My tech industry friends are spending their summers in the town I grew up in.
A best friend from Georgia Tech sent me a photo from the Red Rock Coffee on Castro Street, a cafe I visited while growing up.
He’s spending the summer at Microsoft’s Mountain View campus, along with thousands of other interns in the tech industry. The intern class consists of developers, designers, marketers, analysts, managers, and any other title that can be formed as a permutation of those terms. They’ll be working for startups in all stages of funding, large companies you’ve probably heard of, and even bigger companies you haven’t heard of. Some of them will make a lot of money this summer.
I grew up in Los Altos, a town over from Mountain View. If you look at the two cities on a map, it looks like they’re fighting over who gets to be the big spoon.
Los Altos is a gentle town with an excellent school district and an irrational hatred for leaf blowers. Some of the greatest things that originated from Los Altos include Steve Jobs and Hunan Home’s fried rice.
The kids are bored. The real estate downtown has a high turnover rate because it’s expensive. Los Altos kids call Mountain View “ghetto” without knowing what the term really means or why they shouldn’t say it so casually. Ever since my parents moved to Redwood City and the owners of Hunan Home decided to retire, there’s little reason for me to visit Los Altos.
Although I rarely ate lunch with them, I had a close group of friends from Los Altos. We completed the same online trigonometry classes and took board games way too seriously. We reviewed our college essays with each other and smiled in our prom photos together. Any one of them can give you a run for your money in Words With Friends. They’re all currently studying computer science, too.
Regarding the lunch periods, I didn’t feel completely comfortable with the larger group that my core friends hung out with. Beyond that, I was intimidated by them. My best friends played in a mean jazz ensemble and studied multivariate calculus after school. They won track competitions and had impeccable vocal ranges. Compared to them, I felt overly illogical and underachieving. They felt more complete than me. If you’re experiencing imposter syndrome with your closest group of friends, that’s a problem.
Mountain View was my definition of creativity.
After surviving the morning classes at Los Altos High School, I’d spend my lunch periods driving to the Freestyle Academy, a digital arts and technology program in our school district. The program’s brightly painted portable buildings sat on the other side of Mountain View High School’s parking lot. Since its inception ten years ago, Freestyle’s Film Program has sent a dozen kids to USC’s prestigious film school.
I enrolled in the Web/Audio Program, where Mr. Florendo taught me how to build my first website. If I ever release a mixtape, you can thank him for that too. Mr. Greco introduced us to Persepolis and Freakonomics in English class and assigned us comedy sketches in addition to our personal essays. Design class taught me that Photoshop and Illustrator aren’t mystical dragons that horde interface elements—they are digital longswords that’ll prepare us for a career in design.
Although I was struggling with self-esteem issues in high school, my relationship with Freestyle and the Mountain View community helped me understand my potential. By virtue of being around their school, I became an honorary Mountain View student.
My Mountain View friends didn’t care about being right as long as they had fun. They didn’t think you were weird for singing Broadway numbers in the parking lot — they’d play the other parts and create a tender, theatrical moment. Don’t challenge them on that. Two of them have perfect pitch.
They were all involved in Mountain View’s music program, which was bigger (and admittedly more successful) than our own. One of my first projects at Freestyle was a documentary on Mountain View High School’s winter percussion group, where I created a website and a book about the ensemble. Since then, I’ve learned better font pairings than Arial and Bebas Neue.
Red Rock hosted open mic nights with poetry readings and high school bands of the alternative rock variety. My Mountain View friends told me that I’m more than a test score or a college acceptance. The community didn’t care about who you are, but rather, what you could create and become.
Mountain View taught me it was okay to be different.
This leads to why it’s uncanny for me to see Mountain View—the community where I felt comfortable with myself—flooded with peers and classmates working in tech.
College students judge their self worth based on the company they’re interning at this summer. People are writing articles on job hunting and books on Cracking the Coding Interview. I was a data structures and algorithms TA before I became a designer. I’ve learned that once you go through enough interviews, you’ll realize which skills you’re lacking—or rather—how many of your best qualities those companies didn’t get to see.
I struggled with the concept of fitting in as a teenager, so perhaps I’m projecting when I talk about the Silicon Valley. My classmates are convinced they belong in the Bay Area, when their careers might be the only things they’ll have in common with each other. They resemble the kids I competed against in high school. I’m still intimidated by them.
Some of the most talented kids in my industry are working in the town that made me feel okay with being different. I should be happy for their achievements, but instead, I’m envious. The Bay Area is fresh and brand new to most of them. They’ll be surrounded by like-minded interns and new grads who can validate their journeys into tech. Maybe I’m jealous they found paradise in the same place I spent my childhood figuring myself out. Maybe I’m the odd kid who didn’t get to go to summer camp.
People come to San Francisco because they believe they can change the world. There’s also a great standard of living for most people in tech. But the Bay Area will forever remain as the place that comforted me as I tried to understand myself. Will the people working in the Silicon Valley for the first time experience that kind of growth? Maybe their lives are already in order, and they won’t have to worry about that.
The Bay Area has become an intriguing place.
