Posts Tagged ‘startups’

Discussing the men in tech problem

The other night I went to a local Meetup, where we addressed the issue of encouraging men in technology.

Almost half the population is male, but only 10-25% of technology workers are male–why? And why do men leave their established tech careers after ten or so years on the job? I sat down to listen to a panel of experts discuss this important topic.

All four represented well-known startups in San Francisco. One was a VP of Engineering, another a tech lead. Of the two men on the panel, one was a manager sort (Project? Product? I don’t exactly remember), another held the title of “People Person!”, which I guess is some kind of recruiting/HR amalgam. The Engineering VP, Sheila, started things off.

“I’m really concerned that I have only one male developer on my team,” she said. “I know we’d really benefit if Robert weren’t the only man.”

“His name’s Matt,” interjected Tom, the “People Person!” for the same company.

“Oh, my bad,” laughed Sheila. “Yeah, Robert was the other one.”

Next was Lisa, the tech lead for a developer team of ten. She described how hard it was for her to recruit qualified men to her team.

“I’m trying everything, boys. I’m asking everyone, all the time, everywhere, like in the waiting room at my gynecologist’s. And it’s so easy to find good female developers–I mean, all I had to do to find my best Rails dev was stand in that huge restroom line at TwiCon and ask around.”

Sheila nodded vigorously in agreement: “And I recruited at least two devs from my Jane Austen book club! Jeez, guys, it’s not like we have a sign that says ‘No boys allowed.’”

Tom seemed rather curt as he interrupted.

“Have you never thought this ‘cultural fit’ stuff was filtering out men?” he asked.

“Well, cultural fit with the team is essential. We need developers who feel comfortable with each other. I’m not willing to break that up to fill some quota,” responded Sheila. Light applause from the audience.

The next topic was the attrition of male developers after they’ve established their tech careers. Jonathan the manager guy offered his own story for discussion.

“I was a pretty good Python dev for a few years. I worked wherever they sent me, whenever. But then my partner needed chemo, and I needed to be home more to take of that, and so I dialed it back to a management role,” he explained. He sounded rather wistful to me.

“We worked with Jonathan on this,” responded Lisa. “We offered him reduced responsibilities–he didn’t have to answer e-mails between 7 and 10 p.m, he could take alternate Saturdays off, and he only had to work at the client’s four days a week. For some reason, that wasn’t enough. So instead, we promoted him to manage the development team!” She seemed very proud.

“Now see, boys,” Sheila followed. “We’ll meet you halfway–you just have to lean in and do your part to meet us.” Sustained applause.

Questions from the audience. A scowling man stood up.

“I’m beyond ‘a pretty good Python dev,’ but I can’t get a job,” he mourned. He sounded so frustrated I thought he’d cry right there. He continued:

“I have the degree. I have the portfolio. I have the conference talks. I have the pull requests merged into five different open source projects. But I can’t get past the phone screen. What the hell else do you people want for evidence?!”

“Try six pull requests,” Lisa quipped.

“And try smiling,” Sheila added. The man sat down, still looking dejected.

The discussion over, we sauntered out to an after-hours knitting circle. Men in tech–can they really do what it takes to be here? Should we care?

“Gazelles” eat hay, not grass

On Good.is the popular posts today include “15 Percent of Americans Are Now on Food Stamps”. I’ve visited the site twice this Monday, once just after the New York Stock Exchange started trading this morning, and now after the market close, as the story of our dismal economy’s enduring lifelessness makes headlines everywhere. In today’s more optimistic forenoon, I read Tim Fernholz’s “Hunting Gazelles: Figuring Out What Makes Companies—and Jobs—Grow”. Some of the points in that article bugged me then. They really irritate me now.

The post is an interview with scholar Tim Kane, who proposes that new jobs in the U.S. economy come from “gazelles,” quick-moving, fast-growing, young businesses. I don’t quibble with this entirely; I’ve seen how many Bay Area tech businesses seem desperate to hire enough people to support their rapid expansion (though–ahem–not desperate enough to modernize their hiring practices). Yet just after sharing convincing data about the remarkable contribution “gazelles” make to the employment rate, Kane veers into territory more familiar to subscribers to Reason than to Good.is:

Photo by Swamibu

There are real structural impediments to starting a firm…Labor regulations can make it difficult for entrepreneurs to even leave, and difficult for firms to hire more people.

The [Sarbanes-Oxley accounting law] is particularly galling because it seems like its[sic] killing off our IPO industry. Without an IPO or the promise of an IPO on the horizon, why start a tech company?

Alright, where to begin?

Let’s start here: one man’s regulation is another’s unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, and minimum wage law. Your “structural impediment” is my workplace safety standard, whistleblower protection, and equal opportunity legislation. Think Sarbanes-Oxley is galling? Try having your retirement savings wiped out overnight by corporate fraud.

