Silicon Valley and all that BS

June 18, 2021 11:26 AM ET work, society

I know it’s popular these days to dunk on Silicon Valley companies. Between cryptocurrency nonsense, everyone gunning to be a “unicorn” or the next big Theranos, and the coming collapse of suddenly remote-friendly startups having to wrangle their salary bands, there’s plenty to dunk on. But within the gleeful takedowns lies a truth that needs to be told: Silicon Valley companies aren’t as great as they want you to think.

Much like politicians, these companies need you to believe that they’re the pinnacle of business. They need it for their valuations or their stock price, they need it for their news and marketing cycles, but most of all they need it for their lifeblood: hiring. They thrive on saying that they attract “top talent” and “best in class” and when you join their elite class, you too will build “world class” products and work alongside “industry leaders” blah blah blah blah blah.

That’s the first side of this BS. The truth of the matter is that all of these companies can’t be hiring “only the best.” Despite the absurd compensation levels these companies create, there are plenty of people who are as good (if not better) who work somewhere else. I have worked at only two places you could consider “tech” that are not part of Silicon Valley, and at both of them were engineers who could easily shine at a SV startup. So the notion of finding the best technologists at only a handful of companies is patently false.

The second side to this BS is the part they’re not saying out loud, and that is that what they’re doing isn’t necessarily as world-changing as they would have you believe. They need to make themselves attractive to employees (current and potential) to get them to their payday, so they will talk about being at the forefront of (insert industry subset here) or being Series A or Series B (or C! or D!), but the fact is that lots of people with too much money are pouring it into speculative ventures in the hopes of... making more money. Disrupting the banking market, or new AI, or self-driving cars – these are all things certainly burn up money, but you know what would be great to spend money on? Things that would actually make the world a better place: improving health care, sustainable energy research and creation, cleaning the oceans and the air, de-stupidifying large populations, de-commercializing agriculture. Don’t get me wrong, there are places where SV tech and those things intersect, but most of what you see sucking all of the air out of the room is focused first and foremost on feeding itself. The Googles, the Amazons, the worst-in-class Facebook, etc.

The third side to this BS is that you don’t need or want to have “only the best” because that is not sustainable, and that is not our world. Our world is filled with different kinds of people, and people grow into new roles, develop new interests, and they phase out of old roles and old interests. And those positions they grow out of still need to be done. In addition, a small number of like-minded individuals will perpetuate an echo chamber of limited ways of thinking. If you want to really flourish, you need to have more diverse people in your company, with different experiences and different viewpoints. You want junior people, you want senior people, you want people new to an industry, you want people who are well into their careers. That kind of mixture is a thriving ecology of a company, one that can interact with the changing world; one where people can come and go and when they do, things don’t fall apart completely.

The worst part of this BS, however, is how it impacts individuals. If you apply to one of these places because you’ve bought into their marketing hype and then you don’t get the job, you might well feel like a failure. You don’t realize that there is as good if not better opportunities at a much smaller company doing something you hadn’t considered (health care technology, supply chain management, banking, non-profits, etc), or maybe it’s something you could start doing yourself. Some positions require depth and expertise, but most don’t and most shouldn’t. Depth and expertise are things you gain over time. What you want—to make a difference and to grow your skill sets—exists at a lot of different kinds of places, not just these “tech giants.” Careers are gardens to be cultivated and nurtured, not massive farms that sprout up overnight. You belong somewhere that will help you grow, not somewhere that just wants you when you’re already at a level that benefits them.

All this to say: the next time you hear about the next big company born out of Silicon Valley, just remember that the great and powerful Oz was just a shyster from Omaha. They need you more than you need them, and you can probably do better. To quote Public Enemy: Don’t Believe The Hype.