (except for isolated communities within San Francisco that aren’t accepting new members) is only a place where people go to make money, preferably as quickly as possible so they can “cash out” and start living the lives (far, far away from the plebeian engineers on 0.03% equity slices, who all blend together, as far as they see it) that they feel they were meant to live. There was a culture in the Bay Area, but it has been driven out. What remains is Silicon Valley, which is nothing more than the cloud of human attention that surrounds a massive pile of money and resources.

One requirement for a culture of substance seems to be exclusivity, not in the sense of rejecting people per se but in rejecting the behaviors that will corrode it. It needs to be able to protect itself and its values. This means that it must be “K-selective” ( a term that I’ll discuss, just below) in terms of its growth.

Evolutionary biology discusses the pressures of r- and K-selection, with r referring to the base reproductive rate and K to carrying capacity (as a proxy for the quality of an organism). An r-selective organism will have hundreds of offspring but offers no parental investment, while a K-selective organism focuses on quality over quantity and seeks to have its few (meaning “less than 25”) offspring thrive. I doubt, for an example of this, that a mother spider having hundreds of offspring cares nearly as much about each one as a K-selective human, elephant, or whale does about her few children. We generally view spiders as r-strategists and ourselves as K-strategists. Of course, nature isn’t so simple that any complex organism can be categorized as a pure r- or K-strategist; an example would be the tree, which disseminates many seeds but produces long-lived, hardy individuals. We’re all both, and it’s arguable that the birth of human culture and religion emerged in an arms race between the r- and K-strategic modules of our own minds.

Why are humans r- and K-strategic in reproduction, and what does that have to do with morality and culture? Objectively speaking, there’s no reason to consider either set of natural impulses “bad” or “good”. The r-strategist that lives in most humans, demonized as satanic by Abrahamic religions and called “the id” (actually “das Es”, to be pedantic) by Freud, is not a socially well-adjusted creature. That said, r-strategic organisms excel at repopulating after an ecological catastrophe, and “r-ish” behavior patterns like polygyny often become acceptable in communities that would otherwise reject them, when there is a sudden collapse of population. The r-drive is great at repopulating a species after a catastrophe, and that’s presumably a major reason why nature left it in the human psyche. The K-drive (superego) seems to be where civilization comes from, though. The r-strategist would be content to spawn 400 children and die. The K-strategist, having a small number of children, wants them to be successful, and it wants to remain alive so that it can support and teach them. So a K-strategist cares about social justice and civil progress, because high-quality offspring (by which I mean, offspring with a large degree of paternal investment) are going to fare better in a low-volatility, stable society than in a “might makes right”, chaotic one. The r-drive, on the other hand, doesn’t care about social stability or preserving cultural integrity. It just wants to exert power and spread its seed, so it’s fine with the “might makes right” culture that one gets when ethics degrade.

If we want to replace Silicon Valley, we’ll have to avoid devolving into “might makes right” culture in the way that Silicon Valley did. We’ll need a culture of substance, not a “what you can take is yours” culture. Silicon Valley capitalism is r-selective capitalism, because it encourages companies to grow rapidly with no consideration for preserving values or culture (often, the company is encouraged to have neither, morality being a distraction and an impediment). We need to figure out how to develop a K-selective capitalism based not on rapid growth but on smart growth. That is how we will defeat Silicon Valley (or, at least, render it irrelevant, which is enough). We have to be better, not just technically but morally.

The day-to-day decisions that transfer power must be criticized and cultural degradation must be fought. This is why I am so zealous in tearing down unqualified or culturally blighting founders. Letting people like Evan Spiegel, hailing from a since-banned rape frat at Stanford, be rewarded with his own startup is to accept cultural decay because it is convenient in the short-term, or fills some marketing need of some sub-contingent of the society. Venture capitalists chose to make Evan Spiegel a billionaire– to “produce” him in the Hollywood sense of the word– because they needed a frat-boy figurehead for a sexting app. In doing so, they prioritized a short-term marketing impulse over the long-term health of what’s left of California’s entrepreneurial culture. Why? Because they can; they live in the might-makes-right world of Silicon Valley. I reject all of that.

Cultures of substance tend to be K-selective. They want to thrive, but not to grow at all costs. Scandinavian countries, for example, aren’t interested in enforcing their variety of libertarian socialism on the rest of the world. They want to get their own societies right. That’s a K-strategic behavior. Judaism, with a conservative policy around conversion, is culturally K-selective, as are many strains of Christianity (e.g. Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers). Most Jews would like to see their vision social justice, democracy, cultural vibrancy and religious freedom in all of the world, but they have no desire to convert billions of people into their religion. K-selective cultures value growth, but not if it compromises their character.

Silicon Valley, having no meaningful culture and being dominated by a “might makes right” ethos, is intensely r-selective. “Fail fast” is a more polite way of saying “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks”. Business and employment relationships are purely transactional, formed quickly and cut for arbitrary reasons or no reason. Rapid growth is demanded and it is better to tolerate existential risk to the company than to grow at “only” 50 percent per year. “Make the world a better place” is a brand designed to appeal to the young quixotic people who will do all the work, but the leaders of that world mock such slogans and ideals behind closed doors. VC-funded companies are designed to take on massive risk, with little to no concern for the people employed by them or for their long-term career needs. Engineers are abandoned in middle age if they don’t have the most stylish kind of work experience, and even founders are contingent on their investors for the all-important reference.

It’s going to take a K-strategic impulse to beat Silicon Valley. We can’t play their sloppy “spray it anywhere” r-selective game. We’ll lose at that; they’re way too good at it.

The business end

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a “natural growth rate” to technical businesses. It’s industry-dependent and varies with scale, but I’d guess that it’s typically between 10 and 50 percent per year. This isn’t want unicorns are made of, unless they’re given 20 years or more to develop; this is the “get rich slowly” avenue that no one seems to be willing to talk about.

Growth at the natural rate is fast enough. I believe that I can increase the value of my work at 20 percent per year over the next 25 years without anyone else losing. Growth beyond the natural rate, however, seems to increase risk to a degree that most people find unacceptable. Usually, growth beyond the natural rate involves entering zero-sum territorial squabbles. That causes loss for others, and this leads to conflict, which is a source of risk. For most of human history, the natural rate of economic growth for humanity’s technical level fell short of population increases, resulting in constant war and exploitation. That’s different now. Growth at 10 to 20 percent per year, with no one losing in the process, is possible now and it probably will be possible for a very long time. That could continue until we have a post-scarcity society.

World economic growth in the agrarian era (up to 1800 AD) was on the order of 0.1 to 1 percent per year, and that’s still the typical appreciation rate of land. In the industrial era (1800 to 2050 AD??; I would argue that we’re still in it) the prevailing rate jumped into the 1 to 10 percent range, and late-industrial companies still see that as a typical level of growth. The prevailing growth rate of technological enterprises seems to be 10 to 50 percent. For an inspirational but probably optimistic upper limit, Moore’s “Law” suggests 59% growth. Technology companies can achieve 20 or 40 percent annual growth without taking on unacceptable risks. At 300 percent, however, technology companies are usually taking on large risks and getting involved in zero-sum games. That’s not necessarily the wrong thing to do, but it shouldn’t be venerated or made the default behavior.

Usually, when an industrial-style company seemed “too good to be true”, it was. If it grew at 30% per year, there was probably something rotten behind the curtain. Most of the exceptions were in technology: actual technology, not this VC-funded Snapchat nonsense. Technology companies could improve themselves so quickly that 30% annual growth, without hiding risks or taking unwise gambles, was actually possible. It required a lot of work, a very high level of internal talent, and large investments in R&D, but those types of numbers actually could be achieved while doing things the right way. Technology companies aren’t immune to the “moral speed limit” or the “too good to be true” factor, but their limits are much higher.

Y Combinator expects 7 percent growth per week. If you don’t make those numbers, the YCs lose interest and, since every YC company is built to later be pitched to real venture capitalists and requires the YC connections to get a chance, that’s a problem. Anyway, 7 percent growth per week is 34x annual growth. There’s very little that can grow at such a rate sustainably, and if someone promised 3314 percent annual growth of his business, I wouldn’t invest in him. I’d suspect that something bizarre and possibly unseemly was going on.

Some companies are built for rapid growth or total failure, with no room for the intermediate outcome of merely fast (20-40% per year) growth. Their escalating expenses mandate rapid acceleration, and their get-rich-quick cultures mean that they can only maintain talented people with rapid compensation increases and growing headcount (so the talented people can have teams built under them, fast, to deal with the mounting chaos). Others target lower growth rates but are less likely to fail. These aren’t new concepts, but it’s worth noting that a spectrum exists between low-margin businesses without much risk, and high-risk businesses capable of rapid growth, and that the extremes aren’t the only options.

There’s a spectrum of risk and expected growth, which are known to be positively correlated. The extreme leftward end of the spectrum would be to buy treasury bonds: very low risk, not much gain. At the rightward end, we reach and surpass a concept that I call the “moral speed limit”. But what is the moral speed limit, and why should one exist? Is there anything immoral, prima facie, about high-risk investments? No, I don’t think so. Ethical breach exists not when the risks are “too high”, because that’s a subjective notion, but when people are misled about what risks exist. Economic growth seems to have moral speed and growth limits because the willingness and ability to take risk are limited.

The current Silicon Valley system is not interested in defrauding financial investors, because that’s a quick way to end up in court, or in jail, and with a ruined reputation. The “marks” in the new game are the people investing their careers in it: the software engineers. They move into one of the most inflated real estate markets on earth and throw down 90-hour work weeks, because they’ve been promised rapid career growth. Ten years later, they’re unemployable elsewhere, because getting one’s due in the Valley requires a job-hopping strategy that still retains a stigma everywhere else; they have developed or are developing open-plan syndrome; they are starting to face age discrimination and the “Why aren’t you a founder?” question; and they still haven’t had the investor-level introductions that they were promised in exchange for that first 20% pay cut and for the ten years of mediocre raises.

Meanwhile, those same people have traded away millions of dollars in opportunity cost and future income for… if they’re lucky, a couple hundred grand in tech stock. Why does these ruses work? Why do people move to the Valley despite the long odds and toxic work culture? The answer is that there’s a kernel of truth to what Silicon Valley represents: rapid growth, powered by technology, is both possible and a good thing. 7 percent per week, the YC target, means that you’re probably looking at a pyramid scheme, but 7 percent per four months is an achievable growth rate for even a modestly ambitious technology company. Silicon Valley itself may be ethically bankrupt, but there is a truth behind it, which is that rapid career and economic growth through technology ought to be possible.

On the risk spectrum, the mid-risk/mid-growth space is undercapitalized. For low-margin businesses that are unlikely to fail, bank loans are a possibility. Traditional banks aren’t interested in innovative R&D, however, and they shouldn’t be, because it’s not their job. For high-risk gambits that either turn into unicorns (and don’t deliver much social benefit, unless one counts the bank accounts of a few people) or die within three years, there’s venture capital. Technology’s natural place, though, is in the middle of this spectrum: 20 to 40 percent annual growth. It’s not that we hate risk. It’s that we dislike the superiority in importance of social manipulation over technical expertise and effort that inevitably sets in once the levels of risk are so high that measuring genuine merit becomes nearly impossible. The more noise there is in a system, the more likely it is that social garbage will infect the evaluation process around who and what succeeded or failed and what the reasons for these outcomes are “officially” determined to have been.

Speaking for actual nerds and not the frat-boys who’ve colonized our world, we’re not that into the “unicorn” fetishism. It’s great when you can build a billion-dollar company by doing the right thing, but we’d rather build companies that make long careers possible, that have progressive cultures, that invest in their people, that grow sustainably, that value R&D, and that are responsible citizens of their community. We view it as acceptable for a person or company to fail in good faith, but we’re not interested in courting 90% chances of closing down out of some belief that failure isn’t a big deal. It is a big deal. It hurts people. Mid-risk/mid-growth businesses shouldn’t be derided as “lifestyle businesses”, and 35 percent annual growth is still quite fast: that pace would turn $100,000 into $40 million over 20 years. Rather, that region of the risk/growth spectrum is where technology naturally lives. On the other hand, the extreme-high-risk region that VCs love to invest in, is a salesman’s paradise, dominated by charlatans and influence peddlers. It’s a place where “hustlers” get 50 times the equity of builders. It’s a place where one would expect for true technologists to be a subordinate, colonized people.

