Can My Generation Make More Zuckerbergs?

December 8th, 2011 at 12:28 pm | 49 Comments |

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Galatea’ is a columnist writing about her experience looking for work after her recent downsizing. Previous entries in her series can be read here.

This weekend I ran into a friend from high school with unmitigated amounts of professional success. He was president of the student government, remedy studied at an elite liberal arts college, and now flew all over the world as part of a glamorous job working for an NGO.

“So what do you do?” Sam asked.

“Uhhhh I’m…between jobs…and uhh working on some, uh, projects….and uh so have you talked to anyone from high school?”

We ended up on the subject of what everyone else was doing. Somehow we began talking about the brightest kids we knew, the ones who ended up at Princeton and Harvard and Yale. And then Sam exploded.

“I can’t believe these guys!” He started ticking their names off his fingers. “Allie is at Goldman Sachs. William is working for a hedge fund. Jackson—he gave up an offer at Google to work on Wall Street. He should be at Google!” He slammed the table. “I don’t know why they’re on Wall Street making money when they should be innovating.


In that moment, where oh my god he has a point collided with what the hell, that’s such a ludicrous statement, three clear thoughts crystallized, mostly drawn from my own experiences in college.

Thought one: Duh, they’re on Wall Street because they don’t want to innovate.

Let’s assume that Sam was talking about innovation in the way that the United States has been thinking about the topic for the past decade: sexy Internet startups like Facebook and Google and Apple—or, to put it more generally, people creating value out of applying ideas in different and creative ways.

Having seen my fair share of startups, I’ve come to one conclusion, backed by lots of data: startups often fail. They fail for a number of reasons, but it usually boils down to this: you either have the potent combo of a world-class intellect prone to wandering, a billion dollar idea, and the tenacity to execute it, or you don’t.

When I enrolled in college, the myth of Mark Zuckerberg had become de rigeur for any hoodie-ensconced nerd with an ego, high SAT scores, and a blind eye to their lack of sexual attraction. Consequently, our campus became the laboratory for hundreds of startup ideas, many of them ridiculous: a car rental company, a textbook exchange, a company that reminded people when to get gifts for their loved ones’ special events, and the dumbest, a Fantasy Congress League.

A lot of those ideas failed. Some failed pretty badly. (Sorry, Fantasy Congress.) One of them managed to attract hundreds of thousands of dollars in startup capital and gobs of public attention, until the pressure to succeed caused one of their cofounders—an old friend of mine—to commit suicide.

Nevertheless, the few times that I do see a startup succeed—and I mean general success, not the near-impossible “reach an IPO” success—it’s due to a cosmic alignment of factors: the right investors, the right niche in the market being filled at the right time, and, most importantly, the right entrepreneur with the right vision.

There’s a lot to be said about the pressure put on elite college students to end up making bank on Wall Street, but it does take guts and opportunity to succeed. Given that those friends went onto the much less risky Wall Street instead of the start-up world, they clearly don’t have the desire or cojones to quote-unquote “innovate”—whatever that word meant to Sam. He’s a smart guy, but he swung the term around like a 99 percenter with a guilt-inducing cudgel.

Thought two: Why is Sam angry at these people in particular for not innovating?

The general talking points floating around Washington when it comes to capital-I INNOVATION, circle around the STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math). The common knowledge is that US companies are trying to hire people with these types of degrees, but face two conjoined problems. One, there aren’t enough people getting STEM-based degrees in the US. Two, the ones who are, tend to be poached by Wall Street recruiters.

The thing is, none of the people Sam listed received a STEM degree. They’d pursued degrees in government and international relations, studying everything from energy policy and comparative political theory to the growth of China. Some of them studied economics, to be sure, but I recall that they all were enormous news junkies in high school.

Sure, maybe they’re being selfish right now for not using their degrees in the public interest. But they’re not as obligated to innovate as the STEM kids on Wall Street are. I mean, what on earth could Allie “innovate” on using her IR degree right now? A brilliant new way to impose trade sanctions on North Korea? It’s probably better off for her to tuck away a tidy sum from Goldman, use that money to go to law school, and then become Hillary Clinton.

So yes, Sam, take your rage out on recruiters who target the best and brightest to work on Wall Street. God knows that many of them deserve it. But incentivizing people with STEM degrees to stay in the innovation economy should be your first priority, rather than targeting generally bright kids who chose to enter Wall Street and consulting as a way to build resources for further careers in public service. They’re gonna need it if they’re going to innovate in an organizational context, particularly in a public sector defined by its firm entrenchment in old ideas.

Thought three: I agree with you, Sam, we’re screwed.

