There’s a new flashy phenomenon in the Bay Area: Daring, starry-eyed tech hopefuls flock to the valley, only to publish a scathing Medium article about the perils they’ve unearthed that obliged their departure.
Honorable mentions include the ex-venture capitalist blockchain engineer who divulged the Valley’s “group think issue” and jilted this “predictable place founded on the idea of being unpredictable”, the great Peter Thiel who scurried his funds out of the “monocultural” San Francisco and the Silicon Valley local who bid adieu to her “no longer home” — that is, until this area’s “people care about others and want to work on things that actually improve our world.” Cool.
It seems everywhere I look, people are constantly lacerating the Bay Area. I mean, even I criticized the serial entrepreneur, binary language, ethical void, productivity paradox, underperforming corporate social responsibility, illusory diversity, political abetting, differential privacy, attention economy, noncommittal transportation systems, declining musical integrity and end of analog adolescence enabled by the tech bubble that I live in — it’s my entire column! And while this is a convenient package for an alternate world where I’d publish my own “Why I’m leaving the Silicon Valley” exposé, I start my full-time software engineering job in a couple of months and am absolutely brimming with excitement. Silicon Valley, I’m here to stay, and here’s why.
I grew up with the arts. You could’ve called me DIYvya. On a daily basis, I drew, painted, collaged, photographed, filmed or wrote nonfiction prose, poems, or raps. And while I was fascinated by surrealist art and moved by aesthetics of language, I reveled in the production process — visualizing the execution of an idea, devoting myself to acquiring the technical skills necessary to materialize it, and iterating on my approaches to perfect the craft.
Discovering a similar underlying thread in computer science, I was enamored by the endless ocean of computational techniques to build, test and deploy all kinds of programs. I felt so encouraged to understand the complexity of how things work on a fundamental level, and empowered that I could create anything, anywhere. But slowly realizing that the move-fast-and-break-things paragon contributed to the membrane of solutionism lining the Bay Area bubble, that moving really fast often forewent thoughtful and empathetic engagement, I deviated from the traditional software engineer route in aspiration of seemingly more meaningful work.
Perhaps I’d make more influential product decisions as a product manager. Or shape user behavior through art as a product designer. Or tackle more impactful problems at a nonprofit. But dabbling in these pursuits paled in comparison to the rush of deconstructing large operating system design into modularized pieces of code, materializing design blueprints into functioning interactions, or working through an endless queue of skills I desired to hone next.
So, I came back full circle. Whether it was cleaning a nonprofit’s six-year microfinance data programmatically or developing a brand new automation engine for designers to transform assets at scale, I was invigorated by the array of problems that software’s scalability and extensibility tackled at ease. The more I zoomed in, it appeared that millions, if not billions, of lines of code interfaced with people like you and me every single day, enabling us to achieve what we could only dream of just less than a decade ago, and in half the time.
And while many resign the Bay Area software engineer archetype to an AirPods and Patagonia wearing “tech bro” who only talks about networking, blockchain and quick promotions, I see the role as one that affords the privilege of agency. Daily, I’m inspired by my software engineer friends who are redefining ethics paradigms at their workplaces, teaching computer science after hours in the less limelighted areas of the Bay, contributing to open source projects and aspiring to do so much more than the description of their 9-to-5 job entails. To me, they’ve dispelled the notion that you can only drive positive change in the Valley while working at a near-perfect company that is in complete and utter alignment with you. In them, I see hope.
Such a misconception of inertia, and the attribution of every single issue in the pandemic tech industry to the microcosm of Silicon Valley, is dangerous — it encourages a rant-relocate-refuse to engage cycle and more lightless Medium posts that obscure real strides. And with that, the exhausted Silicon Valley narrative usurps the spotlights of progress in the area.
Access to computer science is arguably more democratized than ever, with the barrier to becoming a software engineer being a few online courses instead of a formal degree program. Tech companies are making leaps in image forensics in identifying fake images, empowering the unbanked sector, aiding developers to make the web more accessible, kickstarting designer careers with cloud-based tools and enabling attribution for creators. They are reducing vehicle downtime with telematics, advancing connectivity to un- and underserved global communities using balloons, and delivering lifesaving medicines via drones. And such companies are led and staffed with thousands of immigrants and American dreamers like my parents, who gambled their livelihoods at a chance of financial prosperity.
If the Silicon Valley were truly dead as “thought leaders” insinuate, I surely wouldn’t be here, writing this. And while tech has expedited and amplified existing prejudices and inequities in society, I don’t think the fight for social justice occurs in isolation. Even when the wave of critics assert that there is no radical reason for optimism and thus are better off exiting than engaging, I think, at the very least, an individual can challenge the silence of an assumed consensus.
The future for me is mostly uncertain. But what I do know is: if I don’t show up, if I don’t continue pursuing what I love and questioning the harborer of both my hopes and dismays, there is no guarantee of change. So for now, I’m here to stay.
Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].