09.01.12

Ethos

I was born in Silicon Valley and spent much of my formative years at the Java offices on Alma. I went to computer camp every summer from 1995-1999. While some kids learned to swim, I learned to code.

So you’d expect from that background someone who’s passionate about technology and loves to socialize with engineers. That’s certainly high on my list of takeaways, but it’s not at the top of the list.

Michael Arrington wrote a great piece last year about how what’s required from individuals working at a successful startup hasn’t changed in almost two decades, despite protests from this new crop of coders. It resonated with me because the guys in ‘94 were my role models; their dedication taught me what was important in life.

What hits me most directly is the fact that, from everything I saw around the office, those guys (and a few awesome gals) weren’t there to earn Fuck you money.

A solid salary and a nice options package didn’t hurt, but this group of 24 people knew they we working on a project that would change the tech landscape, and they didn’t expect fame or fortune for doing so.

What this group did care about was each other; they bonded over a shared mission, over innovation, relationship building, and shared life experiences. My mom never talked about how a friend was leaving after he had vested, she mentioned how his son just graduated high school.

I don’t think the profession has changed from 1995. Coders are still coders, and solving the big problems is still incredibly hard.

What has changed is the expectations about why you join the ecosystem, and what the explosion in access to the web has done to change it.

People expect a lot more money today for less work. The problem is that to get the former, 20 years ago you had to build Facebook, today they just have to buy you.

This is great for the talent market, but for tech employees writ large, it creates a false sense of what makes for a truly successful company, and why what happened to Detroit hasn’t happened here.

We have a competitive advantage because of the talent pool, but more than that, mostly because the ethos of this place, of what’s behind real innovation, is built into our DNA.

Most people learn that over time, some never do. I was blessed to have been raised on it. Thus, I believe the problem comes from tech employees not having enough time here to fully acclimate to the environment. The 90% that doesn’t get that eight-figure exit sees the 10% who do and think that’s what it means to live here, that that’s why you do what you do.

I think that’s why so many startups fail. The guys who run them don’t take the long-view; they create a reality distortion field, but not a healthy one.

Java changed the world; it happened not because of a militant manager or even a solid vision. It happened because the people who were building it supported each other and cared more product value than about valuation.

Startups today that focus on the latter may pay big, but most of them fail. It’s putting your salary and your life on number 36 and hoping to hit it big.

The startups that succeed do so by taking the long view (AirBNB is a great example). Building something that 20 people will work on and 200 million people will use is the valuation that matters to them. Solving the hard problem is what they try to do each day. These guys still exist here; they’re the ones who keep it Silicon Valley.

So if you’re wondering why you’re working so hard, ask yourself three questions: 1) What’s my long-term goal? 2) How well are my coworkers/managers helping me get there? 3) For how long will the sucess of what I’m building matter to people outside my office?

If you don’t have the right answers, reconsider what you expect to get out of your career in tech. If your founders don’t have the right answers, reconsider why you’re working for them.

TL;DR It’s about the culture. It’s about the substance. All the rest is noise.

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