I spent around seven years working in various tech companies in Silicon Valley. I worked in small and large companies, including famous companies such as Yahoo!, Facebook and others. Looking back, I can say without a shadow of doubt that it was a complete waste of time.
I reflected back on this sad and confusing period of my life when a friend forwarded me an article that talked about how Google had introduced some new perk to its employees. I believe it was an on-site Thai massage for your dog or cat. If I’m not mistaking, that’s probably Google’s 2,633rd perk.
The next thought that popped into my mind was the sheer number of naive young men who’re salivating at the mere thought of working for a company like Google. And I immediately felt sorry for these misguided youths. Because I was a misguided youth like that once.
First off, if you’ve never been to Silicon Valley, let me transport you there so you can understand what it’s like. I’ll cut through the bullshit so that you don’t have any illusions. Imagine a piece of flat land. Fill it with concrete so that it resembles an enormous parking lot. Drop a bunch of nondescript, medium-sized grey buildings here and there. Dress up each building with a company logo. Then, drop a bunch of fast food chains such as McDonalds, KFC, Quiznos that serve crappy food laced with chemicals. Welcome to Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley is a barren, grey and depressing piece of land. There are no cities. There’s no civilization. There’s really nothing there. During the day, its population swells when vast armies of engineers arrive, go to their cubicles (or a loud open space), write code, and then go home in the evening. If you’re coming from Europe, or pretty much any other place except America or Canada, you will be underwhelmed. Guaranteed. It’s no surprise that my friends and I joked that Silicon Valley is “the armpit of America.” It’s really that soul-destroying.
But make yourself at home there because this is where you’ll be spending the majority of your waking time, toiling many hours per day. During important product launches, you’ll be working well into the night (sometimes even pulling all nighters).
Of course, there are concentrated population areas that might resemble cities (e.g., Mountain View, Palo Alto, Santa Clara). But these are only cities on paper; calling these areas cities is a an insult to any great world metropolis such as Moscow, São Paolo or Paris. At best, those are little man-made villages with one main street on which you have your typical fast food joints mixed with a couple of half decent restaurants.
(There’s also San Francisco, a nice and picturesque city where I lived for many years. But for one reason or another it has a way of draining you if you live there for a long time. It’s ridiculously expensive and ridiculously politically correct even for many of my leftist friends. For one reason or another, most of the people I know usually spend few years living there and then move somewhere else, either back home or to another city.)
But I’m not going to try to convince why you should never work there based on how it looks from the outside; for, the actual problem runs much deeper than that.
Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to work in Silicon Valley. “The Valley” holds an almost mythical appeal among the young tech-savvy crowd. Not only do they come there from remote corners of America, but they also come from places like Europe, Brazil, India and Australia. Startup and programmer message boards are always full of guys discussing ways of obtaining the coveted work visa in order to move and work there. They come to Silicon Valley for the same reason all kinds of people come to a place like New York: to pursue their dreams and make something of themselves.
Luring The Young And Inexperienced With Promises Of Riches and Greatness
Eventually I realized that, more than anything, Silicon Valley is a symbol and nothing more. Through the use of clever mass psychology, it acts like an enormous sponge, mopping up dreams and aspirations of young people everywhere. These young souls are lured to this mythical land by money, various perks and benefits, but most importantly, by the chance to work on something “great,” “life-changing” and even “world-changing.”
“Come work on our product that’s used by 5 million or 5 billion people worldwide” is usually a popular marketing slogan. And what naive young man wouldn’t want to be part of something big?
Economically speaking, most Silicon Valley companies operate on a well-known scam called the pyramid scheme. The goal is to “growth hack” the company to a level where it has many users—regardless if it ever makes a single cent in profit (who cares about money when you have a bunch of people using the product, right?).
As soon as a product or service attains a certain number of users (not even active users, just users), it provides an illusion of future profitability. It’s like buying thousands of fake Facebook likes, in order to trick visitors and customers into thinking your site or product is much more popular than it really is. It doesn’t even matter that these likes don’t even represent living and breathing humans who adore your product.
Companies with zero revenue cleverly incentivize their employees into working long hours by dangling a carrot in front of them. Apart from working on “life changing products,” that carrot is usually in the form of some paper money: stock options, employee stock purchase plan, etc. Once the army of mechanics (aka programmers) builds the actual product, the company is then taken public, making its founders and their close friends insanely rich.
If the company goes belly up, which happens quite often, founders usually walk off with millions of investor dollars and other bonuses, leaving the employees holding stock options that are worth less than the paper they’re printed on. Such examples were rampant during the last dot com boom and bust. This also happened fairly recently when a couple of well-known companies crashed and burned, and their massive valuations came vanished into thin air.
