Digital Life: Tech’s egalitarian bro culture

Travis Kalanick, co-founder and ousted chief executive officer of Uber Technologies, has come to exemplify some of the worst aspects of Silicon Valley’s corporate culture.
Travis Kalanick, co-founder and ousted chief executive officer of Uber Technologies, has come to exemplify some of the worst aspects of Silicon Valley’s corporate culture. Bloomberg file photo

Writing about Silicon Valley and Intel Founder Robert Noyce in a 1983 piece for Esquire, Tom Wolfe described a refreshing new chapter in the history of corporate America.

He found California unleashed from traditions that weighed down companies anchored in Manhattan finance or Rust Belt manufacturing. It was as egalitarian as it was innovative. In fact, Wolfe argued, its democratic ways made it inventive.

Gone were the corporate trappings of automakers in Detroit and of the money people in New York, the “kings and lords.” Their offices had “carved paneling, fake fireplaces, escritoires, bergères, leather-bound books, and dressing rooms, like a suite in a baronial manor house.”

He noticed that there “were no executive lunches at Intel. Back East, in New York, executives treated lunch as a daily feast of the nobility (at the expense account) restaurants of Manhattan.”

Silicon Valley had replaced obsession for organizational charts with reverence for a company’s culture.

“This wasn’t a corporation … it was a congregation. … There were sermons and homilies” where every culture was explored like the Gospels at Bible study.

Culture, indeed.

Like Uber and its founder-and-just-ousted-CEO Travis Kalanick. This is the guy who liked to talk about how running “Boob-er” boosted his prospects with women. The company mishandled a woman’s medical files after she’d been raped by an Uber driver in India. A video caught Kalanick acting the part of privileged lout toward an Uber driver.

Then in a damning blog post earlier this year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler detailed how the company seemed to cover for a manager with a history of propositioning women who worked for him.

It was the latest symptom of Silicon Valley that, by its own estimation, can be the land of the bros. In an industry where billionaire status can arrive not long after puberty, is it any wonder that the boss’ fortunes and power outruns maturity?

Combine enough man-children with enough money and success, you’re bound to have bosses who judge women for their hook-up potential rather than their coding chops.

Wolfe did not warn us about this side of the start-up world. But he was prescient in other ways. Wolfe also contended, those decades ago, that the superior work ethic of engineers who’d gravitated to Silicon Valley from humble places in the country’s midsection drove the industry. Condescending stereotypes about hard-working Midwesterners aside, the expectation of long hours is part of the tech industry’s DNA.

At Kansas City-based Cerner, where the payroll is filled with “associates” rather than mere employees, CEO Neal Patterson years ago complained in a memo that “the parking lot is sparsely used at 8 a.m.; likewise at 5 p.m.”

It’s the sort of sensibility that inspired novels like “Microserfs” when the center of the tech universe gravitated toward Redmond, Wash., and the latest version of Windows, or “The Circle” that portrayed a mash-up of Google and Facebook. The books, published almost two decades apart, spoke to a sense of that corporate culture bordered on cult.

Those same companies — places like Google, Facebook, Cerner — offer generous benefit packages to even entry level employees. Garmin and Cerner score high on various surveys as among the best places to work. So do Google and Facebook.

Partly because they compete for the brightest young minds, tech companies they strive in ways that General Motors or IBM never did to share the perks with everybody in the organization.

In the end, Wolfe spotted one thing early and missed another.

The tech biz can simultaneously be both more democratic, and more crude.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon