VC-istan 5: Wanting to be loved

It’s easy to put a negative spin on most of what happens in the VC-funded ecosystem (“VC-istan”) but a useful philosophical exercise is to look for positive, or at least forgivable motivations, behind unpleasant things.

It’s fair to say that VC-istan doesn’t work. It delivers meager returns to non-managerial investors (while the employees of venture funds get very wealthy) and squanders a lot of the nation’s top talent. Yet, I would believe that the main actors are not especially bad people, no more than anyone else. Are they worse than top investment bankers? Entertainment executives? Corporate kingpins? Almost certainly, they aren’t. It’s easy but intellectually weak (and, moreover, just shitty) to demonize them. It’s better to humanize them in an attempt to understand what is really going on. What caused a group of not-altogether-bad people to build such an awful ecosystem?

I’ve been in enough different places to see the common patterns, and a surprising number of startups fail because their founders want to be cool. It isn’t some rationally planned-out marketing need that I’m talking about. It’s emotional. They need to locate their businesses in the heart of San Francisco or Manhattan (although, increasingly, Brooklyn is the center of east coast “cool”). They want to hire “hip” 24-year-old Ivy grads who might not be the best fit for the work. They’d rather have millions of users who know their name than a couple hundred who pay handsomely. They’d rather be written about in business magazines than grow steadily at 25% per year and get rich slowly.

Wanting to be loved is, fundamentally, a deeper emotional need for most people than wanting to make money or perform useful, rewarding work. The latter are more abstract and artificial goals; being loved goes back to our evolutionary roots, including millions of years in which money didn’t exist. While they won’t admit it, most people would rather be loved “just for being” (or, in business, for being “visionary”, a concept so slippery in definition as to be effectively religious) than admired or liked for performing specific services to others.The problem is that no one is truly “loved” by society– at least, not while alive. Rather, society’s tendency is to ignore and forget, due to its size and volatility, while it turns vicious on those who continually demand its attention.

“Cool” is a major distraction for many founders, and I’ve seen plenty waste gobs of money on flashy launch parties, narcissistic indulgences, and high-risk gambits that were never wise. That’s bad; I’ve seen it crash plenty of businesses. Worse is the fact that investors themselves (and, by “investors”, I mean the employees of venture funds that invest others’ money) are seduced by the allure of “cool”. That’s why they throw themselves into extremely high-risk businesses that either return 100x or fail (and the vast majority fail). It’s why they age discriminate in choosing whom to fund; they choose incompetent young “midlife crisis” proteges to feel stylish again. Most VC-istan wunderkinds are, in truth, the 21st-century analogue of the trophy wife: they’re there to make some older guy appear and feel like he is young again.

Machiavelli said that it is better to be feared than to be loved, and many find this advice to be sociopathic. At first, it sounds horrible! Machiavelli wasn’t a sociopath, but a realist. He knew the cutthroat reality of 16th-century Florentine politics; but he also knew, even in that milieu, that the temptation to be loved was extremely strong, and that even very hard men could fall to it. His observation on society’s “love” (or a court’s) was the same as mine is: it’s fleeting. It turns on you at the worst time.

This what the MacLeod Sociopaths understand that the other tiers don’t. When Venkat Rao first applied the MacLeod tiers to The Office, it was hard to find a true Sociopath in the American workplace comedy. (The closest match was Robert California, more like an ineffective joke than a real character.) For insight into a real Sociopath– again, in the MacLeod sense; although he may be an actual psychopath– look no further than Frank Underwood in House of Cards. I can’t do him justice by describing the character; just watch him.

Now, in business, I wouldn’t say that “be feared” is a great strategy. You can fire people, but if you damage their reputations beyond that, you’re probably breaking the law. For example, the feudalistic reputation economy of VC-istan cannot possibly scale, because the inappropriate sharing of information and opinion between investors would attract lawsuits galore if it became any larger. Moreover, trying to extract favors or progress through fear will usually end in the territory of criminal extortion– and, for the majority who are not very powerful, it just won’t work. So I wouldn’t go so far as to say one is better to be “feared” (in a visceral, brutal sense) than loved, so much as it’s better to be competent (which one can earn, through steady progress) than to be loved (a fickle thing). Competence is itself dangerous and subversive– not in the short term, but in the long term. Businesses that fail the demands of high talent will decline. Competence doesn’t pose the immediate fuck-you-up threat of the extortionist, but its rarity gives it leverage and makes it badass. The people in control want those below them to be just competent enough to execute orders; if you go three degrees beyond that, and keep learning and questioning for your whole life, you become a man (or woman) made of guns. No one should focus on being feared– that’s a bit too uncivilized, and usually illegal in practice– so much as to strive for the intrinsic badassery of very high competence and deep knowledge.