While I know people who chose Wall Street, I also know plenty of smart people who ended up at Google or Facebook or other companies scattered around Silicon Valley. I even know people who strike out on their own, attempting to build their own companies and get the attention of Peter Thiel. The desire to build something of one’s own, to make the world better through either a game-changing industrial design or a tiny tweak to Google’s algorithm, does exist in our generation.

And yet, some of the smartest kids I know are figuring out how to repackage loans and disperse risk on Wall Street, or selling ad space at Google, or streamlining the supply chain at Amazon. They’re certainly pursuing incremental innovations within their organizations, but nothing truly disruptive is really going to result from it—despite the lucrative six figure salaries that my banker and consultant friends flaunt. Student debt doesn’t play into it—pretty much all of my friends graduated debt-free—but who would turn down six figures, a penthouse in New York City, alcohol every night? I can count on two fingers the number of people I know who have turned down those jobs to pursue ideas that are crazy and new.

It really only takes one innovative person to have a huge impact on the economy. But what exactly is the problem: that not enough people are trying or have the mental capacity to do so? That we as a generation are too risk-averse, a characteristic compounded by a faltering economy? That evil corporations are luring the would-be innovators into their organizations with the promise of money?

But at that café table, I realized that while “innovation” could mean anything, I had no idea what Sam was really so angry about. “Ok, Sam,” I asked, “what exactly do you mean by ‘innovation’?”

He looked taken aback. “You know…” he said, waving his hands impotently. “Innovation.”

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49 Comments so far ↓

  • Lonewolf

    Hard to be an innovator these days when every existing corporation is claiming intellectual rights to virtually everything. In its suit against Samsung, the other day Apple advanced the interesting notion that it had exclusive proprietary rights to (a) rectangles, (b) rounded corners (c) black (d) the concept “narrow”.

    • drdredel

      That’s an incredibly good point. All this talk about business uncertainty because of tax regulation and the elephant in the room is that taxes don’t begin to compare, in terms of uncertainty, to the agony start-ups face, knowing that no matter what they do, a patent infringement lawsuit is virtually guaranteed when they reach some threshold of success, given that the patent office allows such absurd vagueness in new claims that no idea can be brought to market without infringing on *something.

      If ever there was a government sector that needed reform owing to its chilling effects on “job creation” this is certainly it.

      • Houndentenor

        And it makes no difference that the suit is ridiculous. A small company or individual doesn’t have the resources to take on a legal battle with a giant.

        About 10 years ago there was a women’s early music ensemble that followed the correct procedures to secure the rights to their name. A few years later a pop festival chose the same name and sued them for trademark infringement. The early music group was in the right but running on a shoestring, they had to change their name which meant having to start all marketing and promotions over again from scratch. They disbanded by the end of the year.

        This is probably a better example of the 99% vs the 1% today. People wanting to start something new are mostly squashed by the giants who don’t want the competition. Zuckerberg is the exception. I guess there will be more exceptions, as people like that always defy the odds. But it gets harder and harder for small businesses when a megacorp (Wal-Mart for example) can sell below cost and take a loss long enough to run you out of business (and then raise the prices again once they are the only game in town.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    one, you don’t have to have a STEM degree to be an innovator (have you ever heard of artists?) and many people who are innovators who have a STEM degree are also multi-disciplined. I know a ton of engineers who couldn’t innovate a thing but who are highly proficient at their jobs. As to this article:
    and now flew all over the world as part of a glamorous job working for an NGO.
    “So what do you do?” Sam asked.
    “Uhhhh I’m…between jobs…

    Massive FAIL. Don’t you know how valuable connections are? Why the hell did you not hit him up for a position if he has such unmitigaged success? At least you could finagle a heads up if a position ever comes open.
    My nephew got a high paying position in finance in Thailand because his (step) Uncle was working there, he lived there for a few years and had the time of his life and made good money.
    Stop with the false pride and get down and dirty and get a job.

    • drdredel

      My thoughts exactly. People go to school, primarily, to set up networking contacts for their future. Sure they learn a thing or two along the way (if they really want to), but unless you’re getting a science or engineering degree, you’re there to make friends, and that connectivity is going to get you through the rest of your life, moving from one job to another, or starting your own company, or finding the husband of your dreams! (if you happen to live in 1957).

      Seems like she’s squandering an opportunity (or 7) given how many successful connections she appears to have.

      • Primrose

        I agree. While one shouldn’t ask for a job, but instead thoughts, help, leads, networking is the way to find work. No need to be shy.

        My husband a few weeks ago was part of a major downsizing purge. We thought he was safe but they were just waiting because he was on a business trip. He pushed the issue and found out as he was about to walk into a conference meeting. We both thought it was terrible timing. Not so, it was too raw to hide, so he told people, which meant he instantly networked, got feedback from people he respected and was able to have a rational perspective about himself, and our future.