It’s also not great for business. At some point, the positive correlation between expected returns (i.e. average performance) and volatility (i.e. risk) seems to disappear and reverse. Venture capital is, in fact, an underperforming asset class. While individual firms are held accountable for rapid growth, so many of these disposable companies are scrapped that the portfolio performance is mediocre. It might be better to fund mid-risk/mid-growth companies than to try to hatch unicorn eggs. Portfolio performance would probably improve. So why doesn’t that happen?

The honest answer to that question is that VCs are optimizing for their careers, not for portfolio performance. I don’t regard that as especially wrong– I care more about my career than about the performance of any company where I’ve worked, so can I blame VCs for being the same?– but it should be acknowledged. Venture capital is a volatile business where one can do everything right and still have mediocre returns, just because there are just so many random influences outside of one’s control. Consequently, savvy VCs realize that exposure and social access matter more than portfolio performance, and optimize for personal association with “unicorns”. It may be (and probably is) better for one’s portfolio to invest in the mid-growth, mid-risk businesses. However, every investor is going to have good years and bad years and, after a bad year, it’s critical to one’s career to be able to point to a “unicorn” and say, “I was in that thing’s A round”. The group-think and mediocrity that characterize the Bay Area venture capital industry are, likewise, what one would expect in a career where social access and influence matter more than excellence.

Category theory

Fixing technological capitalism is going to require a focus on the mid-risk, mid-growth businesses. Of course, 200 percent annual growth may happen for a “mid-growth” company that happens to do everything right and has a bit of unexpected luck; it’s just not sustainable at scale. A company whose managers or investors expect 200% annual growth is going to lose its culture. We need to focus on businesses that target 20 to 50 percent annual growth rates, and where the risk of utter failure is low enough that people can have careers building such companies, and that people other than Bay Area venture capitalists (who invest other peoples’ money to chase their own career goals) can feel comfortable investing capital in it. It’s also going to demand that we focus on returning technology companies to the hands of technologists in ideology as much as trade.

Although there are few kibbutzim in contemporary Israel, the advantage conferred by that country’s kibbutz heritage is a culture in which people aren’t abandoned when they have a year or few of bad economic fortune. Unlike in the Bay Area VC-funded culture, it’s not socially acceptable to turn your back on someone because that person goes through tough times or is unhappy. That creates cohesion and allows chutzpah, instead of generating fragility and imbuing fear.

Can the U.S. generate such a culture of innovation and substance, as opposed to the passive-aggressive one that currently exists in Silicon Valley? Absolutely. We have almost 320 million people, from every country in the world, and we have millions of the most talented people wanting to get in to this country. We have cities that are the envy of the world, and more variety in natural landscape than almost any other nation. We have the raw material and talent to build anything we want. We already have cultures (plural) of substance in the U.S.; we’ve simply failed to create one that is powerful enough to corner the American corporation and force it to take social justice, innovation, and cultural integrity seriously. Perhaps the technologist’s ideology (which I’ll define, below) is what it will take, but it can be done. I am, through all of this, an optimist.

So what is the technologist’s ideology, and why is it so important? The critical tenet of the technologist ideology is that scarcity is an enemy that we should be working to abolish. Additionally, it holds that social justice must be achieved and is more important than raw economic growth, and that human freedom (not only from government power, but from corporate power) should be upheld along the way. You don’t have to be a liberal or leftist to be a technologist. (Perhaps I might describe the ideology as eventual socialism, insofar as its long-term objective is a world that does not use scarcity to drive people to work, but it is a common belief among sincere technologists that some capitalistic machinery will be required to reach a post-scarcity world.) It does require a belief in basic principles of justice, decency, and social equality that are not observed in the stratified Silicon Valley world.

Is there room, in the corporate world, for values other than short-term profits? Or is the idea that business corporations might do anything other than maximizing their bottom line one that is hopelessly naive? I think that the next-quarter malady can be defeated, but it requires re-framing companies within some sort of ethical community of a kind that, at the scale of the United States, probably has never existed.

Silicon Valley people love to claim that their companies are “changing the world”, but starting a company is not the most effective way to make positive change. Creating a business is a great way to enhance one’s own income and autonomy, and possibly improve the world a little bit. That said, if businesses ran themselves to maximize positive change, they’d be in constant conflict with investors, and unlikely to last very long. If we want to change the world in a meaningful way, we must also change companies: how they are built, what demands are made of them, and how they interact with the larger world.

Paul Graham, after getting lucky in the 1990s and ending up with enough money to retire, launched a project called Y Combinator (“YC”). Graham had legitimately earned a reputation as a solid programmer after writing a couple of good Lisp books, and the Y Combinator project was a brilliant way for him to monetize his reputation. Since this anointed and seemingly magical incubator had access to venture capitalists right out of the gate, due to Graham’s ’90s luck, it managed to line up successful outcomes for a disproportionate number of its portfolio companies. Has Y Combinator changed the world? Not in any meaningful or inspiring way. It has made life easier for a few hundred founders, it has made it harder for people who aren’t in its target audience to secure seed or venture funding, and it has made Paul Graham and his cronies a lot richer. Mostly, it’s been a zero-sum transfer of reputation and social access.

What can a person do that might have a faint shot at positive change? Another damn company? Another damn incubator? Another damn venture fund? I’m not seeing it. In order to mix with the elite of Silicon Valley, any institution must be so stripped of its original values and culture as to leave no social purpose for its existence. Well, then… perhaps one needs to come up with something different.

That concept is: a category. In order to explain the concept, I must derive it.

Reading up on differences between European startup economies and Silicon Valley, Israel’s seemed the most different, and this seemed to be tied to the kibbutznik heritage. This got me thinking about whether something like a kibbutz could work in the U.S. technology industry (and, later on, that industry in other countries). The literal concept of the original kibbutz as an agrarian, socialistic, residential community is probably not going to appeal to American or European software engineers, who tend to be nomadic and individualistic. Perhaps there is something that can be learned from the spirit of a kibbutz: the concept of an ethical, intellectual, and creative community that will have your back no matter what. Entrepreneurs could use that kind of support, and they’ll never get it in the current “kick ’em when they’re down” Silicon Valley.

The core concept of a category is no more socialistic than existing capitalistic structures like unions, guilds, and venture capital funds. It is different in its devotion to ethics and cultural integrity in addition to success in business. It values quality of growth over rapidity of it. Unlike Y Combinator, a category is defined upon founding values (and I’ll elaborate a good starting set of them). Like a kibbutz, a category is designed to be highly selective but provide lifelong support. This mandates that it transcend specific companies, which can and will die at the will of the market.

If you’re a YC founder, but your company ceases to exist, you’re no longer part of Y Combinator. It isn’t lifelong support. It’s “support as long as you stay in the good graces of the Sand Hill Road community”. Y Combinator’s purpose is to serve an HR function within the postmodern meta-company of Silicon Valley. Its purpose is to assist its members and slightly improve their chances of ascendancy into the existing system, but not to support its members if one has a short period of time in which he or she is deemed not useful to that system. Moreover, I don’t think that we can expect any corporation or incubator or venture fund to support people or retain them for the long term. If the firm decides that it doesn’t need that person’s services, it will end the relationship. That’s just what companies do. Lifelong employment or even support is not a reasonable demand to put on something that has already determined and disclosed that it is, first and foremost, a profit-seeking business. The ideal of a category is that it seeks profit and growth, but also its own cultural health. If a business must contract, then people are let go, and the category does what it can to line those people up with other jobs and opportunities.

Should a category be realized by, or dominated by, one company? No, I’m going to argue, fervently, that it shouldn’t. We can’t put all of our hope in one firm. That’s not realistic. Like Silicon Valley, it should be a postmodern, distributed organization that transcends specific firms, matching talent to opportunity at scale. In fact, if a category is created in the right way, there should only need to be one of them, the purpose of a category being to unify talent (against an anti-intellectual world with uncultured leadership) and to pool resources.

There’s a brass-tacks, business definition of what I see a category being, and then there’s a philosophical, political concept of The Category, to which a category (as an organization) is to doomed be an imperfect (but, one hopes, not too imperfect) approximation. I prefer to talk big first, so I’ll describe what The Category is, and then describe what categories as organizations should do in order to realize it.

What is The Category? I’ve come to the conclusion that the iron law of oligarchy is, fundamentally, true. We need democratic structures within society in order to hold accountable whatever representative elite exists. That said, neither autocracy (all power held by one individual) or democracy is stable. Why? Let’s start at one extreme: autocracy. With a dictatorship, the autocrat needs information in order to make decisions, and one person just doesn’t have the bandwidth to get all of that information on his own. He’s going to rely on his lieutenants. Even if the autocrat himself is a person of good moral character, he’ll need to create an organization around himself and the people who become his trusted sources of information will likely be… the sorts of people who are good at rising within organizations: the psychopaths and natural oligarchs.

Democracy, on the other hand, is unstable because, on any issue, there will always be people who are indifferent and would (if it were legal) sell their vote quite readily. These are the “cheap votes”. In business, they’re the consumers who pay little attention to quality and respond most to advertising. Cheap votes can become the “swing” constituency that determines which politicians rise and which fall, or which brands prosper and which fail. In a democracy, those who are skilled at bundling together cheap votes into packages, that they can deploy or sell, become the emergent oligarchs. It seems to be difficult, if not impossible, to ban that pattern of behavior. For example, vote-buying is illegal in most democracies, but the leverage of cheap votes through advertisement and, therefore, campaign financing, is legal. A robust modern political system must have democratic machinery that gives the people the ability to fire the elite, in order to keep them accountable to the rest of the population, but there will always be an elite.

So what makes a good elite? A good elite might concentrate decision-making power in itself, but it makes those decisions for the benefit of all. This is a pretty rare arrangement, because most elites become complacent and self-serving if they can get away with it. Most elites, historically, have been held in place by racial, geographic, familial or economic barriers, and that has proven to be a disaster.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the most creative, intellectually curious, and cultured people comprise, or ought to, a new form of human group: not a tribe or a nation or a race or a religion or a social class, but something else entirely. Its people are male and female, gay and straight, cis- and transgender, light- and dark-skilled, theistic and atheistic and agnostic, Christian and Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and Jainist and non-religious and … (this list could go on for a while). They’re born on Manhattan as well as in sub-Saharan Africa and rural China. Some are born rich, some are born poor. I call the natural, optimal, elite of the human species The Category. It might comprise 1 to 2 percent of the population, for now, not necessarily because the natural ability is biologically scarce (it may be, or it may not be, and I lack the knowledge that would give me any authority on that topic) but because our species is at a low level of cultural evolution. At least now, very few people have the depth of knowledge, the perspective, and the intellectual curiosity necessary to lead– and most of the people who actually get to lead in our society fall into the lacking contingent.

In human societies, an elite will form. This is too important of a process not to get it right. I must make it clear that there is no justification for such an elite treating its own members as “better” than the rest. Being equipped to make important decisions doesn’t make one a superior person. The people in The Category are the natural pilots of the airplane that we call human civilization. The passengers are not less important or less deserving of good lives. They just don’t belong in the cockpit. It’s dangerous to all of us if we let them go there.

It may sound like I’m claiming to have invented the concept of “meritocracy”. That’s not my intention, because “meritocracy” is so often just another damn brand. Every elite claims to be a meritocracy based on the values of its time, whether they are religious, military, or industrial. So does every corporation in existence. No company states in its official values, “We promote loyal idiots and the boss’s kids”. An elite will form and it will call itself “a meritocracy”, but if The Category emerges as a political force, there will actually be a chance for genuine meritocracy.

What I advocate, ultimately, might be interpreted as some sort of Talent Nationalism. Of course, The Category (the realization of Talent as a cohesive force) is trans-national, multi-ethnic, and post-corporate. Its goal is to reach a society in which curiosity, creativity, social justice, and cultural integrity aren’t “nice to haves” that should be discarded when it is profitable or expedient, but non-negotiable ideals. Talent “Nationalism” is, additionally, one of the least racist or sexist or nationalist or classically elitist positions, because Talent is everywhere. One who wishes to promote Talent, and all of it, cannot reject people because of where they are born. The next Albert Einstein might have been born three days ago in the slums of Lagos. Or she might be a young girl in Saudi Arabia. Category Nationalism is aggressively anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-classist; our species can’t afford to keep wasting talent!