VC-istan is not that kind of world. It’s not about developing competence over twenty years, but rather about flashiness and style. Somewhere between Hollywood for uglier people, Wall Street for those who can’t hack winter, and Washington for those who can’t build coalitions, it’s a connections-powered world in which people feel a deep-seated need to be adored. When one is starting out from zero (in the way of connections) that strategy actually makes sense, because there is no such thing as bad publicity for an unknown. On the other hand, for those who already have enough connections to start doing things, the race for further inclusion and “coolness” is a catastrophic distraction. Most writers exhibit a parabolic trajectory in output quality as they get better known; at first, more social inclusion gives them more inspiration, but eventually they rise into high enough social circles to succumb to the charismatic emptiness that is all around them, and become blithering, complacent, and boring.

I’m not writing this to denigrate anyone in particular. Paul Graham, for example, started Y Combinator to have the adoration of highly talented young people, at a rate of a few score per year. That’s fine. His motivations aren’t negative, and his effect on the world is almost certainly positive. Rather, I’m writing it to point out that the immaturity and general ineffectiveness of VC-istan doesn’t come from some evil conspiracy. The motivations of these people aren’t sinister, but pedestrian. They just want, badly, to be loved by society. They want to be hip and “visionary”, meaning admired just for being them. They want to be loved, that’s all.

I don’t think that’s so bad. It does give us the first bit of understanding if we want to analyze their weaknesses in leadership, and think about what we could do better.

The difference between unfairness and injustice, and why it matters

My last post was about evidence for abuse in Hacker News’s ranking system, but I’ve also written at length on the failings of human organizations, in addition to the moral collapse of the venture-funded ecosystem (VC-istan). Having written a lot about social justice issues, and having been attacked personally for doing so, requires that I draw attention to a critical difference, which is that between unfairness and injustice. They are not two words for the same thing, and the differences between them are relevant to all of the social justice debates surrounding the startup and software ecosystems (and, perhaps, to work in general) cannot be ignored.


Unfairness exists. There’s some amount of it that can never be made to go away, especially because perfect fairness is impossible to define. Some people are born with advantages, and others are not. It’s just a fact of life. Children learn about unfairness early on and many complain when they realize just how overwhelmingly much unfairness the world has. “Life isn’t fair,” the adults say. The message is: get over it. On unfairness in the abstract, getting over it is the healthiest thing that one can do. Like death, there is no escaping it. Some people are rich and others are poor. Some are smart, others are dumb. Some are attractive, others are ugly. Then there are the unfairnesses that emerge from chance later in life, that can be impossible to decompose into luck vs. skill factors because of the strategic complexity. Some people have chance encounters that others don’t, but is that skill (in searching) or luck? Who knows? Sometimes, a business that ought to succeed fails, or vice versa. One can think of unfairness as like an impersonal error term– in other words, a noise factor– in the world. It’s not a good thing, but it’s inevitable and any zero-tolerance policy toward unfairness (especially the natural kind) will have side effects more undesirable than the unfairness itself.

That’s not to say that fairness isn’t important, and that people shouldn’t strive for a fairer world. They should, but there’s a tradeoff in most social problems between efficiency and fairness. More regulated arrangements are fairer, but impose drag and might (at the extreme) make everyone poorer. Less-regulated social arrangements that do not impose fairness constraints are often more efficient, but inequitable. I’m not going to go, at length, into the matter of how to find the best point on the fairness-efficiency spectrum. I will make the remark that while maximizing efficiency often allows unfairness (especially in the short term) there are plenty of unfairnesses that detract from efficiency.


Injustice is an execrable subclass of unfairness. Natural unfairness– diseases, disasters, and accidents of birth– aren’t injustices in the political sense (which I will use) because no human is responsible for them. Shit just happens. Additionally, unfairness that emerges from true human accident isn’t injustice– only error.

Rather, injustice occurs when humans increase unfairness, either through cowardice or malicious intent. When people are brought down by bad luck, that’s unfair. When they are kept down by social stigma and others’ moral weakness, that’s unjust. Why do people commit injustice? There are a number of reasons, but the cause behind most intentional injustice is that is an expression of power; in fact, the way humans typically define power is in terms of the ability to inflict social injustice on other people, or to grant improper favors.

