Explained: why people are angry at Paul Graham

So Paul Graham said some stuff and Valleywag covered it second-hand. Some people are pissed, some people are pissed that other people are pissed.

Was Graham misquoted? Is he a cartoon villain, twirling his mustache as he gleefully sends a train filled with female founders into a ravine?

He doesn’t seem to have been misquoted too dramatically, but he’s tied no one to railroad tracks either. His perceptions, made public, do explain a lot about why it’s such a challenge for certain folks to get funding for their technology venture.

Now we have full text thanks to Jessica Lessin, editor at The Information, where Graham’s words originally appeared. You can read the whole thing, but I’m going to point to parts that are most vexing.

The Pipeline

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. It’s already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers.

The argument here is that investors are powerless to change the status quo. The number of people who are interested in computers and the internet, and who happen to be women, is so small of course you won’t see many female founders.

There’s a few problems with this. Y Combinator launched in 2005 with the batch that brought us Reddit. In 2005, 20% of CS Bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, along with 28% of CS Master’s degrees.

What was the percentage of women who co-founded a YC company in 2005?

0%. Paul Graham emailed to correct:

There was actually a female founder in the summer 2005 batch.  (That picture you found isn’t a complete one.)

Moreover, the notion that you have to have been programming since age 13 is also problematic. It excludes all but the most fortunate of people, leaving only those who:

  • Had long-term access to a computer growing up
  • Had access to a person who could, even if indirectly, mentor them on its use

Me, I only started programming at 19. By 20, I was selling enough software on the internet to pay rent on my apartment. What makes 19 less valid than 13? Or 29 for that matter? Finding it on your own is great, I very much agree. Why the age obsession?

You can look at this two ways: Graham is over-stating the powerlessness due to the pipeline problem, or Graham is exaggerating the pipeline problem by making it so long that you have to have Tiger Woods-level childhood obsession to be a valid contributor to technology.

There’s legitimate beef to be had with either interpretation.

PyCon

You can tell what the pool of potential startup founders looks like. There’s a bunch of ways you can do it. You can go on Google and search for audience photos of PyCon, for example, which is this big Python conference. 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.

PyCon has worked very hard to create an inclusive environment. It sponsored attendance for those economically disadvantaged. It created and enforced a code of conduct for all attendees. It gave space to Ada Initiative, which provided a feminist hacker lounge in cooperation with PyLadies. PyCon went out of its way to ensure that women who wanted to participate would feel welcome.

In exchange, it saw a record number of female speakers and attendees in 2013.

Far from exonerating inaction, PyCon stands as an example of how and why to do it better.

Y Combinator is the premiere startup accelerator. With its pedigree, you’re telling me a bit of outreach wouldn’t turn up a few extra female founders?

Open Source

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.

It turns out you can: earlier this month a project by the “Feminist Software Foundation,” spearheaded by 4chan enthusiasts, emerged on GitHub. It mocked the cause of feminism at large, along with its interest in technology. The project spoofed commits by other GitHub contributors who have been outspoken on issues around social justice. These folks also got some fun Twitter interactions.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ashe Dryden covers this well:

I know many women that either don’t contribute to OSS because they’ve been dismissed for being women – being too pretty, not pretty enough, being forced to prove their competence more than their male counterparts because they’re women. I’ve talked to women who use gender-ambiguous GitHub names and don’t post a picture of themselves as their avatar because of how quickly this happens. In addition, the sexual harassment, slurs, and other derogatory language that are used directly or indirectly at these groups of people causes many to not want to participate at all. Additionally, there are very public instances of assuming someone is male.

Most damning: “approximately 1.5% of F/LOSS contributors are female as compared to 28% in proprietary software.” So OSS is definitely not where you want to look for female startup founders.

Zuckerberg

No, the problem is these women are not by the time get to 23…Like Mark Zuckerberg starts programming, starts messing about with computers when he’s like 10 or whatever. By the time he’s starting Facebook he’s a hacker, and so he looks at the world through hacker eyes. That’s what causes him to start Facebook. We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

Paul: Enough about Zuckerberg. You always seem to get yourself in trouble when you speak of your obsession with this young man.

YC has been around for nearly as long as Facebook has. If they were onto something on the scale of Facebook, we’d probably smell it by now. YC has certainly had some successes, but its top stuff is funded or acquired at levels, so far, easily matched by the budget of a big summer movie.

So maybe YC doesn’t yet know what it takes to make a Facebook-level product. That’s okay! I think it’s a perfectly reasonable idea to try and figure that out.

But Zuckerberg is already Zuckerberg. There’s no one else who can take his place. Cloning him is really going to limit the scope of problems you’re able to tackle. He’s a brilliant technologist and a tenacious leader, but Zuckerberg is a billionaire because once upon a time he wanted a great way to check out chicks at his Ivy League university.

The world’s problems – not to mention the pots of lucre waiting to be liberated for solving them – are far more complex and varied. What if there was more than one way to arrive at the “hacker eyes” perspective Graham is looking for?

What if “hacker eyes” aren’t the only perspective that can propel a startup to success?

Leave Paul alone?

Nah. He’s in the business of making money.

I betcha anything he makes a lot more money when he broadens the scope of his ideal founder recruitment beyond horny, privileged Harvard boys. Then we all win. Be civil, but keep on him and his investor colleagues.

But why the anger?

I’ve pointed out why someone might disagree, but not why they’d be angry.

Here’s the issue: it’s not Graham’s responsibility to fix the inequities in tech. If he has no new ideas about how to fix the problem, though, the most productive action he can take as a prominent person is to pass the mic to someone who does. It’s easy to say “It’s a problem. I don’t know how to solve it. But I respect these folks who are trying and you should talk to them.”

Instead, his overall tone is one of resignation. The position seems expert and defeatist.

Not everyone is willing to give up the fight.

While Graham shoves his hands in his pockets, real people are trying to make their mark on the world. They’re finding their progress in technology undermined by the frustrating fact that their paths look very different from Zuckerberg’s. Graham’s success has elevated him to a position of influence. In this case that influence is, even if inadvertently, impeding progress.

These public remarks justify a reality that feels pretty unfair to a lot people. Worse yet, they confirm fears that investors are pretty out of touch with the challenges faced by technologists who aren’t young men.

That’ll piss you off.