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In the Land of Giants

T he trees are so big that it would be cowardly not to deal with their bigness head on. They are very, very big. You already knew this — they’re called “giant sequoias” — and I knew it, too. But in person, their bigness still feels unexpected, revelatory. And the delirium of their size is enhanced by their age, by the knowledge that some of the oldest sequoias predate our best tools for processing and communicating phenomena like sequoias, that the trees are older than the English language and most of the world’s major religions — older by centuries, easily, even millenniums. The physical appearance of a tree cannot be deafening, and yet with these trees, it is. Facing down a sequoia, the most grammatically scrambled thoughts wind up feeling right. Really, there’s only so much a person can do or say. Often I found myself expelling a quivering, involuntary Whoa.

The first time that happened, I was driving into Sequoia National Park from the foothills of central California’s Sierra Nevada, south of Yosemite. Suddenly, the Four Guardsmen came into view: a tight quartet of elephantine sequoia trunks through which the road passes. The trees have tops, too — those trunks lead to crowns — but that’s immaterial; the trunks are all you have a hope of registering from inside your car. They fill the windows and function as a gateway. They were like living infrastructure, rising out of the snow.

The rental-car company had given me a squat Fiat micro-S.U.V., which, though it was equipped with all-wheel drive and seemed to be handling capably enough, was so strikingly unbrawny in appearance that crunching up the icy, winding mountain road, I wasn’t brave enough to push it any faster than a feeble crawl. Now, with the squeeze through the Guardsmen ahead of me tightening, I slowed even more. I heard myself letting out an anticipatory holler, like a Hollywood fighter pilot banking through a dogfight, and threaded the needle at nine miles an hour.

There are more than 8,000 sequoias in the Giant Forest, the three-and-a-half-square-mile centerpiece of the park. The largest grow more than 300 feet tall and 30 feet across, barely tapering as they rise until, about two-thirds of the way up, the scrambling madness of their branches starts. The branches are crooked and gnarled, while the rest of the tree is stoic and straight. The branches are grayish and brownish — average American tree colors — while the trunk, particularly in sunlight reflected off snow, hums with a dreamy reddish-orange glow. The branches often seem to have nothing to do with the sequoia they’re attached to; they are trees themselves. In 1978, a branch broke off a sequoia called the General Sherman. It was 150 feet long and nearly seven feet thick. All by itself, that branch would have been one of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi.

The General Sherman Tree is one of the park’s primary attractions. It’s 275 feet tall, 100 feet in circumference, and known to be the largest tree on Earth, by volume. (The National Park Service drives home its massiveness on a sign in front of its trunk this way: If the General Sherman were hollowed out and filled with water, it’d be enough water for you to take a bath every day for 27 years.) The General Sherman is not far off the Generals Highway, which runs through the park. It is a tree with its own parking lot. Though the pathways were ice-crusted or snowed under when I visited last month, I watched tourists of all shapes and sizes hobble and skitter over them toward the tree for photographs: the Italian dude with the soul patch posing with double thumbs up; the overweight couple huffing, “You make it to the tree?” to a few young women returning to their car; the young man looking up at the tree, eyes closed and still, face in the sun — a tranquil image of cosmic, momentary oneness were it not for his self-aggrandizing sweatshirt, which read, I AM NOT A GOD BUT SOMETHING SIMILAR. And then there was the woman with a moaning child in her arms. She was whispering, “Last one, I promise,” while her husband set up a tripod and timer, far, far away, struggling to frame his teensy family against the universe of the tree. Eventually the man found he had to reposition and walked right in front of me. When we made eye contact, he said, “It’s big!”

Exactly, yes. And still, it’s not just that the trees are big; it’s that everything about them is also big. The raised columns of bark running down their trunks are bigger than the bark on ordinary trees. The gullies between those columns are wider and deeper. The fire scars are bigger. (Sequoias are mostly fire-resistant, even when wildfires or lightning burn away at their bases, opening triangular, vaulting caverns in their trunks, like grottos in a sea cliff.) The burls on the trees are bigger. Even the woodpecker holes are bigger, which seems illogical — you’d expect woodpeckers to hammer out the same size holes, regardless — but honestly, they are. Every element of a sequoia is freakishly, but also flawlessly, proportionally big. And this creates a subconscious sense that you’re not looking at a normal tree that just kept growing until it became very tall but a tree that was somehow supernaturally inflated to unimaginable dimensions, all of its features swelling like some fantastically transformed mushroom or a cursed cartoon man bloating into a giant. This aspect of the sequoia’s size is also a tricky thing to pick up from photographs. Even if there’s a fence or person in the shot for scale, the human eye can find a way to correct for the sequoias’ unacceptable gigantism: It reads the fir trees near the sequoias as bushes, to make the sequoias seem like ordinary trees; or it flattens the perspective, so that, say, four far-off sequoias appear to be right alongside six cedars in the foreground — fusing all of them into a single line of 10 perfectly boring-size trees. In one of these ways or another, virtually every sequoia picture I took wound up a dud. Later, when I texted a friend what I thought was the best one, she mistook it for a shot of my backyard.

