Jan 22, 2018

Sergey Brin, my Father, and our culture

On growing up in Silicon Valley

For most of the world, Sergey Brin’s story was elevated to myth after Google’s 2004 IPO. By 2008, the Economist had proclaimed Brin to be the “Enlightenment Man” of our era. His ascent after that was the stuff of classic Silicon Valley legend: A visionary drops out of school, spends time in a garage and emerges enlightened. Investors throughout the Valley lined up at his feet to offer patronage. As another Soviet Russian-Jewish emigre named Sergey at birth, I found myself awestruck when I passed by Brin as he hot-tubbed between diving sessions at Stanford’s swimming pool in 2002. So when in 2005, I too dropped out of college as Brin had, I imagined myself launching the next big thing.

But the burden of achieving early success in the model of Brin predictably led to impulsive decisions and unrealistic expectations. In college, I had spent much of my waking life plotting out and developing an online textbook exchange service (source), a secondary marketplace that never seemed to crest 10,000 users. Compared to Google, my textbook exchange was a failure. I subsequently began launching other products left and right, believing that with the right concept, I would break the million-user ceiling. Two years later, a tech company, Chegg, launched and eventually scaled the same textbook idea I had attempted in my dorm room to a 1,000+ employee company. At the time, I was so busy working on new social networks (#1, #2), I barely noticed Chegg taking off. Nurturing a product beyond two years required too much patience for a 19-year-old carrying such ambitions.

Restless within the boiler room of Valley culture, I flew to Beijing to find inspiration (and somewhere in the process, adopted my childhood nickname Segah). Eventually I learned that flying halfway around the world on a whim was not a great path to insight. The answers I sought were in fact closer to home.

True introspection came from my father, a security network architect with 25 years of experience consulting for such vendors as Checkpoint, Juniper Networks and Cisco. Returning home from a brief stint in Beijing reminded me of my early teenage years and the experiences that first drew me to tech. It was not the cult of idol worship and stardom. It was my father guiding me through Linux shell scripting and me retracing my father’s footsteps through Cisco Networking coursework during my high school junior year. These experiences provided no financial incentive and exacted no obligations, but were intrinsically meaningful.

2003, my first introduction to technology

My father had shown me what great work, genuine work, looks like. Time after time he was helping companies avert fatal disasters, changing their destiny outside of the spotlight. When in 2001 Russian hackers — yes, they existed even back then — took down licensing servers of his client company a month before its IPO, blocking thousands of this company’s users on Wall Street from access, and potentially costing the company millions, it was my father who labored overnight to restore everyone’s access. The company subsequently did cancel its IPO, but it was not because of the licensing servers.

In many ways, my father’s consulting career resembled that of a doctor caring for patients. His work could mean life or death for companies facing a network shutdown or security breach. His work, the accumulation of years of expertise, helped others precisely when they needed it most. As with surgery, there was no room for error. People do not become great doctors overnight, and sloppy surgery can end a career. There was no room for short-term fixes and promises that could not be kept. My father had weathered the Valley’s boom and bust cycles and knew the difference between authenticity and a facade. He had not been raised in Brin’s shadow. His childhood had been spent in the Soviet Union and he had no stomach for well-polished illusions.

Returning home enabled me to rediscover my appreciation for technology. I’d been so focused on the metrics-based, investor-driven vision of success that had been prevalent in the Valley that I’d forgotten what made technology fun and intrinsically worthwhile for me. Daily active users, monthly active users, clickthroughs, conversions, pick your metric … None of these metrics really gets at the idea that technology is about something much more qualitative. As my views changed, I realized that pursuing the more glamorous path of inventing the next great thing was no longer the right goal for me.

At about the same time I was personally coming to terms with my own disillusionment, the technology community as a whole started to collectively experience various forms of dissatisfaction with the web. What I and others in the community are coming to realize now is that the closed web is a perversion of the internet’s original promise. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

these apps offer well-cultivated walled gardens that keep us locked into their user experiences,

subservient to our phones, passive recipients of self-reinforcing information that streams endlessly into our newsfeeds. Turns out “free” comes at a price. Parents are increasingly worried about the detrimental impacts of social media’s influence, and once-idealistic founders feel jaded about competing in a world dominated by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. As these forces continue unchecked, many of us are growing increasingly anxious.

As technologists, we’re used to making tradeoffs. When WhatsApp’s engineers released the messenger for an annual subscription fee of $1 without ads, they must have juggled tradeoffs in multiple areas–for instance, adoption versus user experience. Had they chosen to use ads instead, the user experience could have suffered, despite potentially giving the company an early spike in growth. Likewise, when Dropbox famously offered its early users free storage as a reward for friend referrals, the company chose to overinvest in its early customers over the strategy of buying its new users with lead generating ads. Such examples of creativity are becoming increasingly rare in today’s Silicon Valley, a culture dominated by ad revenue and VC-backed business models. These business models are only driven by the desire to flip start-ups in one to two years to Facebook. And those of us who consider technology a creative act of self-expression worry that we are no longer artists expressing ourselves through technology, but instead are commodified art pieces hanging in Zuckerberg’s gallery.

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It’s worth noting that Silicon Valley has been compared to Florence during the Renaissance. Certainly there are similarities. Innovation, competition, and risk-taking flourished in Renaissance Florence and artists during this time had their patrons, just as today’s Silicon Valley startups have their VC backers. But Renaissance artists weren’t rewarded for moving fast and breaking things. Masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s David were created over a period of years, not months. And Leonardo da Vinci apprenticed for 10 years in a workshop in Florence, starting with basic tasks and gradually earning increased responsibilities and freedom.

It’s a mindset we could use more of today. A shift in the way we in the tech community think about ourselves and approach our work. We need a fusing of technology and art that involves patience, the willingness to dive deep and slow down. As technical artisans, we can derive intrinsic meaning and satisfaction when we labor with the same depth, care, and creativity that sculptors and painters did during the Renaissance.

This mindset also involves being open to recognizing potential where we might least expect it. In a world dominated by Facebook, Google, and Amazon, it’s useful to keep in mind that there are many talented technical artisans who are little known or unknown, working behind the scenes. People like my father. People all over Silicon Valley and beyond whose contributions challenge the status quo and expand the range of what is imaginable.

This very insight is what helped me start a data consulting firm two years ago. There was no glamour associated with taking on a supporting function. I did not join Tesla, Uber or Facebook. There was nothing to brag about. And yet, I savor this experience. We — engineers, writers, analysts, scientists, marketers — are all born as artists. Not all art gets the exposure it deserves. But when it does, it has a tremendous value to our culture. Regardless of what environment we find ourselves in, we have the ability to use our imagination, find inspiration from our surroundings, and create things of value.