Many people think there’s another bubble happening right this moment as a result of crazy valuations (a glorified taxi service called Uber is valued at $51B-$75B) that have no basis in reality. I completely agree.
Ripping Off Those Training Wheels
But let’s forget about money for a moment. There are more important things besides money. Things like your time and your life. As you know life is short. Very short. Much shorter than you think. Furthermore, your most productive years are typically your 20s and 30s, a fraction of your entire lifespan. And if you’re someone who wants to do something important with his life, spending those years as a glorified car mechanic isn’t your path to success.
Joel Spolsky, the guy who co-founded Stack Overflow—the biggest Q&A site for programmers—used to run a very popular blog, “Joel on Software.” He’s one of the most authoritative voices on programming and software development. I personally don’t read many blogs, but I judiciously read his because Joel is a very intelligent and articulate guy. If you’re a half decent developer, you’ve probably read his blog too.
One of his articles is called “The Development Abstraction Layer.” It’s a story about a young programmer who decides to start his own software company. Eventually, things don’t work out and the company closes down. Joel says the company failed because the young programmer underestimated what it takes to run a real software business (i.e., it’s much more than just writing code). Of course, as a software company owner, it’s in Joel’s best interest to sell you on the idea that starting your own business is so damn hard that your only option is to work for another software company, much like his own.
(In programmer speak, the abstraction layer is a blueprint or a map from where things are implemented or built. The abstraction layer could be the blueprint for a building; the implementation layer is the actual physical building that got build as a result. Joel goes further and talks about all the things that make a company successful (HR, marketing, sales, support) as product of this implementation layer. When you’re a programmer who’s working for a company, you don’t have to worry about this implementation layer; when you’re starting your company, you have to build all of this out yourself.)
But Joel is wrong here. This is exactly what you don’t want. You want to break down someone else’s “implementation layer.” You want to rip down the walls that are holding you in. You want to do things your way. And you don’t want to listen to guys like Joel who tell you that you need his implementation layer. Not just in terms of programming, but in terms of life in general.
When you’re alone, you must build it all out—you really have no other choice. You’re forced to figure out how to build your own products, how to market them to an audience and how to eventually sell these products. It’s really not that hard, and you don’t even need to make a lot of money to have a comfortable lifestyle around the world.
The point is that you’re testing yourself and learning new things. You’re learning how to create value. You’re learning how to make money. You’re learning how to build your nascent business. You’re building your kingdom, brick by brick. You’re building your empire. And there’s absolutely nothing else out there that cements you as the captain of your destiny than knowing how to make money in your own terms.
Large programmer sweatshops like Silicon Valley inhibit that. They inhibit your growth. They inhibit you from realizing your true potential. They inhibit you working on your terms and traveling/living wherever you want. They’re a cleverly disguised pyramid scheme where the owners/founders get super rich on the backs of young and naive engineers who join companies based on cleverly constructed marketing slogans that promise a chance to “change the world.”
Well, you know what? I’ll be really blunt and direct with you. You’re not going to change jack shit. Nobody cares that you helped write some obtuse peace of functionality in a program like Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, or a web app like Yahoo! Mail. It’s not your goddamn product. You didn’t create it. You don’t own the rights to it. It’s the company’s product. And you’re just a mere employee. A cog in a wheel. Nobody will remember you. All you’re doing is wasting your best years making someone else very, very rich. Unfortunately, by the time you realize this, it’ll be too late.
A World Without Silicon Valley?
After traveling and living around the world (more than 80 countries) for the past seven years, I spent a lot of time thinking whether the world would be better off without places like Silicon Valley. Would my life been more productive and fulfilling if I grew up in a country that didn’t have Silicon Valley? After lots of pondering, I reached the conclusion that, yes, I would’ve definitely been better off. The world as a whole would be better off without such programmer sweatshops.
Living around the world helped me see why. In Eastern Europe, where I’m originally from and where I’m living now, it seems that every other guy is hustling and making money some way or another. Many of these guys are very bright and understand technology (Eastern European software developers are one of the most highly sought-after in the world), so they can easily code and build websites. But because there isn’t a Silicon Valley in Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus or Russia, they’re forced to be creative and build an actual business that actually generates money (even a little) instead of constructing a pyramid scheme only to unload on the unsuspecting masses (i.e., going public, IPO).
Instead of applying for a job at some tech company that gives you a billion benefits (while there are plenty of tech companies here, due to lack of capital investments, nothing here even comes close to Silicon Valley’s might), they build a product, build a website to market that product and learn how to reach out to their customers. Before they know it, they have a small but thriving business selling software or some other products.
