San Francisco’s Tech Culture: A Plea for Compromise

By now everyone has seen the comments made by one Greg Gopman, founder of a company that is headquartered in San Francisco. Like Peter Shih, who referred to San Francisco’s transgender community as dangerous and its women as ugly, Greg too found a way to – and I’m using a gentle word here – disparage the existence of some of San Francisco’s residents.

ImageHe went on to describe, in comments defending his position, San Francisco’s homeless population as the, “lower part of society,” “degenerates,” and claimed that “there is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us.” Likewise he suggests we should move homeless shelters, methadone clinics, and other types of “that shit” to Daly City. Ultimately he half-heartedly apologized, and I use this adverb because I do not believe he would have apologized if his post had not received widespread media attention. But, that is my opinion. I don’t know Gopman personally and cannot give you a definitive statement on his motives.

What resulted was an onslaught of rage towards Gopman, which I contributed to. Now, I vocalized my opinion for two reasons:

1) I am a native San Franciscan: my family has lived here and in the Bay Area for 4 generations. This is my home.

2) I work in the tech industry, and I am embarrassed by the attitude and behavior of many of my contemporaries.

I want to emphasize that what happened here is an example of a larger trend. I will not spend my time getting caught up in a debate on the issue he surfaced. There is an undeniable problem with homelessness in San Francisco, just like there are problems with public transportation in San Francisco. The realities of these issues cannot be debated, because they are in fact reality.

What Gopman, Shih, and others have shown us is an attitude problem among many in the tech industry that is characterized by self-nominated elitism and a the total lack of concern towards the community that is making them millionaires. This is underscored by an apparent lack of empathy, as Gopman displayed, which fuels the poisonous narrative of an “us vs them” community.

A good example of tech elitism and the lack of empathy that drives it is one of the responses to Greg’s apology on Facebook, and the 6 likes it collected. What follows is 7 confirmed people who support putting the homeless into labor camps:

ImageYou guys, she’s TRAVELED places. Someone give her a Nobel Prize.

It is disheartening to watch your city fill up with people who don’t care about it. They are predominantly from out of town, claim San Francisco as their own, and then bash it to high hell typically because it is dissimilar to wherever they came from. Recently, Ivy League grads and other highly-motivated people, who likely would have gone into finance 20 years ago, recognized the money to be made by enterprising out West. Suddenly the tech scene stopped being about making incredible products and changing the world, and turned into a capital-raising frenzy in a race to be under 30 with X amount of dollars in the bank no matter how it impacted the community around them.

On the other side, there is a decent amount of rhetoric that slams the tech community for existing at all, which perpetuates the toxic “us vs them” mentality. I understand the pain – inflated property values, gentrification, outsiders displacing locals – each of these issues is deeply important and gets my ire up, too. But anyone who looks at San Francisco and claims it should stay the same does not understand who San Francisco is. This city is dynamic, and that is the one attribute that characterizes it most.

Image

We should also not be so quick dismiss “technology” as an industry. I’ll be the first to admit that tons of startups are total noisy bullshit, but let’s not forget that being able to play host to some of the most breakthrough technologies in history is a great honor. Here we have 3D printing which will give people everywhere the option for low-price prosthetics and organs, social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit that allow us to connect with others and share information faster than ever, and services like Change.org, Glassdoor, and Yelp that enable us to demand action and transparency from the companies that create products for us.

Similarly, these tech companies, including those that provide buses for their employees (Google, Apple, Facebook, Genentech, EA, etc) collectively provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area alone. To complain about them using buses is narrow-minded and unproductive. I used to ride one of those buses to work every day, and I can guarantee 99% of people aboard are aware of the privilege.

There has to be a middle ground, and it has to come from both sides. Together we need to stop perpetuating this “us vs them” mentality because it distracts from the issues that so desperately need our collective energy.

To Techies: We need entrepreneurs and techies to become citizens of this community, rather than electing to exist “above” it. There are consequences to the actions you take, consequences that affect the people around you. By trivializing that community, you contribute to the unwarranted attitude of tech elitism and entitlement that is garnering critique from the city that is hosting you.

