My Summer Internship at Google Turned Me Off Silicon Valley Forever
I spent the summer of 2016 as a Google intern, working in Mountain View and living in San Francisco. It was my second summer working for Google. After having experienced the Google New York office (a relatively normal nine-to-five experience), I wanted to work in the Silicon Valley office to get to the heart of Google and to what felt like the heart of the tech industry.
I had never seen the TV show Silicon Valley, though I heard it was hilarious and alarmingly close to reality. I probably should have watched it before I decided to go, but even then I’m certain I wouldn’t have believed how accurately it reflected the company.
It wasn’t all terrible. I remember walking through the Mission District and up the hilly neighborhood of Potrero Hill during the golden hour. Sitting on Fisherman’s Wharf, eating fresh fruit from the nearby farmers market. Queer-bar-hopping and trying Jell-O shots for the first time when a friend came up for SF Pride.
Other, less blissful moments are also seared into my memory. I remember listening to Google leadership tell a crowded café of people that the most important problems to solve centered around increasing ad revenue or improving the developer experience at Google. Sitting in the endless traffic between San Francisco and Mountain View, in the fourth of a line of 10 Google-branded buses. Aching with loneliness as I looked around a building of 300 people and found that the only people who looked like me were cleaners and café workers.
There’s an apparently endless litany of seemingly small but actually huge issues that were enough to turn me off Silicon Valley forever. Here are the top three.
Tech has an enormous bubble problem, and Silicon Valley is its epicenter
I’m not talking about the tech bubble that refers to the rise in market price of technology stocks. I’m talking about a kind of invisible physical bubble, the one you’ll find on isolated university campuses where everybody’s wrapped up in their immediate surroundings. Because these surroundings comprise people concerned with much the same issues, these individuals can wind up relatively unconcerned with and unaware of the world outside the bubble.
I’ve experienced the tech bubble as one where employees are overly focused on the concerns of their day jobs, all the time. To a certain extent, this kind of bubble helps define the issues the industry deems important.
My problem with the tech bubble in San Francisco is that it encompassed the entire city all the time. It seemed like everyone in the city either worked in tech or was homeless. Any café I stepped into would be filled with people wearing Apple headphones and working on their laptops, no matter the day of the week. I couldn’t get away from the bubble, because Silicon Valley was the bubble.
This bubble had a distinct cultish feel — I was often judged solely based on my employer, regardless of my other passions and pursuits. That judgment was either unnecessarily positive (fellow techies) or incredibly negative (everybody else). My other interests were usually entirely disregarded or viewed as activities I picked up because I had disposable income and wanted to distinguish myself from other techies. I quickly realized I couldn’t see myself reflected in this bubble and that those within the bubble often didn’t care about what I found important.
It seemed like everybody in Silicon Valley had forgotten there was an entire world outside the tech bubble whose core concerns were often wildly different. Who is concerned with self-driving cars, for example, when local roads are unpaved or impassable due to disrepair? This bubble effect made me question whether tech was really helping change lives for the better when those at the heart of it seemed to think that anyone not like them didn’t exist.
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‘I’ll never grow up!’
Much like Peter Pan, the Silicon Valley I saw that summer felt stuck in a certain age. We could eat every meal at work. We used the term “campus” to refer to the group of Google buildings where we worked. I experienced a sense of competition among women that, while I’m sure is not unique to the Silicon Valley tech world, I had only ever experienced in middle school.
We were stuck in the world of pool tables and 4 p.m. beers, in a place where Google, Facebook, Apple, and more promised to provide for every need of every tech company employee — except that I didn’t, and don’t, fit the profile of someone whose needs are met by any of these companies’ offerings.
I was seeking a stable workplace with a balanced sense of wellness, where I could find like minds who would be interested in who I was outside of my profession. Instead, I found a place where nobody admitted we were all working for a company that clung to its youth by its fingernails, where people made competitions out of how many dining halls they could eat at in a single day and took hours-long breaks to play video games. I felt constantly out of place in Silicon Valley. I wanted to be in an environment that would challenge me to become a well-rounded individual. Instead, I found co-workers who could hold conversations only about their technology or expensive meals — two topics I was glad to leave behind when the summer ended.
The tech industry’s issues with diversity are echoed in the geographic region
I was excited to live in San Francisco and work in Mountain View because of the history of the LGBTQ community in San Francisco. My associations of the city were that of incredible local food with origins all over the world and friendly West Coasters who would happily share their city with me.
I walked 10 minutes through a winding green campus, seeing mostly white and Asian men, to get to my desk in a building where I was the only Black employee who wasn’t cleaning something.
What I found alongside this rich queer history and incredible food was the reality of homelessness in Silicon Valley. My experience of the crisis was watching tech workers waiting for their company-branded buses every morning while ignoring the homeless folks who wandered by, trying to keep warm. It was seeing tech employees walk the city streets at lunchtime, leftovers in one hand and expensive computers in the other, passing inches from the feet of homeless individuals sitting on sidewalks, asking for food or money or even just a smile. It was noticing that when I interrupted a conversation to smile at someone or hand over a sandwich I had just bought, my peer would often ask, “Why are you doing that? It doesn’t help the bigger issue.” This is something I have never experienced in other cities.
And then there was the issue of racial segregation. In 2018, the Haas Institute published a series of briefs showing that while diversity might be increasing in some areas, segregation in schools and neighborhoods hasn’t gotten any better — and might be getting worse.
I saw this every day that summer. I lived in the Mission District, a historically Latino neighborhood that was being gentrified practically by the day as rich young tech employees forced housing prices up. (I was contributing to this gentrification as a highly paid young tech employee choosing to live in the neighborhood. Given the option to do it over, I would make a different choice — although I’m not sure there’s a way to live ethically in San Francisco at this point.) Every morning, I walked several streets over into neighborhoods that were farther along in the gentrification process — and thus more racially homogeneous — and waited in a line of other Google employees for the Google bus to pick us up. When I got off many miles south, in Mountain View, I walked 10 minutes through a winding green campus, seeing mostly white and Asian men, to get to my desk in a building where I was the only Black employee who wasn’t cleaning something.
Silicon Valley has much to offer the world. Life-altering technological innovations have been emerging from this region for years. But it’s not the place for me, a young queer Black woman who wants to do much more than work on ad software.
I still work in tech, and I will always acknowledge the ways the industry and my time in Silicon Valley have shaped the way I view many humanitarian and technological issues. But I will never work in that part of California again.