The illustration says it best, saving at least a thousand words. It shows a middle-aged khaki-clad engineer talking with a hoodie and jeans 20-something colleague. “When will you make something that matters?” asks the elder. “When will you make something cool?” responds the youth.
That sums up what The New York Times Magazine calls “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem,” in which infrastructure companies can’t attract the best talent because young people want to be where the cool – and the money – is. Thus, working to build a sexting app has become far more glamorous than working at the networking or security companies that make the app possible.
“In pursuing the latest and the coolest,” writes author Yiren Lu, “young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests.”
Without a good router to provide reliable Wi-Fi, your Dropbox file-sharing application is not going to sync; without Nvidia’s graphics processing unit, your BuzzFeed GIF is not going to make anyone laugh. The talent — and there’s a ton of it — flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more Web apps.
Some – including me – will say this sad state of affairs has been brought on by the riches that can be quickly earned if a VC-backed startup goes viral. This isn’t just a case of “follow the cool” but also “follow the money,” wherever that money happens to be going.
Long before Google, Eric Schmidt got rich helping build Sun Microsystems and trying to save Novell, both companies that developed critical infrastructure technologies that we still use today. Google will likely leave a similar legacy.
But what about Zynga? Or SnapChat, Instagram or WhatsApp? All companies that seem important today, but will scarcely leave a mark two decades from now. Those businesses made lots of 20-somethings rich and drove up housing prices in San Francisco.
Lu blames the problem on the consumerization of tech, led by Facebook and Google, which made their fortunes turning technology into consumer products. That’s created “a deep rift between old and new, hardware and software, enterprise companies that sell to other businesses and consumer companies that sell directly to the masses,” Lu writes.
Still, isn’t this just the “creative destruction” that tech money people like to describe, where the new rolls over the old? As technology and the companies that create it get older, the big money opportunity goes away, and star talent lands elsewhere.
In part, this explains the acquisitions being made by Yahoo, Facebook and others intending to bring the newest technology in-house to become part of their aging consumer applications.
Less apparent are the startups being acquired or funded by the HPs, Microsofts and Oracles of the world. Of course, their funding seems like small change when it’s compared to a Facebook acquisition. Yet, those may point the way to a future in which the values of consumer computing — such as ease-of-use, simplicity and low cost — merge with those of the big enterprise and infrastructure companies.
“There is no doubt that young talent will keep flocking to the valley,” Lu writes. “Some of us will continue to make the Web products that have generated such vast wealth and changed the way we think, interact, protest. But hopefully, others among us will go to work on tech’s infrastructure, bringing the spirit of the new guard into the old.”
Lu, herself a graduate computer science student, doesn’t disclose what her career path will be except to say she’s interested in working for one of the next-generation infrastructure startups she mentions in her story.
It will be interested in seeing how many of her friends will be willing to follow.