A critique of Silicon Valley’s innovation culture


A critique of Dan Lyons Disrupted and what it says about the culture of technology innovation.

innovationThe day my piece about age-ism came out, Marc Canter kindly told me that Dan Lyons would be making a bookstore appearance close to where I was at the time. Serendipity? You bet.

It was good to see Bay Area friends I’d not met in a long while and get the opportunity to listen to Dan Lyons talk about his experiences to what turned out to be a packed house. I also bought the book so that I could come back with my thoughts on the age-ism topic and provide my sense of the book.

Talking to friends and colleagues, it’s clear that Lyons book divides people. On the one hand there are those who say Lyons’ depiction of Silicon Valley startups is right on the money, there are others who say Lyons is out of touch and a hater who used the book as a way of venting while avoiding responsibility for his part in what happened.

I fall somewhere in between but veer in Lyons’ direction. Here’s why.

Lyons was dumped out of Newsweek after 25 years with no appeal, no extension of a very short notice period and with no benefits. That’s harsh but a reflection of the US system of people who are ‘hired at will’ employees.

In the narrative about his time at Hubspot, Lyons makes the point time and again about how people almost literally disappear as they are fired, often without any given reason. Those unfortunates are classified as ‘graduates’ from the company, an expression that qualifies as one of the more ludicrous euphemisms routinely used in American culture. To me, Lyons is unfair on this aspect of employment because he fails to draw the parallels between the actualité of the two situations.

Lyons was a career journalist and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about those folk it’s that brilliant as they may be at crafting content, ultimately they don’t know WTF they’re talking about. They cannot apply the critique that only comes with prior experience of being in industry or a profession. That, in my view, is why so many ex-journalists working in corporate environments are little better than the marketing flacks they’re supposed to be assisting or leading.

Again, Lyons makes the mistake of assuming that because he has reported upon technology for many years, that somehow translates into knowledge about what goes on. It doesn’t. It is, therefore, no surprise that Lyons felt like a fish out of water. I’d venture that would have been the case in any technology company but then I can understand why it was especially tough inside Hubspot.

My good friend Tom Foremski argued that Hubspot could not be accused of age-ism because they took him on at 52 years of age when Lyons acknowledges that many of his contemporaries struggle to find work. It’s a fair point except for the fact that once he arrived at the company, he experienced the kind of prejudice which we normally associate with sex-ism, race-ism and anti-LBGT behaviors.

Lyons speculates that his hiring was really a marketing ploy by the founders, hoping to cash in on Lyons’ notoriety as Fake Steve Jobs. I’m not buying that argument because the Jobs character Lyons invented is really an inside baseball joke about which no-one outside the tech industry cares.

I’d go one stage further. Any tech company hiring a well known journalist to bolster their publicly facing marketing is fooling themselves if they think the person they hire brings kudos to the brand. If anything, they’ll find that a gamekeeper turned poacher who maintains a public presence will likely get ridiculed on the quiet by those who knew them in a past life and mostly ignored in the public domain.

Whether the ongoing expression of prejudice Lyons experienced was overt or not is never made wholly clear in the book. But that matters less than the feeling of being treated as a person who is ‘less than’ by those around him.

Black people, gay folk and women who have talked to me over the years about this kind of workplace treatment express a similar sense of being ostracized. It’s demoralizing in the extreme and while I have huge sympathy for Lyons’ experience, the reality is that this is almost normal workplace behavior with few consequences to the perpetrators.

The fact Lyons has raised it in such a public way is a credit to the man. Unfortunately, when you look at the history of these kinds of exposure, nothing really changes. Time passes, the hubbub dies down and the workplace quickly gets back to its asshole behavior as though nothing happened.

At the extreme end of this thing consider what Martin Luther King said in his “I have a dream” speech. Can we honestly say that the position of the black man or woman in society has fundamentally changed in the 53 years that have passed?

Having said all that, I am disturbed by Lyons’ exposure of the ‘bro’ culture in Silicon Valley start ups as indicative of the disposable nature of labor. He makes the point that the idea of long term careers is rapidly becoming a thing of the past and that work is typified by a series of ‘tours of duty.

As I listened to Lyons’ talk, I asked a long time colleague who left the Valley a few years ago: “Are brogrammers really that bad a bunch of asshats?” The response was a glaring nod. I see it as situational.

