Who Will Mourn the Tech Bro?

The subculture you love to hate is tough to define. It will be even tougher when it’s gone.

By James Ross Gardner Illustrations by Ryan Snook September 24, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Kristin Toth Smith’s seen a lot during her two decades working in technology. Management positions at some of the industry’s biggest names—Amazon, Zulily, Dell—and at multiple startups have afforded her an up-close view of tech’s diversity crisis: the entitlement, the cluelessness, the entrenched thinking. And as a mentor at schools like Code Fellows and Ada Developers Academy she mixed things up by recruiting more women, nonbinary individuals, and people of color.

One episode sticks out more than most. A female student at Code Fellows—where Smith was the CEO in 2014 and 2015—applied for a job at a startup and scored an interview. As part of the process, the two men in charge of hiring brought the woman into a room to ask their questions. The conversation seemed to be going well. The men must’ve been loose, relaxed, considering their next question.

“So,” one asked, “what really gets you wet about coding?”

You read that correctly. A man asked a woman, alone in a room with two strangers, what turns her on—in the most graphic terms available.

“Okay, so you just made it sexualized,” Smith admonishes the interviewers in absentia years later. “I think you were trying to be cool. But that’s a thing that’s very personal. It’s very female. It is so incredibly inappropriate.”

In 2019, we have a ready term for those two ignorant interrogators. It’s a term the industry loathes, a term we’ve heard a lot in the past half decade or so. But what does it mean? What exactly is a Tech Bro? And how much longer must we suffer his many offenses?

• • • • 

First, let us count the sins. There’s James Damore, the Google engineer who thought it wise to post on an internal mailing list—later leaked to the press—his screed about why women in his industry are underrepresented and underpaid. Among the traits women share that hold them back, according to Damore: an interest in “feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas”; “higher agreeableness”; and “neuroticism.” Google fired him. The public labeled him. Tech Bro.

Misogyny is hardly the end of it. Take the curious case of the guy who penned an open letter to San Francisco’s mayor and chief of police in 2016, in which he complained about having to sully his eyes with the sight of homeless people and “the faces of addiction” on his way to and from work. The reaction came swiftly, especially on social media. His critics called him many things. But mostly they called him Tech Bro.

Or just look around your neighborhood. Was that condo building even there two years ago? The rapid pricing out of locals in favor of tech workers far more flush with cash and predominantly male—at Amazon alone 73 percent of professionals identify as men—has led to a kind of epidemic. Or perceived epidemic.

Who do you blame for ruining your city? Who do you curse whenever a beloved Seattle institution meets the wrecking ball to clear the way for a big, glassy monstrosity? Whenever a Tesla cuts you off on I-5?

The all-female, three-piece Seattle supergroup Childbirth (comprised of members of Tacocat, Chastity Belt, and Pony Time) performs a song that captures these grievances: “Take me to your condo / I’ll do my laundry while you code / Tech bro, tech bro / I’ll let you explain / Feminism to me.”

The first time the term appeared in The New York Times was 2015, about when those two guys asked the Code Fellows student what makes her libidinous for Linux. As a culture we’ve debated the nuances ever since.

Are Tech Bros, as one Redditor claimed, members of a “hyper technocratic, libertarian…boys club”? Or are they what one online dictionary simply—and somewhat more favorably—defines as “newly minted millionaires and billionaires after the launch of a high-tech IPO”?

A term can’t be all that useful if it simultaneously applies to nearly every character on HBO’s Silicon Valley, from gawky Richard shrinking from the world into his hoodie to that tanned icky-slicky venture capitalist who goes around pointing like his index fingers are six shooters, saying “This guy fucks.”

What’s certain: Hardly any potential Tech Bro thinks of himself as one, even if—maybe especially if—he frequently deploys the label to describe others. To paraphrase a classic Onion headline about hipsters, “Two Tech Bros Angrily Call Each Other ‘Tech Bro.’”

Image: Ryan Snook

Like most Seattleites, I’ve had my run-ins with this species—or what I’ve long thought of as this species. And honestly I’m not super proud of how loosely I’ve used the term.

A few years back I had a neighbor whom I’ll call Tom. He’d recently graduated from college and landed a job as a software engineer at One of the Big Ones. Tom and I lived in a sort of duplex—two old houses side by side, maybe a foot separating their outer walls.

Because we shared a cramped parking lot really only appropriate for a single car, we agreed on a Tetris-like system that required a lot of creative backing in and out but allowed both cars to share the tight space. Except Tom did whatever Tom wanted, often parking like the lot was his alone, forcing me to squeeze my body between our vehicles to get in and out of the driver’s seat; and a few times I couldn’t even successfully do that. I’d text and email, and he always apologized, but it kept happening. Sometimes I’d need to find a different mode of transportation to reach far-flung appointments. 

There was more. His friends came over at all hours. And I took where he and those friends worked as an explanation for everything. Tom’s up at midnight loudly drilling a ski rack atop his Subaru? Tech Bro. Tom’s deluge of man-toy orders pile up, box after box, on my stoop, turning me into his personal delivery guy? Tech Bro. Tom’s shooting off a pellet gun near my bedroom window at 10pm? Of course he is, because Tech Bro.

Truth is, I had no idea how he behaved at work—if as a software engineer he flailed through interview loops with female applicants, dropping toxic masculinity bombs, or if he stood out as the guy who corrected his colleagues’ sexist language.

