No Exit →

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes a brilliant piece of long-form journalism in Wired this month, “No Exit,” following the path of a more typical startup in San Francisco than the ones that get huge payoffs.

As a self-taught programmer with no college degree at all, this passage particularly resonated with me:

It’s extremely difficult to hire talented engineers in the Valley unless you’ve got incredible PR, can pay a fortune, or are offering the chance to work on an unusually difficult problem. Nobody was buzzing about them, and they had no money, but the upside of having a business that relied on serious machine learning was that they had worthy challenges on the table. On January 4, they made an offer to exactly the sort of engineer they needed, Tevye. He had a PhD in AI from MIT. Just to contextualize what that means in Silicon Valley, an MIT AI PhD can generally walk alone into an investor meeting wearing a coconut-shell bra, perform a series of improvised birdcalls, and walk out with $1 million. Nick and Chris had gone to good schools of modest profile—Nick to the University of Puget Sound, Chris to the University of Vermont—and while Nick also had a Harvard business degree, both were skeptical about the credential fetish of the Valley. They were happy to play the game when they could, though.

The assumption has clearly become that it’s easier to teach good coding practices to people who know all the algorithms already than vice-versa. I can’t definitively say that’s the wrong approach, although I have my doubts. I can definitively say that it’s pushing me more toward pursuing technical writing than I was thinking about even a half-year ago.

In any case, while my own experience with startups hasn’t been nearly as stressful as what these guys are going through, I’ve seen just enough of that angle to make me wonder whether SF/Silicon Valley’s “rock stars only” mindset is healthy in the long run. (Ironically, I’m getting more contacts than ever from people inexplicably convinced I’m a Rock Star Ninja Brogrammer looking to wrangle Big Data High Scalability DevOps Buzzword Bleepbloop problems the likes of which the world has never seen. Sorry. I know enough of the words you are using to help you document your brilliant stuff, though.)

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