        He has a number of opportunities emerging, some permanent, some not,nothing as bleak as we both thought when he (then me) heard the news.

        Yeah, it could all turn out wrong and we shall be forced to move to the mobile home on my parents farm (still luckier than most yes I know) but that only seems realistic during my bouts of 3 in the morning insomnia. Getting a job, like most of life, is all about connecting with people.

  • armstp

    “Does My Generation Need More Innovators?”

    The answer is always going to be yes, as every generation needs more innovation and we always need more innovators. You can never have too much innovation.

    But, compared to what? Compared to previous younger generations, compared to other countries, compared to other current generations?

    I am not sure there is any more or less innovation and innovators today then at any time in U.S. history.

    The best and the brightest going to Wall Street is an old story, it has been around since the 80s.

    The real question that should be asked is do we have enough engineers, as engineers are the true innovators and that is pretty much all they do?

    However, people are only going to study what they find interesting. Maybe we have been doing a poor job at making math and science interesting. Maybe we have too much of a focus on money/consumerism, entertainment, fame and sports, which makes things like math and science less glamourous. Germany produces a lot of innovative engineers and they have no where near the societal focus on the fluff.

    • jurisdepravis

      “People are only going to study what they find interesting…”

      That seems incredibly glib to me. Are you suggesting that all of those finance majors are in it because they absolutely LOVE the idea of amortization? Could it be, perhaps, that Galatea’s comment on penthouse apartments, six-figure incomes, and booze every night had something to do with it?

      Say what we will about our priorities as a society, actions speak louder than words. What field compensates its employees the best? Finance and, to a lesser degree, medicine.

      That tells you all that you need to know about our society’s priorities. We prioritize the management of existing wealth over the innovation of new ideas. We prioritize medical treatment over improvements in processes, facilities, etc.

      Until that changes, those who are able to do many things will continue to go into finance and medicine.

      Talent follows money. Plain and simple.

      • armstp

        Sure there are exceptions, but the vast majority of college students study what they find interesting; including those in finance.

        I did know too many people in college who were studying what they were studying because of the money.

        By the way a good engineer gets paid relatively good money these days, particularly compared to a liberal arts career. Nothing wrong with liberal arts though.

  • Ray_Harwick

    Sure, maybe they’re being selfish right now for not using their degrees in the public interest.


  • PracticalGirl

    Great column, pinpointing one of the biggest issues your generation has to contend with: That anybody can “innovate”, that a Mark Zuckerberg lurks in the hearts and minds of every one of your tech-savvy members.

    It’s ridiculous on its face. Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs, even Michale Dell- they’re the rarest of all rare commodities, and yet- needing to believe in the “special nature” that we’ve nutured the Trophy Generation to be-we all continue to act as if they are the rule, instead of the exception. Unfortunately, your generation was given the “every body is a Chief, nobody is an Indian” mentality, and so you have far too many Indians who think they can be Chief.

    “But what exactly is the problem: that not enough people are trying or have the mental capacity to do so? That we as a generation are too risk-averse, a characteristic compounded by a faltering economy? That evil corporations are luring the would-be innovators into their organizations with the promise of money?”

    You’re close with the last part of your first sentence. Most young people who strike out on their own don’t have a truly “innovative” idea, rather an idea that seeks to improve on existing technology. To succeed in this sort of arena requires a breadth of knowledge about not just the technology they wish to play with but in business and the ability to accurately analyze/forecast the markets they seek to serve. Very, very few have these skills. Even fewer have the ability to understand the difference between improving existing markets and innovating a brand new one. There are also far too many young entrepreneurs who start a business with their own needs in mind (to “innovate) and fail to even think about what the market they seek to serve actually needs. Thus, every body has an app to sell, but nobody has a truly new idea.

    Your friends on Wall Street, believe it or not, have a far greater chance to “innovate” in the future than most of those who are throwing darts at the same wall as everybody else right now. First, they have the opportunity to get “seasoned” in a broad business sense, getting to know not just how the stock market functions but also learning about specialized vertical markets, the places ripest for tech-heavy innovative applications. Second, they sit at the intersection of those with money to invest and those who need it for “innovation”. The very smartest will cultivate and tap it all.

    I encourage all to give their dreams a whirl. I just happen to think that the dreams of most of your generation- fueled by a country that fed them to you and really, really wants them to be true- aren’t realistic.

    • Primrose

      But you can’t be an innovator if you are worried about “realistic.” That’s the point. And if you want to know what made Jobs and Gates and company, read Malcom Gladwell’s books. It wasn’t being a rara avis at all. In fact, most of the great innovators of Silicon Valley were born in the same couple of years. What they had is access, luck and 10,000 hours.