“I feel like I’m in a fairy tale!” a woman named Angela Fitzpatrick announced one afternoon. Fitzpatrick and I were the only two people who had shown up for a snowshoe hike led by a nonprofit group called the Sequoia Parks Conservancy. The park’s sparse winter crowds heightened the otherworldliness of the trees. So did all the snow. The woods were hushed around us, a cradle of pure whites, reds and greens.

Fitzpatrick was an information-security analyst from Tampa, Fla., who had been flown out to audit a credit union in a nearby town, then planned an extra day to see the trees. She was excellent company, equally not-shy when it came to fumbling expressions of stupefaction and delight. At one point, falling behind, I realized I hadn’t yet touched a sequoia, so I veered off and patted one. “It’s soft!” I shrieked. “What the hell?” (The trees’ outer layer is spongy and fibrous — a defense against burrowing bugs.) “That’s crazy!” Fitzpatrick said. She hustled back to put a hand on the tree. We stood side by side for a second, pressing and kneading it. “I’m so glad you touched that!” she said.

Later we stopped short in front of another sequoia that looked perfectly healthy on one side, but was chewed up by fire on the other, leaving a 150-foot-tall concave husk from ground to crown — a pillar of charcoal. It was shocking: a baleful black chamber the color of new asphalt, or volcanic rock, or Mordor. Deep in, at the rear, I could see another opening, a twisting pit through the mulchy ground toward its roots.

Is that even alive? we asked our guide, Katie Wightman. Of course it was, she said; a tree like this might endure for centuries. Then she asked, “You guys wanna get inside?” We did.

There’s a type of enchantment we feel from afar, for certain places and things, that’s hard to pick apart or defend after years of feeling it. I used to live in San Francisco and had encountered the sequoias’ cousins, the coast redwoods, many times. They were, in my mind, the slightly less spectacular of America’s two spectacularly large tree species: taller than sequoias, in many cases, but plainer — more conventionally treelike and slender, with pinnacled, Christmas-tree tops and duller, browner bark. But mostly they were just more accessible, at least to me. Their range runs from south of Monterey up the coast into Oregon. One of the most famous groves, Muir Woods, was close enough to the city that I once chaperoned my daughter’s preschool field trip there.

Sequoias, on the other hand, existed only at the edges of my personal geography. In all the world, there were only about 70 native groves of them, flecked across a relatively thin stretch of the Sierra, far east of San Francisco and Los Angeles, beyond the Central Valley’s citrus groves and almond fields. It was arbitrary, but I’d lived my life in California predominantly on a north-south axis, road-tripping more often along the coast than inland to the mountains. Redwoods were creatures I ran into from time to time without trying, while sequoias remained effectively hidden. They were the giants I needed to search out and pursue. And this implied something, too, about the alluring enormousness of the world that contained them.

Now I wanted to go see some of the oldest, biggest trees on Earth so I could feel small. The literature of sequoias is, counterintuitively, also a celebration of smallness. There’s a promise of renewal and transcendence in the juxtaposition of self and tree. The ecstatic naturalist John Muir, among the first to go gaga for “King Sequoia,” wrote that “one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them . subdued in the general calm, as if in some vast hall pervaded by the deepest sanctities and solemnities that sway human souls.” (Muir also made “wine” by soaking the trees’ cones in water and drank it as a “sacrament.” He wrote, “I wish I were so drunk and Sequoical that I could preach the green brown woods to all the juiceless world.”)

It seemed like a particularly good moment in America for humility, for perspective-taking, for recalibrating my sense of scale and time. But the night before I was supposed to fly out, a snowstorm unexpectedly hit the Sierra, provoking a long and brutally disincentivizing warning on the National Park Service’s website. “Roads may close,” it said, and tire chains were now mandatory — equipment I’d always found irrationally intimidating, even more so, perhaps, than the prospect of skidding off a mountainside. The alert concluded: “If you’re uncomfortable driving in the mountains during winter storms, consider postponing your visit.”

I suppose it was typical winter-mountain stuff. But in my inexperience, I panicked. And I continued panicking until I eventually reached the park — a day later than I had planned, after deciding to indulge that panic and spend a night at the base of the mountain, betting the roads would at least partly thaw in the morning. “Snow panic,” a friend called it, a friend who had been considering meeting me in the sequoias and was now bowing out. It was a familiar strain of jittery duress and intensifying fragility that comes from trying with all your energy to figure out exactly how bad the future will be.

