This post is waaaaaaay outside the usual ambit of my blog, as it is at least arguably political and about cultural norms in Silicon Valley.  (I’m a sometimes visitor and spiritual resident, but I’ve never lived there.)  I’ll be back to software blogging on the weekend if all goes well. 

There was a bit of a dustup recently about there not being enough women in Startup Land.  By this, they really mean “the startups we can see in the Valley”, because the Valley thinks that it is the beginning and end of all things tech and startup.  This bit of hubris has a lot more going for it than some other bombastic nonsense I’ve heard over the years, since quite a lot of tech innovation has indeed happened in the Valley.   I live in the heart of Japan’s automobile industry.  We’re justifiably proud of our cars.  That doesn’t mean I think your cars suck.

Strictly speaking the complaint was phrased in terms of “diversity”.  This is the peculiar diversity of the American academy, where a gay Jewish man in New York, an Englishman in London, a 4th generation zainichi kankokujin (ethnically Korean who was born in Japan), and an Irish Catholic dogmatist living in a rice field in Central Japan are so close they are practically brothers.  True diversity, of course, is the 5-member iStockPhoto of attractive twenty-somethings sitting on the college quad who check different boxes on the demographic inventory and think alike in every way that matters.

A serious question for metrics-focused individuals: If demographic diversity is a proxy for diversity of thought, is there some reason we’re not measuring diversity of thought?  Is it hard to measure somehow?  We sound like we’re counting hits because grepping the Apache log is easy and implementing conversion funnel tracking is hard, despite the fact that we know hits are meaningless and we’re really interested in conversions.  (Cards on the table: I think we’re the pathological PHBs who learned only half the lesson and now seek hits as a goal unto themselves.)

I mean, I would be sympathetic to “We can’t build products for women if we don’t have more women in the room” if it weren’t so laughably false.  (Context if you need it: 90% of my customers are ladies.  They’re also older, better educated, less coastal, and more religious than would be anticipated of the customer base of most B2C startups.  I’m pretty much your typical 27 year old male engineer… well, for certain quirky values of “typical”.)  If you wanted to recruit a team with experience building products for women, rather than quickly polling their X chromosome count, you could just ask “What have you made for women?”

That is probably worth doing as the Valley creates a persistent undersupply of products targetting the needs of women.  “Persistent undersupply” is one of those words that should be music to your ears if you are a capitalist, because market failures are opportunities to make lots and lots of money.  (For that matter, if you think that there is a vast pool of untapped female talent working for 80% of the price of equivalent male talent… what are you doing hiring men, again?  That would suggest that you could field whole teams of ladies and clean up.  I tend to be skeptical of the “persistent underpricing of female labor” hypothesis in the large, but there’s at least one example which has produced the outcome Econ 101 suggests: you can hire a stay-at-home mom with a graduate degree in Middle America for less than $10 an hour.  If you figure out a way to exploit that, you’ll end up very, very rich.  This is the unsung secret to Demand Media’s success.  If you think I’m wrong on the probable lack of this opportunity for female computer programmers, please go prove me wrong and make billions.)

My beef with the discourse of “diversity” in a nutshell: it screams “give us more women” and whispers “give us more women like us”.  We want more women to be early stage startup employees working for equity and battling code until 2 AM in the morning.  We want more women making products to pump VC cash into so that they can be flipped to Google in two years despite having less paying customers than your local Girl Scout troop’s worst cookie salesman.  We want more women mentors and women VCs and women industry group organizers so that we can pat ourselves on the back for embracing change while making sure that the Valley stays the way it is.

After quite a bit of time studying diversity in college (yay, liberal arts degree — there was a buy-one-get-one deal the day I majored in CS) I can rattle off all the hypotheses for you: there’s a biological basis, no it’s a cultural issue, no it’s a pipeline issue, no it’s a lack of role models, no it’s a …  and it is probably a witches brew of all of the above and more.  But my gut instinct has always been that people avoid joining startups because joining startups sucks.  The question isn’t what are we doing that’s keeping ladies out of the Valley, gentlemen.  The question should be why in God’s name are we still here.

