Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham got into some hot water recently for controversial comments about women in tech. This follows a previous dodgy statement of his about “founders with foreign accents”, and another saying “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg”.
I’ve never met Graham, but by all accounts he’s a well-meaning guy who doesn’t maliciously discriminate. And he acknowledges at least some of his prejudice, which is more than most people who worship at the cult of meritocracy are willing to do. Unfortunately, however, the underlying bias emerging from Graham’s statements is common in Silicon Valley.
This bias is typically not due to an intent to exclude women, immigrants, people of color or older people. Instead it’s the result of an unhealthy and extreme reverence for one, and only one, archetype: The Hacker.
Boyz n the Hoodie
The Hacker archetype is a 20-something, hoodie-wearing, white male. He grew up with enough economic privilege to be able to teach himself programming as a teen. He’s so consumed by computing that he no time for such trivia as social skills or a dress sense. His drive and ambition to “innovate”, “disrupt” and “change the world” leave him with little patience for rules or standards of conduct. His mantra is “Move Fast and Break Things” (especially other people’s things). He’s the Silicon Valley realization of two tropes rolled into one: the pioneer and the self-made man (who is almost always a man, and almost never self-made).
The platonic form of The Hacker is, of course, Mark Zuckerberg.
Now, Paul Graham claims to have been misquoted. I take him at his word that his comments about women were only intended in a narrow context. But his correction, with its further harping on and on about “hacker this” and “hacker that”, is actually more revealing than his original statement. All his statements above, including this correction, make it abundantly clear that, to him, the only kind of person who counts is The Hacker. And Graham is far from alone in this thinking.
When Did a Hack Become a Good Thing?
In journalism, a “hack” is a pejorative term for a writer who churns out large amounts of low-quality content. In programming, a “hack” denotes an inelegant solution, typically to band-aid over a problem until a more comprehensive solution can be written.
Yet somehow, in the past decade, “hacker” became a compliment. Facebook, for example, built its entire corporate culture around “The Hacker Way”, a mish-mash of truisms about fast iteration and prototyping, such as “done is better than perfect”.
Graham takes this even further, staking out a distinction between CS majors and hackers, to the detriment of the former. For example:
The problem with that is I think, at least with technology companies, the people who are really good technology founders have a genuine deep interest in technology. In fact, I’ve heard startups say that they did not like to hire people who had only started programming when they became CS majors in college.
Somehow, being a self-taught, college-dropout programmer with no industry experience has become not a liability but a badge of honor. This is a great shame, because true technological innovation often requires knowledge, experience and maturity.
Many conversations about “tech” are actually about products, or worse, about money. Modest UX tweaks are frequently lauded as “innovation”. But there’s also a lot of truly heavy lifting to be done in the tech industry, and this requires expertise, talent and rigor, qualities that we must look beyond the “hacker pool” to find.
It’s hard for an early-stage investor to predict eventual returns based on little more than a pitch deck. There are few objective measures by which to judge an early-stage startup. So VCs fall back on “intuition”, sometimes more honestly referred to as “pattern matching”. And what better pattern to match than ur-hacker Zuck, the founder of a company that went from $0 to $100B in eight years?
The trouble is, what’s really going on is mostly just confirmation bias and selection bias, and on a hopelessly small sample size at that. “Pattern matching” is really just an anodyne synonym of “prejudice”.
It may not look like prejudice, because the focus is less on what you are (a woman, a person of color, over 40) than on what you’re not (a Hacker). So it may not be grounded in overt sexism or racism, but it’s all the more insidious for that. At least with Pax Dickinson you know what you’re getting into. It’s harder to deal with discrimination that isn’t aware of its own existence.
Hacking The Hacker
This prejudice’s obsession with a single archetype is also its weak spot: Deconstruct the Hacker and you weaken the bias it engenders. By challenging various aspects of this archetype we can reduce its near-mystical significance in Silicon Valley. Take away the pattern, and pattern matching becomes much harder.
So think of this as a call to arms: Let’s hack The Hacker!
It’s not that conforming to the Hacker archetype is bad of itself. It’s that mythologizing just one type of person necessarily excludes others from access to capital, jobs and other resources. Not to mention the fact that it also creates a lot of false positives: bad ideas that get funding because the founder “looked right”. And such poor allocation of capital is bad for everyone: investors, hackers and the rest of us.
So the goal is not to take down any individual, but to rid the Hacker ethos of its glamor. To say that it’s fine to be a Hacker, and equally fine not to be one. Whatever your background, and however you got to where you are, investors like Graham should have open minds about you and your ideas.