In retrospect, I recognize that the weather was just one more uncertainty — and one too many — to withstand; already, I worried that a strange-but-minor injury on the ball of my foot might become inflamed and keep me from hiking around the park, and that a scratch in my throat was the beginnings of my daughter’s flu. And beneath the foot and the flu were other worries — namely, about the recklessly accelerating gush of world events that I’d been pummeling myself with many times an hour online. All it took was returning after a few hours away from Twitter to discover a long record of outrages stacked up and hardened like signs of ancient droughts or fires preserved in the rings of a tree. The timeline was quickening, tightening; there were certain days on which we’d all lived through centuries. When I called William C. Tweed, a former ranger at the park, he told me, “On a good day, the sequoias remind us that we’re not really in charge of the world.” I wanted that. But the snow was a reminder that not being in charge also means being powerless. That kind of smallness didn’t feel liberating at all. I hated it.

Sequoia National Park was established in 1890, at a moment in America not so wildly different from our own. It was an era of intensifying inequality, vulnerability and dislocation. Urban industrialization upended rural tradition, and populist uprisings, like the Pullman Strike and the Haymarket Riot, pitted an exasperated working class against a government that seemed to collude with the corporations exploiting it. As a labor leader in San Francisco named James Martin wrote, with society seemingly in “chaotic condition, there is ample scope for the most dismal speculation.” And so, in 1885, a collective of radicals, including Martin, decided to build an alternate society, applying to purchase government land in the Sierra where they could construct a glimmering socialist utopia. Kaweah Colony, they called it. Fifty-three individuals filed claims for 8,000 adjoining acres, centered in the Giant Forest.

American settlers had been enraptured by the giant sequoias since they first stumbled onto them 30 years earlier, and yet the government had never seen any reason to protect the land; in fact, the federal Timber and Stone Act, under which the Kaweah colonists were purchasing their acreage, was meant to encourage logging in the West. And this was the colonists’ plan: They’d be lumberjacks, bankrolling their utopia with that enormous storehouse of wood. All they had to do was build a road in and out of the forest — 20 grueling miles straight up a mountainside pocked with jagged eruptions of granite. A tremendous job, but doable, they decided. They were optimists, after all.

By the end of the following year, there were 160 Kaweah colonists on site, throwing themselves at the road-cutting project and establishing the structures of their new civic life. The colonists split into “divisions,” then subdivided the divisions into hundreds of different “departments,” like a Hand-Craft Department and an Amusements Department. They exchanged man-hours as currency and got a lot done; Kaweah quickly turned into an egalitarian cooperative. “Brute passions,” Martin reported, were “surrendering to moral restraint,” and an “inoffensive and charming rivalry exists to outdo the other in neighborly acts.” Colonists picnicked together, dried fruit, sewed clothes and never spanked their children. One photo shows dozens of them posing in front of one phenomenally large sequoia — a tree so unmistakably magnificent they named it the Karl Marx Tree.

By the summer of 1890, the colonists had pushed their road within a few miles of the sequoias. They decided to pause there and start felling pine trees, to scratch together the money they needed to finish. But that fall, Congress created Sequoia National Park, only the second in what would become America’s national park system. The government didn’t try to seize private land for the park; in this case, the Kaweah colonists didn’t technically own the acreage. Their application to buy it had never been officially approved. Only private citizens were allowed to purchase land under the Timber and Stone Act, and because all 53 original Kaweah claimants had used the same San Francisco address on their paperwork, officials had flagged it, suspecting they were a large and devious corporation. (Logging companies were, in fact, grossly abusing the law, coordinating groups of locals — sometimes just by buying rounds at the local saloon — to claim chunks of land on their behalf.) The colonists were aware of this bureaucratic hiccup, but had gone ahead, expecting it would eventually be resolved. In the end, it wasn’t. They were stripped of the land, and the government claimed the road they built as well. Several members were charged with federal “timber trespass.” America renamed the Karl Marx Tree after General Sherman.

Historians now see evidence that the government’s actions were influenced by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which was moving to protect its own interests in the area. That is, the Kaweah colonists spent four years working as unpaid labor on a nightmarish infrastructure project to improve land for the same exploitative governmental-industrial complex from which they thought they were breaking free. They had tried to resize themselves — to create a smaller, separate and more perfect world in which their lives and values could be bigger — but the real world was still all around them, and in it, they were still painfully, negligibly small.

It’s hard to diagram the Kaweah story as an allegory of any contemporary ideology of good and evil, heroism and villainy. It gets confusing: The federal government, partly at the behest of an underhanded corporation, sabotaged a community of hardworking and benevolent utopians — but only to create something fundamentally idealistic and to protect an irreplaceable ecological wonder from capitalistic loggers. And yet, the loggers were the utopians. The capitalists were socialists! Which would have been fine, except that the government had mistaken them for an underhanded corporation.

Baffled, I called William Tweed, the retired Sequoia park ranger, who has also written about the colony. “You reach a stage in life where what you most frequently see in history is irony,” Tweed told me sagely. “Perhaps the lesson for 2017 is that ideology rarely explains what happens.”

