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Silicon Valley’s Maturity Problem

Rapid growth, a total absence of training, a cultural deficit and employees too focused on perks are a few contributors.


There has never been a more exciting time to work in tech. The streets are literally buzzing with caffeine-fueled energy, and much of the buzz is driven by young entrepreneurs. Our collective potential has seemingly never felt more limitless.

But, as with nearly anything with a sharp upside, there’s also a commensurate downside: Everyone has heard a story about brazen startups behaving not-so-nicely. Varying degrees of misbehavior at tech companies have been well-chronicled, and such misbehavior can take many forms, from business mismanagement to human resources gaffes to the rise of frat-like “brogrammer culture.”

Last year, Re/code reported on the collapse of Clinkle, the online payment app that was led by an inexperienced CEO and famously raised more than $30 million — but never launched. The sexist misconduct of executives at highly valued startups, including Snapchat, has been well chronicled, as have numerous other examples of startups behaving badly.

The common diagnosis is that the Valley has a maturity problem, where first-time managers with big responsibilities and budgets build cultures of excessive behavior. But the reality is much more complicated. Rapid growth, a total absence of training, a cultural deficit and employees too focused on perks are a few contributors. Valley companies that want to continue down this path of impressive growth and success need to address these issues.

The downside to aggressive growth

The tech sector in California is booming in a way not seen since the dot-com bubble. Of the 50 privately held companies based in the U.S. currently valued at more than a billion dollars, 24 are located in Palo Alto or San Francisco, a higher concentration than in any other geography in the world.

That halo effect has led to rapid growth for tech companies across the board. Silicon Valley’s job-growth rate is at its highest since 2010, growing at 4.1 percent and adding nearly 58,000 jobs. For companies, growing quickly in a very short period of time is a serious HR challenge. It’s hard to hire big numbers of talented employees who are a perfect cultural fit. It consumes significant HR resources and can limit that team’s ability to do anything else, like focus on training, culture or employees’ engagement.

Lack of learning and training

Companies in the Valley are rapidly hiring new employees — and, in many cases, failing to effectively train them. Udemy for Business recently published a study that found that while 71 percent of HR decision makers recognized that employees don’t have the skills they need to perform their current jobs, more than half of the companies spend less than $500 a year per employee on training.

That is less money per employee than what many startup companies probably spend on food per employee in a month. This is a problem across the country, but the impact is particularly felt here, where a lack of sensitivity and managerial training only exacerbates existing cultural norms. Today’s junior employees are tomorrow’s leaders, and the lack of training will only perpetuate the cycle.

What happens when the kombucha runs out?

If there’s one thing everyone in America knows about the Valley, it’s that we’re heavy on expensive perks. It sometimes seems like every tech company has a keg, fun office decor and gourmet meals, right?

Udemy Infographic

This is often perceived as a maturity problem. But it’s really a symptom of our hiring arms race. A shortage of engineers has forced tech companies of all sizes to match perks just to get quality employees in the door. This creates an almost exclusive focus on hiring, at the expense of what happens after.

But this one isn’t just on the companies. It’s on the employees, too. Tech workers need to recognize that while perks are nice, they shouldn’t be a driving factor in picking a job. Prioritize environments where employers care about professional development and worker happiness. It will diminish burnout and help your career in the long run. The kombucha will eventually run out, and then what will you be left with?

To start, we need to recognize these shortcomings. Though there have been countless articles about the wrongdoings of Valley companies — and the Kleiner Perkins trial has certainly put a spotlight on the issue at large — there hasn’t been enough forward action. Tech companies are changing the world with products and ideas, but we need to start addressing some real weaknesses before they catch up with us.

Paul Sebastien is vice president and general manager of Udemy for Business, the corporate training division of Udemy, the global marketplace for learning and teaching online. Reach him @paulsebastien.

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