If programmers are anti-social, how did they end up in the bustling hives of Silicon Valley?

People often are drawn to computer nerdism partly because they prefer interacting with machines rather than with other people. (James Damore made this point while working at Google and learned that free speech is for Americans who don’t need to work!)

Yet the coder in a modern Bay Area software plantation is sandwiched tightly between two other galley slaves (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). He or she has less personal space than a McDonald’s cashier.

How did it come to pass that people who went into programming because they could be alone with their beloved machines are now packed like sardines into densely populated coding plantations and, after hours, packed like ocean liner steerage passengers into shared apartments?

Despite the somewhat lower salaries, wouldn’t most of these people actually be better off working as COBOL programmers for an electric utility? They’d at least have a private office or cubicle.

I asked the founder/CEO of one of the companies that I visited in SoMa whether he wouldn’t get more productivity out of his workers with a more traditional office layout. “Interviewees would just walk out if they saw cubicles or rows of private offices. This [array of tightly packed desks] is what they expect for a modern tech company.” He also told me that the grungy industrial space was costing over $70/ft triple net. “It’s actually more than a modern office tower because people want ‘authentic.'”

[The same CEO told me that the monk-like amount of space per coder also is associated with a monk-like abstinence from sex. “The guys are always complaining that there are no woman to date in San Francisco.” (presumably the imbalance is far larger down in the Valley!) Perhaps if they had a better understanding of California family law they would not complain as much and/or would look at neighboring Nevada, with its $13,000/year cap on child support and 50/50 shared parent default, as a destination for romance …]

Is it fair to say that, aside from the cash, Silicon Valley now offers one of the nation’s largest mismatches between workers’ preferences and working conditions?

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New York Times on the financial hardship of NASA employees

This is kind of interesting from a newspaper that prides itself on in-depth reporting… An article on furloughed NASA employees asserts without evidence that they could be making 2-3X more money in a private sector job:

No matter how vital high-skilled federal workers are to the functioning of government, there are usually companies willing to offer them much higher salaries — double or even triple in some cases — on top of the free lunches and stock options.

Are they doing any consulting work during their furlough? If they are valuable to private companies as employees, at least some should be worth $300 or $500/hour to consult, no?

The workers at Glenn are mostly waiting, drawing down savings, wondering about the state of their untended lab work, reading about Chinese spacecraft landing on the moon and pondering the appeal of the public good when a good chunk of the public seems to have little use for it.

They’re “mostly waiting” instead of doing consulting work for these private employers who are desperate for their services?

Yet more stranger (as we liked to say back in junior high): Drawing down savings.

A quick Google search reveals that NASA employees are eligible to borrow money at 0% from their own NASA Federal Credit Union:

Our special Furlough Relief Loan will allow you to access up to $10,000 for up to a 60-month term – interest free and payment free for 60 days.* This offer will be available through February 15, 2019.**

So these folks are geniuses who could get paid $400,000/year simply by walking into the HR department of a private employer, but they aren’t smart enough to go to the credit union web site and click “apply now” for their 0% loan?

How did the reporter and editors miss this? Neither the word “credit” nor “loan” appears in the article so they don’t address the question of how people who are able to borrow at 0% and whose entire annual salary is guaranteed to be paid (albeit with a delay for at least two paychecks) are being forced to deplete savings.

The unedited Web seems to be a lot more authoritative that the Paper of Record. Consider this 2014 exchange on bogleheads.org, “Any aerospace engineers? Pros v. cons of working for NASA v. private sector”:

This isn’t a NASA specific issue, but almost all federal employees are on the GS pay scale. That caps their pay at level IV of the executive schedule, which is now $164,200. … Most NASA employees are in the business of contract management. The real engineering gets outsourced to contractors. If he wants to do research and development, he should go work for a contractor. If he wants to become an expert in federal acquisition regulations, he should go work at NASA.

From a financial perspective, he will probably never make up the lost 4 years or so of income if he gets a PhD.

I worked at NASA for a while… NASA contains a huge amount of unmotivated government employees. They’re so expensive that they have to contract all the work out. Even then money is so badly mismanaged that there is no incentive to deliver a project on time. If you’re nearing retirement, it’s a great place to be as it’s virtually impossible to get fired. They’re just shift you from job to job.

I talked with a SpaceX recruiter. Was going to be a significant pay cut, and the recruiter kept mentioning long (70+) hour weeks. For the high cost of living area, it didn’t make much sense. It was clear they were banking on the “sexy” factor of SpaceX to make up for the hours and low pay.

I worked at Goddard Spaceflight Center… And while the raw salary was meaningfully lower than what the contractors were making at comparable position levels, the overall benefits package was WAAAAAAY better — much, much more paid time off, much better healthcare, and significantly better retirement benefits.

A message from the bogleheads exchange that STEM boosters probably won’t be sharing:

I have worked for a large aerospace company (think Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop) and currently work for a tier 1 aerospace supplier. All big companies are the same, with tons of bureaucracy, politics, mediocre raises, lots of old timers that are dead wood, etc, etc. Hopefully he is passionate about it because he probably will be living a normal middle class life and will make starting 75K/yr – 150K/yr (after 15-20+ years experience) throughout his career.

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75 percent chance of career failure considered in a positive light

I was chatting with a successful physicist the other day. I said that reading Losing the Nobel Prize made me realize what a risky career choice science was. He scoffed at my timidity. “If you get into a top graduate school, you’re practically guaranteed a post-doc.” (i.e., a $52,116 per year job after 5 years; roughly at age 35 if the PhD program is started at 24 and it takes 6 years to earn the doctorate) What about after that? “You’d have a 1 in 4 chance of getting an assistant professorship.” Once on the tenure track, he considered actually earning tenure to be straightforward.

If we define “success” in science as a long-term job as a scientist, he was saying that the chance of failure was a minimum of 75 percent (maybe closer to 90 percent if we consider the probabilities of not getting into a great graduate school, not getting a post-doc, and not getting tenure once on the “tenure track”). In his opinion this was only a minor detraction from the appeal of a career in science.


  • How Many PhD Graduates Become Professors? (from 2016: “life science PhD graduates in the US have only a 16% chance of finding a tenure track position”; but how many people on “tenure track” actually do get that lifetime guaranteed job?)
  • “Women in Science” (“This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.”)
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