It was almost dusk on the first evening by the time I rented my Fiat at the San Jose airport and reached the entrance to Sequoia National Park. I pulled into the tiny outpost of Three Rivers, Calif., and headed straight to a place called the Totem Market to rent a set of tire chains, still toying with the idea of pushing up the mountain that night.

The market is a combination gift shop, bar, deli and full-service tire-chain-rental depot — a sleepy-seeming establishment with wagon wheels and barrels on its roof. But inside, the scene was incongruously lively. A couple dozen mostly younger people stood around the bar, shouting conversation over that song that goes “Amber is the color of my energy” again and again. It felt like a rehearsal dinner; I couldn’t figure out how everyone knew one another. Then a woman in full Park Service garb — green wool pants, khaki shirt, government-issue leather boots — stepped out of my peripheral vision to order a beer.

Almost all of them were “parkies,” as one man eventually put it. They were giving a going-away party for one of their supervisors, who was leaving for a new detail at a park near San Diego. Someone pointed him out: an older, smiley, muscular man in a T-shirt that said, “Yard Sale.” They eventually sang “Happy Birthday” to someone, too — a younger guy in a camouflage hat, holding a generous glass of red wine lazily aloft and squinting. At one point, another man dropped a pint, and it shattered. The entire room shouted and applauded. Then Yard Sale graciously, dutifully appeared with a broom and — maybe, I wanted to imagine, just to leave his troops with one final image of how a true leader behaved — swept up the glass.

Off in a corner, I struck up a conversation with Thor Riksheim, a tree-size Park Service veteran with an impressive mustache. Riksheim directs historical preservation at Sequoia. He had recently restored the only Kaweah Colony building remaining in the park, a remote cabin that the government calls, a little ruthlessly, Squatter’s Cabin. The colony had been conspicuously written out of the official story of Sequoia National Park, and its road has long since reverted to a trail. But Riksheim spoke affectionately of the cabin, which he called “Squatty’s,” and the colonists, too. (He also called the General Sherman Tree “Sherm,” as if they’d gone to high school together.) Right away, I liked him immensely. It was clear his connection to the trees was deep and singular. He was currently living in another historic building he had restored in the heart of the Giant Forest — in the shadow of the famed Sentinel Tree, a cluster known as the Bachelor and the Three Graces and other sequoias. It was touching how privileged he seemed to feel, how proud. “I’m Giant Forest, population 1,” he told me.

To a human being, a 2,000-year-old sequoia seems immortal. But I noticed that people like Riksheim who have lived closely with the trees aren’t prone to mistaking their longevity and resilience for indestructibility. To know sequoias means being cognizant of their weaknesses, understanding them as provisional objects in some vaster, slower-moving natural flux. In fact, there’s a prominent exhibit at the park’s Giant Forest Museum chronicling how the government nearly undid the trees’ entire ecosystem through misunderstandings and mismanagement. By the 1930s, the Park Service had constructed a small resort town for tourists in the center of Giant Forest. There were restaurants, cabins, a gas station, a hotel and a grocery store — nearly 300 buildings, erected over the sensitive and shallow root systems of the sequoias, which never reach more than about six feet below the surface. The Park Service vigilantly fought back the beginnings of forest fires; this seemed wise, fire being a reckless and destructive force, but it actually kept the sequoias from reproducing. (It was not yet understood that, among other ecological benefits, heat from wildfires opens the trees’ cones and allows them to spread their seeds.)

All of this was gradually corrected. Then droughts started intensifying. The climate was shifting. The Park Service is now contemplating “assisted migration” of the sequoias: manually planting them farther north to keep pace with climate change. But of course, Tweed, told me, it’s now conceivable that the Trump administration might not allow climate change even to be mentioned at national parks’ visitor centers. Or that the administration, which picked a Twitter fight with the National Park Service on Day 1, might decide to privatize management of those lands. Who knows, Tweed said: “The worries are deep and profound.”

That is, there is another time scale on which the trees are vulnerable, on which the trees are small and come and go as we do: sprouting, growing up, suffering through storms, receiving scars, losing limbs, before they finally drop. Every so often, the imperceptible turbulence and instability in which the trees exist does upend them. Apparently, the first thing you hear when one is falling is a blistering and percussive crackle — the roots snapping, one at a time, underground. It may be far less likely, at any given moment, that one of the sequoias in the park will keel over than that one of the tourists will, but it could happen. It must happen, every now and again. Earlier this year, a famous sequoia with a road tunneled through its base, known as the Pioneer Cabin Tree, farther north, near Sacramento, toppled over in a storm. At the Giant Forest Museum, I saw photos of another one that flattened a parked Jeep in August 2003.

I don’t know why, but I could not stop thinking about this while trundling around the park that weekend: I kept privately picturing them cracking and crashing down. It was a tremendously upsetting image, but still never felt possible enough to scare me.

