One of the lauded myths of Silicon Valley culture is that anyone can be a tech superstar if they have the talent. That if you just work hard enough, you too can grow up to be a lauded developer. Take game publisher and former Microsoft developer Alex St. John, who in many ways is a typical example of the kind of talent that thrived in the coding frenzy of the late '90s. Largely self-educated and self-taught, he created a Microsoft technology called DirectX (which ultimately lent its name to the Xbox) and now trains Fortune 500 companies on how to recruit the most sought-after men in the field.
Emphasis on men. And maybe some women, as long as they don't have Asperger's syndrome.
Unfortunately, lately St. John has been typifying another unpleasant aspect of the tech industry — its resistance to cultural change. St. John has been turning heads recently as some of his online writing about the tech industry has come to light — specifically his outspoken views on employees in an overwhelmingly young, privileged, white, male-dominated community.
On Saturday, April 16, St. John published an op-ed on VentureBeat in which he argues against the attitudes of so-called gaming industry "wage slaves." The long, hard hours of these tremendously overworked, bottom-salaried developers — most of whom bear the grunt work of the gaming industry, for both love and the chance of future promotion — has been well-documented. The "crunch time" before a game ships comes with the industry-wide expectation that developers will work as long and hard as they need to in order to make their deadline.
St. John sees anyone who pushes back against that expectation as entitled. "I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work," he writes. After scoffing at the idea that long hours like those worked by many developers leads to burnout, he suggests that "if you can’t love all 80 hours/week" of work, you shouldn't be in the industry at all.
The piece was universally castigated in the online gaming community, and the backlash led dissenters to poke around his website. When they did, they found a presentation called "Recruiting Giants," which St. John apparently gives to clients and hiring managers in the tech community. The document outlines what to look for when hiring engineers and high-level developers.
In many ways, St. John's attitude toward recruiting is typical: He advises employers to present both their current and potential engineers with tangible goals, meaningful challenges, and lucrative rewards. What's not typical is the way he advises selecting those engineers, especially with regard to the skills and character traits he believes employers should prioritize.
For starters, with few exceptions St. John believes they should focus almost exclusively on men. We know this because he emphasizes recruiting and retaining engineers' "wives and girlfriends," because they are the key to whether an engineer stays at a company or quits. Oy.
St. John also does a fair amount of millennial bashing, describing members of that generation as "educated idiots" who've been "spoon fed" and have overinflated senses of entitlement. In his view, ideal employees fit into one of three categories:
- The young, bright upstart who's super fast, driven, and inspired to work long hours, but who hasn't adopted the "sour attitude" of his other millennial peers
- The "grizzled war veteran" who's probably been promoted to a comfortable position at a bigger company but who can make a great mentor for younger employees if he's presented with the right amount of challenge to get him to leave his cushy environment
- The "holy-grail … the undiscovered Asperger's engineer":
Lest you think St. John's "ideals" sound less like a path to a healthy, positive workplace and more like an objectivist manifesto, don't worry — there's (limited) room for women in his capitalistic regime, too:
The rest of St. John's presentation provides a general overview of what he views as a predominantly male tech culture where the aforementioned "spoiled kids" battle it out in a "sea of mediocrity" to advance alongside the truly deserving. According to him, the rare woman who works in tech is really only there to graciously keep things moving with her magical communication skills, which St. John seems to think all the best engineers lack.
Unsurprisingly, many people have called these views into question. And in response, St. John has doubled down on his philosophies with "Enslaving the Masses," an extended explanation of the ideas espoused in his original PowerPoint. The new piece outlines at length the idea that a victimhood mentality disempowers millennials to succeed through hard work, and that brutally honest and driven mentoring is the key to stripping millennials of their entitlement: "Kids can develop advanced computing skills at an early age very fast in the right environment (under a whip)."
He also states that women don't advance in tech because they're "fatally compromised with victimology psychosis," which prevents them from succeeding in a career in where they otherwise would "have it made." Later, he adds, "Shhhh don’t think, just put on the chains honey."
Beyond his emphasis on "recruiting the wives and girlfriends" and targeting people with Asperger's syndrome, nowhere in his presentation or follow-up statements does St. John address the need to hire diversely in a white male tech environment.
Instead, he focuses on the word "fragile," inserting it again and again into his narrative of a fictional corporate maladjustee: "You're too fragile to hear the message and you'll just sue them if you can, so you live in a confused defeatist bubble wondering why your career options seem limited," he writes, speaking directly to anyone who hasn't embraced the idea of working endless overtime in a frenzied, unhealthy environment. Better, healthier, and more socially nuanced working conditions are anathema to his goal of "turning fragile lazy millennials into useful fodder for the machines of industry."
But what seems to hover just around the edges of this idea, however hyperbolically expressed, is the principle that cultural diversity is antithetical to productivity. Silicon Valley is currently full of activists arguing that tech culture has to become less sexist and racist in order to make room for more voices. It's not too hard to see that attitude as running parallel to the behaviors St. John labels as "spoiled" and "entitled," and its proponents as "fragile" workers who need to be gently embraced by an industry too busy to coddle them.
I should note that St. John isn't alone in his views. The Harvard Business Review suggested earlier this month that negative correlations between diversity and productivity exist, and that we simply aren't allowed to see them because they don't fit our optimistic view of cultural diversification. Instead, the journal argues, we should focus on learning which "diversity conditions" lead to increased productivity.
But at a time when tech culture is trying diligently to correct its overwhelmingly white male demographic and calling for diversity as a necessary infusion of fresh perspective, this argument feels especially tone-deaf. In truth, research suggests the impact of diversity is complicated and contextual. People aren't corporate drones, and judging them based on their attitude and response to being treated poorly is a short stop to alienating them and yourself.
It's alarming to see a recruiter encouraging hiring managers to value employees for their ability to grind out code rather than their individual personalities, life experiences, and quirks — in other words, for their human diversity. And that's before you consider the fact that St. John is essentially urging employers to act illegally by discriminating on the grounds of age and gender.
Ironically, St. John seems to be a prime example of the kind of older engineer he writes about — one who's too comfortable with the status quo and who needs a challenge to break out of his routinized way of thinking. For St. John, the routine seems to involve instructing people to take control of their own problems, regardless of their age and gender, and to reject the "victimhood" mentality that leads to blaming systemic flaws and discrimination for setbacks. But this push to internalize environmental factors can be bad for everyone — from minorities in a white male tech culture to anyone trapped in the status quo of "work hard, work harder."
In short, St. John's version of Silicon Valley is cold, white, and merciless. He seems to want to uphold the worst aspects of tech culture as we’ve come to know it, the ones that so many people are arguing against and trying to change. For the sake of an overworked, discriminatory tech industry, we can only hope that the voices of change — whether or not they belong to entitled, fragile millennials — ultimately render voices like St. John's the minority opinion.
Update, Thursday, April 21: St. John's daughter Amilia St. John has responded to the controversy in a lengthy Medium post repudiating her father's ideology.