Michael O. Church: Hazards of Silicon Valley

Michael O. Church is a software engineer, blogger, and frequent poster on Quora. He writes about the pernicious, hidden attitudes and patterns hiding under the surface of Silicon Valley.

“As an industry, we don’t focus on the right things. We can do a whole lot better in terms of the companies we can create, the products we build. There’s a low quality of what’s being done. There are a lot of rich douchebags getting funded.”

Everyone agrees there are problems in Silicon Valley. There are problems in any culture. But what causes Michael O. Church to be so vocal?

“When I was seventeen I wanted to be a writer.  I studied Math because it was much more employable, but I’ve always had that inclination to write. As for the vocality, I’ve seen some really good people out there, but I’ve also seen some severe injustices.”

Michael argues that “we have this epidemic of criminally underqualified, well-connected individuals getting funded and acquired. In this frothy state, tech seems to be all about distractions.” Examples of distraction companies might include a new way to share photos, a new ad-tech company.

My counterargument to this was–if you are a twenty-something who wants to build a product, and your choices are to either go to Google and be the fifty thousandth engineer, or to go build a “distraction” company, the latter choice is of far greater value for the marketplace as a whole.

A distraction company may be trivial in what it provides to the marketplace. But it serves as a powerful set of lessons to the people who build it.

Michael responded, “The issue I have is not the existence of trivialities; that’s part of the experimentation process. My issue is more with the press and the venture capitalists. The adult supervision.”

“It’s not typical that a 22 year old gets funded, but if you act like Evan Spiegel does, you should not be running a company. This is a guy who represents a certain type of privileged, arrogant personality that I think just has to go.”

“Steve Jobs was a great businessman, but if you look at his cultural effects they were negative. The problem with Silicon Valley right now is that it celebrates the asshole. They are being held up as the type of person that we should aspire to.”

There is a dystopian color to Michael O. Church’s posts about technology culture. I asked him if his skew is a product of an unusually high number of negative personal experiences.

“We all pay attention to what we learn about, and through the blog posts that I write, I hear a lot more stories that are similar to my negative experiences. My actual attitude is not anger or hatred–it’s more disappointment. But I’m actually quite a happy guy.”

His writing is sometimes so fervently negative, he seems like a caricature of someone in Silicon Valley, rather than a real human. I mean this as a complimentary nod to his writing style.

He is creative and more self-aware than an occasional reader might presume.

I asked if it was a fair assessment that he errs on the side of being extreme when he is writing about something that upsets him.

“I would not use the word extreme, I would use the word impassioned. I’ll take a moderate stance but with a lot of force behind it.

“I feel like my generation needs to wake up. Right now, the people who are held up as wunderkinds, or on 30 under 30 lists, those people were produced by the baby boomers who we need to kick out.”

Some of Michael’s best writing is a recent piece on what he calls software politics. Anyone who has worked in a big technology company can identify with some of his assertions.

“In many companies, it’s not the best people who get the best projects. It’s the politically-enabled people. Software politics is all of the nonsense that has nothing to do with writing great code, solving problems, and building things. And there’s a lot of it.”

“If you are 22 years old right now, and you think software engineering is a low politics zone, you are going to be disappointed.”

One dimension of software politics is a distinction between two tracks: the managerial track and the principal engineer track. Both positions designate a higher pay grade and more responsibility.

Michael argues that it is much easier to become a manager than a principal engineer, which perversely leads engineers towards a managerial track.

“Companies need managers. There are managers out there that add a lot. But that’s not the selection process. I don’t think the ladder climbing proves anything other than that they are good at playing politics. Some people know how to play politics, and they are good managers, but I don’t see a correlation.”

Game design was our final topic of conversation. Michael designed a game called Ambition, which exemplifies some of his beliefs about the trade-offs between luck, skill, and fun.

“Card games are interesting in relation to the current trend in board games.” Influenced by the German style of board games, there has been decreased impact of luck within games.

“Monopoly was actually designed to be painful. The original game was called ‘The Landlord’s Game’. There’s a huge amount of luck. Relative to that, card games are hard because shuffling inherently injects a random variable into the game. But that’s OK”

“I engineered out the card luck, and I actually measured it. I’ve run simulations, and I found that about 3% of the variation comes from the luck of the cards. So I added some luck back into the game and it became more fun.”

“If you have a If you take out all the luck, you end up with a very dry game.

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