I can’t be sure of this, but I suspect that one of the reasons why injustice is so common in the human world is that, for the people at the highest levels of power, it’s actually addictive. People enjoy out-of-band power in beneficial and harmless forms (fast computers, automobiles, fireworks) but there are many who get a thrill from the damaging kind. Obviously, there are few people (even among the most corrupt) who get up in the morning and say, “I’m going to inflict social injustice today”. It’s more accurate to say that they love The Game. We all have our version of The Game; for me, it’s the cutting edge of technology and computation; for them, it’s human politics without regularization. A just victory means that one worked harder or played better or maybe was just a bit lucky; but an unjust victory is a sure sign of high social status. To many people, the latter is more enjoyable.

The importance of the difference

People who complain about unfairness are ignored or despised. They’re seen as insufferable whiners who raise a stink about issues that, like bad weather and death, no one can do anything about. So, people learn in childhood that they’re not supposed to complain about life’s intrinsic unfairness, that it’s depressing and obnoxious to do so. So they don’t. Unfortunately, most take this further and refuse to complain about the frank injustice that they observe around them. Since injustice comes from human origins, and usually malignant intent, this is the wrong strategy. Nothing can be done about the abstract but inflexible fact that life’s unfair in many ways, but things can– and absolutely should– be done about human injustice.

This is one of my moral problems with the current Silicon Valley elite. They espouse a libertarian worldview that, while it need not embrace unfairness per se, values individual freedom highly while accepting a large degree of unfairness. That’s fine. It’s not inconsistent, and while I disagree with them on how they trade efficiency off against unfairness (I tend to think that unfairness produces inefficiency for a long time before it is realized to be doing so) I don’t think they are morally defective for thinking a different way about the matter; they might be right. How much regularization society needs to operate at its best is an open problem. I cannot say the same for the increasing number who tolerate injustice. For that, there is no excuse.

Why I am so certain that Silicon Valley is following (and quite rapidly doing so) the crooked, downward moral paths of those supposedly benighted elites it claims to be replacing? The celebration and tolerance of injustices, especially pertaining to the advantages that come from connections to its parochial king-makers– those connections would be meaningless in a meritocracy– is the primary sign. When a group of people develops an entrenched upper class, there is a larger set who feel an irresistible urge to associate with these winners (it becoming nearly impossible to defeat them) and who begin to rationalize the injustices coming from above. It’s not unethical management and reckless firing; it’s a “lean startup” that “fails fast”.  That’s where the VC-funded ecosystem is now. It has gone beyond tolerance of the (morally acceptable, in my view) unfairness attendant to differing economic outputs and noisy returns; it now accepts the injustice inherent in being a “who you know” oligarchy– a feudal reputation economy driven by personal introduction and favor trading, because the supposed thirst for talent is purely marketing copy– instead of a “what you know” meritocracy.

Is it worthwhile to complain about such injustices? That’s a hard question to answer. Obviously, I think the answer is “yes”, and not because I intend to change it. The people who are running this game have already shown who they are, and that’s by building something so ugly while they had the power. They will not be convinced to be otherwise. However, like all elites, they will become complacent and be replaced by something else, and that will cause opportunities to form. Long before we rise up and take those opportunities, we must study the failures of our predecessors in order not to repeat their mistakes.

Regarding the anger toward VC-istan, that I have chronicled but also directed, that’s why I do what I do. I want the next phase of technological innovation to be superior. I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t consider that both important and quite feasible. 

Here’s why Paul Graham (probably) owes me an apology.

What I am about to say here is not based on a hunch. I don’t say this kind of stuff lightly, and I will give evidence.

Additionally, I make no pretense of knowing whether Graham himself participated in the adverse action. I know that people other than him have been given editorial power, and that some have, in the past, displayed serious incompetence, especially with regard to banning of posters. Reckless silent banning (“hellbanning”) is a notorious problem on Hacker News, and the general consensus is that the problem is with Graham’s hired editors, and not the man himself.

However, I believe that I am owed an apology. (If not, I seriously misunderstand the Hacker News comment ranking algorithm, which I believe to be based on age and votes of the comment.) In September, I was tipped-off (anonymously) that my comments were being downgraded in determining their position on the board. I’d suspected this, since I went at one point from several top comments to seeing mine often at the bottom, despite several upvotes.