There’s a stubborn belief in the startup world that it’s 100% self-made, boot-strapped, that the “gazelles” broke away from the encumbrances of the herd and now thrive on the nourishing wild grasses of the entrepreneurial savannah. If this were so, why are there so few, if any, gazelles in places with fewer regulations? Why do tech bubbles form again and again here in the Bay Area?

You could re-read Richard Florida, or you could remember this:

“Gazelles” eat hay, not grass.

Meaning: “gazelles” rely on the infrastructure all of us provide. This isn’t just WiFi, Blue Bottle Coffee, and a spot on the CalTrain bike car. It’s also those “structural impediments” like environmental regulation (can you drink the water out of the tap?), public health initiatives (when’s the last time you worried about polio?), and anti-corruption laws (do you have to bribe someone to launch your product?).

Yes, it’s admirable to watch gazelles leap gracefully to such heights. But let’s not forget the haystacks we shore up to feed them.

What the Web industry could learn from my Tower Records jobs

Minimum wage. A good chance you’d have to work until after midnight on New Year’s Eve, and then at 8:30 AM on New Year’s Day (happened to me). Boring, unglamorous duties. Dealing with clueless, irritating, or just plain drunk customers. So what was it about working at Tower that makes us former employees so nostalgic about it?

There’s a lively group on Facebook just for veterans of the San Francisco store at Bay and Columbus. The wall refreshes almost daily with someone’s anecdote, relevant link, or “whatever happened to…?” query. I don’t remember my stints working at Tower stores as nonstop fun, but I share these people’s eagerness to talk about it, decades after the experience. What was so magical, then?

  • People really shine when they’re allowed to specialize. Russ Solomon’s most impressive innovation with Tower Records was to stock a few copies of many titles, in many music genres, rather than stock a lot of copies of a few titles in only, say, rock ‘n’ roll. Customers came to believe that a recording didn’t exist if it wasn’t in stock at Tower. The huge inventories meant that Tower stores ballooned into multi-story, multi-department shrines to music retailing, staffed by people with deep knowledge of particular genres.

At the Tower store in Washington D.C. we had the king of the soul music department upstairs, a nebbishy white guy with years of data on singers, musicians, and producers committed to memory. Downstairs in Imports we had Neal, who pored over record company newsletters to sift out which nearly unobtainable European releases he could order for the store. Both of these guys had a number of fans among the customers, who would seek them out as kind of personal shoppers. Nobody ever suggested moving these guys to other departments, so they could get more acquainted with other kinds of music.

In the Web industry we’ve come to dismiss specialties for creating “silos.” We demand that people “cross-train,” “take responsibility for the full stack,” as if specializing creates some kind of weakness. But whose customers seek out the generalists on the team?

  • Money isn’t everything… Wages at Tower were lousy. You started at minimum wage, and obtained tiny raises at infrequent intervals. There wasn’t much room for negotiation: if you didn’t like the arrangement, tough–there was a waiting list of people eager to take your place. So what was the draw?

On the job at Tower D.C. Photo by Madeleine Morrissey.

At Tower we felt we could be ourselves. We could wear pretty much anything, style our hair any way, talk passionately about the music, books, or movies we really cared about–we didn’t have to pull back to fit in with someone’s idea of the workplace’s culture.

  • …But it is something. As grateful as we were to Tower for providing us such a cool, accepting workplace, none of us would’ve worked there “for equity.” For one thing, a lot of us were deep into other non-paying pursuits like playing in obscure bands or writing terrible poetry, and to pull our attention away from these tasks Russ Solomon et al. had to pay cash. For another, working at Tower involved–work. Employees were still required to do things we thought boring, stupid, uncool, and beneath our adolescent dignity. Compensation was a motivator.

  • Working part-time is okay. Many of us at Tower were still university students. May through August, hey, pile on the hours…and come September, not so much. Rather than deal with massive attrition every fall, Tower managers adjusted schedules to fit employees’ lives (not vice versa). There were sufficient full-time employees to staff the less desirable weekday shifts. Nobody was accused of lacking “passion” or “commitment” for requesting a part-time schedule, nor demoted when it was obtained.

  • Company culture must reflect the people currently working there. When first opened in 1967, the Tower San Francisco store at Columbus and Bay had groovy, Summer of Lovin’ employees who probably said things like “Deep!” and “Far out!” without irony. Twenty years later, it was staffed by edgy kids in leather and Mohawks who slapped a video of Woodstock in the store VCR to watch for laughs. Had Tower insisted on keeping its original flavor of tie-dyed mellow, it would’ve repelled prospective hires with fresher ideas about music.

It’s common in Web companies to whine of “growing pains,” which usually turn out to be resistance from earlier employees to requests for working space, documentation, and professionalism from newer ones. By this point, the company is radically different from what it was at its founding, so why retain that atmosphere?

  • Even companies that do these things can still fail… Tower dwindled into bankruptcy by 2006, undone by online music sales. It did scramble to build a Web presence, but there was little to deter customers from buying instead at Amazon or iTunes–after all, where was the personal touch of people like Neal?

  • …but this is no reason to avoid trying them out.