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The Dark Side of Silicon Valley

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If you’ve ever worked in Silicon Valley, you know all about it.  There are things we don’t talk about, without first looking over our shoulders.  (You never know who might be listening). Open secrets that make a middle manager blush.  Yes, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s OK, you can say it with me…..  There’s a dark side of Silicon Valley.


I’m talking about things that are broken about the culture, that aren’t likely to get fixed.  Silicon Valley may try to solve the world’s problems, but it can’t address it’s own workplace issues! Here are the five ugliest things about working in Silicon Valley:


The Five Ugliest Things About Silicon Valley (i.e. The Dark Side)


1) Firefighting

What happens when you get a bunch of hyper-competitive alpha males together in a room? Showboating, hero-worshiping, and firefighting, to start.


Silicon Valley is a place that worships its heroes.  And turns them into super-heroes. And then sometimes even gods. But, as we all know, super-heroes are not real.  Not even in Silicon Valley.


All that hero worshiping has some perverse effects. Everyone wants to be a hero themselves. People go out of their way to do something heroic. Folks jump on any opportunity to solve a crisis, often blowing problems way out of proportion. Sometimes, they even create their own crises to solve. It is called firefighting.

The Dark Side of Silicon Valley - Everyone Wants To Be A Hero

Flocks of aspiring heroes running from fire to fire, solving problems like the end of the world is nigh. This is a horrible way to get things done. It’s stressful, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time.  Bad time management is not even good for the bottom line! But unfortunately firefighting is here to stay.  Working in Silicon Valley? You’d better get your firehose ready!


2) Silicon Valley Elitism

OK, here’s where it starts to get really ugly.  Silicon Valley as a deep, deep problem with elitism. Have you asked someone what they do for a living?  Silly me, of course you have.  What happens when you meet someone who works at an elite tech company or VC firm?  Or worse, one of those billion dollar unicorns?


That’s right, there’s this short pause where you can almost hear them breathe in just a little bit.  Waiting for it…. He’s waiting for you to say something like “Wowee!”  Silicon Valley oozes elitism.


Even if you act disinterested, you cannot deflate that ego.  That’s because Silicon Valley employees work their asses off to be where they are.  They wouldn’t be giving up their freedom, time, and health like that for no good reason.  There’s gotta be a good reason! They believe their position makes them special.  It is elitism, and it breeds arrogance.


The elitism extends not just to the company you work for, but your position too.  If you’re just an individual contributor, or you work in the wrong department, you hang your head in shame around your “superiors”.  You act like the inconsequential wisp that you are.  VCs and people with an “E” in front of their title, on the other hand, are royalty.  And they expect to be treated that way.  And they are treated that way.


I remember how a raucous room would suddenly turn quiet when an “E” walked in the door, like a teacher at middle school. Silicon Valley is the polar opposite of the egalitarian meritocracy it claims to pursue.  It is full of elitism and arrogance.


3) The Silicon Valley Trifecta of “isms”: Sexism, Ageism, and Nepotism

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, we have the Silicon Valley Trifecta of “isms”: sexism, ageism, and nepotism.  I worked for fifteen years in Silicon Valley tech companies.  From my experience, men outnumber women by something like 8 to 1.


Sure, more men study engineering, and there are more male engineers because of it. And I really don’t support hiring quotas. But nevertheless, Silicon Valley is an alpha male world with a bro culture. It is the professional world’s version of the boys’ high school locker room. That can lead to some unfortunate situations for the few women in Silicon Valley.


Over forty and still not a VP? Good luck getting a job in Silicon Valley!  If the sexism doesn’t impact you, the ageism eventually will. Silicon Valley wants fresh young blood with a huge mortgage, a wife, and a young kid.  Someone who is going to think twice about objecting to long hours and ridiculous deadlines. They don’t want some old dude who is no longer living paycheck to paycheck, and might say “no”.


Oh, unless it’s the CEO’s brother, of course. Because nepotism runs deep in Silicon Valley.


I also worked in the federal government for several years.  And while the government has it’s own set of problems, it has nowhere near as much sexism or ageism as Silicon Valley.  It’s night and day.  Nepotism, yes.  The government has plenty of that.  That’s everywhere.  But, sexism and ageism – Silicon Valley owns those like a boss.


