A lot of people are rightfully worried about the “bubble” that exists around Silicon Valley. In the two weeks I’ve spent immersed deeply in the Bay Area culture, this is the best way I’ve found to explain what’s actually going on:

In the valley, people are willing to adapt their behavior to fit the software.

Everywhere else in the world, people adapt the software to fit their behavior.

Let me explain through an example: One of the things I talk a lot about is how corporate shared calendering systems suck because they’re all built according to a list of features without a consideration of the narratives that people are wanting to express through them. Everywhere else in the world, when I’ve discussed this, people join in the gripe and tell me crazy stories of their own about socially tricky situations made awkward due to shared calendering systems. It’s only in the valley where I tell people this and they go “That’s not a problem for us, we adopted this corporate culture which means our shared calendering system doesn’t suck anymore”. Let me repeat that again for emphasis:

We turned our entire corporate culture upside down to accommodate the whims of a piece of software we wanted to adopt.

That’s crazy. Absolutely, bat shit insane crazy and that’s what’s made the valley such a great place to build software. The valley is uniquely able to take a piece of software in it’s rough, early adopter phase and figure out how to mold their lives so that this software becomes useful. This is the classic early adopter pattern and it happens to people everywhere around the world but only in the valley is it a cultural norm and you’re looked at weirdly if you’re not willing to join in. It’s only in the valley where I’ve met companies who now have their entire corporate philosophy centered around being OK with you publicly declaring that you’re going to take a nap in your office and that you should not be disturbed solely because their shared calendering system didn’t have the effective privacy controls necessary to navigate that tricky social dance.

This attitude is so pervasive and so normal within the valley that it’s taken an outsider like me to come in and point out to people how goddamn weird that is. When I put it the way I do, people get pretty disturbed and rightly so. Because, while the valley is a uniquely great place to be building software, it’s not a great place to be designing it. Over and over again, I’ve encountered the pervasive attitude of “Well, the average user will just have to make this fundamental shift in the way they conduct their lives and it’ll be great. They’ll do it because the benefits will outweigh the costs”. That companies don’t understand on a gut level how unrealistic such a statement is for anyone living outside of the valley is, IMO, the primary cause of failure for startups that never manage to move out of the valley.

I really don’t know what the solution to this problem is except to become acutely conscious of it and to fight that impulse at every turn. There’s a certain ambivalence I have towards moving to the valley as a result of this, this visceral fear of being digested by the valley process and emerge the other end as a pod person. A year ago, the last time I was planning to move down here, I don’t know if I would have had sufficient life experience or insight to articulate the pattern that happens in the valley. If were to avoid the valley for another year, who knows what insights I’d be able to articulate then that I’m still not able to articulate now?

  • http://blipbloop.net Zach Hale

    Well put. That's what I've experienced and while I think it'd be fun to be immersed in such a culture, it also scares the shit out of me. I enjoy the perspective I have outside of the valley and don't think I'm at all inhibited in creating great products where I'm at. Granted, I'm also not looking for funding. ;)

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  • http://twitter.com/tobiasprinz Tobias Prinz

    See, always try to sell my lack of flexibility as “basic usability analysis”. ;-)

    Here's my take on the part about adopting behaviours to fit technologies:

    Adapting your life to fit a technology is not generally bad. Actually, it is how we humans do most things, isn't it? Writing for example: Isn't it strange that we adapted so much that most stuff we use requires us to be able to read the instructions/street signs?

    The fun things is: Early adopters usually adapt to stupid things, too. It is somewhat hard to decide when this makes sense or not. I chose not to be an early adopter. I may not be as cool, but it preserves my dignity ;-)

    So, on the calendar thing: I happen to work for a company that went to great lengths to implement this privacy thing in a company calendar, starting more than 5 years ago. I'd say that most products that force openness do it because it is easier and the devs were pissed off by all the complicated use cases / user stories / narratives. But some went this way, because modeling a consistent system based on our behaviours (“no, my secretary does not need to know where I spend the night, but she needs some facts to tell my wife” is one of my favourite use cases. I very much deny the existence of such user stories in our technical documents, of course) sometimes does not work.

    In this case, technology gives us a hint how we can change our lives to be more consistent, which, for me, saves me a lot of trouble.

    Another example: Being logged in here with my twitter account forced me to make a conscious decision about the information I am divulging. It actually made my life better to adapt to this “I'm me”/”I'm someone fake”/”I'm anonymous” trinity of personalities ;-)

    But yes, people also do stupid things because of technology. And those in The Valley probably more than most ;-)

  • Hang

    Hi Tobias,

    Thanks for your comments! Of course, I was making an extreme point with my dichotomy, people can be forced, through extreme effort, to change the fundamentals of how they behave to better accommodate technology.

    The difference in the valley is the casualness of it and the feeling that it's not a big deal. It's a failure to appreciate that, for their software to be useful requires a major lifestyle change for most people.

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  • Guest

    Or a variation: software is designed to fit the behavior of the designer(s), not the behavior of people everywhere else in the world.

    Thus, gmail.

    Sometimes useful, sometimes annoying.

  • Rodger

    I just did my own rant on a similar topic.

    Why Is Your Software Such Crap??!!!
    http://rodgersnotes.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/why-is-your-software-such-crap/

    I say, software is supposed to serve us. We are not supposed to serve the software.

    Another variation are managers who use MS Project and expect that everything will go perfectly. When in reality software projects usually have lots of surprise factor. Especially when everyone skips the analysis, and design phases and just charges ahead coding.

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  • http://twitter.com/chrisyeh chrisyeh

    You can avoid drinking the Valley Kool-Aid as long as you maintain friendships with people who are 1) outside the Valley, and 2) not in the high-tech industry. It’s too easy to dismiss your parents as being out of touch; harder to do so with a peer.

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