Falling out of love with Silicon Valley

I came to Silicon Valley in the mid 1990’s. Reflecting back on that time directly out of college, I remember that I thought computer chips were exciting and that the best companies designing and manufacturing them were making huge money. Of course, I had been fascinated with computers since I was little, as had many of my coworkers.

Anyway, computer chips seemed really cool back then. They looked cool. They were made in cool manufacturing environments. The tools to design them were cool. And the chips were getting better and faster all the time. Honestly, it just seemed like fun and I wanted in.

In those years, I distinctly remember social events where I would try to express my excitement about semiconductors and folks would just politely back away from me, the crazy nerd.

Today,  Silicon Valley is still cool. In fact, it’s way cooler and more widely cool. People are making even more money, more people are involved, and the products they’re churning out are used by more people and in more numerous ways. And, the only reason you can’t talk about your work at parties today is because everyone is so tired of it.

But, SV today leaves me cold.

What has changed is cool itself. I liked nerd-cool, but this is mainstream capitalist cool. Banker cool. “Kids” in hoodies cool. Ignore the rules cool.

The people being drawn to Silicon Valley today, like me, are also coming because it’s exciting, but what excites them is not the same as what excited me. For awhile I thought this was a software vs. hardware thing. (It is, but not entirely — requires a separate post for sure.)

I see two basic factors for my loss of affection for SV:

  1. Today’s hot companies generally deploy tech rather than make it. The exceptions seem to be when they have to develop something for operational purposes, and when they do they seem to keep their innovations close. Poster child for this might be Google, which had to invent a lot of its infrastructure, though a Google starting fresh today would probably have much less to do. Anyway, not creating things you don’t absolutely have to create is probably smart, but can we admit that it’s also boring?
  2. The business models make me uncomfortable. Making a thing (or software, or a service) and selling it in a two-party, pareto-improving transaction is very passé. In fact, if your plan is to make and sell hardware OR software, your prospects for raising money are limited. Instead, advertising and market-making are hot.


When I was a young man, choosing my major in college, there were large, successful advertising businesses and large, successful market makers. But I would never have spent a femtosecond considering working for either.

Today, advertisers (Google, Facebook, etc) and market-makers (Uber, Airbnb, etc) dominate Silicon Valley. They’re great companies, I guess, but I have to wonder why so many engineers are thrilled to join them. Steve Jobs once famously recruited John Sculley by asking him if he wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his career, or if he wanted to change the world. Well, it seems that sugar water (or perhaps, sugar water once removed) may have actually won in the end. (Interestingly, Apple continues to mostly avoid this model.)

I still love tech. Maybe the tech nerds will regroup somewhere and stage a comeback. Probably not going to happen in SV, though.

2 thoughts on “Falling out of love with Silicon Valley”

  1. I can see your point (even though I came here originally for reasons that were unrelated to working or to the next big thing). But are you comfortable saying that AirBnB and Uber are market makers? Or are they taking advantage of regulatory environment like, let’s say, jitneys in the 1910s-20s? I suppose I am in the fogey brigade since I use neither service and would not mind a more rational rearrangement of the existing product markets (taxis and hotels).

    Keeping up the comment campaign!

    1. I think of them as market makers just because they primarily serve a matchmaking and brokering function.

      You bring up an interesting side-point: it is not uncommon for such companies to broker transactions that are illegal. I have a low regard for such companies, that have taken the “move fast and break things” ethos right to the edge of legality and beyond. In most cases, they have a point that the current situation is not optimal (say, taxi medallion schemes), but their means of reform (say, totally ignoring existing rules) doesn’t impress me much. But the fact is if these companies had to change the first, they would not have been able to build their business. I guess this is an ends/means kind of question. Because I know that the existing rules came from our reliable, if crufty democratic processes, I think the means matter.

      So chalk that up as another reason I am not thrilled.

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