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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Slouching towards the Valley

NYTimes magazine: Silicon Valley's Youth Problem. See also: Rivalry and Habituation, Hardware vs Software and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
NYTimes: ... A few weeks ago, a programmer friend and I were talking about unhappiness, in particular the kind of unhappiness that arises when you are 21 and lavishly educated with the world at your feet. In the valley, it’s generally brought on by one of two causes: coming to the realization either that your start-up is completely trivial or that there are people your own age so knowledgeable and skilled that you may never catch up.

The latter source of frustration is the phenomenon of “the 10X engineer,” an engineer who is 10 times more productive than average. It’s a term that in its cockiness captures much of what’s good, bad and impossible about the valley. At the start-ups I visit, Friday afternoons devolve into bouts of boozing and Nerf-gun wars. Signing bonuses at Facebook are rumored to reach the six digits. In a landscape where a product may morph several times over the course of a funding round, talent — and the ability to attract it — has become one of the few stable metrics.

Yet for all the glitz and the glory and the newfound glamour, there is a surprising amount of angst in Silicon Valley. Which is probably inevitable when you put thousands of ambitious, talented young people together and tell them they’re god’s gift to technology. It’s the angst of an early hire at a start-up that only he realizes is failing; the angst of a founder who raises $5 million for his company and then finds out an acquaintance from college raised $10 million; the angst of someone who makes $100,000 at 22 but is still afraid that he may not be able to afford a house like the one he grew up in.

Tech is fun now, deliriously so, but this fun comes with a built-in anxiety that it must lead to more. As an engineer, coding should be your calling, not just a job, so you are expected to also do it in your time off. Interviewers will ask about side projects — a Firefox browser add-on maybe, or an Android version of your favorite iPhone app — which are supposed to indicate your overflowing enthusiasm for building software. Tech colloquialisms have permeated every aspect of life — hack your diet, your fitness, your dates — yet in reality, very little emphasis is placed on these activities. In a place with one of the best gender-ratios in the country for single women, female friends I talk to complain that most of the men are, in fact, not available; they are all busy working on their start-ups, or data-crunching themselves. They have prioritized self-improvement and careers over relationships.

... This past Christmas, my family went to dinner with another family, the Yangs, whose son, Andrew, was a sophomore at the University of Chicago and trying to decide on a major. He was interested in computer science, having taken the online version of CS50, Harvard’s introductory computer-science course, in his spare time. But his parents, both software engineers, wanted him to choose finance. They thought that being a software engineer meant drowning in a technical quagmire, being someone else’s code monkey. Their view of tech was shaped by their years of experience at old-guard companies, where a few cynosures (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, etc.) got most of the money and the glory. I tried to explain to them how the tech world that their son would be joining is so very different. For all the industry’s drawbacks, I have never seen it as anything less than potential filled.

I’m not sure that they were convinced. But there is no doubt that, regardless, young talent will keep flocking to the valley. Some of us will continue to make the web products that have generated such vast wealth and changed the way we think, interact, protest. But hopefully, others among us will go to work on tech’s infrastructure, bringing the spirit of the new guard into the old. ...
Tech is more fun if you have an elite pedigree like the author of the piece (a Harvard grad) and can call on a network of friends and alumni to help you obtain funding, talented employees, and press coverage. Note, though, that the "10X engineer" is no myth. In fact, I believe there are 100X engineers ...

20 comments:

JayMan said...

The "would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a large fish in the ocean?" syndrome?

Cornelius said...

The angst of finding out AT&T patented your product and sold the licensing rights to Google for $200MM per year 6 months before you even built your prototype...

But I'm not in that particular valley

Christy2012 said...

So-called 10xers exist and they are important, especially when developing greenfield projects in a startup or what have you, however it is also possible to fetishize this and place too much emphasis on it. The difference between success and failure often comes down to execution. Brilliance alone is not enough to execute well. I would rather have a team that is willing to get down in the weeds to identify problems, that recognize the need for trial-and-error, or go with tried-and-true solutions where appropriate, etc, even if it means that many of them are not really "10xers", than a team that thinks they are too brilliant (or is just too disinterested) to get their hands dirty and spend the many hours it takes making the sort of incremental improvements that are usually necessary to execute well. I think one of the problems in the valley today is that there is so much emphasis on novelty and being that 10xer that they tend to underemphasize some of these more essentially engineering needs and focus on new sexy projects (which tends to lead to malinvestment imho).

chartreuse1737 said...

one of steve's themes is that the very creme de la creme is always recognized as such eventually. the only problem is that whether one is or is not in this category is not just a matter of iq + effort. the meritocracy ideology has support even among those without merit, because no one wants to believe he isn't in control of his life. no one wants to believe that the very person he is is contingent.

Kristen Mendez said...

Yes indeed, tech is more fun.

SethTS said...

The whole 10x/100x programmer discussion is retarded. If we were talking about bankers, lawyers, writers, musicians, actors, etc. the idea that one talent might be worth an order of magnitude (or three) more than another would be so routine as to be not worth mentioning. But when we talk about programmers, oh! that's completely different. What!? Aren't programmers sort of like contract janitors? Just hire a dozen or two of them and they'll do that nerdy/geeky thing they do and we financial geniuses will just walk off with the magical money pile that results.


Remove the fundamental BS that programming is a commodity skill, and [poof!] mystery solved.