      Also, really can we give this everyone gets a trophy meme a rest please. That’s for little kids and studies have shown the problem with this generation is not that all effort gets rewarded, but that reward is attached to results. They can’t handle failure.

      If you want to raise a flexible kid able to handle life’s challenges, praise effort not results.

  • Oldskool

    Times change. The idea used to be, you went to school and then worked at the same place until retirement with lots of nice beneifts. Then, greed became good so companies who employed those unfortunate people were chopped up and downsized to make one or three people a few gazillion dollars.

    Greed is even more ideal today now that the ‘haves’ declared war on the ‘have-nots’.

  • Graychin

    Top graduates of top schools who go to work for Wall Street create plenty of “innovation.” Unfortunately, that kind of innovation creates little benefit for society. It only helps their employers find innovative ways to make money trading their Monopoly deeds. These “innovators” may then find themselves rewarded fabulously.

    Take the “innovator” Mitt Romney. Please!

    I don’t think that “innovation” is exactly is the issue, or quite what we are looking for from younger generations. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell rode the wave of the arriving Information Age to great personal wealth, but each made a significant social contribution along with his profitable products. They made a better world that I’m enjoying right now on my laptop computer.

    Recently my sister-in-law, the college professor, asked me to allow one of her students to interview me about my profession. Do you know what one of the student’s questions was? “How did you feel that your work benefited society?” How many college students would even ask that question, instead of “how much money can I make doing that”?

    By the way – “NGO” is just a euphemism for “not for profit organization.” An NGO may benefit society, but… no profit? Who wants that anymore?

    Of course making a comfortable living (or just having a job) matters – a lot. But how many of Sam’s Wall Street friends ever gave a damn about a better society and a better world? They may have become captives of a poisonous “every man for himself” philosophy being peddled by today’s neo-Randians.

    So don’t blame the recruiters. Blame the money-worshiping students who sell their souls to them.

    • drdredel

      They may have become captives of a poisonous “every man for himself” philosophy being peddled by today’s neo-Randians.

      In fact the author of this article has, herself, proclaimed affinity for this ludicrously naive (not to mention immoral and wholly anti-social) approach to civilization.

  • hormelmeatco

    I’m currently in college right now and have done brief stints in 2 research labs for different professors, one physics and the other biology. I stopped after a few months in each lab not because the work itself wasn’t interesting (it certainly was) but because I couldn’t see any sort of path from doing that to something I could make a living doing after I graduate.

    The real problem which Galatea and Sam are getting at is that science and engineering just don’t pay off anymore. Are there companies who would hire a microbiology major (me) to do microbiology-related things for them? No.

    My choices are basically an academic career (watching the pubish-or-perish and grant-groveling rat races both professors have to participate in has turned me off of this completely) or potentially working for a state or federal government agency (with all of the fun that entails, including rigid pay and promotion structures, bureaucracy and getting vilified as a public employee). The private sector? Forget it. Biotechnology in the US, in the words of one of the profs, has atrophied almost completely.

    Government policies towards STEM education and industries haven’t helped (not renewing the SMART grant program? WTF, Congress?), but if the private sector was more amenable to STEM, government policies wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

    My out? Stay in school longer, take 2 years of Spanish and do a computer science minor.

    The tech industry has its own set of huge problems but the barrier to entry is far lower and it’s easier to get a broad knowledge base/skill set as a means of insurance against un-/underemployment.

    It says alot about the country when you can make more wrecking the economy than you can innovating in STEM fields. I think Sam is complaining about a lack of innovation just to sound fashionable.

    • drdredel

      I don’t understand… All I hear all day is that there is a massive lack of engineers (it’s a broad term, I know) which is why US companies have ~2 million unfilled positions across a variety of sectors, all in the highly trained professional ranks. This notion doesn’t square with what you’re saying. I’m curious what you’re basing your assumptions on.

      • hormelmeatco

        “I’m curious what you’re basing your assumptions on.”

        Preliminary job searches. I spoke with an Intel representative at a job fair a few months ago and the first thing he repeatedly asked me was if I was legally allowed to work in the US. I’m white.

        No offense, but you sound like my parents. “I just always keep hearing on the news and in the papers that there’s shortages of people with science degrees. There’s no way the American economy could NOT be working for someone with a B.S…” … is the gist of most of the conversations we have on the topic.

        “This notion doesn’t square with what you’re saying.

        That’s all it is. A notion.

