We have grown used to looking up to Silicon Valley’s business elite as the highest representatives of a new order in the corporate world. The cluster of high-tech businesses based in the Santa Clara Valley in the San Francisco Bay area is known to foster a meritocracy which values innovation, skills and change over more traditionally relied upon concepts such as experience, knowledge and profit.
The achievements of high-growth companies like Google, Facebook and Apple changing the very way we connect and interact with one another as a species, from iPhones to social networks, are rightly praised. 15 years ago, most of us were playing “Snake” on our old Nokia mobile phones while today you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the developed world under the age of 45 who doesn’t own a smartphone.
When we take into account the unprecedented level of progress in human history brought about by these disruptive companies, the glorification of their leaders and culture becomes very easy to understand. But one has to wonder: is it all sunshine and rainbows in Santa Clara or is there a darker side to Silicon Valley?
Let’s have a look at 15 Dark Facts of Silicon Valley.
15. Old People Not Wanted
Mark Zuckerberg’s quote on how “young people are just smarter” speaks volumes about Silicon Valley’s widely practised ageism. However, the vast majority of startups are just like small and medium businesses, running on tight budgets and need to make every penny count.
Why should the founder pay $150k to a skilled engineer with the professional certification, background, decades of experience and a family to go home to every night when you can get a hungry recent graduate for a third of the salary, who will stay in the office until dawn building products and meeting deadlines, after only a month of training?
The end result is a company of predominantly young people (management team included) which looks down on experience, perhaps spelling its own doom. Within three years 92% of startups fail with 74% failing due to premature scaling, just the sort of problem a bit of experience could help avoid.
14. Sexual harassment and “Boys Club” Culture
Women have an incredibly difficult time in Silicon Valley. In addition to being underpaid and under-represented even when compared to other industries, recent reports have surfaced of an alarmingly high number of sexual harassment claims in high-profile tech companies.
While Susan Fowler’s blog post about her experience of being sexually harassed at Uber has shed some light on this problem, a look at the numbers shows that Silicon Valley’s tech startup culture is underpinned by a “boys club” culture.
The research project Elephant in the Valley interviewed over 200 women in the San Francisco tech industry and found 60% reported unwanted sexual advances while 87% claimed to have been on the end of demeaning comments from male colleagues.
13. The Traffic nightmare will drive you insane
On a smaller scale than the previous dark facts, this will surely be more of a nuisance to people who actually live in the area but it’s still worth mentioning. Silicon Valley has experienced a massive influx of people over the last few decades and anyone who lives there will tell you the infrastructure is neither suitable nor scalable.
Public transport networks simply aren’t developed enough to handle the number of people commuting both in terms of capacity as well as reach. As you may have guessed, commuters have to rely on driving their own car to work resulting in incredibly congested traffic, making it impossible to drive on some highways in peak hours.
12. High cost of living
As a natural consequence of the vast number of high earners being crammed into a fairly small location, the price of every product or service in Silicon Valley has gone up. Gentrification has followed suit and working class people have consistently been pushed out and priced out of the area.
In addition, housing is overpriced, schools are expensive and the state income tax is high. In a perverse effect of earning such a high income, people are working increasingly harder and longer hours in order to escape the high failure rate of tech startups. If they’re fired or their startup company fails, life can become very difficult very quickly.
11. Culture of egocentrism
Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates. Most startup founders in Silicon Valley will secretly believe to have what it takes to top all successful tech leaders who have walked the sunny streets of the Bay Area. They will consider their own work to be incredibly disruptive and innovative regardless of the quality, suitability or scalability of their product.
In a sense, this is entirely justified – if they don’t believe wholeheartedly their product is the next Facebook or iPhone, then why should their clients or investors? In a more practical sense, the truth is we know a handful of these companies because only a handful of them have truly been disruptive. Without a good bullshit detector, 30 minutes in a networking event in the region will leave you convinced you have just rubbed shoulders with a collection of Musk-Zuckerberg hybrids.
10. Depression and general mental instability
This has to be one of the saddest consequences of the immense pressures suffered by employees and founders alike in the tech industry.
They will have gone all-in in nearly every sense of the word, the stakes are sky-high and over 90% of startups fail within a couple of years. You work over 100 hours a week to avoid failure when the odds are stacked against you, foregoing quality time with family and friends.
The constant pressure will take its toll on your mental health, resulting in depression. The tech industry is inflicted by a disproportionately high amount of seriously unhappy leaders who have to be on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication.
9. Lack of a work-life balance
High pressure, failure rates unlike no other industry, a high cost of living and hellish commutes. When taking these factors into account, it’s impressive to ponder just how difficult it must be to sustain a balance between your personal life and professional obligations.
