the secret guild of silicon valley

The governors of the guild of St. Luke, Jan de Bray

A couple of weeks ago, I was drinking beer in San Francisco with friends when someone quipped:

“You have too many hipsters, you won’t scale like that. Hire some fat guys who know C++.” 

It’s funny, but it got me thinking.  Who are the “fat guys who know C++”, or as someone else put it, “the guys with neckbeards, who keep Google’s servers running”? And why is it that if you encounter one, it’s like pulling on a thread, and they all seem to know each other?

The reason is because the top engineers in Silicon Valley, whether they realize it or not, are part of a secret Guild.  They are a confraternity of craftsmen who share a set of traits:

  • Their craft is creating software
  • Their tools of choice are C, C++, and Java – not Javascript or PHP
  • They wear ironic t-shirts, and that is the outer limit of their fashion sense
  • They’re not hipsters who live in the Mission or even in the city; they live near a CalTrain stop, somewhere on the Peninsula
  • They meet for Game Night on Thursdays to play Settlers of Catan
  • They are passive, logical, and Spock-like

They aren’t interested in tweeting, blogging, or giving talks at conferences.  They care about building and shipping code.  They’re more likely to be found in IRC chat rooms, filing JIRAs for Apache projects, or spinning out Github repos in their spare time.

They are part of a nomadic band of software tradesmen, who have mentored one another over the last four decades in Silicon Valley, and they have quietly, steadily built the infrastructure behind the world’s most successful companies.  When they leave – as they have places like Netscape, Sun, and Yahoo – the firms they leave behind wither and die.

If you want to build a technology company, you’ll need to hire them, but you’ll never find a member of the Guild through a recruiter.  They are being cold-called, cold-emailed, and cold-LinkedIn-messaged on a daily basis by recruiters, but their response will be similarly cold.

A true member of the Guild is only ever an IM away from a new job at Facebook, Google, or the long archipelago of start-ups their fellow members are busy building.  Outwardly successful companies that fail to draw engineers from the Guild will struggle with the performance and stability of their technology – as LinkedIn did in its early days and as Twitter did until recently.

It’s rare for an entrepreneur or executive to earn membership in the Guild, for that requires a path of apprenticeship that few have the talent or stamina for.  But it’s possible to earn the respect of the Guild, and to convince its members that your company is a hall where they can gather daily to mentor and develop their craft.

It begins with having an engineering-led culture, where technology decisions are made on their technical merits, never on personal grounds.  It also means allowing craftsmen to solve problems by creating new tools, rather than with just a labored application of the old.  These are values that Google and Facebook, two veritable Guild halls of the Valley, tout to any engineer who asks.

Finally, the implicit compact that the Guild makes with a company is that their efforts will not be in vain.  The most powerfully attractive force for the Guild is the promise of building a product that will get into the happy hands of hundreds, thousands, or millions.  This is the coveted currency that even companies that have struggled to build an engineering reputation, like foursquare, can offer. 

The Guild of Silicon Valley is largely invisible, but their affiliations have determined the rise and fall of technology giants.  The start-ups who recognize the unsung talents of its members today will be tomorrow’s success stories.

[ Addendum:  George E.P. Box said “All models are wrong.  Some models are useful.”  While my tongue-in-cheek model of the anti-hipster Guild of Engineers has angered those who interpret it literally, my rhetorical goal is to make a point:  that the hard work of engineering isn’t glamorous, and is often invisible to the media or the reigning pop culture of start-ups you’ll find in San Francisco.  If you want to build a successful technology company, you would do well to target the experienced  folks who have been honing their craft in the trenches of Silicon Valley for the last few decades, and those whom they’ve mentored. ]

Published by Michael Driscoll

Founder @RillData. Previously @Metamarkets. Investor @DCVC. Lapsed computational biologist.

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