So, there was this Paul Graham interview going around recently. Which was originally behind a paywall, so the link that got passed around was from Valleywag; I wondered how much they might be quoting out of context (which is what Graham claimed), but looking at the full text and The Information’s explanation, it seems not?
It was interesting to watch it go through my Twitter feed, though: I didn’t realize that my Twitter feed contained so many people who would take Graham’s side in response to the initial post. So I live in a little bit less of a bubble than I think, which is good? 
Anyways; it’s about a month later, and it’s still stuck with me: there are a lot of layers there, and it produced a fair amount of interesting commentary.
First, there’s a surface question: is Graham a sexist asshole? (Which is, after all, hardly unprecedented in the startup space.) I tend to think that he’s not, but it’s not like I know they guy; as Jay Smooth taught us, though, that’s the wrong question: don’t talk about what somebody is, talk about what they did. And yeah, the way he talks about women (or girls) in that interview is not great, and it’s not an isolated incident: Sam Biddle suggests that you search Paul Graham’s website for the word “women”, and the results, as Biddle chronicles, make it seem to me like he doesn’t think about women much in general and, when he does, he categorizes them as the other. (He certainly talks about them very differently from how he talks about Mark Zuckerberg!)
But really, Graham is just one person: in some sense an important person, sure, but, well, there are a lot of people in the world. So, for example, one question that is more important is: do VC firms as a whole reinforce or work against sexism in startups? (And, to tie it back to Graham, one might wonder how Y Combinator stacks up.) Graham wrote a second followup post that spent a lot of time on this; and, I will say, I came out of that post with the belief that Y Combinator was doing a decent job of being conscious of this issue and trying to push against it. So, in all sincerity: yay for them.
But I also think that last post has some issues. For one thing, it contains more of Graham’s othering of women: comparing women to aliens (or whatever that “you could have eyeballs on stalks” comment is supposed to mean) is entirely in line with the quotes that Sam Biddle pointed out. But there’s also this, uh, meritocratic? Social Darwinian? tone to it which ignores the issue of systemic bias in important ways.
I’m referring specifically to following:
A lot of people outside the startup world seem to assume that investors have the same sort of naive bias ordinary people do when deciding who to invite to join a club—that they simply fund the people most like them. That is not true. What drives most investors is money. As it should, because they have a fiduciary duty to their limited partners. So while they have biases, their biases are merely instances of stupidity, not principles they feel they have to uphold. When they realize they’ve been overlooking some type of startup or founder, they stop, because it means they’ve been losing money. All it takes is another investor who’s willing to fund the companies they’re overlooking.
This is, in large part, bullshit. Rich investors do not have some sort of magic power to avoid falling prey to societal bias by following the smell of money, and talking about whether following that bias is stupidity or principles is irrelevant. The world has contained rich investors for millennia; and those same millennia have been full of societies controlled by rich people minimizing the rights of those with different wealth levels, family heritage, and genders from themselves. Any claim that those in power will just stop when they realize that they’ve been overlooking a class of people and they could potentially make more money if they didn’t do that has to be tested against those millennia of context; to me, Graham’s claim doesn’t even hold up to minimal scrutiny. (Or when tested against other contexts: there’s an awful lot of fabulation around fund managers of all sorts, to pick another example.)
Compare this to the Graham’s claim in the original interview that
That’s a self selected group of people. Anybody who wants to apply can go to that thing. They’re not discriminating for or against anyone. If you want to see what a cross section of programmers looks like, just go look at that or any other conference, doesn’t have to be PyCon specifically.
Or you could look at commits in open source projects. Once again self selected, these people don’t even meet in person. It’s all by email, no one can be intimidated by or feel like an outcast for something like that.
This is a similar sort of faith that equality will just win out by letting people follow their instincts for success in a field; but I have no idea how he can claim with a straight face that nobody can be intimidated over e-mail, and women’s participation rates in open source communities are much, much lower than their participation rates in commercial software jobs.
Returning to investors, I of course understand why they are focused on profit, and I certainly want my own bank account to be healthy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a yardstick that I want to be singlehandedly driven by: I also care about justice, fairness, simple human decency, real lives. So I don’t care whether VCs will make more or less money by excluding women: it’s the wrong thing to do either way. I’m not necessarily asking people to walk away from Omelas here; but that’s a question that’s much more worth asking, and one that matters a lot more than whether rich people will get richer by expanding the pool of whom they invest in.
Stepping briefly away from tech culture sexism: a part of the interview that hit me at a more directly personal level was its presentation of age. I’m specifically talking about these paragraphs:
The problem with that is I think, at least with technology companies, the people who are really good technology founders have a genuine deep interest in technology. In fact, I’ve heard startups say that they did not like to hire people who had only started programming when they became CS majors in college.
If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it own their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.
I liked DHH’s pushback on that one; but here’s how it felt to me. First, I’ll admit straight up: I’m not a founder type, I’m not going to be asking VCs for money and they wouldn’t be likely to give it to me if I did. But I don’t read those paragraphs as really being about what founder-specific profiling as opposed to programmer profiling: if that’s where he was coming from, he would have been talking about 13-year-old’s entrepreneurial drives instead of their hacking drives, and he wouldn’t have brought up startups not wanting to hire people.
(And, incidentally: wow, what a weasel phrase “I’ve heard startups say” is. If you think that’s a good approach, own up to it. If you don’t think that’s a good approach, then say so.)
But, with that aside, here is my personal take on the quote: when I was 13 years old, yes I was driven. And that made me different from a lot of people, and it made me different in ways that made me a stronger person, that gave me distinctive skills.
