Yesterday Nitasha Tiku wrote a post on Valleywag about an interview Paul Graham from Y Combinator did with The Information (warning: paywall). Instead of calmly ignoring it, as we do with most Valleywag posts, it blew up into a torrent of Paul Graham hate, mostly centered on two ideas.
- How young people need to be when they start programming to be successful technical startup founders.
- If/how the startup industry could have more female founders.
Some of the things Paul said were probably bad ideas to say in public, some were probably correct, and some were probably blown out of proportion — and some were all three.
The Information is a paywalled publication, and at $40/month it’s not cheap. I suspect that most of the people who told Paul what a stupid asshole he was for this interview on Twitter haven’t actually read the interview. Ordinarily I’d say that’s lazy, but when your secondary source is Valleywag it’s almost criminal. In case you forgot, Valleywag is the Gawker Media joint that recently threw its hat into the year end listicle party with their Christmas special, “The Biggest Dick Moves of Silicon Valley 2013.”
Curiosity got the best of me. I bought a one month subscription to The Information and read the interview. Not surprisingly, I don’t think Valleywag told the full story.
Does YC discriminate against female founders?
— The Information
This was the main question that the Valleywag post, and the subsequent discussion, focused on. Valleywag quotes from Paul’s answer.
I’m almost certain that we don’t discriminate against female founders because I would know from looking at the ones we missed. […]
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.
That ellipsis looked out of place to me.
Valleywag quoted a four paragraph answer (most of which isn’t quoted here), so why trim the very first sentence of it? I figured either Paul rambled on for a while there, or it was an editorial tactic to craft the narrative that Valleywag wanted, which generally approximates “Let’s stir some shit up.”
Here’s what they cut.
[…] You could argue that we should do more, that we should encourage women to start startups.
Paul self-identifies the relatively obvious criticism of his response. Identifying that something is wrong doesn’t make doing a wrong thing okay, but this is more nuanced than simply breaking a rule and knowing what the rule was.
If you think YC’s role should be more activist, that’s reasonable, but it’s probably not a moral absolute, and it’s suspicious to delete that acknowledgement.
God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that.
— Paul Graham
People seemed to have two issues with this quote, which was about the barriers to more female startup founders.
- The idea that you need to start programming at 13 to be a successful startup founder.
- The idea that girls are distinctly different from boys when it comes to getting them interested in computers.
I’d like to talk about each issue individually, but with respect to the quote itself, it was at the very least inarticulate in a way that’s very easy to pickup and run with. I strongly doubt that Paul was surprised to see a negative reaction to this once it was published.
First, Paul makes a point about how common it is for successful founders to have begun programming at a young age (he mentions 13, though it’s clearly meant to be a generic example) and that one challenge for YC in investing in more female founders is that the preparation for being a successful founder begins long before they’re involved.
In explaining his view of the cause of the lack of female founders, Paul said that he’d have no idea how to get 13 year old girls interested in computers, which is correlated to successful startup founders. I’m editorializing a bit here, and clarifying that this is a correlation he’s observed rather than a strict rule, because it’s a point that I believe was blown drastically out of proportion. I’ve seen dozens of people mention when they started programming in an effort to refute a point that I don’t think Paul ever made, that you must begin programming before you’re 13 to be a successful startup founder.
Of all the conversations that followed this post, this one seemed particularly surprising and unfair to me. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard programmers and startup founders talk about how their interest in computers began when they were very young, with their family’s first computer when they learned BASIC and yada yada.
Not once, in the thousands of times some version of this story has been told by thousands of people has anyone ever batted an eye — but when it’s observed as a trend, then you’re a discriminatory asshole? Sounds intellectually dishonest at best.
As an interesting aside, it appears that it doesn’t matter much whether you did or you didn’t start programming before you were 13, you can still use your personal experience as evidence that he’s wrong. Again forgetting for a moment that he didn’t actually say the thing that many people were arguing against.
Second, several people made that point that girls are not a special class of people with mystery brains, and that you could get 13 year old girls interested in computers simply by giving them a computer and teaching them how to program, presumably the same way you’d get 13 year old boys interested in computers. That seems more than reasonable.
The thing that struck me was that you could swap out “computers” for almost anything and remove the word “girls” — books, nature, art, music, woodworking — and that sentence would generally hold true for me. In other words, I don’t know how to get 13 year olds (of any gender) interested in anything, because I don’t know anything about 13 year olds. If you asked me to get a 13 year old girl interested in computers, I, too, would have to stop and think about it. Not because I think 13 year old girls are unable to become programmers or founders, but because I’m dumb when it comes to 13 year olds, and particularly dumb when it comes to 13 year olds of a different gender than myself. Maybe Paul is, too, I’m not sure.