In the philosophical sense of it, I am not arguing for creating The Category. My argument is that it already exists. It just has not developed a cohesive awareness. Intelligent, compassionate, creative and intellectually curious people are an oppressed minority in every society on earth, because anti-intellectualism, brutality, and authoritarianism rule the day everywhere. That’s just how human societies seem to devolve. A tiny proportion of our members, in the Category, are rich, and a few (although very few) are powerful; but most of humanity’s important decisions are made by The Uncultured: the current elite that we will have to evict. We live in a world where heredity and social manipulations and extortions allocate the resources. Nothing stops billionaires among The Uncultured from purchasing Manhattan apartments not even to live there, but to store artwork purchased solely as an investment, that they will never look at. We need to fix that. We need to protect the Category. We need to get society run for the benefit of all (or, let’s be honest here, all but a few powerful malefactors, who will lose) but with the natural pilots (the Category) calling the shots.

If we consider The Category to be an elite, it’s to be an elite whose goal is its own extinction as a meaningful distinction. Perhaps only 1 to 2 percent of people right now are cultured enough to qualify for membership. (That number is a swinging guess; it might be less or more.) However, I believe that the Category’s ultimate long-term aim is a post-scarcity society that eradicates the social and economic limitations that prevent people from reaching their full potential. Right now, most humans are underdeveloped because society blocks their improvement and forces them to engage with a system that degrades everyone in it. In a more evolved humanity, whose culture and ethics are in a superior state to what exists now, The Category might comprise 5 percent, or 10 percent, or 70 percent, of the human population. If humanity evolves to a state in which the majority of people can be trusted to be pilots, then The Category ceases to be a meaningful distinction, and it’s no longer relevant. That’s something that all should wish for. The best and most creative people shouldn’t be a cornered minority living among a species that ignores their values. These values ought to be universal.

Why has corporate capitalism not produced rule by the best, or by The Category? I think that corporate capitalism is a good way to vote on businesses, insofar as it decides whether a search engine company should exist, but it doesn’t do a good job, at all, when it comes to voting on people. The market eventually punishes firms when they become too inefficient, but doesn’t intervene on the matter of how they choose their own leadership. The theory is that companies will somehow “learn” how to select leaders and organizational structure, as the ones that do so poorly will be nudged out of existence. In practice, this doesn’t happen because the feedback cycle is too long, the process is too opaque, and almost no one in a decision-making role for a specific business actually cares about its long-term fate. Companies that are terrible at selecting leaders will, observably, lose ground over time to companies that do a merely typically bad job of it, but that takes years or decades, and the result is that most companies are ill-led. Even with that being the case, the economy continues to grow (although not at the rate that it is capable of) simply because technology is very powerful. However, that growth seems slow compared to what is possible, and it is achieved with much more collateral damage, to people and to the planet, than should be tolerated.

What actually chooses leaders and losers, in the corporate world, is the same damn organizational social climbing that could have been observed in the court of Louis XIV. The ups and downs of businesses on the market and the careers of individual people are orthogonal, and the corporate world ends up with an entitled clergy known as “executives” who are defined by… the talent of making themselves executives. We use organizational ascent to choose decision makers, and it’s an outright disaster, and it’s left the world with leadership that is simply unequipped to handle modern challenges. I can’t even say that organizational ascent selects those with bad values, because it’s not quite true: it tends to favor those with no values. Why do we have our most powerful corporations run by useless human beings whose sole talent is to externalize costs in the interest of next-quarter profits? Because the game of organizational ascent selects the most competent social climbers, not the best people, and those who have no values are the least inhibited in their climb.

The moral and organizational failures of corporate capitalism have proven that human society is destined to have an elite. Capitalism doesn’t pre-ordain an elite, but one emerges. It will happen. The Category, currently an ignored minority, is comprised of the people who would actually do some good if they were in the cockpit: people with intellectual curiosity and vision, rather than champion organizational social climbers.

The ultimate purpose of realizing The Category is as follows, and I believe these claims to be factual rather than speculative or quasi-religious in nature. World economic growth is about 5 percent per year, and likely to increase over time. That’s the good news. The bad news is that inequality is increasing, and the power of those who would use technology to preserve scarcity and even create new forms of it, rather than to eliminate it, is a threat to the long-term prosperity that technology should deliver. There are also credible existential threats to the human future, such as anthropogenic climate change and the threat of nuclear warfare, that we need to get a handle on. I don’t believe that the situation is anywhere near hopeless, but it is dangerous. If technology, as it grows to dominate the economy, doesn’t eliminate scarcity as it progresses, then it will create massive underemployment and permanent subjugation of those who are not propertied when the demand for human labor collapses. It is necessary to get out ahead of these trends. Since the current elite (called “the 1 percent” in the U.S., but they are actually only about 0.01 percent of the world population) cannot be trusted, it’s time for a group that can be trusted to step forward and lead technology. This requires that we emancipate ourselves from the MBA culture’s colonial overseers who currently dominate Sand Hill Road.

I’ve thought quite deeply about the growing tension between the existing elite (“the 1 percent”) and the cognitive “1 percent” that I call The Category. It’s probably obvious, which side I want to win.

Getting it done

The philosophical concept of The Category is useful as a motivation when creating new organizations. All of that said, it is certainly not possible now to recognize The Category, scaleably and on an individual level, and to change the shape of human society in order to put it in power. That’s a 100-year effort, not a 2-year project.

Universities, one could argue, attempted to realize The Category, through the service of undergraduate education. There are some problems with them, in this capacity. First of all, academia is one industry that can’t meaningfully expand. Even if the top universities made no selection errors (“false positives”) they simply aren’t large enough to find the people of The Category at a global scale. Harvard or Stanford or MIT cannot, and should not be expected to, take in every person who might be qualified to attend. It’s unreasonable to expect them to do so, given their finite resources. Second, universities evaluate people in bulk, quickly, and at a very young age. They make mistakes, and that’s fine, because the stakes aren’t very high: people who “belong” at elite universities but are rejected from one will attend another. The job of a college admissions office is to build a study body of high overall quality, and they succeed at that, but it’s not to arbitrate at an individual level who is fit to run the world and who is not. They’d have to put far more effort into each decision than they have the resources to commit, and make the calls at least 10 to 20 years later in life, to fulfill that function, because it’s so unclear when someone is a teenager who she will become. Expecting educational programs to sort The Category from those who are less qualified to lead society is ridiculous. It’s not fair to colleges to expect that they do that.

To realize The Category, we’re going to need to create a new kind of elitist organization, here given the lower-case-c name of a category. This seems like the sort of thing that is fraught with peril. It seems that way, because it is. To start a category requires a commitment to certain core values. If that commitment is lost, what you’re left with is just another tournament of organizational social climbing.

A category should be extremely selective, like an elite university, but rejection is not intended to be permanent. It’s not “yes” versus “no”, but “yes” versus “not yet”. There should be no shame in a person’s being rejected, or in re-applying continuously. In the early stages of the category, in which it needs focus and will be most involved in the technology industry, “not yet” will often mean “we aren’t ready” as opposed to “you aren’t ready”. For example, my long-term ambition if I were starting a category would be for it to include people within academia, government, technology, the arts and sciences, education, and the non-profit sector. All of that said, I’d probably start with a focus on technology entrepreneurs and programmers in the U.S., not because I intend to be exclusive, but in order to choose within a pool where I know how to be selective (i.e. what to look for) and where I believe that realizing The Category can make the most positive difference. Technology is the first industry that must be liberated and returned to The Category. After that conquest, there are more industries for it to go out and win.

Unlike university systems, which typically make their selections between the ages of 16 and 20, a category ought to make its selections starting at 24-30 (with no upper age limit). Intellectual curiosity and culture are necessary traits of a person seeking to join a proper category, and it’s difficult to know to if someone has those traits until that person has reached an age at which having an interest in intellectual pursuits isn’t considered mandatory. Of course, there will be exceptions to such a policy. Some people will prove themselves ready to join a category at an earlier age, but the default should be to make admissions later in life when it is more clear who a person really is.

A category ought to be a meeting place where creative, cultured, and curious people can share information, make introductions, and pool resources. In addition, it should have a powerful investment arm, which backs its main business and cultural objective. Ultimately, a category ought to replace traditional venture capital as the mechanism for funding technology companies, but it should focus on mid-risk, mid-growth companies that can retain a positive culture, rather than the extreme high-risk gambits that the Valley currently funds. The category should fund engineer- and technologist-driven companies exclusively, in order to defeat the culture of engineer subordinacy that currently exists.

In principle, a category ought to fund its own members first. (Any surplus funds should be invested conservatively, in traditional bonds and equities.) It would not make sense for a category to fund people who have not proven themselves to have the cultural decency, intellectual curiosity, and industrial readiness to be founders of businesses that can actually help the world. Furthermore, category-funded businesses should strive only to employ people who either are members of the category, or who could become members of it and are on track for that. Such businesses must encourage their members to become part of the category, rather than trying to prevent membership in order to increase their power over the employee. This does not, of course, prevent such businesses from contracting with and having relationships with other companies that are not part of the category. However, the fundamental principle is that employees should be “founder quality”, thus preventing the gap in respect and compensation between “founder-grade” people and “employee-grade” peasants that is observed in Silicon Valley and especially around Y Combinator. In this way, we have a chance of replicating the egalitarianism observed in the Israeli startup culture, wherein founders are not seen as superior human beings to employees, but simply have a different job.

These businesses are expected to be selective in personnel, by limiting themselves to the category and those who are likely to soon be ready to join it, and therefore can afford to maintain an egalitarian culture internally. For a contrast, it is a lack of selectivity within companies that causes them to lose their culture: people lose faith that each person can be trusted to be competent, and the need for punishing bureaucracy emerges. It is, even worse, the lack of cultural selectivity that VCs have shown in choosing founders that caused Silicon Valley’s culture to fall into ruin. The purpose of a category’s “elitist” admissions criteria and focus on building companies run by its own people is to allow an egalitarian (and thus innovative) culture to emerge within it. It’s to have people prove themselves once and only once, rather than forcing them to endure decades of social climbing before they have even the most basic level of professional autonomy.

In addition to investing in businesses (which will be owned by the category and the founders, with the employees enjoying a profit-sharing system more generous than Valley-style equity) the category will provide leads for jobs and consulting opportunities to its members. Its goal, as opposed to the rapid-growth-focused r-selective startup culture of Silicon Valley, is to create a K-selective subsystem within capitalism that (a) manages to preserves its values while growing, and (b) will eventually have the prominence, reach, prestige and power to reinvent society from within. The 20 to 50 percent annual growth that these K-selective companies will be targeting may not be what “unicorns” are made of, but it’s plenty fast.

Why are categories more equipped to fund technology companies than the existing venture capital firms? Venture capital firms aren’t really allowed to have values. By charter, they’re supposed to maximize portfolio returns. In actuality, because there is so much random noise that it’s impossible to tell which investors are good and which are not, they optimize for the career needs of individual venture capitalists, and that means taking enormous risk in the hope of producing a “unicorn” that can lift the investors’ reputations. It’s not that VCs are bad people. I don’t think that they are, and I would do the same in their situation. The structure mandates a culture of flashiness and of growth at any cost. If you have only 10 years to prove yourself in a game where high-impact random variables (“black swans”) dominate, you’re going to chase unicorns regardless of whether it’s optimal for your portfolio, much less for the world.

In technology, “growth at any cost” produces what programmers call technical debt: the accumulated bureaucratic and technological weight of bad decisions and work done sloppily in order to meet a deadline. Technology works best when there’s a do-it-right culture instead of a deadline culture, because it requires work to be done at multiple levels of abstraction, and if the foundations are sloppy, then the company will be inefficient and sluggish in the long-term or, worse yet, make bad decisions. Imagine what would happen in mathematics if people discovered that an important theorem, 300 years old, was incorrect. It would be a disaster, because all of the math built on top of that false theorem would be called into question. People don’t tolerate shoddy foundations in mathematics: if it’s not proven, it can’t be called a mathematical truth. On the other hand, in r-selective venture-funded technology companies, shoddy foundational code is not merely tolerated but venerated: ship-it über alles. Sometimes this produces macroscopic business failures, and other times it does not, but the risk that it presents is unacceptable. It has also created a programming culture in which open-plan offices, juvenility, and “Agile” micromanagement have become the norm.