At first, I didn’t believe that I’d been personally targeted because, while I have been critical of the VC-funded ecosystem (“VC-istan”) I’ve always supported Paul Graham and what he’s been doing. Additionally, I’m a high-quality contributor to the board: top-100 karma, high average karma, well-written comments. However, there did seem to be a change in the ranking algorithm; something flaky was happening. The tipper gave me a way to test whether something wrong was happening: check latency times from Hacker News while logged in, and though an incognito window (“slowbanning”). Sure enough, the 3- to 5-second latencies I’d experienced under my personal account were not experienced in incognito mode. Typical latency for me, when not logged in, is 250-400 ms.

A few years ago, Hacker News made karma ratings invisible. At the time, as I recall, the justification was to prevent runaway behavior whereby popular comments got even more (less deserved) upvotes than ones with mediocre scores. I now tend to think that the change may have been made for a less noble reason: to hide that certain posters were getting (in terms of comment placement) personal penalties. If it were true (and it may not be, and if I am wrong, then I will be the one owing an apology) then it would be extremely damaging to morale, and hiding the fact would be mandatory.

If I were being personally penalized (presumably, in direct retaliation for my criticism of the VC-funded ecosystem) it would be visible by looking at older comments. Why? With HNSearch, one can find the karma rating of any comment older than about a week. (You can, if you wish, check the assertions I am making here.) Additionally, multiple sources have given me that the age penalty on comments is on the order of (2 + t)^-p, where t is the comment’s age (in hours) and p is an exponent variously given between 1.5 and 2; this means that for old threads (t >> 1000 hours) age would, assuming the comments were within days of each other, which they almost always are, be pretty well factored out.

Looking into some high-karma comments, such as 99-point comment 5 months ago, I found strong evidence of a personal penalty. That comment was placed near the bottom, while the top comments on the thread had substantially lower scores. This is not of direct concern to me (few people read 5-month-old threads) but it confirms what I had suspected.

There are 3 possibilities.

  1. (Least likely.) In retaliation for my criticism of the VC-funded ecosystem, Paul Graham has assigned a personal penalty to my comments, causing them to fall to the bottom, even when they are highly rated. If this is the case, I am owed a personal apology by Paul Graham.
  2. (Most likely.) My comments have been personally targeted, but Paul Graham is not the culprit. In this case, Paul Graham should apologize not only to me, but to Hacker News at large, for giving editorial privileges to the incompetent who pissed off a top contributor. Additionally, this person should be dismissed from the editorial role.
  3. (Other.) There’s something I am missing: perhaps an additional complexity in the ranking algorithm not related to comment success (karma) or age– I’ve tested for both. I can’t see what, but I’d be open to an explanation outside of what I’ve covered here. If I am wrong and my comments are not being penalized, then I must offer my apology for the suspicion. It is not one that I developed (much less voiced) lightly, but I cannot for certain guarantee that I am not wrong.

I look forward to learning which of these is the case. If I am not alone in suspecting chicanery, it should be discussed.

Software engineer salaries aren’t inflated– at least, not for the 99%

It’s autumn 2013, and there’s a lot of discussion around the current bubble (now obviously one) in the VC-funded technology world and how it will end. Business Insider acknowledges that a bubble exists, but gets some crucial details wrong. Let’s talk about one that most of us actually care about. Business Insider claims: “It’s not just tech asset prices that are high. Salaries are high, too.” Them’s fighting words. Is it true? Well, sort-of. Here’s the evidence, from tech recruiter Matt Allen:

Instead, we’re seeing sign-on bonuses for individuals five-years out of school in the $60,000 range. Candidates queuing-up six, eight or more offers and haggling over a few thousand-dollar differences among the offers. Engineers accepting offers and then fifteen minutes before they’re supposed to start on a Monday, emailing (not calling) to explain they found something better elsewhere.

Ok, let’s dissect this. One: a few people (and it’s not clear that they’re engineers) are getting huge signing bonuses. $60,000 isn’t a number to sneeze at, but it’s not that extreme. Management-level hires typically get signing/relocation bonuses that cover the cost of a cross-country move (easily over $20,000, for people with families) and there’s no reason software engineers shouldn’t get the same. Additionally, signing bonuses usually have clawback provisions if the employee leaves (even involuntarily) in the first year, penalizing the job-hopping for which the worst of our generation is known. Given the tax penalty associated with receiving a bonus and risking having to pay it back, I’m not sure I’d want a $60,000 bonus under typical terms. Two: some candidates are queuing up 6 to 8 job offers. I call bullshit on that one, if only because of the scheduling difficulties in a startup ecosystem where 7-day exploding offers are the norm. I’m sure there are people getting 6-8 offers in the course of an entire job search (I’ve had that) and that people are claiming to have portfolios of excellent offers in negotiation, but the logistics of getting 6 active, credible job offers at one time are unfavorable, to say the least. Three: people are being unprofessional dickbags, pulling out of accepted offers on their start date. I’m sure that that is happening, but how is an occasional episode in which a privileged young hotshot acts like a jackass newsworthy, much less the sign of a bubble? It’s not.

