Valley vs Alley

In an interview in New York recently, I got one of my favorite questions ever: “Besides technical things and coding, what’s something you’ve done that you’re proud of or happy about?”

In the Bay Area, I knew people who would ask candidates, “If you had a Sunday afternoon with no obligations, what would you do?” And they were honestly disappointed if the answer was anything other than “work on open source projects.”

“Dive into a book.”

“Get outside and go hiking.”

“Practice the guitar.”
“Get some friends and barbeque.”

It wasn’t a make-or-break thing, but these two questions illustrate a huge, huge difference between the New York and Silicon Valley tech scenes that’s become ever-more obvious since I moved from Sunnyvale to Brooklyn.

“What’s your job?” Programming. “What’s your hobby?” Programming. “What do you do when you’re not programming?” Think about programming.

— David Reid (@dreid) March 9, 2013

The “funny” thing about David Reid’s tweet of a few months ago is that it’s only half-a-joke in the Valley.

I have an impossibly hard time imagining a New York developer crafting that joke. (Now, watch, I’ll find out David heard it at GothamJS.)

I know I’ve used personal examples, and that’s not wildly appropriate, so I apologize to those people, but these are symptoms of a larger cultural difference.

In the Valley, “tech” is the industry. It’s a massive company town.

That isn’t true in New York. At best, after finance and advertising, we could vie for third with fashion, journalism and content creation, etc…

The effect is that we don’t end up quite as bubbled as the Valley. (New York is definitely in a bubble, just not a tech scene bubble. “You have to go to the new Armory installation.” “No, let me tell you the best pizza in New York.”) And because we’re constantly exposed to people from other industries, we end up doing two things.

We find and explore common interests outside of work so we can befriend these people who go into totally strange offices and do things we can’t fully describe. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

And we get to cross-pollinate perspectives and draw new ideas to solve problems we wouldn’t have seen if not for drinking a beer with that lawyer that one time.

I would try to spin this conclusion to be balanced, but, for me at least, it’s not. I know people who love and thrive in the Valley culture, people I think would be miserable here. And beyond being good for them, it’s ultimately a good thing to have a place like that. Amazing ideas and implementations have and will continue to come out of the Valley.

Nor is New York a wonderful bastion of work-life balance. We all know—or vaguely remember, anyway—the finance people pulling 90-hour weeks when things are normal.

But I do things besides write software. That’s a good thing and I love being asked about it during an interview.