A category must fund technology companies that are focused on responsible growth, not rapid growth intended to catch the eye of a greater fool in the context of an acquisition or an IPO. The intention of the category should be invest-and-hold, although companies that wish to be buy themselves out of the category (because, say, they wish to become less selective in hiring or to not to be held to the category’s stringent values) should be offered that. In the long term, I find it obvious that many category-funded businesses will be required to hire outside of the category, and we need to allow for that.

Virtues of The Category

Categories don’t oppose capitalism. They fix it. They don’t equalize salaries or charge an effective 100% tax like a communistic organization, such as some kibbutzim. They’re socialistic with regard to the sharing of social resources, connections, and introductions within their membership. They hold a policy of internal cultural and social equality, but do not interfere with the market’s tendency to reward people unequally in order to create incentives. Categories support capitalism by funding private businesses, while attempting to counteract capitalism’s undesirable side effects, which are persistent anti-meritocratic social inequalities.

I envision a category as somewhat of an opposite of corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism isn’t free-market capitalism at all; rather, it’s a system that combines the best of capitalism and socialism for a well-connected elite (“the 1 percent”) while leaving the worst of both systems to the rest. The goal of a category is to provide a kibbutz-like community focus and a creative safety net for the most talented and cultured people, while encouraging the companies that they build to engage with the market and allowing them to capture some of the value that they create. Ultimately, categories should deliver the best of socialism and capitalism, first to their members but, more generally, to the world, by creating excellent products as opposed to the mediocre dreck produced by the current corporate system.

How many categories should there be? The theoretical ideal should be that only one need to exist. The risk that comes with having many is that the less selective ones will grow faster, dominate through their greater numbers, and damage the brand. On the other hand, if only one category emerges, there is risk of it growing complacent, due to the lack of competition, and losing sight of its original values. The risk of schism in a category might be the only thing that holds a category accountable to The Category and therefore to humanity. So it may be that the world must support more than one category, even if The Category is best thought of as a singular entity.

For this reason, category membership should not be singular by mandate. If more than one category exists and they are forced to compete, they should be expected to compete by making themselves better, and not by opposing each other. Thus, even though I intend for the category-person relationship to be intense and meaningful enough that most people will only participate in one, I’m against the concept of any category making that a requirement. People should be free to participate in the category that serves them best, if people choose to associate with multiple categories in order to find the one that serves their interests best, then I support them being able to do so.

What will categories deliver their members (in addition to venture funding) and to the world that currently isn’t available? First, I think that the creative risks that people can take when they have solid backing from a community are much greater than what they can try in a knives-out free-for-all like the modern corporate environment and especially Silicon Valley, where vendettas rule the day and people live in fear of influential venture capitalists. If a category will never expel a member who fails in good faith, that encourages creative risk and chutzpah. Second, a major goal behind the concept of a category is to revive the concept of community, without always requiring physical proximity. This is important because the technology ecosystem is presently dominated by people who may believe that one set of ethical principles applies to them outside of the office, and that another much weaker set of ethical rules applies inside the office. This willingness that executives show to divorce their work selves from their personal ethics is what enables them to do so many awful things at work, and hold a delusional belief that it benefits the company. It seems likely that the only way to restore ethics to the technology business is to bring back notions of community, social equality, and shame on those who do terrible things for personal benefit. We should want for corporate leaders to be accountable to a category rather than to shareholders alone.

I expect that, in the long term, categories will provide superior returns over traditional venture capital funds, because the latter make decisions according to the careerist ambitions of Bay Area social climbers and would not, in any other context, make any sense. On the other hand, since categories will not be aggressively trying to pawn off all of the businesses that they create, these companies will be encouraged to focus on long-term excellence. They will build legitimate businesses, products and services rather than marketing experiments based on timing and charisma.

Over time, it will likely become clear to technologists, as a whole, that the exciting research projects aren’t to be found in the sociopathic red-ocean gambits funded by the (one hopes, in the future, legacy) Sand Hill Road system, but in the responsible-growth-oriented companies emerging from The Category.

The Fated Hour

Silicon Valley failed, as noted, because it wasn’t selective. It has become elitist and exclusionary, but in all the wrong ways. Programmers, out there, are tossed out as their hair grays, even though they’re just starting to become good at the craft when that happens. Housing has become so unaffordable that the Valley proper is full of value-capturing non-technical VPs, while the engineers who do the actual work are unlikely ever to be able to afford to live there. Programmers in the new Silicon Valley are guest workers, nothing more. This underscores the fact that Silicon Valley has abandoned them and their values, and that’s fine, because Silicon Valley ain’t all that in any case. It only proves that we can’t trust the Valley’s business or cultural leadership. If they can’t even provide affordable housing for their workers, much less average people, then what are they fit to run? Not much. Not society as a whole, and not the technology industry. Silicon Valley was too open at one time, and it got itself infected by people who set themselves up as its leadership, and destroyed it.

A labor union can solve the problem at one company, and there are a few morally decent venture capitalists who improve things locally, but we’re not seeing broad-based change. Core ideas like open allocation are getting out and pushing improvements through, but we don’t yet have the long-lived civil machinery that makes them mandatory rather than occasional niceties. We can get there, but it’s probably not going to happen under the auspices of the current Valley culture. We should consider the Battle of the Bay Area lost, and focus on winning the next battle. The next battle is much bigger. It’s not about a few suburbs of San Francisco; it’s about the world.

Why is this so important? Is the technology industry so important that it merits creating a new kind of institution? I would say so, because technology is rapidly changing society and the economy, and right now, we have no control over this. Technology can either deliver humanity from scarcity, or it can enforce existing scarcities with a severity and level and intrusion that is dangerous and unprecedented. Right now, nothing prevents technology from being used by health insurers to deny care, or by employers to micromanage employees (such as in many retail jobs). Instead of being used to liberate the species from scarcity, it’s used to impoverish. Instead of curing cancer or developing sustainable energy sources, most of us are working on projects that enable upstart businessmen to unemploy people. We seem to have resigned ourselves to a world that shall be run by its worst people. Instead, we ought to have it taken over, from the inside, by its best people.

Core Values

Having finished the first (and, one hopes, not the last) bit of work on this concept, I’ll state some values that I think should be core to any category that is formed.

  1. The most important goal of technology is to eliminate scarcity. Whether through socialistic or capitalistic means, technology’s long-term job is to eliminate economic scarcity from the human experience. The people of the future should work (or not) because of desire rather than need. This may take 25 years or it may (more likely) take 200 years but working toward such a state ought to be everyone’s goal. Those who do not share such a goal should be removed from power immediately. Humanity can no longer afford to have them in important positions.
  2. Sexism, racism, ageism, classism and religious bigotry have no place. This will be seen in the category’s membership as well as its practices. It must be open to people from all backgrounds. Additionally, a category should avoid investing in companies with the exclusionary, macho-subordinate cultures for which Silicon Valley is known.
  3. Only people who are intellectually curious and cultured are eligible for leadership in human society. Of course, it is important to define cultured in a way that is fair. English literature should not be favored over Chinese or African-American literature. What is important is not the person’s present level or kind of exposure (which will change over time) but the intellectual curiosity shown in attaining that knowledge and experience. It’s not that one necessarily needs to know Shakespeare’s plays, or functional programming, or any other specific piece of knowledge. It’s that the anti-intellectualism of the world’s current, wealthy but severely uncultured leadership, must be driven out.
  4. To abandon or betray someone because of rough times is unacceptable. People whose alliance or support are contingent upon the opinions of others (cf. the social-proof-powered culture of venture capital) should be driven from power and influence, because their redundancy and their lack of independent thought represents a danger– such people tend to amplify humanity’s worst impulses, and mute its best ones– that must be mitigated.
  5. Self-improvement and education are lifelong processes. One does not join a category to participate in a community of learning for a few years, and then go off and get a job. In a category, there is an expectation of continual learning, curiosity, and self-improvement.

Now, it’s time to figure out how to make this thing.

On how programmers involuntarily become managers

Something that I’ve noticed in the software industry is that many people will, at one point, state that they have no interest in becoming managers, only to reach out for the positions a few years later. Now that I’m in my 30s, I see why this is the case, and I can explain it.

Venkatesh Rao’s snowflake/clod model

Venkatesh Rao wrote an essay, “How to be a Precious Snowflake”, that describes two personality types that often meet in business: the clod and the snowflake. The clod is a person who has become insensitive and cynical over the years, but has, in that process, gained the knowledge and political clout to offer protection. Having won that status and awareness through pain and compromise, clods find themselves cold-hearted and their creative energies lost, but they’re operationally effective. The snowflake, on the other hand, retains that youthful idealism and unfiltered creativity. Snowflakes haven’t been crushed by authority yet, so they’re consistently at risk of getting themselves fired, demoted, or marginalized due to their overperformance (and, as this happens, they’re likely to turn into clods). They’re political naifs, in need of protection. Rao posits that the clod and snowflake often form a symbiotic relationship within the organization. The clod protects the snowflake from the fecal tornado that is a human organization’s politics, and this patronage allows the snowflake to create without restriction. The clod benefits in his ability to live vicariously through the snowflake; he has given up on individual ability to create, or cannot take such risks in his position, so he prefers to make safety for others who’ve not yet been tarnished.

Corporate America’s virgin fetish

Virgin sacrifice is a common pattern in corporate behavior. Many corporations prefer to hire people straight out of school before they’re “poisoned” by other, dysfunctional organizations. Of course, there’s more than one company with this attitude, and they bristle at hiring each others’ alumni, because those companies are, themselves, dysfunctional. In essence, these companies are aware that typical corporate employment damages people and prefer to hire those who haven’t been damaged yet.

Here’s a disturbing realization: the typical software company wouldn’t rehire its own median people, because almost no company is in a state where the median quality of work experience it offers would make a person eligible for hiring. For example, if you’re accepted into Google, that means that you’re “Google-quality” at that time, but if you spend 4 years at Google and get average work experience, you won’t get the level of work quality that is “Google-quality” for a 4-year hire. This doesn’t mean that Google would fire such a person. On the contrary, the person also has 4 years’ worth of internal knowledge and connection that make it desirable to keep that person. However, that person’s definitely not attractive enough to qualify for a 4-year-appropriate engineer position at a different company (say, Facebook) of similar calibre. Facebook will ask that person why she didn’t get out of legacy maintenance and on to a machine learning project. Yes, 4 years of average work experience at Google is better than 4 years of average work experience elsewhere, but it’s still not a great outcome. Most companies don’t see themselves as having much quality work experience to hand out, so they’re mostly looking to offload the crap, but it’s viewed as desirable to be handing a “shiny new” candidate the first crappy project that a person has ever had, and not the fourth.

The most prestigious divisions of elite companies want only the not-yet-fucked: people with top PhDs who’ve only worked on cutting-edge machine learning projects. At 32, I’m probably more prepared for those jobs than most Stanford PhDs, because I’ve had more time and seen a lot more, but having seen more is viewed as a detriment. The lack of dirty experience is more of an asset on one’s CV than a copious amount of “clean” work experience. What you learn on a cutting-edge machine learning project is (as it should be) valued. What you learn on a legacy maintenance project is how to make sure that, when things inevitably go wrong because of mistakes made eons ago, you don’t personally get blamed for it. Neither skill set is morally superior to the other, but one is cherished and the other is viewed as “political” and derided. To that, my counter-argument is that organizational effectiveness requires awareness of the political. Bringing that brilliant machine learning model into production will almost always require that someone take on the despised, “political” task of navigating and exploiting the organization.

Corporate virginity’s desirability comes from a few sources, all interrelated. I don’t buy into the assumption that people who’ve never had “real jobs” (i.e. they were handpicked to be CEOs’ proteges straight out of school, and given their own companies to run by 28) are more creative than those who’ve suffered in their progress. I used to think that, and that I was becoming stupider with each shock, failure, betrayal, or embarrassment. Now that I’m older, though, I’ve realized that bad experiences have, although I did not expect it, improved my creativity. (People who haven’t been challenged as much as I have, have gotten dumber with age; I’ve become smarter.) The fucked-before are not “broken”; we’re just more aware of what’s going on. We’re as capable of creativity as anyone else, but we’re risk-averse when it comes to overperformance and we won’t show premature loyalty. Moreover, the “first fuck” premium (that lives behind, say, software’s age discrimination issues) doesn’t seem to be connected to creativity at all, because the most degenerate of the virgin poachers don’t try to put most of their catches in creative roles. Virgin poachers want hyper-loyal subordinates, not cranky creatives. They want to extract some kind of economic rent (whether that be in the work itself or the company’s image of youth) that can only be unleashed by “using up” those snowflakes. It’s deliberate. We don’t turn into clods by accident.