You must develop a sense of empathy for the issues that you directly influence, and understand that while Tech is what brought you here, there exists a universe outside of it. For example, when Silicon Valley money makes you rich, you must understand that by offering $1000/month over the asking price on a rental property in SF another landlord will likely evict long time tenants so they can go condo to take advantage of that kind of money.

To Locals: Likewise, we need locals and residents accept that in an entropic universe change is inevitable, and that we must focus our energy on things like continuing to help rehabilitate the homeless, rather than holding people on a bus hostage. It’s unfair to blame all of our problems on any and all tech people, the majority of which are just trying to make it through the day and come home to their families. Let’s redirect our justifiable anger towards those who earn it, like Greg Gopman, and use the remaining energy to address the problems he so poorly described. I should mention this DOES NOT include putting SF’s homeless in concentration camps. Sorry Ms. Zhang.

Women In Tech Through The Lens of LeWeb

At the risk of not being invited back to LeWeb, something has to be said. I hate to be critical because overall the conference has hosted some truly inspirational speakers and sessions, and I have learned a lot at what is undoubtedly the best tech conference I’ve attended, but on behalf of women everywhere a critique must be made.

There is a serious lack of females at this conference, which is one of the largest tech events in the world, let alone Europe. This phenomenon is not exclusive to LeWeb, but this conference is exemplifying the issue. The audience at LeWeb is populated by men. The speaker list is noticeably lacking in estrogen with only 9 out of 85 total speakers (10.5%) being female. The few women who have been given the opportunity to present are typically representative of stereotypically female industries, such as fashion.

Not that there’s anything wrong with fashion – it’s that the selection of women speakers predominantly from these industries is an incorrect and misleading sample of the landscape. I can think of hundreds of women that work in Straight Up Tech, engineering hardware and software, leading strategy initiatives, that could have been asked to join.

But most of them were not asked. LeWeb hosted a small group of female speakers, including a roundtable on female digital influencers that ended up being a disgrace, but also brought the entire gender issue to a head. When this handful of women – albeit amazing women (dare I say, people?) – were given their time to shine, they were all immediately reduced to their looks by the male hosts.

ImageImage

Image

So when women were given the chance to speak, it was made very clear to the audience that what they said would be unimportant – at most secondary – relative to their physical appearances. And it was similarly made clear that it was important those physical appearances were satisfactory at a conventional level. God forbid any of these ladies be unacceptable looking – would they not have been asked to join if they were “ugly”?

When I vocalized to my fellow conference attendees that I felt a disproportionate male presence at LeWeb, I was met with, “Well, it’s the tech industry.” As if that’s some kind of an excuse? As if that’s a reason to not challenge the what is apparently the norm? And we all know there are plenty of perfectly qualified women that would make great additions to the event, making their collective absence even more noteworthy.

Image

The good news is eventually people will have to recognize that amazing and innovative products are being created, and they won’t be able to ignore the fact that they have been made by women.

Image

As a very smart person I know said, “You know you’re doing it wrong when the most interesting part about you is that you’re a woman.” The conversation shouldn’t even be about gender. It should be about tech, because that’s what we’re here for. I look forward to the day when that becomes a reality.

Image

Ultimately I have to ask: is it really so insane that *women* should be acknowledged for the intelligence, ingenuity, and merit that men have? I challenge LeWeb to look far and wide to find speakers that exhibit these characteristics, which make this conference so inspiring, and ignore the differences in chromosomes. Be the front line for treating women with dignity. Implore your audience to revere femininity the same way we revere masculinity. Lead the tech industry in recognizing that women are valuable because we too are people who are innovating.

LeWeb, you have been amazing, and I can’t wait to see how you will lead the charge in granting women the respect we deserve.

Wantrepreneurs

Everyone was looking forward to hearing Gary Vaynerchuk speak as one of the keynotes at LeWeb Paris this year, but to take a phrase from Gary, holy shit I was not expecting him to be so forthright about some of the cultural issues that currently plague Silicon Valley. And I am so happy he was.

