There is something unique about the pedestrian traffic lights in San Francisco. At the moment the signal lights up to ‘go,’ I walk two steps across the street and the light turns back to red and starts counting down from 12 seconds to let me cross. 12 seconds is all I have. If I stop or pause, I won’t make it to the other side. So I dash across, walking briskly, frantically. Each day that I walk through this city, these traffic lights remind me what this city stands for, capturing everything I’ve learned in the past few weeks in San Francisco. Be fast. Keep your eyes and ears peeled to the road. Because if you stop to think, the next car will start driving towards you.
In the span of 7 days, I already met startup moguls, dot-com veterans, futurists, designers, app-developers, artist genius mathematicians, nutty professors, tech industry pioneers, and a few other guys in between who help these guys get stuff done. And every hour, every minute that my eyes are open and my ears are glued to the cacophony around me, these people want to talk to me. And not just say ‘hello’ but really TALK. Really explain to me how the world worked back then. How it works right now. How it will work in 30 years. And most of all, who I should talk to next. Every night, my partner and I return home in the evenings breathless, hearts beating to the sound of all the voices that we encountered on our days of fieldwork. So despite the fact that I have 7 stories to tell in this blog entry, I will just tell you one of them today.
Yesterday marked my first day of ‘official’ work. And just as a reminder, I have been commissioned to do fieldwork for a project about the re-configuration of anonymity in all aspects of life, not just through the tech/media industry. My job is to conduct a slew of interviews with people in the Silicon Valley who have something to say about anonymity, identity, privacy, and related topics, in order to give an overview about the discourses on anonymity. While my personal interests lie in how anonymity gets programmed and coded, I am also speaking to people specializing in online policy, app development, people at Facebook, Airbnb, dating websites, and anyone else who can help give me a clue to where anonymity has gone today.
Because my work here is be based on a lot of interviews, I needed a base, a place where I could sit quietly and write my notes down before and after interviews. On Sunday evening, I did a search for co-working spaces in San Francisco (FYI: co-working spaces are places where you rent a desk per hour, per week, or per month, and run your business out of a large shared office of freelancers, startups or what-have-yous). There were dozens of co-working places on offer in the city, but I stumbled across one particularly-nice place in SOMA near the office of where my partner was doing fieldwork.
I walked in on Monday morning at 10am. About a dozen people were sitting around in big cushy chairs in a 200m2 white room lined with brown desks. Nobody seemed to be in charge, so I just asked somebody punching away on his laptop and he pointed towards a sharp-looking Italian guy who welcomed me with a big grin. He told me the first day is free, and I am welcome to sit anywhere I’d like. I walk back a few desks and put my laptop down next to a 45-year old man sitting on a filing cupboard, chatting to a girl behind me.
“Oh I’m sorry, this is your filing cabinet,” he said.
For the sake of this story, I will refrain from using his name. “Just call me ‘The Other Guy,” he said. Theotherguy. Theo Therguy. Sure, let’s call him Theo.
Theo was an excited tech industry veteran. He looked like one – 45 years old, seemed like he smoked and partied for a few years, had seen a lot and done a lot. When I asked about his official job, he gave me multiple titles like ‘accelerator,’ business developer, public relations guy, and hustler. He was ‘the other guy’ – the guy you didn’t see on the front page of Forbes magazine, or the coder everyone was talking about over the water-cooler. He was, admittedly, part of the “thousands of other” guys like him in the Bay area who helped businesses grow, helped people realize their dreams, and helped ‘make it happen.’ He immediately took a liking to me after I told him how much I was interested in explaining programming and the programmer to a larger audience. He liked how I wanted to tell the story of programmers from a different side:
“Right on man. Coders don’t want to fucking party in fast cars, drinking drinks on beaches and nightclubs in Miami where I party. They’re not in it for the money. Its the investors who invest because they care about the cash. Coders do it just for their art. They want to sit and perfect their little babies. Coders sit over their laptops and want to develop until its done. The harder the project, the better. If they code something that’s outta this world, they will get recognized for it. And its that recognition their after. Like, ‘hey man, you did it, you’re the shit.”
Theo was intense. And he wanted to explain the whole Bay area to me in one breath. He was born in San Jose, grew up there, and was a banker for years until he dropped his day job and decided to help startups. One of his many, many projects was helping run this co-working space which prided itself in being less of a high-end players-club that many co-working spaces in the Bay area had become, and more of an open-doors for people with a vision. This included cheap rents, pay-as-you-can services, and friendly networking.
Without knowing what was happening exactly, he swirled around me in his chair, and started explaining the ropes of the office. He introduced me to a few of his close colleagues — also gray-haired beer-bellied older men who looked either like bankers or football coaches. For the next 30 minutes, he also gave a me a whos-who of Silicon Valley – naming names of tech moguls I’ve never hear of, and telling me stories of the businesses that crashed and succeeded. Every two sentences, he would just point at my laptop and say, “you don’t know it? Look it up.”
Moments later, Theo was leading me outside to lunch to the straight-out-of-a-movie food-truck yard that was situated right next to our co-working office (also one of his many ventures he helped start up). I watched in awe as he started high-fiving practically everyone – all the nerds who spilled out of their tech offices nearby, the venture capitalists, and the food truck cooks.
He looked at me and smiled: “Everything starts here man, everything. When all roads lead to Rome, you better be in Silicon Valley.”