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Startup culture: everything old is new again

14 Aug

I might have additional posts inspired by the New York Times Magazine article “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”, but here’s the first. The article is a lengthy piece and not very skimmable, but you might want to take the time to read it.

Isn’t it a hoot when young people think they’re the first who ever had a thought or experience, in the entire history of humanity? I don’t want to bash author Yiren Lu, because she seems like a thoughtful and intelligent person, but similar articles could have been found in WIRED or Fast Company in the 1990s when I was her age. Back in those days, younger people worked on the whiz-bang front end applications — we called it the World Wide Web — while the older engineers focused on infrastructure, networking, and hardware at more established companies. Twenty years ago the exciting place to be was in website development. Now it’s apps. Either way, that’s where the excitement and opportunity is likely to be for younger, less experienced techies.

Side note: Couldn’t the artist have included a female figure in any of the four illustrations accompanying the piece? It’s that sort of thing that subconsciously indicates women are not part of tech culture. It’s no surprise that many of the comments assumed the author was male despite her photo appearing at the end of the article.

My first job in the Internet industry began 20 years ago this month. It was a startup. I interviewed for an administrative position, heard the partners talking about the need for a production manager, taught myself HTML that night, and went on to take the better job instead. It was a bold and stupid move but so things were in the early days of the Web. After a year and a half, I jumped to a job at Huge Internet Corporation, which later acquired the startup anyway. I’ve done contract work for other startups through the years.

Startups can be exciting, especially if they’re lavishly funded. When they’re not? Well, I remember rushing my boss’s personal check to the bank to cover payroll for the week, more than once. I remember months of fighting to get payment I was owed. At one job, I was always first to the office in the morning, which made the day our power was cut off even more exciting. Being young and at a startup is like tightrope walking without a net. There is an adrenaline rush and sometimes the risk can bring great reward, but that wasn’t my experience. In the first couple years I held three jobs simultaneously to pay my rent: a day job at a tech company, retail sales on evenings and weekends, and freelancing in between.

For me, it was much more fun to be at a young company: Huge Internet Corporation in the early days. We still had startup culture, enthusiasm galore, and a sense that we were doing something new, revolutionary, and important. Because the company had existed for a while, however, there wasn’t as much risk and there was better infrastructure. I worked ridiculous hours and there was plenty of grumbling and stress, but my first few year there were the best work period of my life so far. And yes, we had Nerf guns then too, and we shot each other as we dodged between the cubicles. We pranked each other mercilessly. We had Quake tournaments after hours. Most of us were young and single; our social lives tended to mesh with our work lives. Alcohol played a role in that culture, sometimes in the office or at informal parties in the parking lot. We had decent salaries and stock options; a good day on Wall Street could create waves of 28 year old millionaires and a bad day could bring tears.

Ms. Lu might not realize this yet, but companies age too. The culture changes as layers of management and oversight come in and as a maturing workforce changes their priorities to include on-site daycare, parental leave, and better retirement savings plans. Public companies have more paperwork; some of the blame for my burn out at Huge Internet Company can be dumped at the feet of Sarbanes-Oxley. The mandatory documentation, diversity committee review of new hires, accessibility review of every project, and on and on… it adds up, even when the intent is to change things for the better. Throw in some bad reviews from the tech press — oh how we used to fear Walt Mossberg! — and product management starts to get gun shy. Progress slows. Innovation is stifled.

Internet companies are still figuring out viable maturity curves. Some settle into their strengths and stop trying to compete with nimble startups. Some reorganize to make room for established business and creativity, as Google seems to be doing with its recent creation of parent company Alphabet, Inc. Some use size to keep their position while building side products in an attempt to future-proof the business (Amazon, Facebook). Some die. In the case of Huge Internet Corporation, management made some bad decisions, our business model shifted too slowly, and our core technology was outdated by the time it was released. The company still exists but in very different form.

However, when I look though my LinkedIn contacts to see where my former HIC colleagues are working today, I see quite an assortment, not only the “old guard” trying to trudge through the last decades of their careers at stable, long-lived companies. Those I was closest to are between the ages of 40 and 55 now. Many of them have C-level or Vice President titles at startups or smaller companies, or they are VPs or Directors at larger ones. A few started their own companies or became consultants. Others bailed out of the industry altogether to pursue new passions, from nursing to documentary film making to landscape architecture. They scattered across the country and a surprising cluster of them ended up in London. Generalizing about the whole group, just as generalizing about the younger wave of tech workers, misses all the interesting paths that don’t fit the desired narrative.

——-

A short personal note. Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while know about my dear friend Jakob and I wanted to pass along an update. He and I haven’t been spending much time together since I broke my leg — neither of us has much to say, as we’re both housebound and unwell — but we still have a short online visit every day. Lately he’s been active and optimistic, cleaning his house and planning an October trip with his sister.

Unfortunately, he’s now back in the hospital. He had chemotherapy (he has stage IV stomach cancer) last Thursday and was groggy in the days that followed. By Sunday he wasn’t online. Yesterday his sister gave me the news that he was admitted to the hospital with a blood sugar level of 1300. Jakob is an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic and when he is weak and confused from chemo, he forgets to do blood sugar checks. Since high or low blood sugar make him even more confused, that begins a spiral that he can’t control. I saw this a couple times when we took a vacation together in May. I’m translating from messages his sister sends me in German from her smartphone, but from what I can patch together, he’s reliant on machines right now. He didn’t recognize her and she says his eyes didn’t focus. Meanwhile, she says that his cancer is still spreading. The doctors are not offering her much hope at this point.

It drives me crazy that Jakob doesn’t understand the situation with his illness, and because of the language gap it is still unclear whether his doctors are actively withholding the information or if he’s refusing to hear it. He assures me that his cancer is gone and that the chemo will keep it that way. Of course that’s not true; I knew in May that another tumor had been found in his brain and that the therapy is destroying his liver and other organs. He’s made amazing recoveries before though, so I’m not rushing to say the end is near this time. We shall see.

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2 Comments

Posted by on August 14, 2015 in Culture, Relationships

 

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2 responses to “Startup culture: everything old is new again

  1. Tizzy Canucci

    August 15, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    The perspective of time is always interesting. Sorry to hear about your continuing personal challenges. I hope you are feeling better soon.

     

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