Why Silicon Valley’s Tech Talent Worked For Free Over The Holiday

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At around 10PM on Sunday over Labor Day weekend, I posted a coding problem to the popular software developer forum, Stack Exchange. In 30 minutes, a puzzle that I couldn’t solve for weeks was settled by a friendly user who also burning the midnight oil. Not completely satisfied with that answer, though, another half dozen experts chimed in with their own more elegant solutions, making for a conversation that extended well past midnight. 

This experience is perhaps more illustrative of Silicon Valley’s work ethic then the viral New York Times investigation into Amazon’s breakneck company culture. Since that article was published, a lot of ink has been spilled about tech CEOs exploiting their workers and perpetuating the industry’s expectations of a workaholic culture. 

See also: Amazon’s Not Much Different From Other Tech Employers, Public Data Says

The users who solved my problem weren’t being paid, however. They were just “geeks” who love technology. The mad pursuit of solutions seems to be in their DNA, and it just may be this inner drive—more so than any cracked whip—that drives technology forward.

Meeting Of The Minds

With over 100 million monthly users worldwide, Stack Exchange is just one of many developer networks that form the foundation of the tech industry. Much of the software that powers the internet is open source, incrementally pieced together by (literally) millions of people solving each others’ problems and contributing their ideas for free.

It’s nearly impossible to pay for this kind of help. Weeks earlier, I hired a freelance programmer to solve my problem. His code was inefficient, to say the least. Each time I ran it, it took 10 minutes to complete–and I needed to run it over and over again quickly. The solution that the Stack Exchange network found in 30 minutes had cut the processing time of the code down to a few seconds.

This is not to say that work should be done for free. Chances are, all of these skilled programmers are being paid a salary north of $100,000. But, top talent in the Valley often love their work. In my experience, it’s exceedingly common for software programmers to each have their own side projects, built for free with the help of an underground army of forum users.

There Can Be No Innovation Without Passion

Here’s another detail that may have us re-examining the “horrible tech bosses” stereotype: On Glassdoor.com, an anonymous rating system for workplaces, users who mention long working hours are often likely to rate their company a perfect 5 out of 5 stars. Facebook, often the highest rated company in the industry, is littered with comments talking about a company culture that demands “long hours.”

Before we judge the Valley as a place rife with exploitation, it’s important to realize that many (if not most) workers are voluntarily putting in more hours than their employers are asking in the first place—for free.

That’s not entirely surprising, if you trace back modern tech culture’s social roots. Technical chops may be considered much cooler characteristics now, but that wasn’t always the case. Silicon Valley was built on the backs of of geeks who spent weekends in high school building computers and writing code, while their peers did keg stands.

For some people, technology was both safe haven and passion. Many still carry that inside, even though they’ve now grown into the men and women who are writing our connected future.

This is the nature of creativity. Innovation thrives where workers aren’t bullied or exploited, but are given the room to indulge the things that drive them. That might look like long work days, or giving up holiday weekends to hand out free advice.

Going into the future, the best questions aren’t about work/life balance, but whether the we enjoy the work we do as much as we enjoy other parts of our lives. For the former kids who built robots over the summer or learned to code during nights and weekends, the tech industry can be a meaningful place to find that answer.

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