Young workers, as proteges, are most attractive when they’re in the never-fucked category. That said, Rao’s notion of the snowflake as a creative or a virtuous archetype isn’t quite accurate. Look at some of these people who’ve been made founders by the VC establishment, e.g. Lucas Duplan or Evan Spiegel. They’re young, but creativity and virtue are not what these particular precious flakes are known for. Evan Spiegel was an anti-intellectual, misogynistic psychopath before the VCs got in on him. He wasn’t picked as a protege for his creativity or his moral qualities or the single-minded career trajectory of an academic, which he didn’t have, but for his callous sociopathy and meanness toward women. It’s chickenhawking. How do we integrate this observation with the snowflake-clod model? We recognize that “snowflake” status isn’t about moral virtue or creativity at all. Rather, it’s about the purity. A relationship with a snowflake allows a clod to experience something (and that “something” may be, as in Spiegel’s case, hubristic malice) in its purest essence; in the adult world, that sort of purity in anything is rarely found in a person.

A 22-year-old sociopath who has always been rich and never been told “no” and whose bad behaviors toward the opposite sex have been tolerated or covered up is, in a sense, pure. Purely awful, yes, but there is still something unique to youth, there. It’s a specific flavor of evil that an adult would learn to water down or make more subtle. Twenty years later, someone like that will have experienced rejections and setbacks, no matter who he is. At 42, he won’t be able to drug and fuck his way to an early grave without a non-trivial risk of actually reaching the end of that path. When a middle-aged VC supports the career of a young sociopath, funding him in order to live vicariously through him, it’s not creation but destruction that is valued: a nihilistic lifestyle and the demeaning of women. Older clods may retain that lack of character and that nihilism, but any who’ve acted on those impulses for two decades will have had enough hard lessons to lose that purity of confidence.

Snowflakes offer purity, and that’s what makes them what they are. Clods are impure. No clod is purely good or purely evil, nor purely lawful or purely chaotic, nor purely creative or purely destructive. A clod will play the system against itself for a higher purpose, while snowflakes often refuse to do so, sometimes for idealistic reasons but just as often out of a lack of confidence (because snowflakes tend to have extreme confidence within a specialty, but a total lack of it elsewhere). It’s easier to say, “I’ll never work at a desk job” than to admit that one has an anxiety disorder that interferes with the demeaning subordinacy theater that white-collar people are expected to play themselves into. The first is a proud, idealistic statement; the second is a painful admission of (a very common) disability. Snowflakes haven’t yet learned their limitations and have a symmetry (to continue the metaphor) of character, while clods have grown in fairly random directions according to the practical needs and organizational forces that they’ve had to contend with.


So what is a manager? A manager offers protection to his reports: from The Business, from The Organization, and (most importantly) from other managers. A manager also is expected to protect The Business and The Organization (which I’ll define) from the company’s own people. Moral compromise becomes mandatory, because there are many forces in play that don’t have the best intentions.

As used here, The Business refers to a corporation’s tendency to function as a paperclip maximizer. A paperclip maximizer is an intelligent agent that destroys humanity, not out of malice, but because it’s designed to achieve an entirely different goal: which is to maximize its collection of paperclips. (“The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”) The Business is the paperclip maximizer that lives within the company. It wants more work out of fewer people, and will often make decisions that hurt people. One can think of The Business as akin to the executive suite in a typical company, if you strip away all of that “vision” claptrap that executives use to justify themselves (and to present themselves as something different from the winners of a long managerial-political tournament). It doesn’t have a discernible will other than to cut costs, and extract more work, with no concern for moral cost. It emerges because, while individual executives may have moral values and “vision”, those factors cancel each other out and the only vector that is left is profit maximization, regardless of source.

The Organization, as a countervailing force, exists around people who are desperately trying to do whatever is necessary to protect their own incomes and social status. It comes from the employees, rather than executives and shareholders. The Organization’s goals are more sympathetic– it’s a conservative force trying to preserve order, and a check against the rapacious greed of The Business– but The Organization can also be very mean-spirited when provoked. Become too visible to The Business, and you might get laid off. Offend The Organization and, because peoples’ careers are at stake, the knives come out.

The Business is ruthless but impersonal, while The Organization can be intensely personal. What’s more, The Business and The Organization have a bizarre relationship. Nominally, they are at odds, because The Business would ideally fire everyone if it could get the same work for free, while The Organization wants to protect peoples’ jobs and positions (except in regards to people that it finds offensive). To get its way, however, The Organization has learned that it must speak the language of The Business. People who hold power in The Organization (who may not be the formally titled power-holders of The Business) quickly become experts in the #1 most important corporate communication technique: phony existential risk. The Organization holds its place by convincing The Business that catastrophic failures (missing launch dates, losing investors) will occur unless its demands are met. If The Business is convinced of this, the organizational state is stable. If that faith wavers, layoffs and re-organizations occur.

A manager’s job is to protect reports (in particular, snowflakes who might get into trouble and not know it) from both of these forces, but also to protect The Business from underperforming snowflakes (who might judge their assigned work beneath them) and The Organization from overperforming ones (who might embarrass entrenched people). It’s pretty much impossible to do serve this multilateral job, with deep conflicts of interest that can never be reconciled, without some cloddish moral compromise. As a manager, one has to convince a multiplicity of agents that one is singularly focused on seeking their interests, when those interests likely contradict each other. A manager could, in theory, be honest about where he has made compromises, but one who does so is likely to be demoted or fired. Eventually, even the good managers realize that honesty is just one of many objectives to maximize, and that not only is a 7 or 8 out of 10 is good enough, but that more is counterproductive. If this sounds like I am bashing this class of people, I’m not. I’ve also had to lower my level of honesty, in the corporate world, to that “8/10” mediocrity. If I’m asked for an estimate (and I hate estimates, because asking for one is a microaggression disguised as prudence) then I don’t offer the most honest one, but the one that I judge to be politically optimal. When it comes to honesty, I’ve seen what happens to the 9’s and 10s (having once been one).

Rao admits that people can change roles over time, and of course they do, but programmers tend to be irritatingly snowflake-ish when they are young, and get cloddish with age. (I highly doubt that this is limited to programmers.) One of the tell-tale signs of a snowflake is not wanting to be a manager. Snowflakes see management as undignified work: it gets in their way, and it mostly exists to hold people accountable to nameless forces that no one really respects. Snowflakes might harbor visions of themselves as “executives” in the future, but they see that job (as they somehow see being an executive as different from being a manager) as a “fun” and creative one, never mind the realities of it. They can romanticize the role of a startup CEO or venture capitalist, because they’re so far from it; but they correctly recognize middle management as compromised. Therefore, they see it as “dirty”. (I would argue that it’s not. Surviving the corporate world requires becoming as “dirty” as a manager must be, so there’s no moral superiority inherent in not being one.) The snowflakes are rarely aware of the fact that, when management (which they view as cloddish) works well, they’re often protected from a lot of garbage originating in The Business, The Organization, and coming from other clods. Impurity seems to be an unfortunate artifact of human organizations that emerge around the middle-class need (The Organization) to protect an income, even if inefficiency and obscurity are consequences of this, and also around the runaway greed (The Business) of the owning upper class.

Getting old, and learning to synergize

To some degree, the simple fact of getting older pushes programmers into management positions. Let’s explain why this happens.

Software is a dangerous place to be, because there is an objective (if meaningless) performance metric that is visible to everyone: code committed. Of course, new projects offer opportunities to commit excellent code, and legacy maintenance makes a person lucky to get one solid commit (often a trivial fix, once the flaw is found) per day. Over time, programmers learn that hacking the performance-measurement game requires that they control project allocation, and once that political target is achieved, one is only a small step away from being an actual manager. Corporate software isn’t R&D; it’s manage-or-be-managed, and once programmers hit 40, be-managed (with open-plan offices and salaries that, while decent for young people, won’t support a family) becomes unacceptable. It’s flat-out irresponsible, if you have children, to accept a job where you don’t control how performance (at least, your own) is evaluated.

More relevant than aging itself is increasing impurity, by which I invoke Rao’s sense of cloddishness. For the decent individual-contributor (“IC”) roles, purity is necessary because people who get assigned work outside of their specialties are doomed end up on the second-class career track for good. If you don’t protect your specialty and purity, you’ll end up in a second-tier career and never get your status back. If you want to be writing code at 40, you have to fight impurity and simply refuse to do work that doesn’t support your career goals. On the other hand, impurity is an asset for a manager, because the job requires compromise and awareness of human deficits. “Battle scars” on a programmer are intellectually unfulfilling projects where little is learned; for a manager, they’re challenges that were overcome (preferably victoriously, and requiring spin if otherwise).

People who’ve been burned a few times, often, make good managers; likewise, people who haven’t suffered tend not to do as well. When the never-burned are made managers, they tend either to focus on the fun parts of the job and fail to fight for the team against The Business; or, alternatively, they fail to filter The Organization’s demands, often issued using bad-faith exaggerations of personal pet issues into existential risks, and thus end up over-committing and under-delivering. Simply navigating The Business and The Organization– two forces locked in eternal antipathy– is somewhat of an impossible job without some will to compromise (in the moral and negotiatory senses of the word). To do that and meet project- and people-management (protect the best, direct the middle, eject the worst) targets is nearly impossible for the “precious snowflakes” who still believe that the ethics we apply to ourselves and each other everywhere but work are also applicable in the office. Cloddish managers know that they aren’t. If incomes are at stake, marriages (“love”) and lives (“war”) are on the line, and all is fair.

Employers, perhaps expressing a subtle self-loathing, love virgin subordinates because these people are reminders, to the sullied managers and veterans, of what they used to be, long before they had to make a living playing corporate politics. Much of the ageism that we see in industries like corporate software comes from the loss of this virgin premium as one gets older. The 45-year-old still-virgin programmers who’ve only been working on machine learning problems and compilers (intellectually interesting fields that, unlike line-of-business programming, don’t deflower a person) for the past 20 years are extraordinarily rare, and 45-year-olds with average-case work experience are so thoroughly cherry-popped that many companies consider them unhireable– unless they can cleverly recast themselves as managers: seasoned veterans of corporate politics who can make some semblance of order out of chaos.

Years ago, I used to think that going into management was the path of a mediocre programmer who just couldn’t cut it, but as I get older, I’m aware of the forces pushing me in that direction. And perhaps I am mediocre if “mediocre” means “bottom 99.9 percent”, but that’s not originally what I had in mind when I formed this prejudice. Moreover, as I experience this pressure myself, I’ll say this: it’s not about money. So what is it that makes professional programming too awful to be tolerated for 20 years or more?

First, I can’t tolerate the low-status job that programming has become, with open-plan offices and short deadlines and frequent context switches and changes in priorities, often at the whim of people who wouldn’t understand technology if it kicked them in the collective pelvis. Second, I’ve been pretty aggressively de-virginized in my corporate experience. With Google, it’s become public. I don’t like that I’m a clod, but I am one, and I’m too intellectually honest to hide it. I’ve seen too much, and I’m far too familiar with the forces that cause organizational mediocrity, and with just how difficult it is to do anything about them. (Moreover, when the downside is getting fired, with the loss of income and reputation thus entailed; and when the upside is merely making someone else’s organization more efficient, why bother?) I’m cynical and insensitive, and it’s better for the world that I gain these traits because, five years ago, I would have been too naive to lead and too oblivious to protect a team (given that I couldn’t even protect myself very well).

Third, and most upsettingly, the competition for good programming jobs is severe, and the competition for management roles isn’t, and while I love hobby coding and green-field projects, I would rather “sell out” and never code again than be a fucking chump-ass peasant open-plan programmer at age 40. If I’m even at a 1% risk of ever being put on a Scrum team at age 40, then I’m going to count myself a failure at life and reconsider every decision that I’ve ever made. Getting the decent programming jobs is very competitive, and I recognize the negative possibilities as well as the positive ones. Yes, I’m a good programmer. Probably top 2 percent, possibly higher. But blue-sky R&D in Facebook’s AI lab is probably not an option for me, because I don’t have the work experience for that; they want virgin CVs, and they can get them, and I lost my flower almost a decade ago. I’m too sullied by the real world. If you need to know how to battle a software organization, that I know, because I’ve been there. If you need to know how convolutional neural networks work, well… I know that I could learn it, as I have the talent and intellectual curiosity, but I haven’t exactly been reading five papers per week for the past five years.