Late one afternoon, I lay down in the snow at the base of one for a while, watching as the fog poured in through its crown, and I remembered how untroubled Riksheim sounded at the bar the previous evening when, lowering his voice, he mentioned that there was a particular sequoia near his house that he was keeping an eye on. He could wake up dead tomorrow, he said. “It’s just that flying, fickle finger of Fate. Every once in a while, it’s going to point at you.” Then he fluttered his long, bony index finger through the air and lowered it with a sudden whoosh. Out of nowhere: crash. And I realized that his experience of it — a feeling of forsakenness, of arbitrary cruelty — would be essentially the same as the tree’s.

Two days later, I was snowshoeing around alone when I discovered I was standing in front of the same sequoia I had lain under. There, in the sloping snow at its roots, I saw my imprint. My back and legs and arms were joined into a wispy column, with the perfectly ovular hood of my parka rounding off the top. It looked like a snow angel, but also like a mummy — an image of both levity and dolefulness, neither all good nor all bad. I took a picture of it: what little of myself was left after I’d gone. The figure looked smaller and more delicate than I thought it should, but the Giant Forest was so quiet that I couldn’t imagine who else it could be.

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May 2, 2014

Tue, 06 May 2014 17:49:54 +0000 Oakland is the next big place for tech companies and investors.

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Fri, 30 May 2014 23:03:14 +0000 16 minutes ago

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Tue, 24 Jun 2014 16:23:31 +0000

Economies cannot remain, or become, competitive without finding all available talent, nurturing it and providing opportunities for budding entrepreneurs, investors and employees from every corner.

  • Anonymize resumes and remove university affiliation.
  • Prime candidates.
  • Reconfigure employee referral benefits.
  • Set an explicit diversity hiring goal.

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“For years, tech leaders have perpetuated the myth that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy,” said Freada Kapor Klein, co-chair for the California-based Kapor Center. “Once we recognize it as a myth we can get down to the hard work of making the myth a reality.”

Mitch Kapor, co-chair of the Kapor Center, said diversifying the tech industry will also promote innovation.

“We find that entrepreneurs tend to solve problems based on their lived experience,” said Kapor. “If Silicon Valley represents a narrow slice of society, we end up with a narrow band of solutions.”

“The floodgates holding back the tech industry’s dismal diversity data are now wide open, and what we are finding is that women and people of color are not participants in our rapidly growing tech economy, “ said Allison Scott, Level Playing Field Institute Director of Research and Evaluation.

“Releasing the data is a critical first step,” said Scott. “Silicon Valley must look to invest in strategies to both fill the pipeline with diverse talent, and ensure workplace culture and practices don’t force that talent to leak from the pipeline.”

Disparity in the highly competitive tech industry is even more lopsided when it comes to the representation of black women .

“The recent release of Facebook’s diversity figures paints a sobering but realistic picture of the state of African Americans, women, and people of color in technology,” said Kimberly Bryant , founder of Black Girls Code , a nonprofit to introduce girls from underrepresented communities to computer programming.

“While the numbers are disappointing, this is an important step towards starting a meaningful and strategic conversation regarding the diversity challenges in the tech industry.”

For years Silicon Valley firms have held back on sharing diversity records with the public. But in recent weeks several companies led by Google released figures under the scrutiny of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson . He appeared at the shareholder meetings of Facebook and Google to demand companies release the data.

It now seems inevitable there will be growing pressure on other major Silicon Valley companies to make company diversity data available to the public.

Wed, 02 Jul 2014 17:34:36 +0000 Barbara Grady July 1, 2014

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Because the talent market is tight, that insularity presents a problem. It’s hard to find good people to hire. All the Stanford graduates have offers from multiple companies and there’s no time to develop talent. On the other hand, so many nice-seeming candidates seem to fail the interview process for trivial mistakes that fall under the catch-all category of “culture fit.”


The solution, of course, is not self-reflection or asking hard questions about the values and assumptions that form the process. The solution is to write “explainer” blog posts to initiate candidates into The Culture. As the hiring crunch gets more desperate, examples of this genre are more frequent. They are fascinating documents of just how disconnected insiders have become from the very people they are trying to hire.

I asked her how she was doing in the interview process and she said, “I’m actually still trying to get an interview.”

“That’s weird.” I told her. “I thought you had already met with them a few times.” “Well, I grabbed coffee with the founder, and I had dinner with the team last night, and then we went to a bar together.”

I chuckled. She was clearly confused with the whole matter. I told her, “Look, you just made it to the third round”.

Clearly, the confusion is her fault, right? Let’s review the bidding. A capable professional expressed interest in working for a company. Instead of talking with her about that in plain English, she was held at arm’s length for days while The Culture examined her for defects: coffee dates in the afternoon, conversations over dinner. When she gets the invisible nod, her reward is a “spontaneous” invitation to a night of drinking with the team. You have to wonder why intelligent people would devise an interview process so strange and oblique that the candidate doesn’t even know it’s happening.

