The Uncredentialed in Silicon Valley

SETH THOMPSON (M.Arch I, 2020)

In unpacking the mythology of Silicon Valley—fertile land of startups, software, and standing desks—the most enduring archetype seems to be that of the college-dropout self-taught hacker. In certain circles, an active profile on the coding platform GitHub can carry more weight than a degree from a prestigious university. It’s easy to think that deemphasizing the value of traditional credentials might expand access to the technology workforce for people from more diverse backgrounds. But, despite Silicon Valley’s supposed focus on pure meritocracy (or perhaps because of it), the industry remains predominantly white and male.

A recent study conducted by not-for-profit Ascend Foundation found that Black and Latinx representation in Silicon Valley has declined over the past decade.[1] Although Asians are more likely to be employed by tech companies, the study found that they are least likely to be promoted to managerial and leadership positions. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision, women hold 23% of technical roles in Silicon Valley—and according to a report by law firm Fenwick & West LLP, only 11% of executive positions.[2],[3] Although companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon claim to devote substantial resources to leveling the playing field, it’s clear that systemic cultural and structural barriers remain, from misogynistic and inhospitable work environments to bias in hiring processes.

The paradox of seeking raw talent and ending up with a homogeneous community runs even deeper—to the very ethos of the hacker culture that pervades Silicon Valley. To be a hacker is to be not just a good programmer, but one with specific personality traits: usually a degree of irreverence and a fierce sense of independence. Traditionally, hackers pride themselves on their ability to wield total control over computers and the networks and platforms they comprise. This ideology runs counter to a host of government intrusions—from patents and copyrights to financial and workplace regulations–and relies on championing certain American ideals, especially free speech and freedom from surveillance. In this sense, the prototypical hacker is one who holds libertarian political views and a stubborn belief that anyone with coding chops and enough ambition can succeed in life. Unfortunately, such a narrow and reductive conception of success fails to accommodate technologists who don’t fit the preconceived hacker stereotype, face structural discrimination and bias despite their programming ability, or lack interest in labelling themselves hackers in the first place.

The danger of confusing the hacker ethos for a more inclusive set of ideals in the technology industry is most apparent in the school of thought held by Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, the most prestigious Silicon Valley startup accelerator with a portfolio of startups now worth a combined $80 billion. Graham has a history of espousing dangerous generalizations about what has made previous startup founders successful, including statements that startup founders should be under 32, that strong foreign accents are “a really bad indication,” and that women who haven’t been coding since age 10 can’t “look at the world through hacker eyes and start [e.g.] Facebook.”[4],[5],[6] But one need look no further than a 2013 New York Times interview with Graham about Y Combinator’s influence to understand why Silicon Valley is so homogenous despite claiming to be exclusively merit-based:

“I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: ‘How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!’”[7]

Indeed, the makeup of Silicon Valley turns out to be much less a reflection of raw talent and indifference to credentials, and much more a reflection of who venture capitalists feel comfortable throwing their weight behind and which stereotypes the investment community perpetuates as “predictors” of future success.

To the extent that Silicon Valley continues to champion uncredentialed access to the technical workforce, its focus should be on merit-based employment practices, yes, but also on dismantling the ways in which systems of power from seed funding to hackathon competitions support biases, prop up structural racism and sexism, and perpetuate exclusionary ideals about the nature of the true hacker. Ultimately, ensuring a diverse, welcoming community with equal employment opportunities for all will require a willingness to learn more about the plight of the disempowered, an uphill battle in combating workplace discrimination, and comprehensive reform of hiring and promotion practices—all tasks which require expertise, education, and thoughtfulness far beyond the supposed minimal set of self-taught programming skills needed to succeed in Silicon Valley.


[1] Levin, Sam. “Black and Latino representation in Silicon Valley has declined, study shows.” The Guardian. October 03, 2017. Accessed November 28, 2017.

[2] “Diversity in High Tech.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Accessed November 28, 2017.

[3] “Gender Diversity in Silicon Valley.” Fenwick & West LLP. 2004. Accessed November 28, 2017.

[4] Rich, Nathaniel. “Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Start-Up Machine.” The New York Times. May 02, 2013. Accessed November 28, 2017.

[5] Lapowsky, Issie. “Paul Graham on Building Companies for Fast Growth.” Accessed November 28, 2017.

[6] Newcomer, Eric P. “YC’s Paul Graham: The Complete Interview.” The Information. Accessed November 28, 2017.

[7] Rich.