I give programmers enough credit that I don’t believe that many of them set out to be managers when they start their careers. To be blunt on this, I know plenty of good people who are managers or, say, investment bankers; but anyone who wanted to be one at 17, instead of a poet or a mathematician or a real entrepreneur (and not some VC-funded puppet CEO) or a bioinformatics researcher, I can’t respect. I actually think that a good number of programmers enter the field with a respect for it, wanting to do great work. They enter with pure intentions and goals– to build great products and make the world better– and organizations sully them. First, they learn how difficult it is to perform at their jobs when given typical legacy-code maintenance jobs. If they get “caught”, they become bitter and explosive; far more often, they get passing-to-positive performance reviews (by which, I mean “performance theater”) anyway and get a first lesson in phoning-it-in without making enemies. Second, they learn over time about the need to control the project allocation process and the finer points of performance-evaluation-manipulation. Ten years in, they’ve lost that “sharpness” when it comes to operating system design or gradient boosting methods, and find themselves no longer eligible to join most teams that are doing the cutting-edge work, but they’re very experienced with political games, having lived in the manage-or-be-managed corporate environment. At this point, all of the moral compromises involved in becoming a manager have been made, so there’s no good reason not to climb the ladder.

A better world

Talented programmers get pushed into management because our industry is, to state facts plainly, run by mouth-breathers, bereft of vision and culture, who don’t value technology and what it can do. When setting the vision is trusted to the sorts of uncultured, anti-intellectual people who thrive in American business culture, you get a miasma of terrible ideas, bad initiatives, and sloppy work that one has to continually contend with. That is the sort of recurring, unlimited problem that technologists (who are used to the concept of automating away a hairy problem) hate. This creates a seemingly hopeless world in which there are avalanches of undesirable work and frequent emergencies. In that world, non-managerial jobs like programming are coerced into a pyramidal shape: a large number of miserable grunts at the bottom, a smaller layer of architects and “leads” and principal engineers to do mid-level work, and maybe a couple R&D engineers at the top, who get to do the stuff that’s actually interesting. It’s a boneheaded and morally indefensible scarcity system in which desirable work is to be hoarded, collaboration is avoided, and in which there is no place for experienced engineers (except in that other pyramid called “management”). It’s also astronomically expensive, in software, because it results in work being done by large teams of incompetents that could be done by 1/10 as many people if it were done, instead, by competent engineers.

Software engineering, if it retains its status as being subordinate to The Business, is likely to be seen by history as the Great Tragedy of the 21st Century. We have one of the most powerful skills in human history but, instead of using it to fight cancer or combat climate change, we get stuck using it to enable businessmen to unemploy people. There’s a disturbingly large amount of value (ahem, short-term value) that can be unlocked in doing this, and almost all of that accrues to the paperclip-maximizing sorts of people who add nothing to society in achieving their goals. Our skills, as technologists, ought to be used to achieve more (a lot more!) with the same, not to do the same (or less) with less. The latter, taken for another decade or so, will bring us to a state in which human society is unable to solve its own problems, and the consequences will be dire.

If, however, we take our industry back, we can eliminate so many of these needless and toxic scarcities. We can throw away the disposable companies and stupid marketing experiments that VCs fund and get to work on actual meaningful problems. We can build a world in which software engineering isn’t shaped like a pyramid, dooming us to reams of bad code written by inexperienced people, and in which people can take programming seriously, as a lifelong career. We can kill “user scrum stories” and productivity-wrecking open-plan offices. If we can figure out how to make a proper profession out of ourselves, we can end the manage-or-be-managed regime for good, and there’s no good reason not to do so.

Censorship continues on Hacker News

Here’s a post, from user lgieron, that was killed yesterday on Hacker News. It will be invisible unless you log in. The full text is below:

One thing to keep in mind – coding for a living and coding as a hobby are two VERY different things. To get a taste of what you can expect in the industry, see for example Michael O. Church’s blog (

This is not an offensive post. This user, lgieron, is arguing that a 37-year-old doctor should not abandon his medical career lightly, just because he enjoys programming as a hobby, because doing it professionally is a different game. Then, he links to my blog. For this, the post is killed. As is typical on Hacker News, the user was not aware of its removal until he logged out of Hacker News and saw the site as non-users do (this is reminiscent of Hacker News’s passive-aggressive “hellban” pattern, wherein users are banned without knowing it, or being given a reason for the ban).

We now know that Y Combinator is so afraid of what I have to say that they are banning comments (and, possibly, users) for the “crime” of linking to my blog. For the future, if you’re going to link to my blog, please use a link-shortening service like bitly. If you spell out “” on Hacker News, there is a good chance that no one will hear you.

It’s clear that Hacker News has a vested interest in deliberately misrepresenting the opportunities that live within the private-sector, venture-funded software career. You can’t build “unicorns” without bringing people in and misleading them about their own prospects (since people join these companies expecting to be founders inside of 5 years, and most won’t, because math). Should a 37-year-old doctor drop his medical career and write software? I can’t answer that question. It shouldn’t be done lightly, and the “drop out of your school/career and become a founder!” cheerleading that comes out of the Valley right now is just irresponsible. Chances are that, if he does so, he’s going to be an open-plan programmer competing with 22-year-olds who can work longer hours, take lower salaries, and tolerate more bullshit. Programming itself is a hell of a lot of fun, but this is a pretty terrible industry.

Meanwhile, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what can replace Silicon Valley, and I’m starting to come up with concrete suggestions. I’m putting an October 1 publication date on it, because I need time to process what I’ve come up with and make sure that I’m not full of hot air.

In my defense. Or: Why I blog about software culture instead of “just crushing code”.

No one becomes what they expect to be or even expect to want to be, but people often evolve into what they actually want or have to be. People who want to become jerks, become jerks as they get older. People who want to become smarter, get smarter. I can say with confidence, however, that when I was 20 years old I didn’t see myself becoming an expert on software politics. It’s better to be aware of office politics than not to be aware, but that’s not a knowledge that most people want to acquire when they grow up. It’s not exactly opera or higher mathematics. It’s a dirty trade, and while I’m willing to share my knowledge, I’m not superlatively proud of having it. I share it because it’s important, not because I like the light it puts me in. Machiavelli saw himself as a more general “man of letters”, and held strong republican sentiments despite writing a how-to book for despots, and would have been horrified if he had predicted that The Prince would be his legacy and reputation. Like him, I don’t want to become “software politics guy”. I’d prefer that my legacy not be “he who deconstructed Silicon Valley, possibly contributing in a diffuse way to its demise”. I’m far more interested in what can be created after it’s gone. At any rate, software politics is a topic that I know well, and I’m not afraid to share that knowledge with others, in order to better the state of our industry.

Career-wise, I’ve done alright. I’m more successful than one might think from what I let on. That’s because most of my failures became public (in some cases, against my will) while I’ve been extremely private about my career movement since mid-2012. I made most of my mistakes when I was young and hadn’t yet mastered the management of a rather awful biological health problem, and I’ve made relatively few errors in the last few years. Still, I spent more time fighting political battles and less time learning than I would have liked, and I’m not exactly taking calls from Facebook’s AI lab or Google X about whether I’d like to work on the next generation of deep neural networks. There are people my age who are 3 to 6 years ahead of me (and, probably, a very small number of people even further ahead than 6 years, starting around $750 per hour) in terms of machine learning knowledge and, as they should, the AI labs would rather hire them. In general, though, that 3-to-6-year gap shouldn’t matter, because I’ve got about five decades of life left, but in the ageist world of private-sector software engineering, it’s a big deal. There are perceptions that I have to fight because I’m 32 and haven’t yet hit a home run.

I haven’t learned, let’s say, how to train a neural network in parallel over 20 petabytes of data. I’ve never needed to do it, and I’ve never had the opportunity to take on a challenge that would require me to get to that scale. I know that I could do it. I could learn any of the things that I don’t know. What I have learned about, through experience, is a large menagerie of organizational hurdles that stand in the way of excellence. Why is there so much mediocrity in the corporate world? What is the cause of terrible source code and uncontrollable technical debt? Why are the career goals of venture capitalists so out-of-whack with regard to the needs of the companies they fund? Okay, those questions I can answer, because I’m really good at observing a system and taking it apart. Many people won’t like my answers, because I’m relatively immune to the optimistic bias that plagues most people. I’m a hard-line cynic. Excellence is possible, but only if given such a high priority that more pedestrian business goals (risk minimization, control, mandatory social pleasantness, subordination) fall by the wayside. You don’t have to hire PhDs from MIT to have excellence in your organization. You have to hire smart people (and there are more of those than many think) and not just “not get in their way”, but actively protect them from things that will get in their way. It’s theoretically very easy to get people to excel, but it’s practically very difficult because of the incoherence brought on by organizational demands.

I might not fit the traditional image, but I’m arguably a second-career programmer. I left graduate school after one year, seeing the writing on the wall about the future of the academic career: not going to get better. Academia had already sold out a generation and a half, so who could trust it? Not me. At age 23, in 2006, I’ll admit that being a professional programmer seemed like a distinctly undesirable career. Don’t get me wrong: I loved writing code and solving mathematical problems, but most people who had been in professional software told me that it was a low-status career and that management and “PMs” would make all of the interesting decisions and kick the ugly details down to “code monkeys”.

The consensus, from 2002 to 2007, was that “startups” were a one-time thing that happened in the ’90s and that the gold rush was over and not coming back. College graduates who had the most options went to Wall Street, usually after a one- to eight-year detour through graduate school, but software wasn’t seen as an attractive field unless one could start as a founder (and, for 22-year-olds, that was rare). So my “first career” (if we don’t count the year in graduate school) was in finance. Then 2008 happened and, with the financial world going to shit and bankers getting fired left and right, software began to look a lot more attractive (to me, and to many people) in comparison. This had given the major players of Sand Hill Road just enough time to figure out how to commoditize and profit from “the startup experience”, an effort led by Paul Graham with his incubator, Y Combinator. The engine of young, privileged male quixotry that had emerged by accident in the 1990s could be deliberately and explicitly reassembled in the late 2000s.

Where did I fit into all of this? Well, my experience in finance had convinced me that technology was actually the most important piece of the business, even if undervalued. (Actually, I spent most of my time at a very successful firm that didn’t undervalue technology.) Domain knowledge and split-second decision-making and relationships matter in trading, but the machines were already taking over that game. Finance had (and seems to still have, in much of this) a bizarre anti-technical culture, outside of a few firms (that happen to be taking over the world). I know quants who deliberately hide how much they know about programming because they fear being type-cast as programmers and ending up in the IT bonus pool. Nonetheless, it’s fairly obvious in finance and in most of the economy that technology’s role is only going to be more important as time goes on. So, in the late 2000s and 2010s, I’ve taken the time to learn a lot about how computers and software actually work. I could have gone back and become a quant trader, and I may still do that in the future, but I’m glad to have taken the time to learn so much about the machinery that the whole world, at this point, pretty much relies on.

I entered Google at age 27, after three years in a failed startup, and it’s become clear on reflection that I have more in common with the “second-career programmers” who start later in life than with the “natives”. I’ve learned, especially as my role has shifted toward leadership, that second-career programmers are often far better than the more respected “natives” who manage to crack $250,000 at Google before age 30. The second-career programmers, regardless of whether they come from banking or the service industries or even law, are often just as smart, harder working, and (by definition) willing to learn new things. On the other hand, the natives seem to be curious and capable in an inverse relationship to their early success. Large tech companies are full of people who climbed the ladder quickly, never bothered to learn anything but Java, and became managers before they gained a mature understanding of technology. These ex-technical types are often the worst, because they attribute their rapid rises to power to merit rather than luck, and that, combined with not having had the time to attain technical maturity, is a devastating combination. I tend to think of second-career programmers as comparable to adult (25+) students in undergraduate college: harder-working, more focused, but unable to fit in fully to a social scene that they’ve outgrown. If someone was an attorney or a restaurant owner in a previous career, she’s not going to believe that nothing will get done unless the cargo-cult gods of “Scr(ot)um” are appeased, because she knows better.

