All posts in “Silicon Valley”

Historian Leslie Berlin talks about the rise of Silicon Valley


In this week’s episode of Technotopia I spoke to author and historian Leslie Berlin, writer of Troublemakers: Silicon Valleys’ Coming Of Age. Berlin is the Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University and one of the few people who can see the entire rise of SV tech culture from a researcher’s perspective.

Berlin’s book is quirky, fun, and fascinating and in this podcast we discuss the gender gap in tech and how the world can – and can’t – centers of innovation in a real way. Have a listen.

Technotopia is a podcast by John Biggs about a better future. You can subscribe in Stitcher, RSS, or iTunes and listen the MP3 here.

Eric Schmidt steps down as chairman of Alphabet

Eric Schmidt
Eric Schmidt

Image: paul sakuma/associated press

One of Google’s longest-running executives is stepping away from the tech giant’s parent company Alphabet. 

Eric Schmidt, who joined Google in 2001 as its CEO and chairman, is stepping away from his current role as executive chairman of Alphabet. Schmidt became executive chairman of Google’s board in 2010 and maintained the position when the company restructured in 2015 to become Alphabet. 

He will stay involved as a technical advisor, the company announced on Thursday. 

CNBC was first to report the news. 

“Larry, Sergey, Sundar and I all believe that the time is right in Alphabet’s evolution for this transition. The Alphabet structure is working well, and Google and the Other Bets are thriving. In recent years, I’ve been spending a lot of my time on science and technology issues, and philanthropy, and I plan to expand that work,” Schmidt said in a statement.

Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin recruited Schmidt in 2001. He had previously been CEO of software company Novell. Schmidt became chairman of Alphabet again when Google reorganized in 2015. Sundar Pichai serves as CEO of Google, and Page is CEO of Alphabet. 

“Continuing his 17 years of service to the company, he’ll now be helping us as a technical advisor on science and technology issues. I’m incredibly excited about the progress our companies are making, and about the strong leaders who are driving that innovation,” Page said in a statement.

Schmidt has plenty to keep himself busy outside of Alphabet. In 2006, he established the Schmidt Family Foundation that makes investments in startups and fellowships in the sciences, for example.

In the meantime, Alphabet said it will search for a new non-executive chairman and will appoint one at the next board meeting in January. 

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Y Combinator’s Sam Altman wishes San Francisco was more open-minded, like China

Sam Altman is a Silicon Valley kingmaker. Sam Altman is rich. Sam Altman wears cargo shorts. Sam Altman is awful. 

As president of Y Combinator, an internationally renowned startup accelerator based in Mountain View, California, the 32-year-old has an outsized influence on the world of tech. The seed money his company doles out has both life-changing effects on its recipients and the potential to reshape entire industries

And if Altman’s latest blog post is any indication, this has all very much gone to his head. 

Titled “E Pur Si Muove” in a transparent attempt to position himself as a righteous contrarian speaking truth to power à la Galileo Galilei, Altman explains in the post how toxic censorship has supposedly crushed intellectual dissent in San Francisco. You see, according to the 2015 Forbes 30-under-30 luminary, daring to disagree even in the slightest with the politically correct monsters that run this town is now enough to get you driven out of it. 

“[Smart] people tend to have an allergic reaction to the restriction of ideas, and I’m now seeing many of the smartest people I know move elsewhere,” writes the two-popped-collar-wearing wunderkind. “It is bad for all of us when people can’t say that the world is a sphere, that evolution is real, or that the sun is at the center of the solar system.”

That’s right, in San Francisco it is heresy to say the world is a sphere. 

This is not the first time Altman has aligned himself with a very specific type of contrarian.

Things have gotten so bad, Altman insists, that the admittedly repressive China is starting to look rosier than the closed-minded orthodoxy found in the City by the Bay. 

“Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me,” he explains. “I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco. I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.”

And just what, exactly, are these ideas that San Franciscans are shouting down? Oh, just ya know, little old things like homophobic slurs. 

“This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics,” Altman, who is himself gay, notes. “Of course we can and should say that ideas are mistaken, but we can’t just call the person a heretic. We need to debate the actual idea.”