On the surface there’s nothing wrong with getting to know a job candidate in a relaxed setting. But think about who might flunk this kind of pre-interview acculturation. Say, people who don’t drink. Or people with long commutes, or who don’t have the luxury of time to stay out late with a bunch of twenty-somethings on a whim. Or, perhaps, people who don’t like the passive-aggressive contempt shown to those who don’t get The Culture.

Ignorance of The Culture is a serious handicap if you want to land a job out here. Another story from same post is very tense (bold mine):

We had a gentleman over to interview for one of our account executive positions… great resume, great cover letter, did well in our initial phone screen. He was dressed impeccably in a suit… I stole a glance to a few of the people from my team who had looked up when he walked in. I could sense the disappointment. It’s not that we’re so petty or strict about the dress code that we are going to disqualify him for not following an unwritten rule, but we know empirically that people who come in dressed in suits rarely work out well for our team. He was failing the go-out-for-a-beer test and he didn’t even know it… I told him he could take off his tie and jacket and loosen up a little bit, and he acknowledged that he felt a little out of place but said that, “you can never overdress for an interview.” Well, dude, no, actually you can overdress for an interview and you just did. Of course I didn’t say it

The cognitive dissonance on display is painful to see. As in: Clothing is totally not a big deal! Because we’re cool like that! But it’s plain that it biased the interviewers. The team’s disappointment upon seeing the suit was immediate and unanimous. If you truly believe that suit equals loser, you can’t help it. Nevertheless, the fiction of objectivity has to be maintained, so he denies it to the candidate’s face, to us, and himself.

Remember that the entire point of his article is to convince candidates to look and act differently: “it’s your responsibility to learn [our] cultural norms.” Presumably that same account exec is supposed to take the hint, dress in mufti, and do better at his next startup interview. But of course, how you dress is totally not a factor in the scientific decision process.

Even if you take his statements at face value they make no sense. Suppose that it’s a scientific fact that wearing a suit signals that a candidate is unfit for duty. Assuming that’s true, then what does teaching the poor bastard how to camouflage himself actually accomplish? Does clothing indicate a person’s inner qualities or not? What, exactly, is the moral we’re supposed to learn from this grubby little drama?

The theme is familiar to anyone who’s tried to join a country club or high-school clique. It’s not supposed to make sense. The Culture can’t really be written about; it has to be experienced. You are expected to conform to the rules of The Culture before you are allowed to demonstrate your actual worth. What wearing a suit really indicates is—I am not making this up—non-conformity, one of the gravest of sins. For extra excitement, the rules are unwritten and ever-changing, and you will never be told how you screwed up.

Clothing is the least of it. Your entire lifestyle and outside interests are under examination, as is your “commitment”. Say you’re asked out for coffee on short notice, which you decline because you’re busy. Is that a “ding”? Did that lose you the job? Who knows? Maybe it did. You’re still trying to figure out what they mean by “wowing” them. Should you ask? Maybe you’ll seem desperate if you ask. Oh, shit!

Again Max Levchin: “PayPal once rejected a candidate who aced all the engineering tests because for fun, the guy said that he liked to play hoops. That single sentence lost him the job.”

The obscurity and arbitrariness are very much by design, and is why explainer posts are supposed to be so valuable. Having engineered an unfair situation, insiders then offer secret guides to winning it.

How to make it in the Valley

As far as I can tell, these are the seven rules to follow if you’re going to have a chance at being snubbed by a Valley Culture startup. The initial gauntlet is not as harsh if you possess trendy technical skills—but that is by no means a free ticket.

  1. Live in the Valley. If you don’t, move. The pioneers who are connecting the global human family and removing barriers of time and space won’t take you seriously unless you brunch at the same restaurants they do. Ideally you should live in “The City,” which is on a peninsula, and not on “ The Peninsula ,” which is in a valley.
  2. We expect you to click with us “organically,” which means on our schedule. Be flexible with your time. It’s best to behave as though you have nothing better to do all day but wait for us to call you in for coffee or some skateboarding.
  3. Don’t overdress, but don’t underdress. You should mirror as precisely as possible our socioeconomic level, social cues, and idiom. Remember unlucky Mr. Hoops. But no pressure, you know? Laidback.
  4. To distinguish yourself from the throngs, find a way to surprise us that has nothing to do with your ability to perform your job. Maybe you could bring some appropriately quirky luxury foods as tribute.
  5. You are expected to read everything we blog about and work it into the conversation. This shows commitment.
  6. We don’t actually want to talk to you. You need to locate someone else in our social circle and convince them to send us a “warm intro.” This is a wonderfully recursive time-waster, as those people will want a warm intro from someone they know before talking to you, and so on.
  7. We’re objective meritocratic folks and will violently reject any suggestion that we are not. We totally won’t “ding” you for not doing steps 1-6, we swear. But they help. Totally.