At any rate, one thing that I’ve learned about programming is that almost every organization has an “A Team” and a “B Team”. There are at least three sociological levels within the B Team (B1: requirements set by the business, but new code; B2: feature-level work at best, mostly maintenance; B3: support) but, given that I do whatever I can to avoid landing at any level of the B Team, and leave companies if that ever happens, I haven’t inspected its stratification fully. In some cases, the A Team and management overlap entirely, but that’s actually rare because, while I wouldn’t call typical software management progressive, even they understand that highly competent individuals exist who don’t want to be, or don’t have the capability to be, managers. (“Data science” is a designation invented to fast-track mathematically capable engineers to an A Team.) Managers have the intelligence to understand, broadly, the “protect, direct, and eject” notion of management and put the perceived high performers (the “protect” category) in the A Team and the middle (the “direct” category) in the typically much larger B bucket.

Most often, A-Team engineers are shifted toward a highly autonomous, protected R&D group that gets insulated from the sorts of things that made the software career seem so undesirable, from the outside. They get to work on whatever they want and generally view themselves as entrepreneurs or principal engineers in training. Companies need these A Teams to keep talent, and much more importantly to keep the B1 and B2 engineers motivated because there is something to aspire to, but this structure doesn’t always work out very well. The B-Team engineers (many of whom are just as competent as the A Teamers, because the B team is typically much larger) eventually figure out that they’re doing most of the work that the business cares about, while A Team engineers tend to do the work that other engineers care about, and the A Team often ends up being resented. The A Team will often face declining relevance and political adversity within the organization, because A Teamers tend to do “the fun stuff” and toss the remainder of the project “over the wall”, and that becomes their reputation. When it’s worst for the A Team is during a cutback; the people are rarely fired, but they’re often thrown onto the B Team. Worse yet, they often land in non-managerial roles– your typical A Team engineer would rather be on the A Team than manage B-Team work, but would much rather be a manager than actually do line-of-business grunt work– because any open management jobs on the B Team are going to be given to the stand-out B Teamers (with years of institutional knowledge) that the company can’t afford to lose.

It is unstable, internally, to be on a company’s A Team. People who want to be highly compensated and don’t care if they lose their technical edge would do better to become B-Team managers than A-Team engineers. The transition is much easier, too; it’s much easier to keep your head down and wait for a vacancy in B-Team management than to overperform and send out signals that you think you’re better than your assigned work, which is what can happen if you vie for an A-Team position. That said, there’s a long-term career edge in having A-Team experience. You learn a lot more in terms of core computer science skills, you get to pick your technologies, it carries prestige, and it looks good on CVs. If you don’t want to become a manager by age 35, you need a string of A-Team jobs, because the presumption is that B-Team direct (i.e. non-managerial) work experience rots the brain.

I have a non-conventional pedigree (I went to a Midwestern liberal arts college because, at 17, I saw myself as a creative writer rather than a programmer) and had an unusual entry into the software industry, and I’ve been all over the place. Most engineers are type cast as lifelong A- or B-teamers by age 25, but I’ve seen both. I’ve seen a diversity of political environments, in software, that most people haven’t. I’ve also seen the political forces that prevent excellence, both in individuals and organizations. I know why most projects and people and organizations in software fail, and I know how to prevent many classes of failures.

So, why is it that I write about organizational politics instead of gradient-boosting algorithms or deep neural networks? It’s not that I view software politics as a high art of computing, because it’s not. I’d much rather be an expert in machine learning than in this stuff, but I never got the early work experience that would have set me up for the former… and I’m only starting to be okay with that. At any rate, I write what I know about, not what I would like to know more about. I’ve been on A Teams and B Teams, I’ve seen A Teams crumble into irrelevance, and I’ve seen organizations commit suicide, and I’ve seen A-Team engineers in B-Team environments and vice versa. I’ve met an ungodly number of obstacles and a ridiculous number of merit inversions, and what I’ve learned from my experience is that software politics really matters. It doesn’t just stand in the way of excellence for individuals or organizations. Society is held back by the egregious mismanagement of one of its most important industries.

Sure, it’s a lot more fun to learn Haskell and assembly languages and machine learning algorithms than it is to learn about organizational politics, the last of these being hard to learn except through painful experience. Being a programmer myself, I understand the software engineer’s desire to “just write more code” as if that will be enough to solve the problem. On the whole, though, I’m not convinced. The biggest problem in the software industry isn’t cache coherence or race conditions or whether P = NP. It’s the fact that, after sixty years, we still haven’t figured out how to manage our own affairs. We’ve created an industry where there’s a cruel confluence of factors: what we do is so technical and detail-oriented and intellectually deep that it takes many, many years to become any good at it; but at the same time, we’ve inherited the age discrimination and anti-intellectualism of our MBA-culture colonizers.

One of the biggest problems, I’ve come to realize, is that we’ve gone beyond a healthy self-reliance, toward radical other-rejection. We accept exclusionary cultural artifacts like open-plan offices and “Agile” micromanagement (whose negative effects are universal, but afflict privileged young males the least) because we fear competition from “others”– minorities, women, older programmers and second-career programmers. We’ve also allowed our colonial overseers to infect us with a one-sided professional omertà; employers can damage employee reputations with reckless firings and bad references, but employees are expected not to “bad mouth” any employer, no matter how badly it damagedthat employee. None of the negativity that I’ve experienced after exposing Google’s use of stack ranking to the press has come from Google’s upper management– much of it has come from engineers and ex-Googlers. A lot of it has nothing to do with what I gave up when I talked to reporters; the fact that I have talked to reporters at all has been used as a justification to deny jobs. Professional omertà may have been proper during the Cravath era of professional employment, when firms went far out of their way to ensure stellar reputations even for the people they let go. Now that it’s one-sided– so-called “back channel” references are standard operating procedure in the incestuous community of Silicon Valley, but people who speak unpleasant truths about previous employers are rapidly blacklisted– it’s time to let it go. I’ve come to realize, as well, that professional omertà is a cultural subproblem living within the macho-subordinate culture of private-sector programming.

Omertà makes sense in communities where the external world is a threat. For example, within organized crime, calling in the authorities (i.e. powerful external agents) can shut business down for everyone. It’s “the nuclear option”. Criminal organizations need a culture of omertà that treats such an action as so offensive and disgusting as to justify severe retribution (against the individual and, often, the family). Programmers aren’t criminals, though. We don’t need professional omertà, and with all the back-channel reference-checking games being played against us, we seem to be hurt by it rather than protected from the outside world. What exactly happens to “us” if we stop being so exclusionary? To be honest, I think it would leave us much better off.

Conventional wisdom is that prices are set by supply and demand, and that’s true but also irrelevant when it comes to human labor, because hardly anyone can define what a worker in a complex job does. Our contributions are diffuse and impossible to measure at an individual level . I would argue that our product isn’t “code”, because source code varies wildly in quality and because much technical output is negative in economic value. It’s solving problems in an unforgiving environment. That’s what sets us apart. We solve problems in a world where there are right and wrong answers. Demand for this is undefined but theoretically unlimited, and while demand for technical excellence is low, that has more to do with the wrong people being in charge (i.e. on the demand side) than any inflexible limit. So if we got a more diverse mix of people into software engineering, which is more likely: (a) depression of wages, or (b) improvement of conditions? I would argue for the latter. If we let more women and older people and second- (or fifth-) career engineers in, we’d increase our bulk social and organizational skills, and be more able to fight for ourselves. Fighting for ourselves will enable us to market ourselves, increase demand for technical excellence, and bring our compensation up to what we’re actually worth. Programmers like to think of “paper belt” leaders as being out-of-touch intellectual lightweights and dinosaurs, but that’s stupid on our part. We need people with those organizational and leadership skills within our ranks. If we keep driving out that diversity and talent, we’ll continue to be led from without, and that will doom us to bad software and worse products and terrible management and nonexistent career support.

It’s the boneheaded macho-subordinate mentality that lives behind the one-sided professional omertà that leaves programmers expected to defend the reputations of employers who’d never defend theirs. It keeps our industry exclusive and, in a world that defines “cool” in terms of youth and arrogance, insular and superficially attractive. It also renders us easy to exploit, underpaid and astronomically undervalued. It hurts us greatly, though. We don’t need professional omertà because the outside world (the “paper belt”) isn’t our enemy and we don’t need to hide from it. We don’t need an exclusionary culture because the superior social and organizational skills of those “other types” (e.g. women and minorities and older people) will help us far more than the increased supply could even possibly reduce wages.

These aren’t problems that you’ll find on Kaggle, but they are important.

#QuoraGate over: Quora blames investors, no specific person named.

Assuming that no one goes out of his way to be an idiot, this’ll be the last #QuoraGate post. As far as I can tell, it’s time to call it settled and over.

I’ll hold the specific communications back, out of concern for the privacy of all involved, so long as no one reopens the issue. The gist of it is: I gave Marc Bodnick a specific, safe means of communication that would allow him to indicate whether or not the ban was motivated by investor pressure. Response came back: my investor-pressure theory was, at least broadly, correct. Marc did not even attempt to deny it.

He did not name a culprit. I felt, at least, that a specific person has been suggested but I am not going to name him here. That is largely because I am not entirely sure that I believe that he is guilty. That investor is associated with Y Combinator, but it stands to reason that if Quora were under extortion from an investor, one mandate of that extortion might be that a rival investor take the fall. Given the rising tensions between Y Combinator and real VCs, it’s certainly possible that one of the latter might have intended blame to fall on the rival. This seems extremely far-fetched, but the fact that Quora would ban one of its top contributors indicates that something bizarre is happening; I just don’t know what, and no one who knows seems to be willing to say. I don’t think that we’ll ever know who was actually responsible for this debacle.

Of course, it’s also possible that no venture capitalists played any part in this, and that Quora is covering up for egregious incompetence and merely wants people to think that an investor was involved. This whole experience has been so bizarre that there’s very little that I wouldn’t rule out.

Quora isn’t just a message board. It’s a cloud service, and one that demands of its users (“Real Names” policy) that they stake their own reputations on the product, and given the sleaze that I’ve encountered, that’s an incredibly dangerous gamble that I can recommend to no one.

It’s been proven that Quora issues bans in bad faith and that it abuses power. That, itself, isn’t very interesting. Far more interesting are the wide-ranging implications of this. Quora proved, in 2015, that one computer programmer and writer couldn’t trust it with his reputation. Ok, that’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Banning a user in bad faith is a minor offense. What’s next, though? Is it possible that this is just the tip of the iceberg in the VC-funded world? It’s likely. In 2020, will a company experience a crippling failure of a critical product or service offered by a VC-funded company, because its investors decided that one of its competitors should succeed in its space? That’s exactly where we’re headed.

The problem with Silicon Valley, in its current iteration, isn’t only its crass veneration of power and money regardless of their source, but the naked joy with which people who have power will abuse it. Wrecking careers and crashing companies is just a game to them. The mindset on Sand Hill Road is that if you’re not abusing power, you don’t really have it. That’s incredibly disturbing, and I don’t see that culture improving but, rather, becoming more extreme over time.

#QuoraGate is over. To those who have supported me, thank you, and keep combatting misinformation. I shouldn’t have to defend myself against the absurd accusations that have been popping up on Quora. It seems that people refuse to accept that Quora’s moderation might be acting in bad faith, and therefore have to revive and distort ancient history (yes, I did have an alternate account that I used to browse health-related topics, because I didn’t trust Quora’s privacy protections; but if Quora banned everyone who used an alternate account, it would have few users left) and in order to make a case for the status quo. It’s stupid. It’s embarrassing to the technology world that they exist.

All of that said, I’ve won. I’ve won because, while I’ve seen a lot of bad behavior in my career, the ban on my account is the first public proof that these people truly are as horrible as I make them out to be, and that venture-funded technology really is so corrupt that an investor can call in a favor to cause a product failure. It also establishes that some of these people are afraid of me. If I weren’t exposing some inconvenient truths, they wouldn’t care. I find their use of stalkers’ tactics, in this particular case, to be extremely distasteful. However, this whole event proves not only Silicon Valley’s corruption, but also that, in my analysis of the Silicon Valley ecosystem’s corruption, I’ve hit these fuckers where they live. Remember that this blog post is why Paul Graham saw fit to ban me from Hacker News.

Having won this game, it’s useful to talk about what the next game ought to be. I’m starting to have thoughts about Silicon Valley’s successor. The bubble will break, and this bust is more likely to be fatal to the existing darlings than the one in 2000, and it’s possible that, if we play our cards right, we can make sure that, when the technical impulse reconstitutes itself in the wake of that bust, it does so in a way that doesn’t involve the parasites on Sand Hill Road.

