Friday, January 2, 2015

Nerd Intersectionality

Are we having fun yet?
Infancy is not what it is cracked up to be. The child seems happy all the time to the adult, because the adult knows that the child is untouched by the real problems of life; if the adult were similarly untouched he is sure that he would be happy. But children, not knowing that they are having an easy time, have a good many hard times. Growing and learning and obeying the rules of their elders, of fighting against them, are not easy things to do. Adolescence is certainly far from a uniformly pleasant period. Early manhood might be the most glorious time of all were it not that the sheer excess of life and vigor gets a fellow into continual scrapes. Of middle age the best that can be said is that a middle aged person has likely learned how to have a little fun in spite of his troubles.

It is to old age that we look for reimbursement, the most of us. And most of us look in vain. For the most of us have been wrenched and racked, in one way or another, until old age is the most trying time of all.

— Don Marquis, “The Almost Perfect State

I was browsing the online portal for the My Emotional Wounds Are Bigger Than Your Emotional Wounds Victims’ Society1 this morning, O Dearly Beloved, when I encountered an essay by feminist firebrand Laurie Penny in which she took MIT Professor Scott Aaronson to task for justifying nerds’ insensitivity to male privilege in the technology industry. Notwithstanding some hyperbolic posturing about what Penny calls the “disaster of heterosexuality” [sic], it reads as a sensitive and revealing first person demolition of the notion that white male nerds faced some sort of unique hell growing up that can possibly justify their current behavior. I’ll let you go ahead and read it, if that’s your sort of thing.

If it is not, or you are back already, I would prefer to direct you to an earlier essay by computer nerd Pete Warden, cited approvingly by Penny and unfamiliar to me until now. In his essay, Warden, a die-hard, early adopter hacker type ├╝bernerd, correctly points out (in inimitable nerd fashion) that technology nerds, far from being the underdogs they so painfully remember being in their adolescence, are now Kings of the Hill:
We’re still behaving like the rebel alliance, but now we’re the Empire.
This is spot on. But then Warden goes and ruins the ride when he corrects Marc Andreessen’s assertion that nerds and bros are natural enemies with this:
Sure, we used to be picked on or ignored by the bro’s, but that was when we had no money or power. Now we have status, bro’s are happy to treat us as buddies instead of victims, to the point that we’re unlikely to think of them as bro’s. I’ve pitched most VC firms in the Valley at one time or another, and a lot of the partners come from business or finance backgrounds. There are nerds in there too of course, and they do control the culture, but they also get along perfectly well with the preppy MBAs. The same holds true across the whole tech industry – they might have tried to steal our lunch money twenty years ago, but now they’re quite happy running biz-dev while we do the engineering.
This is very muddled thinking as well as remarkably tone deaf observation as to what and who constitutes a “nerd” and a “bro” and the differences between them. But what should one expect from a nerd?2

* * *

Mr. Warden seems to identify the venture capitalists (“VCs”) and business development (“biz-dev”) colleagues he interacts with as bros because they have business or finance backgrounds, MBA degrees, and/or wear “preppy” clothes. This is just dumb. I have met a number of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and BD personnel over the years, and I can tell you from personal experience most of them would only come across as bros to someone who lives in a basement cave and thinks real women look and dress like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. These people are as nerdy as they come. Sure, they prefer to geek out over cash flow statements and Definitive Purchase Agreements rather than hexadecimal code and API protocols, but geek out they do. They are just as scary smart, obsessive compulsive, and single minded as any computer hacker/programmer, and they tend to have the same awkward social skills as everyone else on the Asperger Syndrome spectrum they share with Mr. Warden and his peers. To the casual observer they may look and dress the same as a B– average fraternity brother from a state school, but they didn’t earn summa cum laude economics degrees from Stanford or the Ivy League, get Baker Scholarships at Harvard Business School, and claw their way into a partnership on Sand Hill Road from Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs because they liked to drink beer and flick bottle tops at computer science majors from the porch of their frat house.

