The history of Silicon Valley Bro culture, and how I hope we can defeat it

I’ve recently been reading Brotopia; an eye-opening book by Emily Chang, covering how hard it can be as a woman to make it in Silicon Valley. I’d recommend this book to absolutely anyone; no matter what sector you work in, or want to work in, the stories Emily Chang tells should be known to everyone. The amount of emotional and mental stress that so many women have gone through, and still go through every day in Silicon Valley, should be a call for action to break up ‘Bro culture’.

‘Bro culture’ exists not only in tech; you’ll find it in industries like banking and politics, but with so much economic power shifting to tech companies, it’s important to understand who holds this economic power… And why it’s rarely women.

A big part (and problem) of tech ‘Bro culture’ is the abundance of brogrammers. The term was coined up for the male programmer that shows traits of being obscenely obnoxious and sexist, and tend to have an aura you would only see in a testosterone-filled frat house.

‘Brogrammers’ tend to be attracted to the high-stakes world of tech start-ups, often turning up to their first day of work equipped with a healthy dose of misogyny and an insane ability to talk their way through sales pitches with little technical experience.

When we discuss brogrammers, we should turn our attention to Trilogy, a start-up founded by Stanford dropout, Joe Liemandt, in 1989. The company was founded and developed in Austin, Texas, and was one of the flaming seeds that planted ‘Bro culture’ into Silicon Valley.

Trilogy’s product was effectively a ‘custom catalog’ that salespeople could use during sales pitches. The initial product ‘sucked’, as Joe himself admitted, but they did succeed enough to sell to the likes of Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Boeing.

Trilogy’s backwards recruitment strategy

People like Joe

As the pressure mounted with competition from Microsoft attracting programmers, Joe made perhaps the boldest move of his career and turned Trilogy’s attention to a certain pool of new hires – people like Joe. This equated to talented, overachieving students with no real-world experience. Joe gave his VP of recruiting, John Price, an ‘unlimited budget’. With this, Price overpaid new graduates with fancy cars, trips to Vegas and a culture filled with gambling and strip clubs. Trilogy became the hottest company to work for in the mid-1990s… That is, for men.

A former employee recalls that all the recruiters were mainly women and were ‘twenty-two and hot’. The idea was that these good-looking women would never usually give engineers the time of day, so candidates would, of course, be excited by this sudden attention given to them. Joe surely realised that this strategy would tend to attract a certain type of candidate, but I guess that’s an ‘oversight’ they were happy to ignore in their search.

Pointless brainteasers

And how did they find those ‘people like Joe’? How could they pinpoint the over-achieving students with enough confidence and charisma to maintain Trilogy’s fake persona of a high-stakes company?

Brainteasers.

You know the ones. The mind-boggling questions given in technical interviews that show no indication of the strength of a candidate’s actual programming skills. “How many buses can you fit into a skyscraper?” “How many dominoes are needed to stretch the Earth’s diameter?” You get the picture.

These questions were not intended to highlight the candidate’s skills in programming, but instead were used as an indication for how confident and risk-taking the candidate would be in answering such obscure questions.

It still blows my mind that even to this day, these brainteasers are still used by tech companies, but maybe that conversation’s best for another blog.

Trilogy: then and now

These strategies helped manifest a culture at Trilogy that was renowned in the late 1990s as the ultimate Bro palace; day-drinking, gambling, and strip clubs. Not exactly the most female-friendly place to work at, yet Trilogy relentlessly attended recruitment drives in universities across the States.

Trilogy kept its same Bro-y image until the end of the 1990s, just in time for the dot-com bubble. Trilogy’s valuations dropped significantly, and they laid off a huge number of staff in the early 2000s.

Trilogy does continue to this day, but after acquiring a few software companies, they work with a slightly more understated culture and are not known to be as misogynist or sleazy as their Bro days.

Bro culture: what’s it like today?

To assume that this kind of culture doesn’t exist in today’s tech companies would be naive. Reading some of the stories in Chang’s ‘Brotopia’ honestly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

To make it in Silicon Valley, you need to be a Bro. If you want that investment in your company, or that promotion you’ve worked so hard for, it’s not just the idea you have or the results you produce; it’s the post-work activities you get involved in. The hot tubs you need to sit in with the male investors, the after-works drinks you need to attend with your touchy feely bosses; the culture oozes sleaze. The sexual harassment you need to put up with and hide in order to ‘save’ your career.