        • drdredel

          As I noted below, I’m speaking, at least to some degree, from personal experience, though granted I don’t know much about the fields in which you aspire to proficiency. None of my friends who have degrees and are skilled in sciences (across many areas) are unemployed. The only people I know who are having a hard time are unskilled workers looking for physical labor of some kind, and/or service work. The one notable exception is that teachers are having a much harder time finding work. Granted, this is entirely anecdotal, and personal, but it squares 100% with what I hear and read in the news.

        • hormelmeatco

          How far along are they in their careers?

      • baw1064

        I’m very skeptical of that figure of “millions of high skill jobs going unfilled.” For one thing the companies saying that often have the ulterior motive of trying to use that as an argument to influence visa policies and thereby cut their labor costs.

      • Posting From Fake America

        “I don’t understand… All I hear all day is that there is a massive lack of engineers (it’s a broad term, I know) which is why US companies have ~2 million unfilled positions across a variety of sectors, all in the highly trained professional ranks. This notion doesn’t square with what you’re saying. I’m curious what you’re basing your assumptions on.”

        Every recession there is always this story about how there are actually tons of jobs available if only Americans would get off their lazy asses and learn more math and science like the rest of the world. I guess Americans have a tendency to blame themselves rather than the structural problems that exist in the economy. Areas like Comp. Sci and Chemical Engineering are doing well, at least relative to the prospects of other majors. However, plenty of other science and engineering majors are not so hot; bio-sciences, physics, and mechanical engineering.

        • drdredel

          As a Director of Engineering with long-standing unfilled software developer positions, I can tell you with some degree of confidence that at least as far as software engineers go, there is a serious dearth. I have no way to vouch for other technological fields, but it would not surprise me if this is being felt by fields other than my own.

          And this has nothing to do with Americans beating themselves up over anything. America has had a huge manufacturing history, and people (quite justly) got used to the idea that physical labor is plentiful and will pay them to support a reasonably nice life. I do suspect that that ship has now sailed.

        • hormelmeatco

          How senior a position are your unfilled spots? I’m not asking for a job. There’s a dearth of employers willing to provide training or mentorship. I see it in the IT dept. of my school (where I work part time). Lots of middle-aged and older folks and practically no one under 35 who isn’t a student employee. Practically no students are ever hired on as FTEs.

          Not that I would be able to immediately step in and fill their shoes if one of them left, but a shortage of mid-level and senior people for higher-level positions is something that’s several years in the making.

          Skimping on training and continuing education is biting people now after it’s too late to have prevented it. That’s the problem with all of the entry level positions requiring 3-4 years of experience.

        • hormelmeatco

          “I’m just skeptical that you’re getting the right info.” “so, I wouldn’t take stuff you pick up at such affairs at face value.”

          Your anecdotes vs. mine. And I’m the first-time jobseeker. The job fair thing I mentioned happened 2 months ago. How is something from 1999 relevant?

          As for money being a bad reason, I can’t feed myself with passion and enthusiasm. In the case of the lab work, the poor prospects are what killed my initially good feelings for it.

          I know I’m being something of a jerk about this, but it really irritates me when people talk about how desperate they are for good potential employees, how the market for labor in a STEM field is so incredibly tight, etc. Nothing I’ve seen in my experience tells me anything of the sort.

        • hormelmeatco

          “if only Americans would get off their lazy asses and learn more math and science like the rest of the world.”

          Which is exactly what some of us do. When we realize it won’t amount to squat, we realize how wrong we were in being smug about having better post-graudation job prospects than our BA friends.

        • drdredel

          How senior a position are your unfilled spots? I’m not asking for a job.

          As a 100% self taught engineer, I am always happy to hire people who show promise and talent and are eager to learn. I am very rarely interested in a really seasoned engineer for three reasons.
          1) they are very expensive (and justly so… I charge $125 p/h for my time)
          2) they are usually really entrenched in the technologies that they know and love, wich is great for fixing things that are broken but not so great for innovating and keeping up with the times
          3) they are usually extremely difficult to convince that they’re wrong

          So… I’ve prefer to hire people who are either fresh out of school, or have never even been to school but just spent some months noodling around with books and code samples they got online. At the moment, I am actually training several friends of mine who are looking to switch careers, with the understanding that I’ll be able to pay them less than market rates for a while, after they’re ready to actually be useful. That’s the level of desperation. I can tell you anecdotes of friends of mine being wooed by companies from across the country, because those companies couldn’t find anyone locally. It’s insane how out of whack the software job market is, as relating to the overall unemployment rate in the country.
          This is not to say that *anyone will do. No. They have to be talented and have a passion for this sort of work. I’m not interested in anyone that just wants to do it for the money, which is why I’m not suggesting that you pursue this tract… I’m just skeptical that you’re getting the right info.
          Lastly, I’ve been to a couple of job fairs and always found them to be totally off kilter. I recall being told at one job fair in 1999 that the average starting rate for a programmer was 40-60k. I was making 98k at the time and didn’t know anyone that was making less (lots of people making more… I was fairly junior then). I confronted the person making this assertion and they insisted that this was correct, but I have yet to meet anyone who was writing code in 99 and making anything near that range, so, I wouldn’t take stuff you pick up at such affairs at face value.