I’ve come across my fair share of folk who act as though they’re entitled but I reserve my biggest criticism for those who don’t seem to have developed the capacity to think critically. I meet and hear far too many people who talk enthusiastically about the latest buzzwords but who are saying nothing of substance and who cannot explain what they mean for the customer. To that extent, Lyons scything criticism of certain events as little more than entertainment is difficult to dispute. In essence, he is describing the ‘bozo explosion’ that Guy Kawasaki talked about in 2006 and which has seemingly become common place in companies both big and small.

Lyons never gets into this aspect of workplace life other than to say that he felt he could not question the status quo but then there is a sense where the idea of critical thinking is antithetical to the notion of the employee as a drone or cannon fodder for the VC driven machine that Lyons describes. This is the point where Lyons touches a raw nerve with some of my colleagues who have experienced first hand what it is like to live and work inside that pot boiling environment.

I fear that as an industry we are heading towards a crisis. We’re told that Silicon Valley is the heartland for innovation and invention and yet I wonder what is being invented or made that will truly make the world a better place? Facebook? Netflix? Uber? AirBnB? If that’s the level to which we aspire then as an industry, we’re doing nothing of substance and value while crushing the spirit of the generation that comes next.

Is it, therefore, any wonder that so many companies are deeply concerned about their ability to attract talent? If what Lyons describes is a fair reflection of what’s happening then we’re not providing the environment where talent will be nurtured let alone found. Instead, it may well be that the generation that could provide the help and examples have simply given up.

In the meantime, we end up with ‘stuff’ like this.

Image credit - Feature image via Comedy Central

    Comments are closed.

    1. On the age-ism, I remember not hiring older heavyset developers, deliberately hiring younger active ones and women. Boots on the other foot now, 50+ it’s not at all pleasant.

      My 2 cents:

      A 25 yr Newsweek journalist running a software company, no wonder Lyons felt like fish out of water.

      As we transitioned to SaaS away from logo licences my old ERP firm hired mobile phone company execs to deal with churn. None lasted, they were all fish out of water, who couldn’t grip how software companies worked and all were gone within 6-12 months.

      CEO skills to run a software company:

      Sales and marketing + software development + consulting revenues + customer support + new and recurring revenue recognition.

      Plus handing gray areas, IFRS / SEC revenue recognition, 10K + hundreds of security attacks from hackers, handling staff, hiring, dealing with lawyers.

      If Lyons had all this experience under his belt or even first had operating know-how managing likey he would have grown HubSpot and not encountered ISM behaviors.

      A coda. 500+ employee public software company will have some bro or sis culture left over from its early days. Managers from the CEO down will generally have emerged or been replaced with people managers familiar with software companies, who can lead without prejudice.

      Sounds like the board of Hubspot screwed up hiring an outsider. They’ll learn from the mistake.Reference

      1. says:

        Well – Lyons was brought in for marketing, not as a C-level exec but it wasn’t managed well at all.

    2. says:

      Our most successful marketing person came via a “Karl Rove” political campaign org from Washington, DC. This background really drove our software sales via “sound byte” marketing. Moved up to EVP, later CEO of two London to USA public companies both grown and aquired.

    3. Heather says:

      “The fact Lyons has raised it in such a public way is a credit to the man. Unfortunately, when you look at the history of these kinds of exposure, nothing really changes. Time passes, the hubbub dies down and the workplace quickly gets back to its asshole behavior as though nothing happened.”

      And this is why it is so important that more people continue to speak out. Dan’s done his part – he lit the flame. Now everyone else needs to speak up and keep the pressure on the tech industry to work toward fixing these pervasive issues (ageism, discrimination, corporate culture, etc etc). It won’t happen overnight, but small changes will happen over time. Hubspot has already vowed to massively improve diversity within a year and share the results with the public. Perhaps the small pool of critical thinkers in that company will provide a little extra pressure on that endeavor by speaking up here and there (and hopefully they won’t be fired for doing so). Maybe in a few years these companies will be much more diverse, not perfect, probably still very culty, but better overall, happier and more inclusive overall. I think Dan’s message has been heard loud and clear, and the more people speak up the more likely change might actually happen. (Unless I am just being incredibly naive, I hope not).