Watch yourself

The problem with gathering a bunch of logically-oriented young males together and encouraging them to construct a Culture gauntlet has nothing to do with their logic, youth, or maleness. The problem is that all cliques are self-reinforcing. There is no way to re-calibrate once the insiders have convinced themselves of their greatness.

It’s astonishing how many of the people conducting interviews and passing judgement on the careers of candidates have had no training at all on how to do it well. Aside from their own interviews, they may not have ever seen one. I’m all for learning on your own, but at least when you write a program wrong, it breaks. Without a natural feedback loop, interviewing mostly runs on myth and survivor bias. “Empirically,” people who wear suits don’t do well; therefore anyone in a suit is judged before they open their mouths. “On my interview I remember we did thus and so, therefore I will always do thus and so. I’m awesome and I know X; therefore anyone who doesn’t know X is an idiot.” Exceptions, also known as opportunities for learning, are not allowed to occur. This completes the circle.

You can protest your logic and imparitiality all day long, but the only honest statement is that we’re all biased. The decisions of parole judges, professionals who spend their entire careers making decisions about the fate of others, are measurably affected by whether they had just eaten lunch . And that’s with a much more rigorous and formal process whose rules are in the open. But you’re sure your process is totally solid, right?

If spam filters sorted messages the way Silicon Valley sorts people, you’d only get email from your college roommate. And you’d never suspect you were missing a thing.

This, too, has been stated out loud: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.”

I was in the audience when a 22-year-old Mark Zuckerberg led with that drop of wisdom during his first Startup School talk. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, it was the thesis of his entire 30 minutes on stage. It would have been forgettable startup blah-blah except that his talk followed Mitch Kapor’s . The contrast could not have been more raw. Ironically, Zuckerberg had arrived late and didn’t hear Kapor speak. He’s since evolved his views, thanks to Sheryl Sandberg’s influence and (ahem) getting older himself.

Kapor is the legendary founder of Lotus, which more or less kicked off the personal computer revolution by making desktop computers relevant to business. He spoke about the dangers of what he called the “mirror-tocracy”: confirmation bias, insularity, and cliquish modes of thinking. He described the work of his institute to combat bias, countering the anecdotes and fantasies that pass for truth with actual research about diversity in the workplace.

The first step toward dissolving these petty Cultures is writing down their unwritten rules for all to see. The word “privilege” literally means “private law.” It’s the secrecy, deniable and immune to analysis, that makes the balance of power so lopsided in favor of insiders.

Calling it out and making fun of it is not enough. Whatever else one can say about the Mirrortocracy, it has the virtue of actually working, in the sense that the lucky few who break in have a decent rate of success. Compared to what, well, that is carefully left unasked. The collateral damage of “false negatives” is as large as it is invisible. But it is difficult to argue with success. It takes a humility and generosity that must come from within. It can’t be forced on others, only encouraged to develop.

Lest you get the wrong idea, I’m not making a moral case but a fairly amoral one. It’s hard to argue against the fact that the Valley is unfairly exclusionary. This implies that there is a large untapped talent pool to be developed. Since the tech war boils down to a talent war, the company that figures out how to get over itself and tap that pool wins.

So the second step is on you. Instead of demanding that others reflect your views, reflect on yourself. Try to remember the last time someone successfully changed your mind . Try, just for a moment, to suppose that it’s probably unnatural for an industry to be so heavily dominated by white and Asian middle-class males under 30 who keep telling each other to only hire their friends. Having supposed that, think about what a just future should look like, and how to get there.

You want a juicy industry to disrupt? How about your own?

Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:20:35 +0000 Walker and Co . The affable thirtysomething has the shiny resume one expects of a startup founder. College valedictorian, Stanford MBA, Boston Consulting Group and stints at tech titans like Twitter, Foursquare and Andreessen Horowitz.

Baldwin Cunningham, co-founder of Partnered , has a similarly tech world approved CV. He was a college football player who worked at startups before being accepted to the prestigious Silicon Valley finishing school Y-Combinator.

Both men have gone on to raise money for their popular startups from brand name investors, garnered healthy amounts of PR buzz and solid customer traction. Though in the early days of empire building, both seem the epitome of the classic Silicon Valley success story.

The content of their character might match that of other successful founders but the color of their skin, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, makes them outliers of epic proportions. Walker and Cunningham are black.

While 11 percent of Americans are African-American, a scant 1% of founders of venture-backed companies identify as such. Women are also massively under represented in VC funding, with rates as low as 8% commonly quoted. Other groups, including Hispanic populations, receive so little funding that it is difficult to quantify.

Some of America’s most ardent technology users are women , Hispanics and African-Americans but the Silicon Valley elite don’t yet reflect that diversity. Given the homogenous reality of who gets funded, it’s no surprise that Walker’s recent $6.9M round made headlines, as did female founder Kegan Schouwenburg’s recent $6.4M series A for her 3-D printing startup Sols .