- While we were eating Amber India’s lunch buffet, my mother and I sat a table away from an angel investor negotiating a deal.
- A software intern living in San Francisco can make more during a summer than what some people earn in an entire year.
- My mom added my ex-girlfriend’s dad on LinkedIn.
- I didn’t know about Philz Coffee until I left for college, but I had a Philharmonic after an interview in Palo Alto. The raspberry-hazelnut flavor was delicious. The rejection call from my recruiter was not.
- My high school has a hackathon.
- One of the kids who used to make fun of me is now attending a famous northern school in the middle of nowhere. His father owns three Teslas in Los Altos Hills. I hope he’s cold.
- If you’re a high-caliber student in the tech industry, you can visit your friends across the country and have someone else pay for your flight.
- There’s a yoga room somewhere in SFO.
- When I was home for winter break, I put “UI Designer” on my Tinder profile. I matched with more people than I ever had back at school.
- I’ll never taste the perfection that is Hunan Home’s fried rice ever again.
If my dad and I weren’t riding bikes around Stanford’s campus, we’d be taking pictures. They would always be the same, squarely composed portraits of the same son in front of the same buildings. Dad was always buying new lenses for his DSLRs and wanted an excuse to take pictures of me. I complained that his photos didn’t tell stories. I now realize they do.
I’d pretend I was one of the bronze sculptures engulfed in Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Nowadays, I wonder what would’ve happened if I knew about d.school before I started my college applications. If I were a Stanford student, I’d probably volunteer at the Cantor Arts Center. Maybe I’d get to design and typeset the museum’s placards.
I didn’t realize how beautiful Stanford’s campus was until I left home. One of my favorite professors had his wedding photos taken in front of the Stanford Memorial Church. A lot of impressive people do—maybe it’s a sign that your life is in order. I wondered what kind of person I’d get to marry. Maybe not another designer. We’d be too critical of each other.
Every couple of weeks, a fellow Los Altos graduate updates their LinkedIn to reflect the software engineering internship they’re starting this month. I like the post and it CSS transitions away from the “Ways to Keep in Touch” queue. I’m surprised. I didn’t know they were going into tech, too.
My Thoughts About the Silicon Valley
The tech industry was always around the Bay Area, but it wasn’t until I left for college when I realized how much had changed. It was normal for my friends’ parents to work in tech, biotech, and tech tech.
If you asked for my opinion of the Silicon Valley, I’d probably tell you that I dislike it. But really, it’s more complicated than that. It’s one level beyond a typical love-hate relationship.
I don’t know what it’s like anymore.
I’m scared that the Bay Area is becoming a leaderboard. I’m scared that I’ve lost the community that supported my personal growth. I’m scared for the Mountain View that will be unable to help the teenagers who are growing up with the same identity problems I had experienced. I’m scared for the Bay Area I loved—the Bay Area that will soon no longer exist.
I can’t come to terms with how the city changed as I grew up.
The last time I was at Red Rock, I witnessed a man bringing his Dell monitor into the cafe. Another person propped his MacBook Pro on top of an aluminum mStand and chained it to his table. Red Rock used to be the hangout for the kids who were slightly cooler than me. That day, it would’ve resembled a coworking space if it weren’t for the barista who recognized me.
The barista was a friend of a Mountain View friend. He played in a band that frequents Red Rock’s open mics. They once played an embarrassing song I wrote with them during Freestyle’s music video unit. I forgot the barista’s name, but he still somehow remembered me. For a moment, I was glad that the Mountain View from my previous life was still brewing coffee.
Check out La Costeña down Middlefield, I told my friend. Eat the Super Burrito with two tortillas if you’re feeling ambitious. They’ll measure their hands one shoulder width apart and ask you if you’re sure. You should also visit La Bamba, which might be closer to the studio apartment you’re staying at this summer.
Did you know that La Costeña and La Bamba used to be right next to each other? I Google Street Viewed the cozy corner they once shared. The two stores in front of that awkward parking lot became a shiny condo that sticks out like an engineer wearing a suit. These local taquerias were twins who always fought with and tattled on each other. I like to imagine—as many siblings do when they grow up—that they now miss each other.
I wonder where I’ll be after I graduate. There’s a chance I’ll come home to the Silicon Valley and work as a product designer in San Francisco. I might stick around Atlanta to watch the BeltLine transform the blossoming city. Alternatively, I could see myself pursuing some kind of interdisciplinary MFA while living beneath my sister’s stoop in Brooklyn. It’s still too early to tell.
Regardless of where I choose to go, my life prospects would be drastically different if Mountain View didn’t encourage me to explore my talents and curiosity. I think about those parallel universes where I didn’t pursue design. I wonder if Red Rock’s still doing well.
If you’re in Mountain View this summer, please take care of her.
Thanks to Chris Altonji, Alejandra Luaces, Hunter Rosenblume, Nikhil Sethi, and Will King for your support and feedback.
I’m a designer, programmer, and poet studying in Atlanta. This essay is part of Midtown Fiction, a collection of works that document my progress in #The100DaysProject. This story is mostly non-fiction. Tweet at me!