The Tech Bro to Startup Bro Pipeline

From 2014–2020, the percentage of computer science graduates looking to start their own business has increased. In 2014, 4.6% of those fresh out of college reported pursuing entrepreneurship. In 2020, that number increased to 10.5%, while peaking at 13.1% in 2015. Keep in mind these numbers don’t capture the whole story — like with any statistic. Follow-up surveys could account for how many end up leaving full-time employment to start their own business and vice versa. Nonetheless, this trend is hard to ignore.

(Data collected from National Association of Colleges and Employers *2019 not represented as statistic was not available)

It’s 2022 and it feels as though many engineers, especially those with a skill set in computer science, start a business. My own social media bubbles may have something to do with this “feeling”. If you think you’re gonna learn how to code by following the hashtag “tech” on twitter, think again. At least in my experience, it tilts more towards the idolization of owning and growing a startup. It doesn’t just stop there though. The New York Times points out the result of this ‘Great Resignation’ has been the increase of files of people starting their own business. Forbes’ periodically releases it’s list of startups soon to be valued at over a billion dollars (deemed as “unicorns”), where almost all the founders have a background in computer science, or something “techy”. The numerical trend is clear. Social media bubbles, publishing companies, and numbers from thousands of colleges and universities in the US describe a cultural shift occurring within the habitus of the engineer — one is expected to literally “be their own boss”.

This trend, the tech bro to startup bro pipeline, is an interesting topic I would like to explore. What are the roots of this that it now proliferates our social media bubbles, publishing companies, and a segment of our generation? Why are we seeing the numbers go up in starting businesses among technical people? I don’t try to provide answers, but I attempt to make sense of it all.

First, let’s talk about what a startup is. A startup as we think of it in the information era is a business that is designed to grow/scale rapidly. As with any other business, startups have life cycles. Max Marmer, founder of Startup Genome, describes six key stages of this lifecycle, which has been accepted in the research literature around startups:

  1. Discovery
  2. Validation
  3. Efficiency
  4. Scale
  5. Maintenance
  6. Scale/Renewal

From the point of view of a software engineer, this seems like a big leap from debugging code to going through all of these steps in the fast-paced world of developing a startup. Going beneath the surface however, there are lots of congruences between the culture of tech and the culture of startups.

The culture of startups is meant to be agile, relentless with a “move fast and break things” attitude (sound familiar?). These descriptions also happen to be the names or logos of tech startups turned major companies.Try typing relentless.com in your web browser and you’ll find Amazon. Tech companies like Amazon choose to operate in a startup culture to move fast and fail fast. When you start shifting to a more traditional approach, execution tends to slow down. Adopting a startup culture at any stage forces the wins and failures to come in tsunamis instead of steady hum-drum waves.

Many of the Forbes 500 that started out with this startup philosophy are now known for their culture of burning out their employees. CEOs and founders of these companies happen to have backgrounds in computer science, or similarly related fields. I’m not saying having a technical background makes one more primed to be an autocratic boss, but there is certainly a repeated pattern of engineers who start their own company that gives evidence to the tech bro to startup bro trend. Are there any roots to this dual nature of engineering intelligence and toxic work culture?

Known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight

Silicon Valley wasn’t always known for a community of tech giants and startups. It was originally known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Then in 1956 a silicon semiconductor division was established by none other than William Shockley. What we think about Silicon Valley today and the pipeline I am describing comes from this man.

Shockley was an accomplished engineer. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Caltech and a PhD from MIT, both in physics. The next few years were productive for Shockley. When WWII broke out, he eventually took the role as research director at Columbia University’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Group. He then returned to Bell Labs to continue his research in semiconductors. He eventually won many prestigious awards, including a Nobel prize.

Accomplishments in his academic career didn’t necessarily mean success in his career as founder and CEO. He started Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in 1956. His behavior was described as autocratic and erratic highlighted by increasing evidence of paranoia. In 1957, eight of Shockley’s researchers, who would come to be known as the “traitorous eight”, resigned after Shockley decided not to continue research into silicon-based semiconductors. These engineers and researchers turned startup founders now went on to form Fairchild Semiconductor. It was such a loss that Shockley Semiconductor never recovered and was later purchased in 1960. Over the course of the next 20 years, more than 65 new enterprises would end up having employee connections back to Fairchild, including Intel and AMD.

(The “Traitourous 8”From left: Gordon Moore, C. Sheldon Roberts, Eugene Kleiner, Robert Noyce, Victor Grinich, Julius Blank, Jean Hoerni and Jay Last.Credit…Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos)

So what are the takeaways from the original mold makers of tech bro turned startup founder?

Engineers have more leverage then the CEO/founders in some cases; because they either contribute their skills to their 9–5, or make the choice to leave and build something of their own. Shockley left Bell Labs to start Shockley Semiconductor, eight men from Shockley Semiconductor started Fairchild. And on and on the cycle goes. Today, the same cycle can be seen everywhere. Dropout Harvard student starts Facebook. Ex-Facebook engineers starts Quora. What started back in the 1950s and 60s has had so much impact on our world today.

What does this have to do with the increasing percentage of college graduates looking to start their own business? Maybe it has to do with our society’s increasing fascination with tech and startup culture. Elon Musk was Time’s 2021 person of the year despite building Tesla and SpaceX for years. HBO’s Silicon Valley won multiple Emmy’s and critics choice awards from a software engineer’s real-life experiences in 1980s Silicon Valley. The new American dream, I claim, has molded to fit our successful image-obsessed world. Instead of two cars and a white picket fence, it’s millions in funding for a new grocery service with delivery in less than 10 minutes. The dream becomes focused on economic success in the public sphere versus the private sphere. If you’re technical and ambitious enough, then you too can be on the list of self-made billionaires.

I would like to conclude by remarking how increasingly our world is becoming technical. It’s not just tech people transitioning to startup life, but there’s now several pipelines. The tech to startup to venture capital pipeline, the finance to tech pipeline, and several other variations. Pretty soon we’ll see engineers running for congress and perhaps president where a historical marker was being in the military may soon become having pushed a change to Netflix’s code base. Whether it is for better or for worse remains debatable. All I hope is these trends benefit those who are not only white and male.

Sources:

https://www.naceweb.org/job-market/graduate-outcomes/first-destination/

https://evenma.ca/2015/09/08/stages-of-the-startup-lifecycle/

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/20/technology/jay-last-dead.html

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