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As a finance executive who’s worked for a few high profile, public companies, I know something of the rise of Silicon Valley. I spent an entire summer there working on a deal with what is now perhaps the most highly touted law firm in the country. Back in those days, Silicon Valley had yet to spread as far south as San Jose. In fact, no one in those days could have predicted how quickly and incredibly the tech revolution would transform the Valley landscape. So with the Google diversity debacle and the Uber and venture capital sexism scandals dominating much of the media, I feel it’s necessary to wade in and see if I can understand what exactly is going on in this Silicon Valley of paper billionaires.
My first thought is this: Silicon Valley evolved in a very short time. Yeah, it was important back during my time in Palo Alto, but compared to today, it was a mere fledgling then, represented by some software companies, Adobe for example, but dominated by network and hardware guys like Intel, HP, AMD, Cisco and an up and down player, Apple. The real rise of the Silicon Valley came later, in parallel with the convergence of network computing, wireless telephony and the internet. Silicon Valley came of age just as the first Apple iPhone hit the market, in mid-2007.
So think about it, in the past 10 years gigantic corporations like Google, Facebook, Oracle and EBay have emerged, some from nowhere, to become the new tech juggernauts. They have had to employ tens of thousands of the best and brightest technical minds in the world, of which there is a limited supply. It’s not like our academy could foresee this revolution and could react by doubling or tripling the number of promising software, RF, electrical engineers and physicists coming from their universities. Our high schools did not suddenly become adept at motivating and preparing their best and brightest to pursue the path to a career in tech. Rather, they tried to prepare their graduates as they have always done, for college generally.
So I find the fact that women and some minorities, as a whole, are underrepresented among Silicon Valley firms to be both predictable and not particularly alarming. When I started my career in public accounting nearly 40 years ago there were very few women in the CPA profession. In my first “class” at Deloitte in Boston, of the thirty-six or so new accountants hired, more than a third were women. Now some university accounting programs are dominated by women and these women often outperform their male counterparts. In this very demanding of professions, 19% of Deloitte’s partner level employees are now women. In fact, Deloitte’s CEO is a woman.
Engineering and tech, like public accounting, have not, historically, been careers pursued by women for a host of reasons that are difficult to ascertain. Certainly, at least in the last forty years that I have been in the workplace, young women have not been discouraged or barred entry into either profession for prejudicial reasons. They’ve been welcomed and recruited. But both professions involve objective, difficult, demanding, and quantitative undergraduate study, an emersion in their own esoteric language and structure. They are both, in a word, nerdy. And career-wise, they are difficult and hyper-competitive. Success, in either profession, is hardly assured. Tech firms blossom and die with amazing frequency; today’s stock grants or options are often tomorrow’s wallpaper. And the accounting profession, aside from being an incredible grind, is built around the notion that about 1/3 of its staff will either leave or be counselled out each and every year. Extrapolate that over time and you can see why only one in fifty or more staffers hired eventually make it to partnership.
I have three daughters, all extremely bright and hardworking. Each of them laughed at me when I suggested a career in engineering or accounting. I know that this is anecdotal, but I don’t think it is unusual. Of those twenty or so children among our inner circles of friends, I can count three who pursued engineering as undergraduates, two of those female. In all three cases, their parents are in the tech world (two engineers and one a PhD physicist.) There several other parents who are tech engineers whose children are not pursuing tech degrees. Of those three students who chose undergraduate engineering, none is pursuing an aspect of engineering that will attract a Silicon Valley career. I should note, however, that two young women are pursuing STEM careers, both in PhD programs in medical science, one is my middle daughter and the other is the daughter of an electrical engineer.
The point here is that in my experience, parents have the most influence in their children’s vocational pursuits. Even in a place as filled with a disproportionate number of high tech entrepreneurs as Chandler, AZ, a kind of little Silicon Valley, the most informed and persuasive of parents in the biz seem to have had difficulty convincing their children to pursue a tech career. Why? Because they know how difficult and fickle a tech career can be. Today’s expert quickly becomes tomorrow’s dinosaur. Some two years ago Intel eliminated several hundred mid-high level engineering positions locally. Two of our friends were caught up in that restructuring. Less than a year later Intel announced that it was opening a mothballed chip foundry and hiring thousands of new techs. Only a handful of the layed off engineers were recalled. Apple recently announced it was building a state of the art sapphire coated screen manufacturing facility nearby. Months later they announced that the massive facility was being reconfigured as a cloud storage facility.
So what is really going on in Silicon Valley? Is it really what the SJW’s are alleging, yet one more example of the free market patriarchy bent on keeping women and minorities from sharing in the spoils of the tech revolution? The answer is, not even remotely. Silicon Valley is a very competitive place with tech companies fighting desperately to survive and thrive in a world that is evolving at an incredible pace, where high profile companies like eBay and Yahoo rise meteorically and then fall as they are eclipsed by the likes of Amazon and Google. To survive, tech companies need the best technical talent and far more often than not for reasons that we don’t really understand, those individuals are men, and not just men, but nerds, and not just nerds, but extremely bright nerds who love computers and coding.
Silicon Valley is a boomtown with all the characteristics of a gold or silver strike. It suffers from incredible inflation (see Silicon Valley housing prices) and since today’s tech workers, like yesterday’s ‘49ers, are disproportionately male, it suffers from a dearth of women. Men need women, for all the obvious reasons, and the tech rush has created a massive disparity. We don’t know what the mechanism is that causes a young man to decide to become an electrical engineer, to specialize in integrated circuit design or to learn machine language. However we do know that this mechanism does not proportionately inspire individuals from certain groups (women, hispanics and blacks) to pursue tech. However, this mechanism does seem to disproportionally inspire certain other groups to pursue tech; that is all sorts of Asian men, many Jews and lots of nerdy white guys.
I would suspect that this concentration of young, wealthy, semi-homogenous young tech nerds, predominately male and introverted, might make for an unusual corporate culture, something that could use a little diversity. The tech companies provide their workers with outrageous perks (curb to curb transportation, on premise food dispensaries and not just snacks, but gourmet meals attending every dietary nuance, workout facilities, sleep pods, etc.) but this does nothing to address the real problem.
Google, Facebook, Uber, etc. don’t have a diversity problem. They don’t need more female, black and Hispanic nerds to prove that they are not harboring some kind of nefarious and hidden prejudice. What they need to do is stop fretting. They still need the best tech talent to survive, and if those people continue to be majority Asian, Jewish or white nerds, that is a reality that these employers must face. Tech employers need to take inventory of the things missing from their worker’s lives that will help them become happier, more well-rounded and grounded human beings. Tech engineers and specialists need lives outside of the Silicon Valley bubble. Their employers may feed them, but they are starving. Their employers may provide them with sleeping pods, but they are smothering them. Tech workers need real social lives, a spouse, a family, a home. This is a boomtown crisis of its own making. If Silicon Valley and its satellites Boston, Austin, even Chandler, AZ are so insular and competitive that these basic things are too difficult for tech workers to obtain, then employers should move their facilities and people elsewhere where there is still oxygen inside the bubble.