A few Sundays back, there was an interesting cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine by a young techie.
Hard not to be a
bit insanely jealous of Yiren Lu, who’s a grad student in computer science at Columbia. Not only is she a smarty-smart nerd girl – when I was at Harvard, my internship at Uber – but she’s also a smarty-smart pianist, a smarty-smart writer, and cute to boot. Plus she’s young, and has her entire adult life ahead of her – an adult life that certainly seems on the SUCCESS trajectory. (Can I have a do-over, please. On second thought, forget about it. I’d probably still come back as a slothful underachiever.)
Anyway, in her smarty-smart Times article, Ms. Lu explores the frictions between old guard techies with their plodding, boring, “build it right” ways, and the rising generation of brainiac kids coding 24/7 on cool, mostly ephemeral, apps in hopes that the one they’re coding their brainiac brains out on might be the next ka-billion dollar IP winner.
Not that anyone gets to experience those frictions up close and personal. Old farts work for clunky old companies like Cisco, companies that build tangible, necessary, and bo-ring “stuff”, while the young turks gravitate towards start-ups developing intangible, generally unnecessary, and cool “apps.”
The valley has always been a hard-charging, ever-optimistic place, full of people who are passionate about ideas that require some suspension of disbelief. But in the last 10 years in particular, there has been an exacerbation of the qualities for which it’s been both feted and mocked: Valuations are absurdly high for companies with no revenue. The founders are younger; the pace is faster… There is a sense among them of manifest destiny, of “This is our time.” On Quora, the popular question-and-answer site that has become something of a weather vane for the technorati, one member asks, “What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they hit 35 and are officially over the hill?”
Despite its breathtaking arrogance, the question resonates; it articulates concerns about tech being, if not ageist, then at least increasingly youth-fetishizing….According to the company PayScale, the median age of employees at Hewlett-Packard is 39, at Facebook 26. (Source: NY Times Magazine .)
There is, of course, plenty that’s unsettling about this youth – and coolness, and apps – fetishizing.
One is that so much of what’s being developed is “trivial” and “frivolous” – Ms. Lu’s words – rather than something that will do some good for mankind. I mean, posting selfies on Instagram is all well and good, but:
Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix healthcare.gov, want to work for a sexting app?
Obviously, because it’s cool, and it’s where the smart kids hang, and because – we’ve seen it before – a completely trivial and frivolous app can turn into the “It Girl” of the day, and turn all those smart kids who used to be just smart, but who are now smart and cool, into ultra wealthy 35 years old who can spend the rest of their lives as angel investors.
Another problem is that a lot of what’s out there is not what we used to call back in my musty, fusty tech days, “robust.”
Recently, an engineer at a funded-to-the-gills start-up in San Francisco texted me to grumble about his company’s software architecture. Its code base was bug-ridden and disorganized — yet the business was enjoying tremendous revenue and momentum. “Never before has the idea itself been powerful enough that one can get away with a lacking implementation,” he wrote. His remark underscores a change wrought by the new guard that the old guard will have to adapt to. Tech is no longer primarily technology driven; it is idea driven.
But the idea driven needs all that boring old fundamental technology to run on.
In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests. Without a good router to provide reliable Wi-Fi, your Dropbox file-sharing application is not going to sync; without Nvidia’s graphics processing unit, your BuzzFeed GIF is not going to make anyone laugh. The talent — and there’s a ton of it — flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps.
So what’s going to happen when the dads in their short-sleeved shirts and pocket protectors, the drones who work on the underlying hardware and software, decide to pack it in?
As the bard of my generation once wrote, the pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles.
Of course, this won’t be the case of the vandals taking the handles. It will be a case of the handles falling off.
How can you possibly play Candy Crush and Flappy App if the chip in your smartphone keeps short circuiting?
I can see it all now, all the old guard – now dubbed The Greatest Generation, Part II - being called back into the workforce, and all the anxious young guard hovering around begging the geezers to just make it work.
I can dream, can’t I?
Thanks to my sister Kath for sending this article my way.