There was a lot of mismanagement and silliness in the 1990s, but the mean-spiritedness of this startup bubble– the crushingly low equity percentages for the engineers doing the actual work; the inept, well-heeled founders like Lucas Duplan; the use of investor-level interconnectedness for extortion and petty revenge– is new, at least at the current extent, and it’s going to be much more toxic to the Valley’s persistence. I don’t know if the crash will happen in 2016 or 2019 or 2030 but, when it does, there’s going to be a lot of bad blood. The knives will come out, secrets will be spilled, and currently sterling reputations will carry stigmas that make Enron or Amaranth look quaint in comparison. The most bubbly of bubble artifacts– in particular, the incubator called “Y Combinator” (a name ripped off from a distant relative of mine, by the way)– will either end their existence outright, or they will persist in a degraded state and cease to be notable.

Silicon Valley might not recover, and I hope that it doesn’t, because Silicon Valley is now, quite clearly, bad for technology. Such a severe concentration of capital and opportunity lends itself naturally to in-group malfeasance, oligarchy, and in the long term, poor performance and a culture that values marketing over innovation or excellence. We see that now, with venture funds being money-losers that suit the venture capitalists’ careers but not the funds’ investors, and with nepotism trumping merit. Ideally, the successor will be “post-location”. If that’s too much to ask for, perhaps it will at least be distributed enough to be robust against location failures. If technology reconstitutes itself mostly within the same nostalgia-ridden NIMBY-infested suburban office park (i.e. Silicon Valley) as the current incarnation, that will be a failure.

In understanding what to build next, it’s worth looking at what went wrong, this time around. Technologists love to write history off as irrelevant, because “this time it’s different”, and yet the future always proves that it wasn’t so different “that time”. People don’t change very much, and the fact that humanity favors anti-intellectualism in its leaders (foolish certainty over honest uncertainty) means that there’s a strong tendency in humans not to learn from history, but to make the same mistakes, over and over again. I prefer not to do that. Technology isn’t always used for good purposes but, broadly speaking, it’s humanity’s only way out– out of scarcity, out of slavery, out of war– and (until we reach a post-scarcity state that I don’t expect to see within my lifetime) we are dependent on the economic growth that it enables. Silicon Valley and its venture capitalists (“Sand Hill Road”) have proven, so many times that they make a caricature of themselves, that they can’t be trusted to run it. So what went wrong, precisely?

I mentioned a cultural enemy, which is the belief within Silicon Valley that power must be abused or one does not have it, and I think that ties in to the whole Silicon Valley mentality: cheap, fast, and sloppy. Sloppiness isn’t always bad. In an experimental stage for a new idea, it can be harmless. The problem is when sloppy cheapness (open-plan offices that corrode morale) and sloppy quickness (the two-week “sprints” of “Agile” pathologies) begin to be seen as virtues, or (worse yet) when artifacts of sloppiness become permanent and even beloved features. Then you get a culture where the ability to “pitch” investors and peddle influence becomes more important than the ability to build an excellent product (because no one would know, or care about, the difference anyway). Silicon Valley is defined by sloppy thinking and sloppy work at all levels, and this extends to corporate cultures and even to moral decision-making. This explains the abuses of power and the ethical sloppiness that became #QuoraGate. Quora’s syphilitic “Real Names” policy allowed it to become a breeding ground for witch hunts (accusing someone of having sock puppets is like accusing that person of having secret, demonic magic powers; it’s salacious, unprovable, and irrefutable) and that left it in a state where investor extortion could easily be covered up.

What we need, more than ever, is for those of us who give a damn about technology to come up with an antidote to cheap, fast, and sloppy: we need to revive technology’s former build-it-right culture. This means no more build-to-flip companies with obnoxious cultures, no more ostracism and unemployment for our older brethren just because 40-year-old programmers “know too much” (i.e. know that their stock options probably won’t make them rich, and might tip their juniors off to the fact), no more bad software built by people who expected to be two promotions beyond it by the time it starts to fall apart, no more leaving important products to be administrated by political axe-grinders and spineless extortion targets, and no more veneration of these Sand Hill Road clowns who’ll simply inject their horrible values into anything we let them touch. We need the right people in charge and the right things to be built, and that’s only going to happen if we commit ourselves to doing things right instead of doing them cheaply and sloppily. When it comes to defining and creating this culture, the time is now.

Quora “emergency raise” pool updates, and other #QuoraGate silliness

I’m ready for this topic to die out. I’m just not into Quora anymore. But there are a few things that I need to address.

Earlier on Twitter, I mentioned that Quora was planning an 18% “emergency raise” pool in order to offset the morale problems associated with an unjustified (and unjustifiable) user ban. I have a second source that is giving a number closer to 14 percent. I’m guessing that the bulk amount is known (although no one has shared the exact dollar figure with me, fearing retaliation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the executives shared slightly different numbers with each person informed as a way of tracing any leaks) but there’s some uncertainty around the denominator (i.e. Quora’s total payroll).

If we take the more conservative 14% and assume 115 employees at $100,000 per year (on average) we’d get an annual raise pool of about $1.6 million. That’s not a bad amount of money to make for other people just by getting banned from a website.

Of course, some people will participate in this emergency raise pool and some won’t. The people who don’t are unlikely to get any raises or bonuses for a while.

My advice to Quora employees trying to maximize their fortune is as follows: show some dissatisfaction over the decision. Not a lot. Don’t explicitly threaten to leave, just imply that the magic is starting to fade in the wake of this event. If your boss tells you to shut the fuck up about #QuoraGate, then shut the fuck up about it and get back to work. If your boss shares your opinion, thank him for being on the right side of things and remain loyal. Do good work, since you won’t get anything unless they want to keep you. Remain loyal to your employer, while seeming just a little bit more tired and less willing to, say, carry a pager or put your career goals on hold. When your performance review comes, ask for a raise. Be aggressive. The people who are really pissed off about my account being banned will be getting 30 percent raises and large bonuses, and the people who don’t say anything are probably not getting anything for a year (because an “emergency raise pool” usually means that regular raises and bonuses are on hold for a while). Ask for promotions, get a better title, etc. Now, when a company’s internal reputation is uncertain and morale is a serious executive-level concern, is the time to ask for things. The window will close.

To be honest, I don’t think that attrition is an actual risk for the company at this point. People don’t usually leave companies, at least not immediately, because their companies do something distasteful. I mean, we’re only talking about a user ban (and some nasty dishonesty around why that user was banned). As far as ethical crimes by corporations go, it’s about a 1.5 out of 10 on the sin scale at worse. More of a threat is that people will be vaguely dissatisfied and underperform now that the “magic” is gone. If even one people actually quit because of me being banned, I’d be surprised. I do think that it will be a significant contributor to a few departures over the next 12 months, and that the general energy of the company will be deflated. It’s hard to recover from a bad-faith user ban (people will argue forever about what is and is not “sock puppeting”, but absolutely no one believes that explanation, and an extensive censorship campaign to cover up the real reason doesn’t help, either).

Let me mention one thing about “sock puppeting”. I don’t do it, because it doesn’t work. I found that out on Wikipedia in 2004. It takes an enormous amount of energy and even if the sock puppets aren’t detected or proven, it looks ridiculous. One person stating an idiosyncratic opinion has an effect. People rarely change their opinions immediately after a heated debate– and if it gets nasty, they’ll pull farther apart and become more extreme– but can, in some circumstances, drift over time as they learn things that support the alternative hypothesis. That’s happened to me. A year after an argument, something will happen that convinces me that my “opponent” was more right than I’d originally been willing to accept. Two people stating an idiosyncratic opinion has less effect. A second identity that always supports the first, whether that second identity is controlled by the same person (“sock puppet”), an explicit collaborator (“meat puppet”), or just a random sycophant, actually makes them both look worse. It doesn’t establish consensus. And if you try to maintain five or more distinct identities to create false consensus, that’s only going to be transparent and a waste of time– and it will take a lot of time, too. I don’t “sock puppet” because I played that game 10 years ago and it proved to be completely pointless. It doesn’t fucking work, so can we get on with our lives?

Two years ago, I used an alternate account to browse health-related topics because I didn’t trust Quora’s privacy story. (That account still works, putting the lie to Quora’s claim that it “caught” me. “Sock puppeting” is a convenient proximate cause for any user ban because (a) it’s ill-defined, (b) using multiple accounts is usually quite harmless, (c) almost everyone does it, and (d) it carries an implicit threat which is to breach that person’s privacy.) That fact doesn’t fucking matter. Quora has tons of users with multiple accounts and doesn’t give the square root of a fuck. What matters is that Quora told its user community to go fuck itself, because no one in said community believes that that was the real reason for me to be banned. The real reason, although the exact mechanics are still unclear, was something unrelated to my conduct on the site and probably involving Y Combinator and Paul Buchheit in particular. Paul Buchheit as essentially admitted guilt by continuing to comment on the matter while transparently pretending not to have been a part of the decision.

There’s more that Quora has done to embarrass itself in the past 12 hours. One of the two anonymous brownshirts is now claiming to be a moderator at Quora. I don’t know whether it’s true, but if it’s not, then Quora ought to ban him for the dishonest claim, and if it is, then this is huge black mark on Quora since it’s an obvious violation of the “Be Nice; Be Respectful” policy. I guess that “BN;BR” doesn’t apply to people who piss off Paul Buchheit, though. Neither does “Don’t Be Evil”, a now-laughable three-word platitude that is the only reason anyone has ever heard of him.

Quora management update

Here are some updates coming to me about Quora’s management situation in the wake of #QuoraGate.

Quora seems to believe that it has the employee attrition problem under control. They’re planning to offset the morale problems with a substantially more generous pool of raises and promotions over the next 12 to 24 months. This means two things. First, every Quora employee ought to be expressing their indignation at the decision to ban me, not so aggressively that Quora suspects that employee may leave, but with enough force and determination as to get one’s piece of this new raise, bonus, and promotion pool, one that almost certainly dwarfs the pool that will be allocated for more traditional reasons. People who don’t speak up in their opposition to this decision will probably not get anything, because when something like this happens, all the good stuff is given to the people who seem upset enough that they might leave (but, obviously, not so determined that they will leave). If you work at Quora, now is the time to ask for that raise or title bump! Second, it means that I managed to get generous raises for a bunch of people I’ve never met, and without any intention to do anything of the sort. W00t! If you work at Quora and get a raise or bonus in the next two years, the statistical likelihood is that you owe it to me, at least indirectly. (No, you obviously shouldn’t send me a check. Keep it all.)

Quora is more concerned, at this point, about user attrition right now than its employees, believing (by my sources) that it has that problem handled. To its credit, Quora has been swift at censoring any content that is sympathetic to me, so I’d guess that less than 0.1 percent of its users are even aware of the ban. I do have 8,600 followers, but I’d guess that Quora’s user base is in the millions. The problem is that most of Quora’s top contributors have heard of me, and are incensed.

Most of the time spent, in the strategy meeting that was held recently, was discussing how to manage the user-level fallout from my ban– or, more to the point, whether to implicate Y Combinator. Top Writer attrition is what they’re concerned about, because if the small percentage of high-volume, quality contributors leave, their site falls to pieces. There’s obviously a Pareto (“80/20”, but often even more lopsided) distribution to involvement in any online community, and the 0.1 percent that is actually aware of, and incensed about, my being banned… they produce at least 25 percent of the quality content. As information about this situation becomes more available, it becomes only more favorable to me, and I only become better known within Quora as a person unjustly (and stupidly, given the following that I had) banned.

The other thing worth noting is that, while I don’t know Adam D’Angelo personally, he made a show in front of his employees of being pissed about the ban. He made it clear that “someone” deserved to be fired over the decision. Whether that “someone” was a Quora Admin (whom he can fire, and presumably will before Friday) or an investor (whom he can’t fire) was not clear to any observers of the interaction (at least, not to any who are talking to me). We’ll know by Friday, at the latest. If Quora doesn’t reverse the ban and fire the person responsible, that will certainly not prove any investor-level responsibility (much less implicating Y Combinator or Paul Buchheit) but it will prove that Quora intends for its investors (and, in particular, Y Combinator) to take the blame.

That’s all I have for now. Thank you all for your support and, to the people inside Quora, please keep the information coming.