I've worked with some very exceptional programmers and what makes them unique isn't that they "type fast". It's problem selection, practiced judgement about how to approach the selected problem, plus *context*. The amazing programmers are people who have built a large system over several years and are at the height of their productivity because: a) what they built is being used heavily, b) there's a ton of demand for enhancements, c) they know from experience exactly where to put what code to create the enhancement. I don't mean to suggest that just any person could be dropped into that sort of situation and use their one "data structures" class from sophomore year to become super-programmers. But it turns out [shock! surprise!] that experience and judgment play a role in being fantastic at programming. Just like every other human endeavor.

Al_Li said...

The author http://www.quora.com/Yiren-Lu

norkuat said...

How does the young talent flow into startups affect the world of physics? How many of them are Nobel prize material?

chartreuse1737 said...

this attitude toward real work is inherited from the british. like father (britain) like son (the us). this is not the way it is elsewhere. the capital exporter, labor importer us economy will come to a very ugly end very soon.

chartreuse1737 said...

"...they’re god’s gift to technology..."

when was it exactly that "technology" came to mean software and gadgets? from the stone knife and spear, to ceramic containers, to the iron plow, to the flying buttress, to the perfect screw. for get about it, we've got toys!

Endre Bakken Stovner said...

I do not see how anyone can deny the existence of 10x-ers. Since there exist programmers that add negative, or best case no value, it follows trivially that nX software engineers exist for any value of n.

Endre Bakken Stovner said...

The reasons for the non-existence of 100X-ers in the research literature is probably the Terman study problem: very few 150+ IQs exist, and only a small fraction of them are career programmers.

ESRogs said...

Hmm, I got intrigued by your suggestion and decided to do some calculations. It seems to me that if 150 is actually the cutoff you're looking for, it shouldn't be too hard to find such people. My rough estimate is that there should be ~2500 150+ IQers graduating from college per year in the US (150 on the 15 pts / SD scale corresponds to the 1 in 2000 level, and there are ~4M total Americans per age cohort, so 4M / 2000 = 2000 150+ IQers per graduating class; add in disproportionately high IQ international students and that number goes to, let's say, 2500).

And those ~2500 will be graduating disproportionately from a small number of schools -- let's say 80% of them are going to USN&WR's top 20 universities. Eyeballing their enrollment numbers (http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/spp+25 ), these have an average graduating class size of about 1500 students each, so you're really looking for 2000 students out of a group of 30,000, which means selecting at the 1/15 level.

But you're not just looking for all such people, you're looking specifically for the ones who become programmers. I don't have a good estimate for this off-hand, but for now, let's assume it's about 5%. In that case you're looking for 100 people out of 1500. I'd bet half those people go to Google + Microsoft. So we're just looking for the top 50 recruits to Google and Microsoft each year. That doesn't seem like it should be too hard.

Of course, if it takes a 160+ IQ to be a 100X-er, then by the same math you'd have to select at the 1/225 level, and there'd only be ~3 of them entering GOOG+MSFT per year.

(I made a lot of assumptions in all of the above, so I wouldn't be surprised if my numbers are off by an order of magnitude. But I would be surprised if they're more than 10x off. If anyone sees any egregious errors, please let me know :-) )

chartreuse1737 said...

"let's say 80% of them are going to USN&WR's top 20 universities"


let's not. this is way too high. 50% max.

ESRogs said...

Oh, yeah you're probably right.

pat said...

I think the Yangs missed a couple points. The most obvious of which is - maybe their kid wanted to be a 'code monkey'.
I'm a sort of quantitative guy. I took a lot of math in college and grad school. I taught statistics for several years. I ended up a CTO for an Internet startup before I retired. I supervised a lot of coders at a lot of companies. Late in life I meditated on the path I took. I wondered if I should have gone into finance as the Yangs recommended for their kid. There was indeed more money to be had there.

Actually I had stumbled in finance at one time. I was the financial officer for a government agency. I did the budget, I supervised the accountants and I defended against the auditors. That's not quite what the Yangs meant I suppose. They probably meant Wall Street and equity trading or some other esoteric well paid quasi-mathematical area. But the simple fact was that I was never interested in that kind of thing. As a finance officer I plotted to recreate my job so I could get a mini computer, lock the door, and program all day.
I was at one time in love with the idea of spending all day, every day programming software utilities. I wanted nothing more than to sink through the screen into my world of code like Orpheus in Cocteau's movie.
I was immediately in love with micro computers from the start. My first computer was an Altair. But I never could muster any lust for finance. I told my boss - the head of finance - years later that I was interested in high math whereas finance was 'low' math. Maybe that wasn't the most diplomatic thing to say but it was how I felt.
Coders who don't have a physical and spiritual need to code are not going to be happy.

pat said...

BTW I looked up 'Slouching to Bethlehem' on Amazon. I was living in the Haight when she came through in 1967. I wondered if she got it right.
The remarkable thing for me was that you can buy a new copy of her book in hardback for $1,300 or a used copy for one cent. Quite a price spread that.

James Hedman said...

"as jensen commented and steve quoted, the difference between the ordinary engineer and the genius engineer is usually NOT g"


I always thought it was Thomas Edison that famously first pointed that out.

James Hedman said...

In my 40 years experience in software systems development I think a Pareto distribution is probably more apropos. Given an absolute minimum floor of a 115 IQ to be even a competent software tester given the proper tools I'd be thinking in terms of 135-145 IQ 5xer's and 160+ IQ 25xer's with the 5xer's doing 70 to 75+ % of the coding on decent size projects.

James Hedman said...

Once i wised up I spent most of my time being an pelagic shark tasting the money of different companies and setting my own hours and time off.

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