Skipper: Now, aren’t you all ashamed of yourselves?
Thurston Howell III: I’m ashamed we got caught.
It’s not a bad gig, being a CEO. Not only is the mean compensation 257 times that of the average worker, you often get a carte-blanche license to be a jerk. Jeff Bezos can verbally abuse workers with an inane insult like, “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” and be hailed as the best CEO in tech. Because the CEO he stole that mantle from, Steve Jobs, took executive assholery to a whole new level.
Still, there are exceptions to that carte-blanche rule. Jerk behavior takes on a toxic quality when the insults involve pernicious social problems, like sexism in the tech industry which has been there all along, yet is growing more visible—and therefore more opprobrious—by the week.
And the past week has been a banner one for what we have come to call brogrammers. A co-founder of RapGenius resigned after being blasted for exceptionally tasteless comments on his own site. Uber’s CEO saying that his luck with the “ladies” was pretty great now that his company was successful. The latest example is Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, whom TechCrunch declared in a headline was “kind of an ass.” Spiegel’s leaked Stanford emails said over and over again things that, when the rest of us rewind to our college days, recall people we met and never wanted to deal with again. Now here they’ve gone and created the apps we’re stuck with using.
Spiegel sent out an attorney-masticated apology saying he’s “embarrassed that my idiotic emails during my fraternity days were made public.” Like Thurston Howell, he’s sorry he got caught. It’s not really an apology, but at least there’s a modicum of honesty in it.
Mark Zuckerberg’s undergrad IM’s, scorning the “dumb” users of Facebook’s prototype, presaged the privacy policies of his $164 billion company today. Similarly, Spiegel’s company Snapchat seems to realize an adult fantasy of erasing for good all the stupid things he ever said in his emails five years ago.
Nevermind for a minute all the talk about brogramming, this is what’s important here–trying to erase what can’t be erased. Reed Hastings founded Netflix (apocryphally) after returning a late DVD. Zuckerberg wants (spuriously) to connect the world. Spiegel, it seems, wanted to let people erase the present because it can bite your future in the butt once it becomes the past.
That makes Snapchat an app tailor-made for CEOs, not just in tech but in most other industries. The abhorrent comments leaking out are things that have been said among men in business–and frats, the preschools of business-for decades. His emails are written in the argot of the old-boys club. Except that men on Wall Street are better at keeping it, and men in the chemical or automative industries don’t have to worry about their stupid comments leaking out to the media, because nobody pays attention to the chemical or automotive industries.
In the Internet industry, they have to worry. Because Internet startups like Snapchat and Uber are attracting the spotlight of not just the tech media, but of the mainstream media. And because, as much as companies like Google try to position themselves as companies of the future, they are very much backward looking when it comes to parity. Google said this week only 17% of its technical employees are women.
That’s the thing about brogrammers. The Spiegels et al are just the uglier edge of a broader, shrewder and much quieter culture of sexism in Silicon Valley. Forget the rhetoric about how tech is forward-thinking. It’s no different from any older industry where bias has been there all along. What matters is this: The Internet apps and technologies these educated dolts are helping to create are not only exposing their secret thoughts, they are also creating a platform for others to criticize them en masse.
CEO’s will always be jerks, maybe well paid for their peculiar dysfunctions. And we’re not even close to seeing the end of executives, tech or otherwise, saying sexist stupidities and being publicly shamed for them. It’s not that there are suddenly more sexist CEOs, it’s that they’re being hoisted more often by their own petards. That will make for headlines of CEO’s being caught saying stupid things, but the more it happens, the better it is in the long run. Because it means the days of the Chief Executive Bro are numbered.