Suppose you’re trying to be a Silicon Valley bigshot.
You’ve secured VC funding; you’ve had some early successes; and you increasingly are being called upon as a public face of your company. The one thing you haven’t figured out yet? How to represent yourself in public — and that includes how to dress.
Victoria Hitchcock, a super-high-end personal style consultant to Silicon Valley bigshots and would-be bigshots, knows the type. You are, in fact, her most common type of client; and if you’re looking for a shortcut into how those who wield power in Silicon Valley are trying to represent themselves to the general public and each other, she’s the first person to ask.
So, what’s her number-one goal for her clients? It’s rather straightforward:
Even now, that’s the desired message SV would-be wunderkinds aim to communicate. Even after Cambridge Analytica, after the various social media-fueled genocides, after the endless array of privacy and data scandals: We want to look like we don’t care.
Which makes sense. Caring is grown up. And the entire myth of Silicon Valley has, since at least the 70s, been built around the idea of decidedly not being grown up.
Kate Losse, one of the first 100 employees at Facebook, pointedly entitled a memoir of her time there The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network. Losse has talked at length about the ways “Silicon Valley fetishizes a particular type of engineer — young, male, awkward, unattached,” suggesting that “this fetish is so normalized in startup culture that it often goes unseen for what it is: the specific, narrow fantasy of venture capitalists, deployed to focus their investment and attention.”
In a particularly disturbing example of this dynamic, Losse notes that Y Combinator co-founder and Venture Capital icon Paul Graham once told a New York Times reporter that he “could be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.”
That is to say, in that era of a fresh-out-of-college Zuck:
The embodiment of the largely mythical garage-residing, caffeine-intaking, polyphasic-sleeping coder-turned-entrepreneur who can only flourish outside the strictures of a stale corporate America with its attendant bureaucracies, showing up to an IPO launch that the entire global business world is watching in, yes, a hoodie.
Take away any of those above four traits — young, white, male, hoodied — and the myth of the precocious, rule-breaking (but charmingly so!) ingenue tech CEO risks disappearing with it.
Not white? There are too many heartbreaking stories to begin to share here of young men of color being termed ‘suspicious’ for simply going outside in a hoodie — sometimes even, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, as a prologue to being killed. (Martin’s death took place just a few months before Zuckerberg showed up to Wall Street in a hoodie and was called “quirky” for it.) It’s no mistake that one of the most prominent organizations to work under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter is the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice.
Not male? Women and those with a female gender presentation quickly find out in Silicon Valley that the dress code and norms they’re expected to follow differ quite a bit from that of the hoodie-sporting founder.
Not hoodied? You’ll look like you care too much.
The fear of appearing to care too much is based on a long-held and entrancing myth: the idea that someone merely tinkering in their garage, a hoodie-clad disruptor, could topple entire industries and remake hierarchies. (While Hitchcock says she’s getting fewer hoodie requests recently, it’s still a common trope in the valley.) It’s how Silicon Valley’s foremost still prefer to think of themselves.
After all, if you’re an underdog, you have less power than the big bad authority figures trying to hem you in. And you can always hear the invisible audience clapping for your bravery in taking them on.
Today though, with governments and internal reformers alike either struggling to set rules or being overpowered by tech lobbyist money, the idea of tech as the realm of the underdogs now reads as deeply hollow and anachronistic — a relic of a bygone naivete, before the fall. As legendary computer scientist Jaron Lanier recently said:
To me, one of the patterns we see that makes the world go wrong is when somebody acts as if they aren’t powerful when they actually are powerful. So if you’re still reacting against whatever you used to struggle for, but actually you’re in control, then you end up creating great damage in the world.
We used to be kind of rebels, like, if you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything. We are the conduit of everything else happening in the world. We’ve disrupted absolutely everything. Politics, finance, education, media, relationships — family relationships, romantic relationships — we’ve put ourselves in the middle of everything, we’ve absolutely won.
But we don’t act like it.