What Altman is saying, of course, is a total bullshit straw-man cop out. We already do allow people to say disparaging things about queer people. And, sadly, plenty of them do. But, Altman insists, the closed-minded PC police of San Francisco don’t tolerate that kind of thinking! And, as a result, bigoted homophobes can’t share their ideas about physics!

But it’s not just the future of physics that’s at stake, according to Altman. Won’t anyone think of the cryptocurrency?

“I don’t know who [Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto] is, but I’m skeptical that he, she, or they would have been able to come up with the idea for bitcoin immersed in the current culture of San Francisco—it would have seemed too crazy and too dangerous, with too many ways to go wrong.” 

That’s right, society must tolerate people spewing slurs in case those same people are all secretly working on the next groundbreaking cryptocurrency. 

This is not the first time Altman has aligned himself with a very specific type of contrarian. During the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election he went on a tweetstorm defending the decision to keep vocal Donald Trump-backer Peter Thiel on as a part-time Y Combinator partner. Thiel, you’ll remember, has publicly lamented the enfranchisement of women, hates the free press, and isn’t so sure climate change is real. 

Those ties were quietly cut last month to little fanfare, but not before Altman had demonstrated himself as someone willing to do business with a possible aspiring vampire — as long as it served his interests. 

And so, perversely, maybe Altman’s post does reveal a truth — albeit an unintended one. That truth, of course, being that despite all the money, all the blog posts, all the influence, and all the cargo shorts, Sam Altman is still awful.  

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San Francisco was the place to be for people in tech. Then it wasn’t.

Jeanna Barrett had spent the last 20 months in Seattle helping grow a location-based mobile app. In April 2011, Groupon acquired the startup, and it declined to keep her on staff. 

Fine by her.

“I called my parents after I found out I didn’t have a job at Groupon and said, ‘I’m moving to San Francisco.’ I just knew I wanted to make it work,” Barrett said. 

Barrett is one of thousands of hungry tech workers that move to San Francisco each year. The influx of people and money centered around technology has been extreme even for a city with a sports team named for the 1849 gold rush. Software engineers and marketing strategists look to the city by the Bay as the place to live to be a part of innovation. The tech explosion of the last two decades has transformed the area, turning its metro areas into some of the richest in the world. 

It’s also changed what used to be a crunchy town. As rents skyrocket and people age, a growing number of once-zealous overachievers are leaving the city, disenfranchised by what tech has done to the area, wondering whether the industry is really doing all the good it promised.

Three years after moving to San Francisco with dreams of life in tech’s Mecca, Barrett felt like she was done. She was frustrated by “the busy rat-race lifestyle,” as she called it.

Barrett tried to multi-task exercising and working by using a treadmill desk.

Barrett tried to multi-task exercising and working by using a treadmill desk.

Image: jeanna barrett

Barrett with friends at the 2016 Cider Summit in SF's Presidio.

Barrett with friends at the 2016 Cider Summit in SF’s Presidio.

Image: jeanna barrett

So Barrett left. She moved to Belize and says she’s never been happier. 

“I drank the Kool-Aid for so long,” she said. “I was under the impression that I had a great, amazing job, and why should I not be happy?”

San Francisco and tech, it would seem, are turning into any other city and industry.

‘I stopped recognizing it’ 

Jennifer Rice moved to San Francisco in 2007. The tech industry wasn’t her main motive, although she did have a decade of experience working in it while living in Dallas. She heard great things about the lifestyle, especially for someone who loves the outdoors. 

Rice ended up landing a consulting job, where her clients weren’t in tech. Within her first year in the city, she learned only one industry dominated conversations in San Francisco.

“I certainly feel like technology was a virus. Everything is getting gentrified. You go everywhere, and it’s like tech bro heaven. I stopped recognizing [the city],” Rice said. She noticed the changes when she first moved there and said it’s only gotten more noticeable in the past couple of years. 

“Technology was a virus. Everything is getting gentrified. You go everywhere, and it’s like tech bro heaven.”

Each person’s story of departure is unique, yet there are many relatable themes. Individuals point to issues like the housing crisis in San Francisco and sexism in the tech industry, which aren’t new problems but increasingly more of a concern. 

Despite living in San Francisco to work in tech, many of the people we spoke with became annoyed by that industry. Other concerns echo similarities to life in any big city. What’s clear is that Silicon Valley as the obvious choice for people in tech is itself being disrupted.

