Off the beat: The real tech bubble

The office is a cool 65 degrees year round, unless you feel a little cold or a bit hot, and then a help desk employee fiddles the knobs for your desk’s personal climate. There are snacks on four floors. The 29th floor has the best coffee, the sixth is full of people, the second has catered meals every Wednesday, and I never made it to the 17th.

I had a desk in a row of desks, and mine was closest to the window. On the first day, I apologized in advance to the older Indian man next to me for the mounds of pictures I was going to take of the view.

Everyone at the office had two screens. It was rumored that the funds for throwing research and development parties had dried up the same year as the screen real-estate doubling.

On the first day, I chatted with my whole team, which was composed of 12 people. On the second, I talked to three. By the third day, I was exchanging a hello with my neighbor and two or three conversations a day with my manager. The rest of the day was spent coding — yes — the coding. I was building something real out of words and numbers on the screen, armed with a tool bag of knowledge picked up over the last two years.

It was everything I’d learned in school, and now it was a life. My fellow interns talked about their coding problems after work, they praised or derided articles they’d read on Techcrunch as they walked to lunch, and they leaned over their cups of coffee to share a startup idea.

The first week on the job, I did my best to ignore feelings of estrangement from the lifestyle. I was, after all, living the dream. The hottest topic of the last year among my computer science friends, besides machine learning, had been internships. Flyers advertised internship fairs above campus urinals. Startup recruiters pitched their ideas on UC Berkeley computer science Facebook groups. My group of friends and I discussed coding challenges and whether to dress nicely for a Skype interview. But we often came back to the money.

When someone else received an offer, my first reaction was often an eyebrow raise, a head tilt and the question. With an internship offer from one of the companies to which we applied, we felt set for life. As interns, we were making 60 percent more per month than the average American. One internship would guarantee another and, after that, a long and prosperous career in the industry. And it’s not like software development is a joyless, mechanical job. It’s immensely satisfying to see an idea you thought up in the shower take shape in one caffeine-fueled night of typing.

I went to a party near the end of my hardest semester and saw a friend of mine from freshman year. She smiled, and I managed a weak smile back. After a couple of exchanged words, I shrugged weakly and admitted that I was “out.”

“Out of what?” she asked.

“Of conversation. All I can talk about is computer science.”

“That’s no good.”

I sort of swelled with pride. “Oh, you know, I think it’s worth it,” I said. “I’m learning a lot.”

“Sounds like it,” she replied, and excused herself for another drink.

I always felt proud to have kept away from the humanities. My first two years at UC Berkeley, I took 13 math and science courses and two liberal arts courses, one of which was a history requirement I chose for its time slot.

As I settled down into the working world this past June, however — a cup of coffee and a sheet of business requirements framing my keyboard — I started to wonder what exactly was so desirable about making money while writing code for a company. Why did I write off studying literature, political science or history in college? I liked reading, writing, discussing the news, thinking about the world. What was I doing, throwing all of my college energy into a mad dash to a desk job?

For me, the revolution of software development — that a team of teenagers in a basement can upset century-old reliance on industries and professions — mistakenly, unconsciously spilled into the fields of human thought and experience.

I felt like I was part of the revolutionary solution to so many thousands of years of human existence. With the new speed and equality and openness of computing, it’s hard not to think that we’ve passed some milestone in humanity. That’s what Silicon Valley advertises, what’s behind someone like Peter Thiel’s fellowship that pays 20 students $100,000 to drop out of college and code.

But work as it might to solve the practical problems of our lives, large or small, the world of tech has no answers to the really big questions.

Yes, the humanities won’t send you running into the basement of the computer science building with quite the same intensity as a data structures project. Learning and understanding what other humans have loved and hated and dreamed about for thousands of years is a different kind of challenge — one that changes you in a way that a hundred projects and a thousand problem sets can never do. I learned more about myself from a poetry class here than I did about the poets.

You can convince yourself that because you work so hard, because the field and the jobs are so popular and desirable, because of the good that so many of these companies do, that it’s OK to turn away from much of the world in college. But, like I did, you may find yourself waking up and wondering whether it’s all really enough.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the semester’s regular opinion writers begin.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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