The Startup Mythologies Trifecta

They work together in concert, and in practice, function to exclude and marginalize minorities in tech.

At the heart of tech is a trifecta of mythologies: the myth of programming as the most important force within the industry; the myth of the financial opportunity available to startup employees; and the founder mythology – a collection of tropes which position founders and their work at the center of the field.

These three mythologies drive access to all of tech’s resources, and provide a rubric for distributing its wealth and opportunities. These glamorized, simplified, falsified images, these manufactured tropes and stories, make it easy to justify differences in how people and roles are valued, and create systems that bestow very particular groups of people with power, money and social capital. They work together in concert, and in practice, function to exclude and marginalize minorities in tech.

Myth One: Technical talent – and specifically programming - is the most important skillset in the industry and within companies.

WHERE IT SHOWS UP

The privileging of technical talent, and the centering of it in the culture, is pervasive. It is visible in the higher salaries engineers often command compared to other roles, and in the different standards of behavior they are often held to compared to other employees. It appears in statements by venture capitalists about the talent they look for in founders, and is common in mass media depictions such as recent blockbuster The Social Network and the new HBO show Silicon Valley.

Two young men in stereotypical nerd collared shirts sit behind a desk cluttered with wires, beer bottles, red bull, coffee cups, computer equipment and old food. Technical employees on HBO's Silicon Valley

WHY IT HAPPENS

In practice, people who have programming ability that is valued by the culture often come from privileged backgrounds that include early access to computers and technical education, participation in prestigious academic programs, and in the case of “self-taught” programmers, base resources and often copious amounts of time. Sexism and racism often keep other groups out of these career paths. Privileging technical talent thus functions to automatically maintain the position of the already dominant class – straight white men from privileged backgrounds. The privileging and prestige of the role also provides a distraction from any actual or perceived tension between management and the programming workforce – including technical units’ actual vs. perceived autonomy, outsourcing of programming positions, corporate desire for programmers to work beyond what constitutes a reasonable work/life balance, etc. In addition, the construction of programming as the creative and corporate power center within organizations helps the management of tech companies - especially large ones - recruit and retain programming talent despite the fact that the actual amount of influence and autonomy programmers can exercise may be much lower than what the myth itself suggests.

THE REALITY

Programming is just one part of what constitutes a functional and successful tech company – ignoring or devaluing other aspects can, and often does, lead to widespread company dysfunction. Many programming, development and engineering positions don’t involve coming up with product concepts or designs, or even anything new at all – in fact, they often involve implementing the concepts and direction of other business units, or maintaining or marginally improving existing software. Much of programming is repetitive, rote, extraordinarily time-consuming, and may be very tedious and frustrating. Actual engineering operations and management positions bear very little resemblance to the popular image of programming as exciting, creative work where you get to come up with and implement new things most of the time. Despite this fact, the image of the autonomous, creative programmer remains the primary trope used to describe and promote engineering positions.

WHY IT’S ESPECIALLY UNTRUE FOR UNDERREPRESENTED AND MARGINALIZED GROUPS IN TECH

These groups tend to be particularly underrepresented in programming, even within the tech industry itself, and attrition rate is high due to discrimination, abuse and lack of advancement opportunity. Additionally, these groups are less likely to make it to senior positions where most creative decision-making power is centralized - i.e. positions where they can make the high-level product and business decisions that are implied by the pervasive image of programming as a creative force. They may also have less free time to use their technical skills for side-projects or to bootstrap a company, where they can actualize this mythology in some capacity. And in a world where the “coding founder” is one of the most valued tropes and VC firms consistently exhibit discriminatory funding practices, marginalized people are also less likely to attain the capital they need to found startups.

2. Being an early startup employee is a good way to make a lot of money.

WHERE IT SHOWS UP

The tech trade press focuses largely on startups raising large amounts of money or obtaining vast wealth through IPO or acquisition. Our most cherished public figures in tech tend to be those who grew extraordinarily rich from founding, or working as early employees for, tech companies. Their stories are embellished, glamorized and re-contextualized into an entire genre of startup lore propagated by companies, venture capitalists and press alike. Money is also positioned as the predominant underlying motivation of starting and growing tech companies, and much of the direction of the industry is driven by the investment of venture capitalists whose sole priority is making more money. And, money is the ultimate scale on which the overall value of startups is determined - regardless of other potential measures, such as positive impact on society.

A group of five young men, posing awkwardly in front of a small backyard swimming pool. All are wearing collared shirts. One man wears a professor style blazer, with elbow patches, another has a Patagonia fleece vest. These early startup employees shown in HBO's Silicon Valley expect to be handsomely rewarded.

WHY IT HAPPENS

The chance of earning disproportionate wealth through some element of skill, timing and luck is a pillar of the belief in meritocracy, which provides both an individual psychological mechanism to explain the achievement of this wealth, and a justification for the ongoing disparities within the industry. This myth convinces early startup employees to give up many years of their lives wherein startups are their sole focus… a pattern which often benefits investors far more than employees. This myth also helps convince tech workers to join small, unstable startups rather than larger companies which may have more resources to provide good benefits, a better work-life balance, a concrete career path, more reliable income and other clear advantages.