4) Mental Illness Is Rampant

An unusual portion of Silicon Valley executives are psychopaths.  I don’t mean this figuratively (OK, yes I do).  I mean they are clinically psychopathic.  Stable, well-grounded folks are often filtered out before they reach the C-level.  But psychopaths flourish in the corner office. Of course, not all executives are totally pshychotic.  It’s a scale.


But the mental health issues go way beyond the corner office. High stress often leads to physical and mental health issues, including depression and suicide.  In fact, there are indications that suicide rates may be unusually high in Silicon Valley.  I remember periodically hearing about jumpers from one of the main engineering buildings where I worked.  The company always tried to keep it quiet – probably to avoid inspiring others.


Silicon Valley is high stress, all the time.  It’s not an environment that facilitates health, recuperation, or recovery.  It makes me sometimes wonder why people do this to themselves.


5) Groupthink

Perhaps the darkest side of Silicon Valley is that alternative opinions and solutions don’t find the light of day.  There is a lack of diversity in ideas, a lack of diversity in methods, and a lack of diversity in solutions. It is groupthink gone wild.


That’s a surprising thing to hear about a place that was built on ideas. It’s completely contrary to a healthy entrepreneurial environment. But the pressure to conform in Silicon Valley is real. Maybe this is thanks to all those dominant alpha males that run things.

The Dark Side of Silicon Valley - Groupthink

A bee colony has less groupthink than Silicon Valley, probably.  How else can you explain billions of dollars ventured on a company that can easily be copied, or one that has little hope of ever making profits.  Those VCs weren’t compelled to invest! But groupthink isn’t just for the capitalists. It’s for the worker bees too.


Silicon Valley is an echo chamber full of confirmation bias, like a big giant coat that makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy. New ideas are surprisingly rare, and they get spread and copied before you can say “that guy’s a hero!” These days, Silicon Valley is all about conforming.


The groupthink extends to the corporate culture too. Silicon Valley has become a PR-driven world, where only good things can happen. Like bubblegum and lollipops – at least officially.  And employees often believe their own PR hype.  Why not? Your job may depend on it!


But innovation and moon-shots, by their nature, are non-conformist.  This is precisely why Silicon Valley is no longer solving the world’s technical problems.  They’re making pretty apps instead.


The Dark Side of Silicon Valley

Despite the tone of this post, I don’t want to come across as being completely negative about Silicon Valley.  Of course, it has helped bring tremendous innovation, change, and technological advancement to the world over the last forty years. And as a former employee myself,  I wouldn’t be where I am today (not working) if not for the opportunities the Valley has given me. My career allowed me to earn an above-average income, doing often interesting work.


But, that doesn’t mean that the dark side of Silicon Valley doesn’t exist, or that it should be obfucated or ignored. Silicon Valley has some real problems, and they are deeply ingrained in the culture.  Recently, I think it is headed in the wrong direction.  In fact, I’m not sure whether Silicon Valley is still the type of place I’d really want my kids to work someday. I hope that changes. We can do better.



Jojo Bobo


4 Responses
  • CashflowKat
    January 9, 2018

    I think a lot of these issues are present in other industries (Wall Street banks, white shoe law firms, Hollywood, etc) But this is particularly interesting because Silicon Valley is perceived so differently. Crunchy, group hug, nerdy types who can all bring their dog to work. So much for that stereotype! Plus, my husband’s brother lives/works in Palo Alto and his kids’ high school apparently has such a high suicide rate it was studied by the CDC. Growing up techie must not be so great 🙃

    • JoJoBoBo
      January 9, 2018

      High-achieving parents often put tremendous stress on their kids, which leads to high teen suicide rates in places like Palo Alto. It’s sad to me that careers can be taken so seriously.
      – JB

    • Steveark
      January 13, 2018

      I totally agree, in my petroleum and chemical Fortune 500 past career I saw the same things but probably the relative youth at both investment banks and Silicon Valley makes it worse at your venues than even what I experienced. It is kind of crazy how crazy some of the C suite exec’s can be!

      • JoJoBoBo
        January 15, 2018

        Maybe it’s human nature.

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