Managers and product executives are making a killing in the present-day startup economy, no doubt, and some of those people might be able to pass as programmers due to some PHP scripts they wrote in their teens, but when one actually studies the contemporary startup economy, there are not a lot of software engineers making over $200,000 per year outside of finance– and those who are tend to be either very good or unusually lucky. For a VC-funded startup to offer $200,000 to an engineer would be incredibly rare, even in the Bay Area, and equity allotments after VCs are involved are notoriously stingy.

Twenty years ago, when startups were underdogs almost by definition, the scene had a “Revenge of the Nerds” feel. A bunch of ragtag computer aficionados, typically from middle-class backgrounds and far away from the East Coast’s financial and corporate elite, were showing up the old guard. New, powerful technologies were being developed, and power shifted (temporarily, perhaps) to those few who understood them at a deep level. There was slight subversion of the 1%; they weren’t destroyed or even harmed, but they were visibly outperformed. For a contrast, the hot properties of the current VC-funded world almost entirely come from the 1%. Behind almost every single one of the VC darlings, there’s a series of strings pulled by powerful people repaying favors to the rich daddies of the founders. There’s no meritocracy in it. It’s not a challenge to the established and rich; it’s a sideshow for the supercapitalists. In a surprising reversal, the old-style corporate world (and the enterprise companies existing and being formed to serve their needs) has a much more middle-class culture, because the current-day rich find it boring.

Software engineer salaries in the VC-funded world are not especially low (nor are they high). They’re usually 75 to 95 percent of what more typical employers are offering. Equity distributions, on the other hand, are extremely lopsided. I worked for a company once where the board refused to allow more than 0.04% to go to an engineer. (Why? Because fuck the people doing the work, that’s why.) There’s something that needs to be discussed here, because it applies to the age-old question of why people who do actual work are modestly compensated, while vacuous celebrity types take the lion’s share. It’s the Teacher-Executive Problem.

The Teacher-Executive Problem

As a society, we need teachers, police officers, park rangers, and other such people who are modestly compensated. We don’t need celebrities, business executives, or professional athletes. I’m not going to argue that the latter are overpaid, insofar as it’s difficult and competitive to get to the top ranks in any field. That would be a subjective argument; all I intend to say is that, objectively, the need for the latter class of labor is smaller. If we didn’t have teachers or police, society would fall apart. If we didn’t have corporate executives, companies would find other ways to survive. So why are the more necessary people paid less? Because being necessary means that more workers will be drawn into the field, and that limits individual compensation. We probably pay more, as a society, for teachers and police than we do for corporate executives (as we should) but the individual slices for the larger, more necessary, job categories are smaller.

We have 3 million teachers in the US, and we need that large number of them, because individual attention per student is important. The functioning of society would be greatly impaired if that number dropped to 2 or 1 million. One might argue that competent teachers are “worth” $200,000 (or much more) per year– and I’d say that the best are worth several times that– but can society afford to pay that much for teaching? Three million $200,000 paychecks is a $600-billion annual liability. Taxes would go up substantially– in a time when the base of political power is (unfortunately) divided between a structurally disadvantaged (read: mostly fucked) emerging-adult cohort and retiring Boomers whose children are out of school– and society would likely determine that $200,000 annual paychecks for teachers “can’t be afforded” (especially given the claim that “they get off work at 3:00″). $200,000 isn’t a large amount of money for a single person, but for people who are actually needed in significant numbers, the multiplier of 3 million makes it seem unacceptable. (I am not arguing that teachers don’t deserve $200,000 salaries; only that it would be politically impossible to get them there.)

For a contrast, the social need for corporate executives (excluding entrepreneurs) is pretty minimal, and society recognizes this in a rational way: there aren’t a large number of slots: title inflation aside, there might be ten thousand truly executive roles in powerful companies. However, when the number of people performing a job is low, gigantic salaries (if those people control the distribution of resources) become socially affordable. Three million somewhat high salaries is a problem, ten thousand enormous ones is not. This is paradoxical because the middle-class conceit is that the way to become wealthy is to make oneself valuable (or, better yet, necessary) to society. What the Teacher-Executive Problem shows us is that there’s more potential for outlier compensation in doing things that aren’t necessary, because asking for more compensation doesn’t carry the implicit multiplier based on the size of the labor base. Society “can’t afford” to pay the 3 million teachers such high salaries, but it can afford the huge salaries of corporate executives, and the $850-million acquisition that enriches the top executives of

Why do so few software engineers get a fair shake in the VC-funded world? They’re on the wrong side of the Teacher-Executive Problem. They’re actually necessary. They’re required in order for technology firms to function.