Let’s review:

  • Most startups require you to be at or near the top of the game in a very difficult, competive field, requiring a college degree (or equivalent education gained in the School of Hard Knocks) in a subject which is widely agreed to be difficult.
  • The no-risk option for anybody capable of doing a startup is to go to their local insurance company and get a job cranking out CRUD apps.  They will immediately be in the upper middle class, have ample opportunities for professional advancement, and leave work each day at about 5 PM.
  • Of course, just because you might possibly be good at programming doesn’t mean you’re limited to doing it.  You could go into a host of fields in engineering or outside of it.  You could have the societal respect of being a doctor, or the material rewards of going into finance, or the work/life balance of teaching, or the rock-solid stability of being a technocrat ensconced in a minor government office somewhere.
  • Your sales pitch as a startup is “Turn your back on all that!  We’ll work you 100 hours a week, pay you nothing while requring you to live in a freakishly expensive area, give you social status one rung above the homeless, take two to three years of your life, ruin your relationships, and with better than 90% probability subject you to the most crushing defeat of your professional career with no lateral move except into doing the same thing over again.”
  • Your upside, should you make it to the pinnacle of your profession and do everything right, is theoretically unbounded but, practically speaking, what’s left after the VCs get their share will probably work out to a few million for most founders and barely cover the opportunity cost for early non-founder employees.  I don’t mean to say that is totally insane, but it requires that you have the risk-tolerance slider bumped to the maximum.

Unsurprisingly, the conversion rate for the above sales pitch has lagged expectations.

I don’t know which factor makes the Valley most gender-skewed but I’m pretty certain that casting a jaundiced eye at the reality of the situation turns off many intelligent women.  It certainly has to turn off many intelligent men, too.

So here’s a quick action plan to fix some Valley pathologies and make the whole thing a little more palatable:

  1. Make stuff for people who pay money for stuff.  This is a shortcut for getting paid money for stuff.  It also puts fun little infusions of funds between startup, series A round, and flipping to Google… which creates a whole spectrum of successful options for the business other than “achieve flipping to Google”.  (If you want more evangelizing on this subject, I suggest checking out DHH’s speech at Startup School.)
  2. Ditch the Valley.  Recognize that the same factors which make that tiny tip of the Silicon Valley distribution go infinite can make just about anybody, anywhere scale freakishly well — with respect to capital, with respect to time, with respect to team size, with respect to any metric you want to name.  OSS doesn’t stop working because you’re not in the Valley.  You can write an A/B test while sitting in a rice field.  (Trust me.)  SEO can be accomplished from anywhere on the intertubes and still scales worldwide.  There is a  rich ecosystem of businesses and APIs which so lower costs and barriers to entry for us — many of them built by the blood, sweat, and tears of twenty-something guys in the Valley (thanks for doing the work so I don’t have to, guys).  It is the best time in the history of the world to create a business.
  3. Don’t worry about the gatekeepers.  A lot of the angst about the old boy’s network is that the old boys are perceived as controlling opportunities to funding, which gives them power in the same way that the cartels gain power by rationing access to cocaine.  OK, quick solution: don’t seek funding.  Wham.  With a single stroke you’ve just managed to make the opinions of everyone but your customers utterly irrelevant.  (After you’re profitable, if you really want to, you can go to the Valley.  My guess is they’ll fall over themselves trying to give you money because they have no freaking clue how to create success in a reproducible fashion — c.f. 90+% failure rate.)
  4. Send people home at six.  I’m a poor example of this because I’m a Japanese salaryman (which means I get to say “100 hours a week!?  Slackers!” and then cry into my sake softly) , but you really can get an awful lot done in something vaguely resembling a human existence.  (I had originally described this as “a traditional workweek”, but I’ve got no particular love for 40 hours.  It is one arbitrary point you could find success at.  I know some people with businesses at 60 and at least one at five.)  One of the curious cultural pathologies of the Valley — and I suppose if I were a gender feminist I might describe it as “macho”, except I’m a Republican so I’ll just go for “stupid” — is that we treat overwork as a badge of pride and model it as the correct behavior.  This is insanity on a societal scale.  You mean we can scale to millions of visitors, our PCs got a bazillion times faster, and you can download twenty thousand man-years of software created by engineers smarter than you or I will ever be legally, for free, with explicit encouragement to build a business on it… and the only thing that hasn’t gotten better is the work week?  What.  The.  Heck.  I checked my Ruby standard library: there is no TriedToHaveALifeOutsideOfWorkException. 
  5. Take all advice with a grain of salt.  OK, so in deference to my liberal arts degree I’ll hit a few notes from it: institutions tend to try to perpetuate themselves.  Valley culture is a lot like an institution: it has its peculiar jokes and rhythms and closely-held shadow beliefs which owe a bit more to repetition than they owe to empirical reality.  A quick survey of the rest of this post should show you what I think of a few of these memes.  Remember that people, and I’m no exception, have a tendency to privilege the things they know and can think of easily over the things which are foreign to their experience.

If we fix this, it will result in more ladies at the margin seeing startups as an attractive career choice.  It might not change the percentages in the Valley.  Heck, it might even make it more skewed towards the guys.  I don’t profess to know and, honestly, I don’t really care that much either — it is worth doing regardless for the benefits to human welfare.