Even when you’re not in the office you’re expected to reply to emails almost instantaneously, meaning you never truly clock out of work. In a sense, you’re always in the office and you’ll never do enough in the eyes of your employers who just want more and more, attributing family time little to no value.
8. Lack of transparency
If not for Wall Street’s stellar reputation, Silicon Valley’s opacity in the face of the public would be unmatched. In an industry where innovative disruption is the name of the game, this secrecy will seem justified at first but will fail a closer examination.
Snapchat’s recent $24 billion IPO valuation flies in the face of common sense and the SEC is increasingly worried about this sort of valuations for companies that don’t make a profit. The lack of transparency at high-risk tech startups can perhaps be justified, as the ridiculously high valuations are starting to defy the knowledge of the most experienced investors – Warren Buffet stays away from technology for a reason.
7. Leaders in the art of Hypocrisy
In such a value-oriented industry which likes to think of itself as leading the world away from the darkness and into the light through progress and innovation, it’s curious to note such a high proliferation of scandals.
From the shady rumours of exchanges of personal data and information with the US government to the more palpable sexual harassment scandals at Uber and the lack of racial and gender diversity at the executive level, there is a noticeable stench of hypocrisy in the air.
6. Everyone complains about Bad management
You’re a great developer, a builder of products and an architect of solutions. Your technical knowledge is nearly unparalleled for someone your age and you’re somewhat aware of this, perhaps even letting an air of superiority flow out of you.
What part of this indicates you’ll be a good manager? None whatsoever. This is the problem with promoting someone who’s good at their job precisely because they’re good at their job. Just because they’re good at their job doesn’t mean they’ll be good at getting other people to do that some job, which is what good management is.
Silicon Valley has made a good showing of acceptance (and even promotion) of failure, with several cases of catastrophic blunders being masked as “learning experiences”, proving yet again it’s not held to the same standard as the rest of corporate America.
5. Income inequality as the rich get richer
Silicon Valley is one of the maximum exponents of the income inequality issue in the developed world. As the cost of living experienced a meteoric rise, working class neighbourhoods were gentrified away and average workers priced out of the area.
Ferraris and Teslas drive past homeless people in rampant displays of the contrast felt in the Santa Clara Valley. Homelessness has been steadily rising in the Bay Area over the last few years, the number of people on food stamps has reached an all-time high with minorities becoming increasingly disenfranchised, reversing the trend witnessed nearly everywhere else.
4. No respect for family-oriented people
This appears as a natural consequence of some of the issues previously mentioned here. The unbelievably high pressure coupled with the high failure rates and extreme competition and saturation of the market translate into a life where employees are essentially “married” to their work.
You’re expected to be in the office long past whenever you’re supposed to finish so that the founder who you work for gets to dream about having created the next Google, even though he most likely won’t. When you’re finally “allowed” to leave, you’re expected to reply to emails as they come to your inbox and the high cost of living and increasing homelessness are chilling reminders of what may happen if you decide to put your family first.
3. Lack of diversity is so obvious
This is one of the most surprising dark secrets of Silicon Valley, which gains a new dimension when you consider its geographical location in the San Francisco region. The Bay Area has a very culturally diverse population so it’s remarkable to notice how the business elite of the region is almost completely made up of white men.
No one would be blamed for asking what else is new, but this lack of diversity is particularly interesting when it comes from an industry which is so evangelical about changing the world by leading its progress.
Some points are better illustrated by images rather than words so please check out the photos from the POTUS’s first meeting with tech leaders after taking office – all white, very few women with Elon Musk being the only non-US born executive present.
2. Beware ladies: Sexism is Rampant
In the meeting where the previous dark secret’s photo was taken, there were only three women out of 24 people sat at the table (four if you count the President’s daughter).
And again you might ask how is that different from every other company in America? I could present a similar argument as the one made regarding the lack of diversity and point out the hypocrisy of an industry that largely portrays itself as being a step ahead of everyone else but remains so backwards when it comes to female representation at the executive level.
But perhaps this point is better made by looking at the numbers, which doesn’t lie: only 21% of American tech executives are female whereas other industries have executive teams with a female representation of 36%, according to a study by research firm PayScale.
1. Dishonesty in the Valley
We’ve looked at the lack of diversity, rampant sexism, obvious ageism and staggering hypocrisy among many other dark facts about Silicon Valley’s tech industry, which is viewed by the public (or presents itself) as a pure beacon of disruption underpinned by moral righteousness.
When combined with an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence of employees being lured with stock options into working late (something I’ve personally experienced in a tech startup), evidence of sexual harassment and lack of transparency, a final thought presents itself.
We’re forced to consider perhaps that the darkest fact about Silicon Valley is its penchant for dishonesty, falling in line with Wall Street and the rest of the corporate world.
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