Image

Among countless instances of the kind of swearing that would make him a delightful dinner guest, Gary spoke sense in a way that is tragically missing from the corporate rhetoric in the tech world. When asked what are the biggest problems in startups right now, Gary candidly responded,

“Entrepreneurs don’t realize they’re not entrepreneurs. It’s an attractive time. Mark put on a hoodie, Instagram made a billion dollars.The amount of people from Ivy league schools I’m meeting right now – from Stanford, from Harvard, from Yale – think they because they are smart students that they’re entrepreneurs. That first taste of adversity they get makes them crumble like a bunch of fucking bitches.”

And he’s right. We all know it. When San Francisco locals hold a Google bus hostage, their anger is misdirected. The tech culture that’s infiltrating our fair city is not a result of companies like Google, Apple, Facebook etc hiring lots of people – which is GOOD, because people need jobs to make money to put back into the economy – but a consequence of trust-fundees and wantrepreneurs clambering over the Appalachian mountains because they can make the kind of money in tech that 20 years ago they would have made on Wall Street. 

A true entrepreneur looks at the world and asks, “how can I make it better?” As Tony Tjan, CEO and Managing Partner of Cue Ball taught us on day 1 of LeWeb, an entrepreneur’s DNA is made up of hearts + smarts + guts + luck, and the self awareness to identify one’s individual strengths distributed across those traits. A true entrepreneur has a connection between the soul, the product, and the end user, along with a pure sense of why one is investing themselves into their endeavor. Tony believes in the power of a heart-driven venture and describes the path to success as:

“When you’re in that state where you do what you say. Where what you say is what you think. Where what you think is what you feel. And understand that what you feel is actually who you are.”

The best way to characterize a large percentage of startup culture right now is as a “brainstorm.” Entrepreneurialism has become so diluted by the thirst for money and recognition that oftentimes the most we can hope for is a purpose-driven individual to challenge the culture that has come to dominate Silicon Valley and remind us all why it’s so important to be open to when true innovation raises its head. 

Let’s stop giving fresh MBAs the idea that innovation is easier than it is. It’s hard. It’s “blood, sweat, and ramen” as one of the LeWeb speakers said on day one. Let’s recognize that we are in what Gary calls a “bubble of entreprenuership,” and in that bubble “for every 1 Instagram there are 5 million Insta-shits.” Let’s reward true innovation, true innovators, and get back to the spirit of entrepreneurialism that brought us where we are today.

The Collaborative Econo-me

3DPrinter

What’s next?

This question plagues business people at every level, particularly due to the swiftly changing technological landscape that has characterized the market over the past few years. The power of prediction is a valuable tool in a marketer’s pocket, and it can mean the difference between being the number one recognized brand in an industry, and bankruptcy. The stakes are high in this “age of the customer,” as Forrester’s George Colony calls it, with customers demanding more transparency from the agencies that supply their products while entrepreneurs constantly rewrite what is expected of a company to provide to their consumers.

Jeremiah O_0

There is one trend that stands out among the rest, as evidenced by being a running theme throughout the presentations given at LeWeb Paris this year. This trend was categorized by Jeremiah Owyang, Chief Catalyst & Founder of the brand new Crowd Companies with idea of a collaborative economy.

This concept describes a marketplace in which consumers directly influence the products they purchase and the companies they patronize. Companies like U-haul and GE are recognizing the power of the consumer in the marketplace by giving individuals investment power and using the crowd to creative innovation.

The collaborative economy also includes the concept that more and more consumers are relying on themselves and their community to get the things they want, through means such as 3D printing and services like Etsy.com. This trend was born out of the Maker Movement, a cultural innovation that has given consumers freedom from manufacturing through personal fabrication.

Brit Morin

This DIY mentality is sweeping the marketplace, with platforms like Pinterest perpetuating the know-how for everyone to create the things they want and events like Maker Faire empowering users to cultivate a more hands-on approach to the products they use. This mentality has surpassed the individual level and seeped into the corporate world, establishing an expectation among consumers that companies will respond to the changes people want in their products, as vocalized through the many social media platforms available today.