What I was driven to do, however, wasn’t programming: it was math. My family did actually have a computer (we got it when I was 11; and that very much was a sign of privilege, of resources and priorities that I’m very glad my parents had), and I did do some programming on it, but not a lot: I wrote one program that was probably somewhat impressive given the context, but my memory is that basically I didn’t program significant amounts for years during that period.
I did spend a lot of time on math, though: some when I was 13, and then more and more in high school and college. (For example, towards the end of high school, I was getting copies of graduate level abstract algebra text books, poring over them, trying to do all the exercises.) I had other interests, and yes, programming was one of them: when I turned 16 or 17, I started programming again and was good at it, but it clearly took a second seat to math.
And that continued in college, too: I took a grand total of two CS courses, but I also spent a lot of time in the computer center, and had a bunch of programming-related jobs, partly because of interest and partly because that was the skill I had that I could make money off of the most easily. But I spent more time on math than on programming, and as much time on other pursuits (e.g. learning dead languages) as programming. I never considered being a CS major or going to grad school in CS: I was clearly going to math grad school.
Which was great; but, as it turned out in my postdoc, being a research mathematician was not nearly as good a fit for me as I thought. So I needed to find another way to make money; and, as when I was an undergrad, programming was something that I was good at, that I enjoyed, and that companies paid good salaries for. So I changed careers; that was totally the right move, and over the last decade I really have been pretty obsessed with programming.
But, if we follow Mr. Graham’s advice, or the advice of those unnamed startups, then I never should have been hired: I wasn’t a 13-year-old hacker, I wasn’t focused on programming when I was in college, so I clearly can’t be worth spending time on.
Of course, I didn’t actually have trouble getting hired. Part of this is because companies didn’t always profile in the way that Graham suggests: they tried to get evidence as to whether or not I actually could program, not just evidence as to whether my profile suggested that I should be able to program. But that’s not all of it: being a math major will give you just as much of a leg up in interviews as being a CS major will, interviews around here are full of questions that are only tangentially relevant to programming wisdom but that are all about a certain sort of cleverness. And not only do society’s biases assume that mathematicians are clever in that way, it’s also the case that doing contest math for years is a great way to prep for that sort of interview question. So, really, I got a huge boost from profiling; it’s very similar to Philip Guo’s great post on Silent Technical Privilege, we both ended up in situations where people assumed that we could program well, and with the benefit of those assumptions, that proved to be the case. Great for us, even great for the people who gave us a chance, but not great for people who weren’t given that sort of chance.
Now, to be fair: there are multiple sides to this. For one thing, I certainly don’t want to discount the value of having been immersed on programming for a decade before a given job: it takes years to develop deep expertise. I’m just saying that you should focus on the resulting expertise, not on the timeline, and certainly not on the exact start date of the timeline. And, in his followup to the interview, Graham explicitly agrees with that latter statement, advocating late binding. Also, there are two sides to age issues: right now, I’m sensitive to valorizing youthful programming (being already noticeably on the wrong side of the age curve in Silicon Valley startups), and I’m certainly not the only one who feels that way (see this Kathy Sierra tweet), but Graham’s second response painted 2005-era young founders as a disadvantaged group, I assume he’s right in that, and that hasn’t gone away either. (I’ve personally seen startups shy away from hiring people because they’re too young, and I ran across this post on the issue today.)
Stepping back to the broader question, though: let’s return to the context of VC firms trying to figure out how to make money. Maybe it is the case that appealing to young men who have immersed themselves in programming during their adolescent years is a reasonable way for VCs to try to reach that goal: if so, it would be nice if they would still look for other paths to that goal, but I can imagine where they’re coming from.
But: VC firms’ goals aren’t my goals, and in fact our interests aren’t particularly well aligned. So the reason why I believe that that’s a plausible approach for VC firms to take isn’t because I believe in any young male hacker superpowers: it’s because my (admittedly naive / completely uninformed) beliefs about history are consistent with the idea that young men have a notable weakness for doing stupid stuff in the name of glory while the real profits accrue to those in power.
VCs are there to make money for themselves. Not only are they not there to make money for employees at companies they run, they don’t even care if individual companies succeed or fail. They are playing a statistical game; there is absolutely no reason to assume that there’s any link between what is good for them and what is good for somebody working for their firms. They want to squeeze employees in hopes that one out of ten companies will be a big enough success to compensate for the other nine companies that implode, and even the successful firm is likely to be littered with bodies.
So don’t spend time worrying about what’s good for VCs; figure out the kind of world that you want to live in, and make choices accordingly. This is a point that Cathy O’Neil’s mathbabe blog is good at, e.g. her recent asking in “Lean in to what?” about differential ethics of men versus women, or a post from 2012 asking “Why are smart men willing to spend their lives in the quest of leading these companies, considering how awful the conditions are?”; I also highly recommend her first bit of advice in her most recent Aunt Pythia’s advice column.
And that question of what sort of world I want to live in (and how to make my current world look more like that one) is one I ask myself all of the time. I don’t have any great answers; I will say, though, that, in any sort of world like that, there will be women and men in more or less balanced numbers, there will be people of all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. It’s just the right thing to do, and it makes life so much richer and more interesting.
 The most entertaining link that I came across in that direction was this post on Medium: some of that post is reasonable, but it also says that “I’ve seen dozens of people mention when they started programming in an effort to refute a point that I don’t think Paul ever made, that you must begin programming before you’re 13 to be a successful startup founder.” (Emphasis in the original.) This is one of the rare instances where I recommend reading the comments to an article, because a commenter pointed at Graham’s statement that “Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13.”, which is exactly what the article claimed didn’t exist. To which the author of the post replied: “Because the thing you quoted is obviously wrong if you choose to strictly interpret “invariably.” It’s clearly not literal.” Um.