        • baw1064

          So… I’ve prefer to hire people who are either fresh out of school, or have never even been to school but just spent some months noodling around with books and code samples they got online.

          I would say that you are (happily) an exception to the excessive credentialism of the present era.

  • Marquis

    There are several myths in this article I’d like to dispel.

    First, whether you go into finance or high tech, you are by definition, acting in your own self-interest. There is no such thing as working in the “public interest,” with the exception of people like your friend Sam working for the NGO. Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Vinod Khosla, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin,….. they all went into business because they had ideas for creating products that people would buy AND it would make them money. No one goes into business because they want to serve the broader goals of humanity, though that may be a coincidental outcome of their success.

    Second, it’s a myth that American students don’t study engineering and applied sciences in college; I was one of them, and there are many others like me. The dearth is not in undergraduate degree holders, but in low-level coders who do repetitive work that doesn’t require a degree, and doctorate-level students who do advanced research and publish papers. A lot of the old-timers are getting out anyway; the bureaucratic/managerial incompetence, the excessive time and energy required for regulatory compliance, coupled with the constant flow of H1B workers is killing interest in these fields FAST.

    I’m sure you’ve read that students who study engineering in college, often command high starting salaries, and this partly true. If you get a degree in petroleum engineering from a strong program like that at UT-Austin, you can get a job right out of college working for Halliburton or Schlumberger, making $65,000. You could study EECS and work for any number of companies, Intel, Texas Instruments, etc. But the truth is that, these salaries level off quickly in your career, which leads me to my next point…

    …that many people like me who studied these things college, work in industry for a few years, then go on to other ventures. Some go on to med school and become physicians, others go on to law school and become patent lawyers. And even if you don’t switch careers, your company will eventually push you into management, and you may have to go back to school and get an MBA. In fact, a large proportion of senior executives of Fortune 500 corporations hold engineering degrees.

    Lastly, this impression that if you go into finance, you are not contributing to innovation is VERY false. In fact, if you are an engineer that goes into finance, you are accelerating innovation. It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the economy. Venture Capital, Private Equity, and Investment Banking play a crucial role in funding most of these start-ups and providing liquidity to the markets. A large part of the job is analysis of industry, and these financial firms often hire people who have hands-on experience. A physician will be hired to assess the impact of a medical devices company acquisition, an aerospace engineer will be hired to assess the merger of two defense contractors for the Air Force, and even weathermen are hired by hedge funds to predict weather patterns that affect the commodity futures market. Neel Kashkari, for example, former Asst. Treasury Secretary, is a Goldman Sachs vet and aerospace engineer.

    My point is that finance and high tech have a symbiotic relationship in the economy, and just because you have a degree in computer science and work for a VC firm instead of your own start-up, doesn’t mean you aren’t contributing to innovation. As you admit, it takes hard work, a vision, and good luck to make an idea work, and statistically you are bound to fail. But this applies to any small business, anywhere, not just San Jose. Remember, even though unemployment is high, the US economy is still the most dynamic in the word in terms of technological advancement. Even though you will have a Steve Jobs every now and then who has his own bright idea, most innovation comes in the form of fits and starts, and long hours at the drawing board, often without immediate success.

    • Graychin

      It’s probably true that Wall Street makes an important contribution (even innovation!) to our economy. But can we agree that the power and rewards that flow to Wall Street are grossly out of proportion to its contribution to the general welfare? GROSSLY out of proportion?

      You are completely wrong about your concepts of “self-interest” and “public interest.” It’s nothing but a truism to say that we all pursue our own self-interest. Even the guy who works for the NGO for low pay pursues his own self-interest if he likes his job or feels rewarded by the social results of his efforts. That defines “self-interest” so far down that the concept becomes meaningless.

      The fallacy is believing that self-interest means money, and only money. Not everyone is motivated by money alone. It’s the fact that too many libertarians and “conservative” economists overlook.

  • Fart Carbuncle

    Why can’t we have an innovator that can make my car drive with water for fuel??

    Why not have an improved Stanley Steamer-type car with today’s technology?

    I hate fossil fuels…no, I hate enriching Arabs and the oil companies even more.