A offshoot discussion seems to have formed about whether Paul was even “right” in this case, that women are less interested in computers than men. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (which is actually a real government agency) computer science has the largest gender gap of all STEM majors, 5 to 1. Several people talked about their personal experience as women interested in computers at an early age, or as friends of those women. Again this seemed to be arguing some much more damning point that I don’t think Paul ever made, something along the lines of “women aren’t interested in computers.”
Graham then goes on to imply that women can now be startup founders because there are shopping startups. Women just feel more comfortable in retail. Bitches be spending.
This is Valleywag’s “summary” of Paul’s answer to a question about how YC could identify whether they were discriminating against women. To Valleywag’s credit, they did also quote part of his answer.
It used to be that all startups were mostly technology companies. Now you have things like the Gilt Groupe where they’re really retailers, and that’s what they have to be good at because the technology is more commoditized. […]
There’s that ellipsis again. Here’s the rest of what he said.
[…] That’s probably why we have more female founders than we used to in the past, because the nature of the startups that they’re working on is different. You don’t have to be a hardcore hacker to start a startup like you might have had to be 20 years ago.
First, the important distinction that’s drawn here is that this is based on YC’s direct experience with female founders rather than, as Valleywag put it, a general notion that “bitches be spending.” It is that YC has funded many hundreds of companies (I think around 800, but it’s almost impossible to keep track) and this is what they’ve seen.
Second, yes, this answer definitely suggests that a requirement of being a “hardcore hacker,” which he goes onto clarifying as working on infrastructure and ops, prohibited females from being founders. That sucks, though if 5 men are getting computer science degrees for every 1 woman it probably isn’t a surprise that stricter engineering requirements lead to fewer female founders, right? That’s not a judgement on capability, and even less a judgement on a particular individual, it’s just an observation of supply and demand.
It’s worth noting that there’s a considerable difference between identifying what is happening (or has happened) and predicting what can or will happen. Paul’s quote, as I read it, is very clearly the former. It’s an objective statement about professional experience, it’s not even slightly a forward-looking statement about gender limits. I can’t speak for Paul, and it’s possible he believes both, but that’s not what he said and I have no reason to suspect that’s the case.
All that said, you could still argue that in his position of power and influence, and with the likelihood of a sentiment like this being interpreted as sexist and bigoted, that it’s a dumb thing to say no matter what he intended it to mean. You might be right, and you could make a strong argument to support that idea. But this is about more than rhetoric.
Reputation is potential energy.
— Paul Graham, on why people attack successful organizations
It’s increasingly difficult for anyone who’s well-known to say anything controversial in public. Frequently it’s either offensive to someone or misconstrued to be so — in this case, Paul probably said some of both — and it’s used to fuel personal attacks, and indict everything you’ve ever done as meaningless compared to this transgression. This is a problem that politicians have dealt with for a while, but it seems to be affecting more and more people that are less and less famous.
I’d have a hard time naming anyone that’s done more to help startups in the last 10 years than Paul Graham and Y Combinator. Until yesterday, I suspect I would have had an easy time getting lots of people to agree with that idea, or at least not strongly oppose it. It’s almost unbelievable to think that in just a few hours so many people’s minds have changed based on a second hand report of an interview in the self-described “Silicon Valley tech gossip rag.” Instead of questioning it, we go spelunking for facts to support entrenched ideas.
I don’t think Valleywag told anything close to an objective story about this interview, and the sad part is that they don’t even pretend to do that. Valleywag isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, people just couldn’t contain their curiosity about what the inside of a wolf’s mouth looks like.
I’ve met Paul a few times over the last several years. He’s been terse with me to the point of being rude, and I’m not sure I’ve ever really had his full attention while talking to him, but I’ve never had any reason to suspect he was sexist (or xenophobic). Jessica, his wife and partner in YC, is one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. I suspect their partnership works well because of that difference, not despite it.
Even if I’d never met Paul in my life I’d like to think I’d be very skeptical of a second hand story told by a gossip site. If we can’t do that, and we personally attack public figures every time they make mistakes, then we’re going to turn more people around us into politicians. No one will commit to any unpopular idea, everyone will hedge their bets, and we’ll all lie to each other through our teeth.
If you think Paul, YC, or Silicon Valley is unfair and want to change the world then I 1,000% hope you do it — there are lots of problems here, gender and otherwise, no question. But you shouldn’t have to hate someone to disagree with them.