Venture capitalist turned blockchain engineer Preethi Kasireddy published “Why I’m leaving Silicon Valley” on Medium a couple weeks ago. She’s not giving up on the tech industry, but she’s moving to Los Angeles. As for why she chose that city, diversity, weather, and L.A.’s own booming tech industry were all factors, she wrote.

The reactions “have been majorly very positive, particularly from people outside the Valley. They find it nice to hear you don’t need to be in the Valley to do what you want to do,” Kasireddy said.

Rice writes that the kinds of people she met in San Francisco most days tended to be “homogeneous” — often they were engineers, venture capitalists, or entrepreneurs. Of course, the Bay Area has plenty of teachers, doctors, and accountants as well, though they’re perhaps just a little more difficult to come by than in other cities.

Tim Ferriss, an author and angel investor who spent 17 years in the Bay Area until he recently relocated to Austin, echoed that struggle to break out of the tech bubble in a recent AMA on Reddit. 

“There is also a mono-conversation of tech that is near impossible to avoid,” he wrote. “This can be dodged, but it takes very real and consistent effort.”

Rampant gentrification is a persistent issue in San Francisco, and it’s only getting worse. UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project is monitoring the problem, and recently updated its map evaluating SF neighborhoods. From 2013 to 2015, five tracts (out of 24), including the Tenderloin, Chinatown, and the Bayview, moved from low income stable to “at risk” of or ongoing displacement.

“I even feel like I got there too late,” said Rice, who lived in the historic Fillmore District. “There were mom and pop shops, really small locally owned. It felt like a neighborhood. Now, there’s a Rag & Bone. My little post office guy, where I had my PO box, he had to move out because he couldn’t afford it anymore.”

Tech’s playground

As local charm and diverse communities disappear, and popular retail stores and chain restaurants proliferate, San Francisco is at risk of becoming more of an “Any Town, USA.”

And yet, San Francisco isn’t just any “Any Town” these days. The perception of those who have left is that it’s the tech industry’s town, and the tech industry sparked some of the change. Living in San Francisco has been part of the incentives package to come work for tech companies like Facebook, even when their headquarters are hours away. 

Every weekday morning, thousands of Apple, Facebook, and Google employees board buses from stops throughout San Francisco to travel to their offices in Cupertino, Menlo Park, and Mountain View, respectively. People who could have lived in San Jose or other cities much closer to their offices instead live forty miles and a traffic jam away in SF.

The shuttles inspired fierce backlash at times. In 2014, protesters blocked buses. According to these protesters, the tech industry had helped caused housing prices in SF to skyrocket, especially near the shuttle stops, making it unaffordable for many to live there.

Image: flickr, cj martin

The perception among those who have left is that gentrification has in part helped brighten neighborhoods, but it’s also forever tarnished the community.

“Part of it is cool, admittedly, even better restaurants, but they’re pushing out the old,” Rice said. “When I moved here, it did not feel like a big city. It felt like all these different sets of global communities. That’s all gone … It’s turning into a New York, which, alright, some people might like.”

Rice didn’t. She packed up her bags this past summer and moved to Santa Fe. 

A hamster wheel 

San Francisco may have “cool” new restaurants, but that doesn’t mean the people in the city have time for them. The tech industry has been described as a “hamster wheel,” with employees pressured to “spin” the company past the competition and toward greatness.

For some recent graduates joining the workforce, the hustle can be positive — at least in some situations and for some stages of their lives. 

Working at a tech startup was an easy transition for someone just coming out of college like Eric Toda. He joined Facebook in 2008, shortly after graduating from San Francisco State University. 

“I loved how young everyone was. It felt like you were part of a rebel group, surrounded by people who constantly challenged each other,” Toda said. “I was 23, and failures were celebrated.”

In those days, only four years after its launch, Facebook was still a startup. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg had joined earlier that same year. Four more years would pass until Facebook went public. 

Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters in 2011

Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters in 2011

But as major tech companies are maturing, their employees are having trouble maintaining the “work hard, play hard” ethos.

“They have amazing perks that other companies would never have, but you’re still going to work. They want you to be a martyr,” Toda said. 

“I needed a better lifestyle to be dad. I can’t be a father at Airbnb.”

Toda stayed at Facebook until 2013 and then moved to Nike to serve as its global director for digital brand marketing. A year later, he came back to the tech industry; first Snapchat and then Airbnb. 

