Tech’s Ex Factor: Why the Proliferation of the Former Employee Is a Problem

September 20, 2017, 4:19 PM UTC

Bodega—you might have heard—is a terrible startup. But it’s also not unique. Not in the sense that other tech companies are creating vending machines for corner-store necessities, but that investors and customers and self-ascribed disrupters alike are suckers for what could be called Silicon Valley’s “ex factor.” Paul McDonald, Bodega’s CEO and cofounder, describes himself in a two-word sentence: “Former Googler.”

And he is not alone. Consider these headlines: “Ex-Googlers left secretive AI unit to form Groq with Palihapitiya.” “Ex-Amazon and Microsoft employees launching business-focused digital assistant ‘Roxy.'” Or, infamously, “Two Former Google Employees Want To Put An End to Bodegas.”

The refrain has become ubiquitous formula for tech journalism stories: A former employee of a large Silicon Valley company now has a new project. But the articles are as notable for the information they leave out as for what they convey—namely, what former Silicon Valley employees actually did or why they left.

A classic example of the principle at work was Bill Nguyen, whose entrepreneurial saga is now a cautionary tale in Silicon Valley lore. His supposed Facebook killer, Color, managed to amass $41 million in backing from the likes of Sequoia—even though its premise was so thin that a slide from a mock pitch deck read “Cats. Bacon. Organic. Bieber.” But Nguyen wasn’t just a no-name founder. He was an ex-Apple wunderkind. Granted, he only spent 10 months working in Cupertino, Calif., where Silicon Valley is located, after his his cloud-based music startup was acquired.

Much the same as a degree from an elite university can convey status to the person who graduates last in his or her class, tech-company signaling is not always reliable. After all, sometimes ex-Stanford gets you Sergey Brin; other times it gets you Elizabeth Holmes. And its not just headlines: hiring, funding, and day-to-day social interactions are susceptible to the status-by-association allure of a résumé studded with big names.

“It’s about prestige, nothing more,” says Ty Sheppard, a spokesman for Google HR. “People are more than where they worked, but prestige always helps.”

Not all recruiters are so sanguine. “Those folks who really wear the big names on their résumé like buttons on a waiter’s shirt at TGI Fridays, those are always the ones where rejection does not compute,” says Karsten Vagner, senior director of people operations at Hired. “They’re like ‘But I’m awesome!’ It’s very, very not awesome.”

For time-crunched HR bosses making hiring decisions and journalists looking for a quick descriptor, leaning on résumé lines saves time. And in some circumstances it can act as a kind of shorthand. “I was at ZocDoc when it went from three employees to 500 in a year,” says Vagner. “So if I called myself ex-ZocDoc then, people knew, oh, this guy has seen scale upfront. That can apply to other areas.” But that doesn’t always work. For example, Vagner says, “Someone today who is ex-Blue Apron might know a lot about going through an IPO.”

The timing is essential. “I had sympathy for ex-Groupon people,” he says. “But it’s time-sensitive. I care about ex-Instagram a lot more if you were there before Facebook.”

Josh Mait, chief marketing officer at independent consultancy 100 Yards To Go, frames it this way: “It’s the NFL coaching tree,” he says. “There’s a level of built-in credibility that’s valuable, especially in the early stages.” After all, it’s hard to get fired for hiring IBM.

But such presumptions can hamper a tech worker’s ability to tell their own story. Not everyone at Apple is a great designer. Not everyone at Google is a whiz with algorithms. Not everyone at Tesla is from the future. The hype and consequential expectations can overwhelm so much that one ex-Apple worker, who asked to remain anonymous, downplays the Steve Jobs’ glory on his résumé to avoid what he calls the “ex-Glamco” (glamorous company) pressure.

“It’s not always a good fit because [ex-Glamco people] are also used to getting perks that simply don’t exist outside the Valley,” he says. “That, or one side of the other thinks the ex-glammer is overqualified or overconfident.”

Ex factors can also mislead hirers, who don’t realize how diluted the pool of former employees at these large Silicon Valley companies have become. “In 2010 it used to be a showstopper to be from Google. But it’s a pretty mature company at this point. It’s nice to meet someone from Google, but it’s not mind-blowing,” says an ex-Google employee who worked in analytics there for seven years.

But the most critical problem is that an over-reliance on ex factors can become a résumé-filtering mechanism—crowding out otherwise worthy candidates and creating a Catch-22 for tech industry hopefuls: Get a job at a good company in order to get hired at a good company. In an increasingly credential-conscious environment, a Reed College dropout might have a harder time breaking into Silicon Valley today—even though that’s how Steve Jobs started out. The gritty anti-prestige of the garages of yesteryear is harder than ever to come by.

“We talk a lot in tech about risk, but we’ve forgotten how to be brave,” says Hired’s Vagner. “If you only rely on labels, you’re only going to get labels,” said Vagner. “I’ve hired people with no ex-anything. I’ve hired an opera singer, homeless people, an au pair from Germany who sat next to me on a flight from Iceland, everyone, anyone. You have to see through the job history and see the person.”

Take Sheppard, the Google HR spokesman. Among many ex-positions, his LinkedIn profile lists his screenwriting credentials; a litany of ghostwriting gigs; his rookie knowledge of French, German, Russian, and Spanish; and his three-year stint, from 1989 to 1992, as a ballroom dance instructor in Los Angeles. In Silicon Valley, it turns out, there are still some original exes left.

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