  • Bohemian_Idol_Smasher

    I find it curious that Galatea and all of her interlocutors here in the comments section deal with Mark Zuckerberg strictly as a scientific and economic entity, and not as the cultural phenomenon that, above all other aspects of this man boy, defines his role in public life. For the really important thing about him is not that he’s made billions of dollars vis a vis the design of ‘innovative’ web software, but that he’s done so while at the same time changing the face of culture– and not exactly (in my estimation, anyway) for the better.

    Then again, I suppose if you take the question contained in this article’s title at face value (and I see no reason, until Ms. Galatea indicates otherwise, why we shoudn’t), then the lack of comment on Zuckerberg as Cultural Artificat makes perfect sense: for why would any sane or intelligent person wish for a mass replication of this narcissistic, socially stunted, philistine wierdo? He’s made a fortune by lowering everyone else’s social skills down to the pathetic level of his own. Most members of the millenial generation, already socially awkward to begin with, can barely take part in the most basic adult conversation thanks in large part to this fool. And so I repeat: why oh why would anyone want to replicate him?

    • NRA Liberal


    • baw1064

      In fairness to the author, the article’s title was changed (the original one didn’t include Mark Zuckerberg’s name). And, the only mention of MZ in the article is the following:

      When I enrolled in college, the myth of Mark Zuckerberg had become de rigeur for any hoodie-ensconced nerd with an ego, high SAT scores, and a blind eye to their lack of sexual attraction.

      I’m not sure she’s really saying that her generation needs more to include more unattractive hoodie-ensconced nerds. ;)

      At any rate, that’s kind of how my college environment was back in the early 1980s (coincidently, the last time the job market really sucked). The fact that I actually went to college in Silicon Valley might have also had something to do with it.

      But yes, I agree that Facebook, or Twitter, aren’t really that innovative, technically. They did take an existing technology, and managed to make it appealing to a lot of people.

  • SDC

    ‘They’re certainly pursuing incremental innovations within their organizations, but nothing truly disruptive is really going to result from it—despite the lucrative six figure salaries that my banker and consultant friends flaunt.’

    I think some of them have done some really grand scale ‘disrupting’, just not the feel-good MBA ‘change the world instead of selling sugar water’ kind.

    Yes, ‘Innovation’ is a fuzzy feel good word. Some of you may remember the Dept. Of Justice’s suit against Microsoft in the 1990s. Microsoft’s public relations people spun their cause as ‘freedom to innovate’, although in this case it actually meant ‘freedom to take the idea of a web browser, developed by some brilliant and obsessed University of IL graduates at Netscape, and use Microsoft’s size and market share advantage to smother that baby in its crib’. I may be indulging in some spin of my own here. The story does relate to some of the pitfalls of the start up life discussed by both author and commenters.

    However, I don’t think the choice is limited to ‘I can work on Wall Street, or I can try to be Mark Zuckerberg’. There is a not insignificant concern re: Wall Street sucking the brilliant out of circulation to work on things of dubious if any social value. There was a series in n+1, ‘Interviews with an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager’, where said Manager described a ‘bubble in people’: ‘You’ve got doctors working on Wall Street – they should be out there healing people!’. So I think while it is admittedly pretty funny to get after your friend for not really having a specific kind of ‘Innovation’ in mind, there is a strange and malignant thing going on when so much energy and intelligence is drawn away from other pursuits like the proverbial air being sucked out of a room. There is a kind subculture forming and growing around the idea of making concrete things (as opposed to financial instruments or web applications), so perhaps some good will come of that, provided it does not fall victim to a Microsoft-style stifling (or to the patent system rightly called out by some commenters).

  • NRA Liberal

    Zuckerberg didn’t even “innovate” his big idea! It was the twins!

  • medinnus

    So long as there is a sub-culture in the USA that places creation myth over science, disparages education and experience, and continues to load the dice so that only those with superior resources can obtain the level of resources required for success, the next Z. won’t be coming from the Right Wing.

    Its a shame that the only truly imaginative and innovative segment of the population are the Liberals.

  • senn

    Great piece, and interesting comments!

    Marquis makes an important point … “Wall Street” is not monolithic. Bond traders bad, VC’s good. People like Vinod Khosla are hugely important for innovation.

    It’s a myth that STEM isn’t financially rewarding. I consult for telecom R&D groups & have been a visiting prof at a major EECS department. At the PhD level I hardly ever see a native-born American candidate anymore even though 6-figure starting salaries are possible in industry. Most of the profs in the Berkeley EECS dept have done successful start-ups at one point or another, and even in my field (pure math) a number became zillionaires (eg, James Simons and Elwyn Berlekamp). I really dont understand why Americans seem to shun this career path.

