Silicon Valley’s ____ Problem

Recently, I read an article in the NYT ( written by a graduate student at Columbia on Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem. I was very pleased to see that a person in tech was writing about problems people in tech face. Kudos to NYT to capturing this important perspective. After reading the article, I felt compelled to write a letter to the author to voice my thoughts.

You can find my letter below.

Hey Yiren,

I just read your article. Powerful stuff. Your article really hit home for me – I recently graduated from Columbia (Lions pride, no pun intended) where I studied computer science. I moved to Washington to work as a Program Manager at Microsoft last fall. Because I felt like I could relate to your narrative, there were a couple of points I wanted to voice which I feel very strongly about.

The problem with “tech” scene today is that it no longer is about technology.  It has devolved into a gold-rush of mass-hysteria led by a throng of wantrepreneurs with little to no regard for Computer Science. Sure, the majority of the miners might know about HTML5 (and that’s as far as they usually know – that it exists),  most have no clue about abstract syntax trees, finite automata, the knapsack problem, relational calculus, machine translation, multicycle MIPS processors, or pretty much anything outside of “programming.”

These are the new faces of tech, spurred on by people such as Peter Thiel who believe all that book-learnin is net detrimental. It is the overly idealistic notion that “all you need is an idea” which plagues the young tech scene.

While I was president of ACM at Columbia, a hackNY fellow and Dorm Room Fund partner during my college years, I became involved in the tech community. Quickly, I realized how one-sided the community truly was for those few who took enough initiative to learn to code. Day after day, I was bombarded with emails after emails from would-be “entrepreneurs” who cared nothing more than instrumenting me as a tool. Since, clearly, if there’s anyone who is going to hit the next jackpot, it’s a hotshot iBanker without any technical prowess and the same hackneyed ideas as the other 10 million iBankers.

Invariably, the onslaught of single-minded “business development experts” sought a technical co-founder to build their social networks for wildabeests. Because a network for wildabeests is the next big (no)thing. Without fail, they generously offered me equity in a company I would single-handedly build as their “co-founder.” They also bribed me with  business connections to this guy their friend knew from Google. Well, he used to work there at least.

While the “entrepeneur” kicked back and drank some coconut water, they expected me to do all the heavy lifting.  It is at this juncture when I ask them if they were truly invigorated by their ideas, why don’t they learn to code themselves? Otherwise, how can they deserve to be successful for something they had no part in creating?

Much like gold prospectors, these wantrepreneurs are merely dilettantes drawn to the allure of outrageous valuations. For if they were truly interested in tech and not simply to cash in on an absurdly inflated market, then they would have studied Computer Science. Because it interested them.

Furthermore, I charge these new faces of tech with not only sloth – although not for lack of ambition – but also with fetishizing the developer culture. Perhaps their most apparent crime is that they are repeat offenders in overusing the word, “hacker.” Often they deem the engineering community as whole as “hackers”, despite lacking all but the most rudimentary skills themselves. Hacker this, open-source that.

On the surface, this might seem to you as a minor offense. But in lumping themselves together with computer scientists, wantrapreneurs conflate “computer science” with fleeting, single-purpose web apps that do little more than read in a user’s input. The new faces of tech have successfully completed the illusion of convincing the general  public that “tech” is little more than an iPhone game.

To be a computer scientist is a right you have to earn, and not simply by becoming a “code ninja” because you wrote an instant-message client in NodeJS. It was only after I toiled through the 11 grad level classes while an undergrad at Columbia when I could call myself a Computer Scientist.

That is why I am personally opposed to the term “hacker.” In my mind, the new guys on the scene are nothing more than charlatans consumed by the promise of fame and fortune. After all, they often the very same people who snickered behind the backs of countless neckbeards, pointing and laughing at them for attending hackathons. Now,  I guess the tables have turned.

Just as one cannot blame a rabbit for scavenging a vegetable patch, I cannot blame the hordes of wantrepreneurs for ravaging the tech scene. The real blame lies on the VCs. In artificially creating value where there is little, VCs have created a hyper-inflated market. Much like the origin of the former financial crisis began when banks began selling portfolios of toxic assets to other banks caught in the real-estate frenzy of  2006, the same market correction is likely to occur when the true book value is uncovered.

Our expectations for “tech” companies FAR outstrip the reality. Whatsapp’s recent acquisition is absolutely LAUGHABLE. Given their current annual revenue stream of 20 million, it will take a millennium to earn their 19 billion valuation. Ultimately, what value is there in a company if not its net profit? A business cannot endure on speculation alone.

When the check books stop balancing, someone’s gotta pay the piper. Someday soon, the world is in for a rude awakening. In part, this is due to the absurd valuations that venture capital companies issue for essentially worthless companies. I hope I have made myself clear that the excessive hype induced by venture capital’s fervor has inflated the entire market and robbed tech of its dignity.

Just like the conquistadors in search of gold ruthlessly plundered the indigenous, the feverishly fanatical mentality of urgency and blind ambition is destructive, albeit in more subtle ways. Usually, the most talented students are the ones who brush aside careers in cancer research to strike it big with flappy-bird. I argue the damage to society alone for the misallocation of talent is more damaging then the loss of life due to colonization. How many more people would be alive today from new cures developed from the Ivy-League graduates that  Goldman Sachs and their Wall Street cohorts swallowed whole? Now, the same could be said for the new Snapchats of the world.

It’s pretty miraculous that the archetypal programmer has transformed from lives-with-mom to runs-a-fortune-500

Lastly, there is great personal damage to individuals caught in the startup whirlwind as well. Classmates of mine with an almost-megalomaniacal conviction for their delusions of grandeur dropped out left and right to pursue dreams little more likely than meeting the tooth fairy. Yet, when their role models such as Peter Thiel applaud their decisions, they don’t realize the incredible opportunities they forgo.

I am in direct opposition to the commonly-accepted notion that learning can only occur outside the classroom. The bar might be low now, but the real, lasting opportunities on the horizon in the world of computer science require a thorough education.

Having taken courses both in and out of the classroom, I firmly believe that online learning is NOT a substitute for an education, no matter how you slice it. Without the pressure to pull all-nighters to finish a problem set, it is nearly impossible to apply oneself to the same extent while working independently. It’s a result of simply human nature – independent learners lack the same accountability which the classroom enforces. Simply posting a few off-hand comments on Hacker News about human computer interaction does not make one an expert on User Interface Design.

That said, I’d be hard-pressed to dispute the value of outside learning outside of the classroom entirely. Outside experience on pet projects is pivotal to the growth of an engineer, and this fact has been noted by tech giants like Google and Microsoft. After all, Github has effectively replaced the resume of a software engineer. However, there are some things that can be learned far easier in class than at home.

It is for this very reason that most undergraduate CS programs completely gloss over web programming as they expect that students are better suited to acquire these skills outside of the classroom. When it comes to fully grasping the concepts of more academically-rigorous disciplines like machine learning, it is vital to be disciplined in one’s approach to learning.

Next year, I will return to the east coast to get a masters at Harvard in the new Computational Science and Engineering program. I firmly believe that Machine Learning is the next frontier and will power the next wave of actually useful software. No more sexting. Way more knowing and predicting. I’m making a $48,000 bet on this, after all.

Feel free to let me know your thoughts at your leisure,



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