Silicon Valley Sadness

This is the first of two essays exploring the reasons why I fell into a deep depression while living and working in Silicon Valley. The Bay Area distills some of the worst excesses of American capitalism. This essay focuses on the deep sadness and loneliness that built up inside me over the years. The second essay will focus on the negative effects of greed and arrogance.

I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2005, thanks to a friend and former coworker who had some extra money and wanted to build a Web app that he envisioned as a combination of a social bookmarking service, like Delicious, and a geographic review site, like Yelp. He didn’t have money to pay me a salary, but he put me up in a succession of cheap SF hotels, and paid for my food while we worked on it. After a few weeks, I made contact with a former coworker from an internship at Be Inc., who was then working at a company called Danger that designed a proto-smartphone called the hiptop, more commonly known as the T-Mobile Sidekick.

I interviewed at Danger and got a job there in July 2005, working on the telephony code (the part of the OS and bundled applications that managed phone calls, SMS, data connectivity, and related features). We were eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2008, which was a big disappointment because we had been hoping to have an IPO instead. There was a lot of skepticism that Microsoft would manage the acquisition well, and in fact they botched it as badly as the most cynical among us had predicted.

Within two years, Microsoft managed to destroy the original hiptop product line through neglect and a disastrous data loss fiasco, and scared away many of the engineers, including myself, by assigning most of us to work on an ill-conceived skunkworks project code named Pink, which later launched as the Microsoft Kin, which failed in the market, due to missing features and thousands of bugs, which the team lacked the time and resources to fix.

I was extremely demoralized and burned out by my experience at Microsoft, as they systematically destroyed everything that I enjoyed about working at Danger. It took my about 9 months to work up the courage to interview at other tech companies, and I soon got a job on the Android team at Google, after passing their rigorous interview process. Sadly, my experience at Google wasn’t at all what I had hoped for, even though the work was an excellent fit for my skills, and this is the story that I’d like to tell.

It’s hard to explain why Google was such a lonely company for me to work at. It seems like the type of company where people would be able to make new friends, but everyone is so focused on work that there were very few opportunities to socialize outside of it. Consequently, I never felt that I made any real friends there. I typically went to lunch with the men in my group (I only remember one woman in my lunch group, an intern who was there for a few months), but we always made small talk and then went back to work.

In retrospect, I wish that I had gone to the gym and taken advantage of some of the physical fitness opportunities, such as hip-hop dance class, which I remember a female coworker from another group mentioning to me once. That class sounded like it could be fun, but I never followed up on it, and I’m not sure that it would have actually helped me to make friends.

Google often put on social events, like karaoke and “social TGIF”, but I never felt like participating in those, either. I just felt disconnected from everyone, all the time. Was I too old? I was 33 when I started, and 37 when I left. Too young to join the “Greyglers”, the club for over-40’s at Google. Maybe I was too passive. I just didn’t like the culture, and the culture didn’t ever connect to the larger community outside of Google.

Which brings me to the other problem with Silicon Valley, which got worse and worse as the years passed. There are bubbles inside each corporate campus, but there’s no real community of tech workers. The billionaire class seems to have their own cliques, but everyone else is very insular in general. There aren’t many good places to hang out and meet people, at all. Everyone just thinks about work, all the time. Then they go home to their family and kids, or in my case to a roommate and a dog. I spent almost zero time trying to go on dates, because I never felt like I had the spare cycles, as the saying goes (referring to compute cycles in a CPU as an analogy for consciousness in the human brain), for the challenges of meeting new people and trying to figure out whether we would be a good romantic match.

People in Silicon Valley rarely talk to strangers. It’s a very closed, insular region. I never figured out how to overcome this problem so I eventually moved back to Los Angeles, where I have a better support network of family and friends. People are friendlier here. I think the Bay Area might be one of the most unfriendly places in California, if not in America. Everything revolves around making money in the tech industry. It wasn’t like that when I first arrived, in 2005. It wasn’t like that when I took an internship at Be in 1997. But by around 2011, I was starting to feel an intense misery about my environment that I couldn’t escape, no matter what city I lived in (including Palo Alto, Union City, and Mountain View). San Francisco and Palo Alto became too expensive to justify, even on my tech salary, and they were becoming just as unfriendly and unwelcoming as elsewhere.

I don’t have any solutions, but in my next essay, I’ll delve into the self-centered, greed-oriented, perfectionist, capitalist worldview that I think is the primary cause of the destruction of anything resembling civic engagement in Silicon Valley and surrounding regions. Google is building a new campus, Charleston East, with the selling point that there will be cafes and shopping areas that are open to the public. This strikes me as an admission that the sterile corporate campus environment has swallowed up what used to be common areas for the public to enjoy. I’m not sure that it will make any real difference.

For further reading, I highly recommend this essay by a former Googler from India who recently moved back to India after experiencing many of the same frustrations and deep unhappiness that I did: I gave up my perfect Google-charmed life in the US to move back home to India. Her story reminded me very much of my own.

On a sadder note, the next generation is not doing so well, either. This story, Silicon Valley Suicides, about the suicide rate for Palo Alto high school students, is a disturbing read that I think is very important to confront, as I think teenagers are more sensitive to the emotional context of the world they’re being prepared to enter than adults are. The 10-year suicide rate for the two Palo Alto high schools is between four and five times the national average. That’s not normal. That’s not right. Here’s an essay by a former Palo Alto High student about the intense pressure on students to excel. The CDC is investigating the cluster of teen suicides. Here’s an interview with the author of the original story that adds additional details.