Successful venture capitalists, private equity professionals, hedge fund managers, and investment bankers are as nerdy as they come. I mean, please: look at John Doerr, David Bonderman, Bill Ackman, and Lloyd Blankfein, for chrissakes. Those were the kids the football team beat up for lunch money in high school. Apart from shorter haircuts, plaid shirts, and an unfortunate predilection for chinos as casual wear, financial professionals share remarkably few of the features of true bro culture. In fact, you’re much more likely to find them running an ultramarathon or climbing Machu Picchu in their spare time than eating nachos on the couch in front of a football game. They are weird, they are driven, and they are the same awkward misfits who spent Saturday nights in high school doing extra credit calculus problem sets while the popular kids went out to drink beer and try to get laid. That is what I did, and I guarantee you it is what most of my colleagues and counterparts did too.

Now as is the case for all such qualities (and inconveniently for our current cultural obsession with identity politics), nerd-ness and bro-ness do not fall neatly within clearly identified boundaries of specified human communities. There are individual variations, there are community sub-groupings, and there are temporarily adopted behaviors that blur the picture. Within investment banking, for example, the tendency toward bro-ness tends to be larger in the capital markets division and, within that grouping, most strong among salesmen and traders. These are often the closest you will find to the backslapping, hail-fellow-well-met stereotype of good looking, easygoing bros who would be happy to watch football on TV instead of running another ultramarathon with that nut job client Ted from Citadel. But these folks have good degrees and sharp intelligence and nontraditional pastimes, too. The days of the high school graduate or C student on the trading floor are long gone. You’ll also find derivatives structurers within large bank capital markets divisions who I wager even Messrs. Warden and Andreessen would have a hard time differentiating from hardcore hackers and computer geeks. That is because that is exactly what they are, or were, before they donned the button-down and chinos uniform of their chosen career.

There is also, at junior levels, a lot of bro-ish posturing done by male investment bankers early in their careers when they are young, single, and so overworked they couldn’t spend all the money they make if they tried. In the boom years before the Crash, this often manifested itself in the desire to live the “models and bottles” lifestyle, where 23- and 24-year-old men went hunting for pretty women and expensive booze and mostly made obnoxious fools of themselves instead. (Of course that lifestyle—or, rather, the aspiration to that lifestyle which mostly generated exaggerated stories and outright lies—is long gone.) It still takes the form of the aggressive one-upmanship and macho dick measuring3 junior bankers haze each other with when they feel insecure, which is almost always. You only have to overhear this once, however, to realize it is nothing more than a bunch of awkward, self-conscious nerds who didn’t get laid enough in high school desperately trying to convince each other they did.

Of course, for some of us, this never changes.

* * *

Stepping back a little, I think I can assert without meaningful contradiction that, far from being limited to nerds or geeks or some other subculture, having a traumatic adolescence is almost universal. Everybody who makes their way through high school is, in some more or less meaningful way, faking it. Everybody wants to belong, be liked, fit in, and be popular. Everybody. It is human nature at that age, when we are still trying to define who we are. Why shouldn’t we look to our peers and popular culture for affirmation? But very few of us get it, to our satisfaction, so we channel our energy and ambition and hurt into schoolwork, or programming, or geeky hobbies instead. And many of us turn that sublimated effort into meaningful careers in geeky, nerdy fields like technology or finance, and find ourselves many years later, grown up, to be the socioeconomic successes we never dreamed we could be when we looked longingly at the cheerleaders and football players we could never have or be.

There is no cure for adolescence but to grow up. There is, however, a cure for adolescent trauma: get over it. And don’t use it as an excuse to oppress or traumatize others.

Unless, of course, you are Carl Icahn.

Related reading:
Laurie Penny, On Nerd Entitlement (New Statesman, December 29, 2014)
Pete Warden, Why nerd culture must die (Pete Warden’s Blog, October 5, 2014)
Taxonomy (January 14, 2007)

1 Also known as the internet.
2 Please, before you embarrass yourself, let me stop you before you argue there are very specific definitions for terms such as “nerd,” “geek,” “bro,” and the like. Really? You want to go there? Trust me: you don’t. Go back to arguing about lightsaber construction methods on the Star Wars wiki instead.
3 About pivot tables in Excel and PowerPoint formatting, no less. I ask you.

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