THE REALITY

Very, very few early startup employees get any significant money out of their stock options - especially not enough to make up for the often years of under-compensation justified by equity. Early employees’ stock also tends to get heavily diluted over years as the startup takes subsequent rounds of investment. Further, purchasing their stock when they leave companies may cost a significant amount of money and incur a large amount of taxes that may actually economically disadvantage early startup employees. Despite the fact that many will readily acknowledge that most people do NOT get rich from startups, there is very little examination of how this system manipulates and takes advantage of startup employees, and there remains a pervasive and often unsubstantiated belief of people in the dominant groups that they are special, important and smart enough to beat the odds.

WHY IT’S ESPECIALLY UNTRUE FOR UNDERREPRESENTED AND MARGINALIZED GROUPS IN TECH

Most of the VC money in tech flows to startups that are dominated by white men, who tend to hire other white men as early employees. Often, people from marginalized and underrepresented groups aren’t hired until much later, when there is much less equity available; and due to the fact they are undercompensated compared to the dominant group in tech, might receive less equity anyways.

A middle aged white man lectures the viewer about the venture capitol deal he is prepared to offer, hands clasped, in an office backed by bookshelves. He is wearing a sweater over a button down. Is this VC depicted on HBO's Silicon Valley likely to fund people from marginalized groups?

3. The Founder Myth

WHERE IT SHOWS UP

Founders are covered more frequently in tech press than people in any other position. Opulent and expensive events, dinners, conferences, clubs and even online networks are dedicated specifically to this role. Many founders brag about the access they have to the prestigious network of other founders and venture capitalists. And tech’s “celebrities” are almost universally founders. This myth is very much intertwined with the idea that founding a startup is incredibly glamorous, exciting and fulfilling work.

A young white man who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, in a collared button down and a hoodie, walks with an older white man wearing a baseball hat. They are walking together outside, a piece of rusted farm equipment is in the background. In the scene the younger man is trying to pitch his startup to the condescending older man. HBO's Silicon Valley chose an actor that looks like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to represent the founder.

THE REALITY

The focus on founders obscures the importance and contributions of dozens, hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousand of people involved in a company’s success. Many founders are incompetent, sociopaths or both; often startups succeed in spite of them, not because of them. Founders become great as much through the systems of privilege and access around them as their personal volition and attributes. In addition, running a startup is not particularly glamorous. Most startups do not experience explosive growth, have access to hundreds of millions of dollars in capital, and get the immediate fame and notoriety granted to certain startups who fit a particular niche or image. Running a startup requires a tremendous amount of administrative work and acumen - from incorporating, to taxation, book-keeping, payroll, payment processors, finding and maintaining an office, etc. Even if if the startup employs external help, managing these constitutes a non-trivial amount of time, and is directly opposed to the glamorized image of the job.

WHY IT HAPPENS

For many VCs, especially those using a “spray and pray” strategy or doing early-stage investment, maintaining the prestige around founders feeds into their ability to get large amounts of startup equity for relatively small investments of money. The “cult of personality” that develops around startup founders and the mythical image that accompanies the role of being a “founder” also helps to justify the often disproportionate wealth, fame, access and power they may attain, and ensure that this wealth remains distributed across a relatively small group of people. Regarding the idea of running startups as a “glamorous” thing, most of the “non-glamorous” labor in startups is disproportionately performed by people from marginalized and underrepresented groups in tech - therefore it is de-valued and even made “invisible” by the dominant narratives.

WHY IT’S ESPECIALLY UNTRUE FOR UNDERREPRESENTED AND MARGINALIZED GROUPS IN TECH

Because these groups are massively discriminated against by venture capital and the industry, because they have less access to the wealth, access and resources needed to bootstrap a company, and because of higher tolls on their time and energy, these groups start companies less and thus can’t attain the founder position in the first place. Also, people from marginalized/underrepresented groups aren’t given the prestige, respectability and access granted to many founders anyways, even when they DO start their own companies.

Deconstructing the Trifecta

These mythologies all work in concert. The tropes elevating programming talent feed into the prestige given to founders. The glamorous image of founders and startups helps feed the myth around the “get rich quick” trap of startup equity. The privileging of technical talent influences who gets to become founders; and those founders help determine who even has a shot at what is often termed the “startup lotto.”

A middle aged white man in a zip polo sweater points to a male young engineer, lecturing him. A power relationship in a scene from HBO's Silicon Valley

These myths also have motivations in common – often, they can conceal, justify or distract from actual or perceived tensions and power relationships – whether it be between VCs and potential founders, non-technical and technical employees, or management and the workforce.

Ultimately, understanding what the mythologies are vs. the reality, how these myths are created and propagated, how they work together, and how they disproportionately punish and exclude minorities in tech is critical to tearing down some of the structure underlying tech’s inequalities.