Although we’ve seen a huge number of strong and powerful women in recent years come out with their stories to fight this culture, as well as incredible walk-outs by Google employees, we won’t see a complete change in this behaviour until the Bros are rinsed out.

The biggest ‘old boys’ club

Whilst we worry about Bro culture within tech companies, an equally important issue is Bro culture in the funds that invest in these tech companies. Gender diversity in venture capitalist (VC) funds is astoundingly bad, with women making up around 10% of decision makers at VCs.

Off the back of this, it’s no surprise that only 2% of start-ups in the U.S funded by VCs in 2018 were founded by women. 2 percent.

Here are a couple of the main problems in the VC world.

Problem 1: All-male investors don’t care about issues that aren’t in their own interests

Let’s say you’ve founded a company that meets certain needs of the population; needs that may not directly affect men, perhaps? You’re presenting to a VC fund, easily likely to have an all-male investor presence. Chances are, the comments and feedback you receive from this VC fund won’t be the most diverse, considering the lack of diversity in the investors.

This isn’t uncommon. Check out this story about Zola, a wedding planning start-up that was rejected by a group of all-male investors (and has now raised over $100 million in investments and is one of the fastest-growing wedding companies in the US).

If top VC funds have such a lack in diversity (in both gender and race), innovation will be significantly hampered in areas that don’t just affect white males. This article nails it on the head:

“This argument extends to diversity in general. Not simply that you can sell products to more people, but that individuals from different backgrounds will have different ideas, which drives innovation and, in turn, profit. Diversity isn’t a box ticking exercise, it’s something that has real and tangible benefits. It’s advantageous for businesses, all the way through to consumers.”

Diversity helps in more ways than we can imagine; different viewpoints, a mix of personalities, and the ability to innovate for everyone.

Problem 2: Investors like Michael Moritz.

Michael Moritz, a top investor at Sequoia Capital, uttered these famous words in a Bloomberg interview with Chang regarding why they hadn’t hired a female partner in 2015 (and subsequently buried Sequoia in PR issues).

“In fact, we just hired a young woman from Stanford who’s every bit as good as her peers. And if there are more like her, we’ll hire them. What we’re not prepared to do, is to lower our standards.”

What an idiot.

How dare he make the assumption that skillful, intelligent and talented women don’t exist in tech? For such a powerful individual in tech investing to make these sorts of comments is just downright offensive.

Considering the VC world is so male-dominated, and is known as such an old boys club, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have more narrow-minded investors like Michael Moritz in the tech industry. This needs to change.

After all of this, where can we go from here?

I’m in an extremely lucky position to be one of the few women that has experienced nothing but respect in my tech career so far, but there are many women that have drawn the short straw.

It’s all well and good encouraging more girls and women into tech, but if we can’t fix the Bro culture problem we have in Silicon Valley (and there’s no telling it won’t spread to other areas of the world), how will we ever fix the lack of women in tech leadership?

I can see us addressing this problem by starting from the top.

1. Increased gender diversity in tech investing

If we have more women investing in tech companies, we’ll hopefully see more female-founded companies getting investment. Check out these VC funds founded by women, and the resulting female-founded companies they’re investing in.

2. More women in tech leadership

As more female-founded companies receive investments, we’ll see more female tech leaders making the headlines and attracting the best talent to their firms. We’ll see diverse hiring practices being more frequently adopted, eventually leading to the diverse workforces we long for.

3. Good riddance, Bro culture

It’ll take time, but with less of the Bros, we’ll see more women in Silicon Valley gaining well-deserved promotions. We’ll see less sexual harassment cases in tech. Tech Bro culture could become a thing of the past.

4. Normality for girls considering tech as a career

And after all of this, here’s hoping that girls won’t be afraid of tech as a career.

Girls will believe in their skills after seeing more women than ever making waves in the tech industry.

Girls will have faith in their ideas and pursue their dreams.

Girls will see technology careers as challenging, exciting, innovative and rewarding for anyone.

After all of this, we can work together and hope for change.

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