Ultimately this trend allows people to rely on themselves to get the things they need, creating a personalized Econo-Me for anyone who is interested. With access to information and sharing becoming a cultural necessity, it is no surprise that people are quickly learning how to literally make the products that are important to them rather than relying on commercial manufacturing. As this consumer landscape shifts, the corporate landscape must shift as well: the organizations that recognize this and make the crowd part of their business models will end up being successful, and everyone will be better off for it.

Why I Want To Be BFFs With Guy Kawasaki

Maybe it’s because he said he doesn’t want any new friends. Maybe it’s because his last name is the name of a motorcycle company. Maybe it’s because we share a hobby of not speaking to people we’re seated next to on airplanes. Or maybe it’s because everything he says completely resonates with my perspective on the tech world right now. No matter the reason, I want to be best friends with Guy Kawasaki.

BFFs

Guy Kawasaki is a Silicon Valley author, investor, business advisor, former Chief Evangelist at Apple, and future best friend of yours truly. He was one of the first speakers at LeWeb Paris, and started by proclaiming, “If you look at the past, it’s impossible to predict the future” as the perfect antithesis to the theme of the conference. During his half hour conversation with LeWeb founder Loic Le Meur, Kawasaki used this framework to describe the future of entrepreneurialism, social media, and general technology.

He is the kind of guy who just “gets it.” He is certainly not the kind of person who entertains bullshit, cutting straight to the point when advising entrepreneurs to focus on developing a kickass prototype instead of trying to waste everyone’s time with Powerpoint pitches that are based more on fancy guesswork than reality. When it comes to tech culture he has a refreshing eye-roll attitude, even quizzing the audience about how many would realistically want to walk around wearing a Google Glass on their face. The result was pretty low.

During his time on stage we learned that he is a believer in the power of great content as a vehicle for brand propagation, following the NPR model of only asking for something after providing an amazing, unique experience to consumers. This deviates from the oh-so-standard norm of companies demanding evangelism up front only to fall flat on the promises they’ve made to the marketplace. He views social media as a means to an end, not a platform for accumulating superficial meta-friendships that distract from what’s meaningful in life.

Guy KawasakiHe’s like the prettiest girl at the prom

What ultimately resonated most with me was his response to a question asked about his position on women in the tech world. In an industry full of men and dominated by males, his answer was deeply refreshing:

“If you limit yourself to men only you make it so much harder. Why would you set up artificial barriers for your company? It’s stupid to me. I don’t care what gender, religion, orientation you are. Just show me a great frickin’ prototype.”

So even though Guy Kawasaki isn’t in the market for new social acquaintances, I am happy enough to have his message as a template to follow when it comes to identifying what’s important in the development of a company. Perhaps one day we will be seated next to each other on a plane, and our friendship will develop when we both say nothing.

#techieproblems

I have a degree in linguistics, and I don’t use it for anything, so I give you an article about words so that I feel the debt my family went into to put me through college is justified.

Image

The latest complaint to come out of the tech community is use of the word, “techie” (see photo above) to describe individuals who work in the technology industry. Sounds pretty harmless, right? WRONG!

I’m sorry to tell you, but using this word makes you worse than Hitler according to people interviewed in a recent San Francisco Chronicle article. Hitler may have killed millions of people, but he would never stoop so low as to refer to someone by an innocuous term that no one even knew was offensive. Okay I’m being dramatic, but my point is that I don’t think the term “techie” is as big of a deal as some are claiming, and ultimately it doesn’t matter anyway.

Now, of course I believe words are important. Imperative and paramount, even. You can find me silently searching for the right word to express myself unaware that my friends have moved on to other conversations, and possibly other locations as well. Certain words have the ability to carry with them centuries of meaning, giving them a power one could not imagine to be attributed to a series of technically-arbitrary phonemes. Techie is not one of those words.