Silicon Valley needs to accept the power it has, instead of running away into comforting myths of itself as the underdog that none of the stodgy old bureaucrats could ever really understand.
In other words, it needs to grow up.
“Growing up” is another way to say “ achieving maturity” — and maturity is about acknowledging and accounting for your own power.
It has little to do with how old you are. Truly. Many of the most prominent tech CEOs of any age could learn quite a bit about maturity from the age-diverse people I see organizing with tech worker groups like Tech Workers Coalition and Demand Progress.
It’s also about shifting from me to we. A child — of any age — believes themselves to be the center of the universe, someone whose momentary whims and desires are foremost. A grown-up — of any age — realizes the responsibilities they share, and the responsibilities they are owed.
Growing up does not mean growing old. Or being antiquated. Or being boring. Or being afraid to pursue big changes, or major innovations. It means thinking about the people you’re impacting, it means longer-term thinking, it means considering the impact of choices, and it means understanding that actions have consequences (be they positive or negative).
It’s long past time to put away “childish things” — and the most childish thing of all is not acknowledging your own messes.
It’s childish to refuse to share your toys in the sandbox — but relatively harmless. But when the same childish impulse results in defending “move fast and break thing” in the midst of a social-media-fueled genocide in Myanmar, there’s nothing cute about it. It’s terrifying.
As it is, when, as described by veteran tech journalist Dan Lyons, tech companies create elaborate “graduation” ceremonies for the workers they fire all while providing free snacks but no childcare.
Or when billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel spends $10 Million like it’s nothing so as to shutter a news publication he doesn’t like.
Or spending vast fortunes on advertising home devices without telling us that humans are eavesdropping on the other end; or casually disrupting whole industries that tens of millions of workers rely on without much of a second thought; or going full-throttle ahead on advertising social networks to teens despite the rumblings of a possible mental health crisis.
That’s a real, machine-gun-in-the-hand-of-a-toddler, terrifying negligence, being fueled by a willful refusal to stop acting like a child. Only growing up can change it.
And that’s a hard thing to do. Perhaps harder now than it’s been in a long time, living as we are in a time when, adrift in growing wealth inequality and massive personal debt obligations, people well into middle-age are now struggling to meet the standards that in a more economically secure, less precarity-ridden age were taken for granted. (It’s no coincidence that Buzzfeed has bet its business’ future on being the home of advice for those wishing to ‘adult’ better.)
But we have to do it.
And there’s a way to do it.
You could devote a whole article to even beginning to sketch out what that might look like — and I have — but here’s the short version:
Professionalization is the step-by-step process by which a trade or vocation — a wild west comprised of freelance practitioners — becomes a profession, with universal enforceable standards and norms. It happens all the time. It just hasn’t happened in tech yet.
You start with a trade that has no universal standards, no ability to eject someone from its ranks, no formalized set of knowledge. (Think of a wild-eyed unqualified ‘doctor’ in an old western, setting up shop because there are no other medical facilities for hundreds of miles.) Slowly, new institutions are built to ensure the public’s safety and control their industry’s quality; Hippocratic oaths are developed. Norms are created, standards are formulated, and universal expectations are set. Practitioners go from reviled rogue operators in an anything-goes setting to bonafide pros — esteemed, expert accountable professionals. If you don’t meet their standards, you can be disqualified. You can be shut out by your peers.
In other words, you’re forced to take accountability.
You’re forced to grow up. That’s professionalization.
If you talked Professionalization to tech boosters even just 5 years ago, they would have repeated that meme of the hoodie-wearing founder right back at you. The bloom has come off that rose. They know it’s not such an attractive picture anymore.
Let’s rededicate ourselves to changing the picture.
You can keep the hoodie itself, if you really want to. (I have one I wear sometimes.) But let’s burn everything the hoodie symbolized. Let’s realize none of us are infallible — and we all could use help keeping ourselves in check as we navigate this transition in social technology’s development.
Let’s let go of childish things.
Let’s grow up.