What about 10X?

The generally accepted consensus (even among software engineers) is that average programmers aren’t very valuable. They write all that buggy, hideous legacy code. There’s little that software engineers and business executives agree upon, but the low status of the average programmer is probably not a point of disagreement. I don’t care to speculate on what the “average” software engineer is like, because while I have seen a ton of incompetents (and a smaller number of good engineers) out there in the world, I don’t have a representative sample. I also think that most of the engineering incompetence comes not from a lack of ability, but from an anti-intellectual culture originating in business culture at large, as well as nonexistent mentoring, so it’s not programmers who are mostly at fault. However, I will agree readily that the bulk of software engineers don’t deserve high ($200,000) salaries. They might have the talent, but few have that level of skill.

However, there is the concept of the “10x” software engineer, one who is 10 times as productive as an average engineer. It reflects a truth of software engineering, which is that excellence and peak productivity are tens to hundreds of times more powerful than the average-case output. (In fact, often that ratio is infinite because there are problems that require top talent to solve it.) Moreover, groups of engineers often scale poorly, so a team of 10 isn’t really (most of the time) 10 times as productive, but maybe 2 or 3 times as strong, as an individual. So it’s not surprising that a great engineer would be 10 times as valuable. The degree to which “10x” is real depends on the type of work, the context, project-person fit, and the competence of the engineer. It’s highly context-dependent, it’s not always the same people, and it’s quite unpredictable. The national average salary for a software engineer is about $90,000. The 10x-ers are not earning 10 times that and, to be honest about it, they probably shouldn’t. You can’t know, when hiring someone, whether the context that supports 10x output for that person is going to exist in the role. The bona fide 10x engineers typically earn 1.5 to 2 times that amount ($135,000 to $180,000) in the U.S. I’m not going to argue that they’re underpaid at this level– although, at least in comparison to MBA graduates earning twice that before age 30, I think they clearly are– but they’re far from overpaid at that level.

Why don’t 10x engineers get paid astronomical sums? For a large part, I think it’s because of the context-dependent nature of “10x”. It doesn’t require only a good engineer, but a good engineer connected with the right kind of work. Companies can’t afford (obviously) to pay $900,000 salaries to senior engineers just on the hunch that those (typically highly specialized) talents will find a use. When engineers do find environments in which they can deliver 10x output, they’re happy– and they’re not liable to clamor for huge raises, or to move quickly and risk starting over in a defective environment. This isn’t especially wrong; engineers would rather have interesting work at “merely” 1.5x salaries than risk happiness and growth for a chance at more. It’s just worth pointing out to establish that, in general, software engineers (and especially the most capable ones) are not overpaid. Moreover, the people commanding $500,000+ salaries in technology are typically not real engineers, but managers who might occasionally “drop down” and hack on one of the sexier projects to keep their skills sharp. Finally, the few (very few) software engineers making that kind of money are generally worth it: we’re not talking about top-1% talent at that level, but top-0.05% (and a level almost never achieved before age 40). There are plenty of people drawing undeserved high salaries in the Valley, but they aren’t the ones writing code.

Why must I point this out?

This (bubble) too, shall pass. The era when a well-connected rich kid can raise a $1-million seed round rather than eating his lumps in an investment bank’s analyst program will end. I don’t think that that’s a controversial assumption. Timing the end of a bubble is nearly impossible, and I don’t think anyone has shown reliability in that particular skill; but predicting that it will die off is trivial– they always do. When this happens, there will be a lot of job losses and belt-tightening. There always is. It’ll get ugly, and that’s fine. Most of these businesses getting funded and acquired don’t deserve to exist, and the economy will inevitably purge them. What I don’t want to see is the bubble made into an argument against the middle-class, hard-working software engineers. When the bubble ends, there will be losses to eat and austerity to go around, and it ought to go right to the people who reaped the benefits while the bubble existed. The end of the bubble should not be used to reduce the compensation of software engineers as a whole, whose pay is currently (I would argue) not quite unfair, but on the low side of the fair interval.

For the 99 percent, there is no software engineer salary bubble.