To help make this kind of funding more commonplace, we collected tips from Cunningham, fresh off of a $850,000 fundraise of his own, and Ana Diaz-Hernandez, a Latina venture capitalist at Kapor Capital. They shared insights on what it takes to get funded when you’re in an, often times, literal minority.

1. Do your research. Use resources like AngelList or Mattermark to find out which VCs have funded people like you, says Diaz-Hernandez.

2. Lead with the numbers. Investors won’t always understand the problem you’re solving. Make the size of the market opportunity obvious so that the traction isn’t a question.

3. Help them help you. Don’t forget what investors do, Cunningham said. Some have a strong mission statement to help certain kinds of entrepreneurs, industries, etc., but their job is to get a return on their investment. They have limited partners to return the funds to and need to make money. Make sure your mindset isn’t about them helping you but how can you help them help you.

4. See what others don’t. How you were born, raised and developed forces you to see the world in a certain way, says Cunningham. That influences the problems you’re solving and the approach you take to get there. If what you are building is something investors haven’t thought of, it can work to your advantage. The challenge is explaining it so they understand. The approach and solution can be out of an investor’s comfort zone. Their lack of knowledge makes investors less interested. Simplify your business message and strategy. Make sure everyone can connect with the mission

5. Find ways around lack of access. This is by far the biggest challenge. There are people spearheading different events to bridge the gap to investors but investors make their bet on the founder. That means having relationships. There are people interested in funding specific under-represented groups. Take the opportunity to target them. “My network was jumpstarted through my accelerator network, then I really spent time investing in one-on-one relationships,” said Cunningham.

While knowing how to find and pitch investors is key to making progress in funding, there is more to winning than networking and strategy. “Assuming you’ve found product/market fit, continue to believe,” said Walker. “The large majority of founders will hear way more ‘no’ than ‘yes’. I did. You have to continue to believe in what you’re doing. Those “no’s” don’t always mean your idea is a bad one. It might mean that you’re really onto something that others can’t see yet. Innovation and opportunity starts with more “no’s” than “yes’s”. Just believe.”

Tue, 15 Jul 2014 16:40:17 +0000 07/15/14 07:22 AM — UPDATED 07/15/14 10:42 AM

Wed, 16 Jul 2014 21:37:09 +0000 Entrepreneurs and investors like Kapor are trying to grow local talent. The Hidden Genius Project and Black Girls Code are initiatives in Oakland that help African American youth get involved in tech. Google just gave $500,000 to a charity that teaches low-income kids coding and business skills.

Community organizer Olis Simmons says it’s nice if a few local kids get to learn coding, but that’s not nearly enough if Oakland wants to head off the kind of displacement happening in San Francisco.

“It’s tokenism,” she says. “It’s marketing. It’s public relations.”

Simmons heads Youth Uprising, a neighborhood center in East Oakland, far from downtown. Unemployment there hovers around 20 percent, and the school next door doesn’t have reliable high-speed internet. In order for real change to happen, she says, Oakland needs money for social programs and improving public schools—real investments that would help stabilize her neighborhood. She points out that Google and other big tech companies send billions of dollars in profits overseas to avoid taxes that fund services and education.

“The truth is, if you don’t invest, then over the long haul what you do is you transfer ownership of the city to someone new,” Simmons says.

And she says if that happens in Oakland, there will be conflict, and it will be more severe than the clash over tech in San Francisco.

“I hate to say this. It breaks my heart to say this,” Simmons says. “San Francisco had a very long ramp of displacement and gentrification, that by the time things exploded, the vast majority of the poor people and the people of color were long gone. That’s not true in Oakland. It will happen much more rapidly and it will be a much grittier experience.”

Economist Carol Zabin thinks that distributing the wealth generated by tech could ease the tensions. Zabin is the research director at theUC Berkeley Labor Center. One of the quickest ways to do that, she says, would be raising minimum wage. Higher pay would ensure that when the cost of living increases, regular folks could afford to stay.

“It’s not just about getting into the tech jobs.” Zabin says. “It’s also about improving the jobs that tech creates.”

Zabin’s colleague Enrico Moretti calculates that each tech job eventually creates five additional jobs outside of the innovation sector. The wealth that tech generates leads to the employment of more people in areas like food service and construction. That’s why Zabin says other tech hubs should follow Seattle’s lead.

Seattle is increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour. San Francisco has a similar measure on this November’s ballot.

“What are the economic costs of that?” Zabin asks. “It means those wealthy tech workers have to pay more for their restaurant meals and their retail expenditures, and their services, and not very much more — 1 or 2 or 3 percentage points more when we get a wage jump of 50 or 60 percent.”

The start-up scene is relatively new in Oakland, but the city is already grappling with wage inequality.

In November, Oakland will ask voters to decide whether to increase minimum wage to $12.25 an hour, and in West Oakland, there are protests against two new redevelopment zones that community members fear will speed up gentrification. As more start-ups move in, locals are wondering what roll tech companies will play in these issues.