But it wasn’t sustainable for Toda as he entered a new stage of his life: being a father. 

While some tech giants have made moves to better support work-life balance such as more generous parental leave policies, it is perceived as lip-service, rather than something the company actually embraces.

Toda ended up leaving Airbnb in September to join Gap. 

“I needed a better lifestyle to be dad. I can’t be a father at Airbnb,” he said of his thinking at the time. “When I joined Gap, they said, ‘You’re going to surrender your email account to us,'” Toda said, referencing his upcoming parental leave. 

Gender issues also persist. Other industries face sexism problems: Hollywood, Wall Street, advertising, journalism, to name a few. But there’s concern among the departed and those still there that the tech industry is one of the least equipped to handle this issue. 

Alexandra Marshall serves as head of community and communications at tech startup Health IQ in Mountain View and previously worked at Goldman Sachs. She responded to a tweet about Silicon Valley facing a reckoning similar to Wall Street, arguing Wall Street had a better work environment. 

“There is no standardization of HR practices or hiring or firing or policies for time off or parental or medical leave,” she added later. 

Barrett also connected her tiredness to the sexism she said she faced while working in the tech industry in San Francisco. 

“I was told I talk too much in meetings. I was in and out of the HR department all the time with, ‘People don’t like you. You’re out of line,'” she said. “And all I do is state my opinion as a business person.” 

Making the move 

Leaving Silicon Valley wasn’t easy for these people, but not because they didn’t have the financial means. Rather, some said they hesitated because they didn’t think they should leave. 

Rice said she didn’t recognize how stressed she was until she was on vacation in Santa Fe. 

“In San Francisco, everyone is on the hamster wheel and you spin and spin and spin just to afford to live there.”

“I really felt it in my body, letting go of the stress I was carrying, and I noticed it for the first time. It was going back to San Francisco after being out of it for a week and a half that I immediately felt my energy and my body just contract,” she said. “In San Francisco, everyone is on the hamster wheel and you spin and spin and spin just to afford to live there.”

Rice moved to Santa Fe and recently founded her own consultancy.  

More than a year after her move, Barrett said she’s happier than she has ever been. In her case, she swapped her typical work outfit of jewelry and expensive haircuts with a bathing suit and a ponytail. 

Jeanna Barrett now lives in Belize.

Image: jeanna barrett

Toda still lives in the Bay Area while working at Gap. He noted that he personally isn’t done with the tech industry or northern California, but he said that innovation is not exclusive to his hometown.

Kasireddy, the blockchain engineer who is moving to Los Angeles, described her exit as a double-edged sword. One aspect of leaving San Francisco is she’ll miss people who work in and understand the tech industry. But that’s also exactly what she wants to get away from. 

“I don’t want to go to a dinner and talk about work or party and talk about work,” she said. “People actually have other lives other than work, and not just LA, in most other places outside of [Silicon] Valley.”

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Twitter, high on 280 characters, more than doubles the length of display names

Longer, longer, and just a little bit longer.
Longer, longer, and just a little bit longer.

Image: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

What good are 280 characters if you have to shout them from a measly 20-character display name?

Just two days following the surprise announcement that Twitter would be doubling the character count allowed per tweet, the San Francisco-based company is back with another update — and you’d better believe it’s about yet even more characters. That’s right, as of Nov. 9, your display name can be more than twice as long as the old rules allowed. 

How long? 50 characters long. 

“Starting today, your Twitter display name can be up to 50 characters in length,” the company announced via tweet. “Go ahead, add that middle name or even a few more emojis.”

As the site’s users are wont to do, they immediately took to Twitter to praise the company’s ongoing battle against brevity. Oh, wait, that’s not what they did at all. 

Notably, this change only applies to display names and not to the user names. For those of you confused as to which is which, the user name is what follows the @ symbol and is often referred to as a “handle.” That is still, for now, blessedly limited to 15 characters. The display name, on the other hand, is that thing people fill with emoji. Got it?

This change is sure to please all those who felt that the previous law of the Twitter land, 20-character display names, stifled creativity, expression, and in no way contributed to an easy-to-read experience while scanning their respective feeds. Cough. 

And anyway, as 280 has shown us, when it comes to Twitter more characters is always better

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