Let’s ignore the fact that the journalist who wrote this had to dig to the bottom of the (coffee) barrel to find people who have a strong opinion on the word “techie.” In reality, true entrepreneurs don’t have the bandwidth to waste on this brand of nonsense. People who are trying to change the world do not sit around trying to project what strangers think of them based on word choice. Those who are offended by the name “techie,” are likely to embody the negative characteristics that they perceive to come with the term, in that they don’t give back to the community that’s making them wealthy, they have no awareness or concern of their impact on people around them, and their end-goal is to create a profitable business rather than a fantastic product.

techie-is-just-another-word-for-ninja_design

And why focus on the individual word – isn’t the connotation the important part? Whether you’re called a “techie,” a “hacker,” or a “raging douchebag,” what matters is what the speaker means.  If you don’t like the implications of a word, chances are you identify with the negative components of its perceived definition, which in this case is not a definition that everyone has collectively agreed upon. And if we are going to spend time worrying if our words hurt others, perhaps there are other minorities besides wealthy, elite software engineers that deserve that energy. Though the SF Chronicle article does posit that the current struggle for non-discriminatory terms is THE SAME as the struggle experienced by Mexican immigrants, so it’s possible I’m misguided.

Maybe instead of focusing on whether or not a word qualifies as pejorative, we can turn our energy inwards and ask ourselves if we are exemplifying the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that has paved the way for us to be able to sit in a coffee shop on a weekday with glorious machines at our fingertips. If the answer is that you simply don’t want to be thrown into this ideal that strips you of your individual identity then make the world know who you are. Show them that a techie is not just a follower, but an innovator, someone who thinks about the problems of the world and how to fix them. Labels don’t matter. What you do matters.

The Next 10 Years

As I get ready to attend LeWeb Paris in just a few short days, I can’t help but mull over the theme of the conference: what will the next 10 years look like? 

Image

If you can believe it, 2003 was 10 years ago. It sounds so recent but the technology we used feels generations old. I was 14 and didn’t even have a cell phone yet. Now I feel genuine, physical stress if my cell phone isn’t within a few feet of me. We were at that funny time in history right between using physical maps and Google Maps, where printing Mapquest directions was the best way to get around in an unfamiliar location. Myspace had just come out, though my generation was just getting started with Livejournal. This gave us our first dip into the pool of sharing personal details online. I’m still haunted by some of the searchable posts that exist from that era which include my name next to things only a dumb 14-year-old would say.

Now we are close to the end of 2013, a time where over 1/7th of the world uses Facebook to socialize, information is available immediately, and people are constantly available through email and mobile phones, though less so in person. Buyers are more empowered than ever to affect the products they consume, whether it’s through using social media to establish a two-way conversation with brands, or by using 3D printing and circuit applications to skip the middleman all together and make products themselves. Despite the burst bubbles of a former decade, anyone with a computer and an idea can start a business and have a decent shot at getting funded by venture capital. 

It’s impossible to live and work in Silicon Valley without being exposed to this maelstrom of innovation. Yes, there are unfortunately a great number of people who see an idea being well-received, and so they replicate it to get on the train to YoungAndRichVille.  The types who want to make tons of money, get a Founder title, and a Battery Club membership, but are not concerned with using their money and position to make a quality product. If I see another mobile payment platform or enterprise social marketing solution claiming to “disrupt” the industry I might just die of laughter.

But among the noise, there is progress. Innovation that proves we are moving forward. In 2013 we are seeing science fiction realities come to life, with 3D printing being used to help amputees in 3rd world countries receive high-quality prostheses without access to MRIs and money, energy transference without wires, and Elon Musk’s proposed system of transportation that could forever alter our impact on the Earth as we travel. Richard Branson is trying to take everyday people to space with Virgin Galactic. HIV was eradicated in tests with lab mice. Even on a smaller scale, companies are developing products that are meaningful to consumers, even if they aren’t life-changing.

Image

As we look ahead to the next 10 years, it’s hard to say what will come next. Trends are very hard to predict, especially with the unstable viral sharing nature that has come to characterize us over the past few years. Feedback has become such an inherent part of the buyer conversation, and the model of brands shaping how the marketplace functions is becoming a thing of the past. What we can be sure of is that over the next 10 years, innovators will continue to create products and ideas that challenge what we thought was possible, ideally bringing us solutions that drastically improve the problems we face as an exponentially growing species.  Here’s to the future!