The Heart of Silicon Valley Was Voluntarily Working for Free over Labor Day

(Ferenstein Wire)—At around 10PM on Labor Day Sunday, I posted a coding problem to the popular software developer forum, Stack Exchange.

Just 30 minutes later, a puzzle that I couldn’t solve for weeks was settled by a friendly user also burning the midnight oil over the holiday weekend. Not completely satisfied with the answer, a half dozen other experts had chimed in with their own, more elegant, solution to a problem–a conversation that extended well past midnight.

This experience is perhaps more illustrative of Silicon Valley’s work ethic then the viral New York Times investigation into Amazon’s breakneck company culture. Since that article was published, a lot of ink has been spilled about tech CEO’s that exploit their workers and perpetuate the industry’s expectations of a workaholic culture.

But, the users who solved my problem weren’t being paid. They were just geeks who loved their work. At over 100M monthly users worldwide, Stack Exchange is just one of many developer networks that are the foundation of the tech industry. Much of the software that powers the Internet is open source, incrementally pieced together by (literally) millions of people solving each others problems and contributing their ideas for free.

And, it’s nearly impossible to pay for this kind of help. Weeks earlier, I had hired a freelance coder to solve the problem. His code was inefficient, to say the least. Each time I ran it, it took 10 minutes to complete—and I needed to run the code over and over again quickly. The solution that the Stack Exchange network found in 30 minutes had cut the processing time of the code down to a few seconds.

This is not to say that work should be done for free. Chances are, all of these skilled programmers are being paid a salary north of $100,000. But, top talent in the Valley often love their work. In my experience, it’s exceedingly common for software programmers to each have their own geeky side projects, built for free with the help of this underground army of forum users. 

Related, on Glassdoor.com, an anonymous rating system for tech companies, users who mention long working hours are often likely to rate their company a perfect 5 out of 5 stars. Facebook, often the highest rated company in the industry, is littered with comments talking about a company culture that demands “long hours.”

Silicon Valley was built on the backs of geeks who used to spend their weekends in high school building computers and writing code, while their friends were doing keg stands. Before we judge the Valley as a place rife with exploitation—it’s important to realize that many (if not most) workers are voluntarily putting in more hours than their employers are asking in the first place, for free.

This is the nature of creativity. Innovation thrives were workers want to work long hours. Going into the future, the best questions aren’t about work/life balance, but whether we enjoy work as much as we enjoy other parts of life. The tech industry is certainly a meaningful place to find that answer.

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