  • Demosthenes

    I know a young man who is a real savant, a once-in-a-generation kind of intellect. He had completed all the coursework for an undergraduate degree in Mathematics by the time he finished high school, and did so well at various collegiate mathematics competitions that he represented the United States at the International Mathematics Olympiad (and placed quite highly there).

    Now he optimizes code for Google. And sure, Google is one of the “innovators”, and I’d rather see him there than Wall Street. But I can’t help feeling as though something is wrong with our priorities as a society when someone with such a gift becomes essentially just one more cog in the machine, the 21st-century version of the guy who rearranges factory layouts, because realistically that is the only thing that society is going to compensate him to do. If Friedrich Gauss had been alive today he would almost certainly have made the same decision as my friend.

    • drdredel

      I’m not sure that this is a fair characterization. I have no doubt that if your friend wanted to pursue something more rewarding (and I’m not so sure that what he does for google *isn’t rewarding, there’s a lot to be said for simply loving your work and getting great pleasure from introducing some minuscule efficiency into an otherwise excellent system), there’s no shortage of high tech universities that always have room for people like this, in some capacity. Granted, he won’t make a lot of money, but he’ll be comfortable, and doing what he loves. Of course our society doesn’t value things in any rational manner. Athletes make millions while teachers have to pick up 2nd jobs to make ends meet. I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about that. At some point our society may evolve enough to see greatness where it truly is, rather than in meaningless physical feats.

  • RLHotchkiss

    These last 40 years have been perhaps the greatest threat to the concept that unregulated capitalism provides the most efficient use of resources. No one seems to believe that America will be able to replicate the prosperity that was built on the highly regulated centrally controlled policies that existed from WWII till Carter. Ironically it was Carter who was instrumental in the deregulation process that made investment in innovation unprofitable.

    Are economy couldn’t create the Internet or the Mac today because Carter and those after him killed environment where Bell labs Xerox PARC existed. Most telling of all is the title of this article. Who would want another Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg is no Romney, but he certainly hasn’t created many jobs, unless you count the jobs created by the lost productivity due to Zynga games being played at work.

    So next time you need to find a job in America and can’t or need to kill a home invader with your phone because your gun jammed but can’t blame Carter. For all the lionization of Reagan the current innovationless economy couldn’t have happened without Carter. Second prize goes to Edward Kennedy’s drunk driving.

  • jamesj

    I find it interesting that many in the financial industry accuse the federal government of creating perverse incentives in the market. These accusers are the same people who spend careers inventing complex investment vehicles that purposefully obfuscate their contents in an effort to circumvent efficient market behavior. That simple truth is the driving force propelling a guy like me, a perfect traditional Republican voter on paper, a student of economics, a business owner, an employer, a high income earner, to strongly oppose the culture of idealistic free market boosterism that we have in the modern day US. Instead of cheerleader for government or cheerleading for business or cheerleading for the middle class we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that they are all deeply flawed. Human beings are deeply flawed. We can’t outsource the functioning of society to business just as we can’t outsource it to any other entity (such as the federal government). Wall Street has become the #1 example of a culture that put too much unfounded faith in markets and business.

    NOTE: Wall Street and business owners like myself don’t deserve any more blame or skepticism than any other entity (such as the popular masses or the federal government). What DOES deserve criticism is the utopian worship of Wall Street and business above other control structures.

  • budgiegirl

    I think true brilliance is something you can’t hold back…. The Steve Jobs, The Bill Gates. No matter what field they enter, they will innovate. As far as the other 99.9% …. well there is a range of what they can and will do. In my experience, the smartest people I know are not necessarily making the most money. But they made that choice – and I think they are happy with it. There are alot of “smart but not THAT smart” people I know running hedge funds, working on wall street, etc etc – and I suppose they are making a ton of money – and good for them. What else should they have done. They weren’t brilliant enough to be innovators, and not smart enough to have a fascinating career… let them make their money, I don’t care. To each his own. The only thing that gets me is when there are smart people who would never ever consider teaching as a career – because the pay is SO ridiculously low, that it makes no sense to them. I don’t blame them. I didn’t go into teaching either. So I don’t worry about the next generation of innovators – they are rare but inevitable. I worry about where we will get our great teachers for the next-next generation -when we pay our teachers a salary that is so far below other attainable jobs… its a tough sell.

  • Primrose

    “but who would turn down six figures, a penthouse in New York City, alcohol every night? I can count on two fingers the number of people I know who have turned down those jobs to pursue ideas that are crazy and new.”

    If the penthouse and six figure income is so great, why do you need to numb yourself with alcohol every night?

    I think we need to redefine our best and brightest if we call people who make these choices either. Good brains need challenge, need novel ideas, need a lot of things that have nothing to do with money.