These guys go from having specialized skills into ruthless businessmen because they’re forced to learn how the entire process works inside and out. They have no other choice: they must learn the entire process, from front to back, everything from making the product to marketing and sales. They must learn how to feed themselves without a dedicated marketing and sales teams that does it for them.
That’s exactly what happened to my friends back in New York. While I was working in Silicon Valley, my hustler friends in Brooklyn continued to build out their businesses. They didn’t get things right on the first and even second try—who does?—but, through trial and error, they eventually stumbled on things that worked. By the time I left California seven years later and began working on my own stuff from the tropical shores of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they already had a sizable six-figure businesses that were growing rapidly.
It’s All About You
One of my core beliefs is that everyone must become the captain of their destiny. This is what being a Maverick is all about. An integral part of that includes knowing how to make money. “Making money” is a metaphor; it isn’t so much about “making money”; it’s more about learning how to provide value by monetizing what you’re really good at. It’s about being the captain of your destiny. It’s about taking your skills and turning them into a well-oiled enterprise. Everyone must cultivate their inner entrepreneur—even if you don’t even have an inner entrepreneur and don’t consider yourself as a business person. (I’m far from a business guy, but because I need to feed myself, I run several online businesses).
It’s the fundamental skill that keeps on giving. This is what gives you freedom and allows all your dreams to come true. When you’re writing some code in some dark cubicle, you’re not cultivating any important skills. None whatsoever.
When I look back at my years of working there, I ask myself, what did I really learn? Sure, I became a better programmer. No doubt about it. I learned a couple of new languages. I learned a couple of cool frameworks. I became friends with other geeks (who are conspicuously absent from my life now). I learned how to design better software with less bugs. I learned how to use a debugger. But so what? Who cares about all that? All I learned was how to use tools that someone else built. I became a glorified mechanic and nothing else.
None of these are real world skills. None of them are. These skills don’t scale. These aren’t skills that contribute to my freedom in any way. If I were suddenly airdropped on some uninhabited island or even in the middle of Mexico or Brazil, how would these skills help me in any way? How would these skills let me live a better life? The answer: they would not help in any way whatsoever. They only have value as a component of a well-owned machine.
For seven years, I lived in a permanent bubble. I was surrounded by people whose minds were occupied 24 hours a day by some new app they were designing or building, or gossip about certain “hot” company going public. This bubble burst as soon as I moved to South America and began meeting guys who built very successful and profitable businesses using nothing but their creativity and determination. Before I left America, I had no idea such guys even existed.
These guys weren’t paper millionaires or billionaires. These guys weren’t running an elaborate pyramid scheme. And, guess what, they were also successful in other areas of lives. They had it all figured it out because they took the time to figure it out.
Can I say that those seven years were a complete waste of time. Absolutely. Without a shadow of a single doubt. Abso-fucking-lutely! If that isn’t a definition of a waste of time, I don’t know what is.
Of course, it’s not easy to do your own thing because there are no rules. There are no instruction manuals. Each of us has to leverage what we’ve got. It’s much easier to choose the path of least resistance and join an army of similarly-minded people who are already doing the kind of work you’re doing. It’s much easier to join an army than to make your own army, even if it’s a 1-person army that just includes you. It’s much easier to join the mass than to independently carve your own path.
In this sense, my biggest coup was moving as far from Silicon Valley as possible. After I left America, working for a tech company was no longer an option (there are tech companies outside America, but as a non-citizen you need to navigate lots of bureaucratic tape to get a job). This forced me to become creative and learn how to build my own things. The other option was to move back with my mother and get a job—not much of an option, at least not for me.
To reach greatness, you must make your life temporarily difficult. Like the Spanish conquistadors who arrived to the New World, you must burn all your boats. You must eradicate all paths that will make your life easier. You must destroy the “implementation” that someone else built. You must rip off and throw away those training wheels. There’s no other choice.
Because instead of spending your precious life wasting away in some nondescript, soul-sucking environment, you want to be sitting in a cafe in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or sitting on a beach in Bali, Indonesia, or working in a co-working space in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or, like me, sitting in a nice studio apartment in the center of Kiev, Ukraine. Or maybe, instead of living a nomadic lifestyle, you want to permanently live in a new country. Such freedom isn’t free; it comes with a price. And that freedom will not be found in an enormous concrete parking lot that someone, long ago, christened, “The Valley”
As one very enlightened person once said, “You’re either building your own dream or helping someone else build theirs.” Spend your time wisely.