I just knew he really didn’t care what his neighbor—twice his age, and likely making half the income—thought of his parking or late-night target practice. And I figured I’d found the perfect sobriquet for describing that.

Recently though I’ve been reexamining that epithet, to interrogate the term’s usefulness in this city and in the industry that more or less runs it. In August 2019 I attended a happy hour put on by New Tech Seattle. In a room that looked out on Lake Union, a regatta of sailboats blading by, I joined some 100 or so jobseekers, hiring managers, and others as they unwound with bottles of beer and networked. I’d estimate 80 percent were men, and 80 percent of that number were white. Though in fairness, earnest talk about diversity permeated the air—and the topic had been the theme of the previous New Tech Seattle event.

I mentioned “tech bro” to everyone I encountered. A guy named Matthew, a digital analyst who’d just moved to town from Chicago, knew exactly what I meant. He offered a definition that went something like: white guy with money who’s making places like San Francisco and Seattle unbearable for others and pricing out lower-income residents. Matthew did not regard himself a bro.

Another guy I talked to, a native of India who’d recently graduated from Purdue and taken an engineering job at a medical tech firm, had no idea what I was talking about.

“A tech what?” he asked.

I thought his lack of knowledge might indicate he’s part of the problem, that obliviousness leads to the Tech Bro’s greatest excesses. Then I realized he wasn’t so much the problem as a one-time casualty. And after my multiple attempts at explanation, the light went on.

“Oh. So it’s like how I didn’t get any responses to job applications until I changed my first name on my resume to ‘Rob’. Is that it?”

• • • • 

My conversation with “Rob” was one reminder that race and not just gender remains a part of tech’s diversity problem. Another was the one I had a few days later with Cheryl Ingram, CEO of Inclusology, which employs its clients’ own data to advise their leadership on diversity. Although I’d been giving serious thought to dropping the term from my vocabulary, I asked Ingram to define “tech bro” for me. She offered: men working in tech who have “a disregard for other people because they believe that everyone in the world is treated equally.”

This made more sense than anything I’d heard. It’s a definition that addresses the industry’s theoretical status as equalizer, its proponents’ view of themselves as forces for democratization. They write the code that permits tiny businesses to process credit cards, or allows almost anyone, regardless of background or monetary worth, to maintain their own website. The god in the machine as deliverer of equality through binary code. The ones and zeros see us as all the same.

As an example, Ingram told me that during one consultation the manager at a healthcare company tried to defend against any perception of bias by telling Ingram: “We just want to hire the best man for the job.” She had to point out that he just said “man.” And when she ran the company’s numbers she was able to show him the consequences of his unconscious bias. Women with the same education level made 10 percent less, on average, than the men in the company. Women of color fared worse, making 16 percent less.

Like Kristin Toth Smith, Ingram’s witnessed her share of bro blunders, those amassed artifacts from the Mansplaining Hall of Fame. There was the guy who felt compelled to explain—unsolicited—how to use an office printer to a woman who’s a highly credentialed cybersecurity expert. Or the time a woman mentioned in a meeting that she hadn’t come across a particular resource online, only to have a male colleague explain to her how URLs work. These microaggressions add up, Ingram says, and ensure that only a certain type of employee feels welcome.

Image: Ryan Snook

In her book A People’s History of Computing in the United States, Joy Lisi Rankin suggests the Tech Bro has been with us all along, since the earliest days of computing. In the early 1960s two professors developed the programing language known as BASIC (for “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code”) on the campus of Dartmouth College. The professors and their all-male, mostly white, well-off students, writes Rankin, cultivated “a decidedly noncerebral breed of masculine computing centered on games.” BASIC spread to other campuses, adopted by other affluent, white male students encouraged to think of computing as the future of business. “It seems safe to conclude,” read a report issued by the college back then, “that perhaps millions of students in the United States…have learned computing Dartmouth style.” BASIC is still used today, and many of the people who learned on it now lead the industry.

The subsequent tech booms have taught us a lot. In the ’90s, Silicon Valley and to a lesser extent Seattle changed overnight. Complaints about rising rent percolated then too. But it’s this latest boom, starting about 2010 (around the time Amazon moved off Beacon Hill and to South Lake Union), that anger over the cost of living has boiled over and comingled with a reckoning for the men who’ve run the world. It’s in our politics and top of mind in almost every conversation. Those cretins in tech are ruining this place.

• • • • 

Kristin Toth Smith wishes she could say we’re nearing the twilight of the Tech Bro. But Smith—she of that cringey what-arouses-you-about-coding anecdote—cannot. “It feels like it’s pretty far away,” she says. “I think certainly we’re nipping away at the edges by getting more people involved and heightening the awareness of the toxic effects of these things.”

There remains an unending demand for the kind of work software engineers and other specialized tech experts do, she adds, and for now the vast majority of the people trained to do those jobs are men.

Yet both Smith and Ingram point to positive signs. In recent years, says Ingram, “We’ve seen 20 percent of graduates are people of color in the area of tech.” A major leap. Meanwhile, startups like the Riveter, founded in Seattle, provide all-women cowork spaces for cultivating an environment that’s far from the boys club of yesterday. And all the Big Five—Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft—have divisions dedicated to bringing more women and people of color to their ranks.

For now, maybe it’s time to put to rest an unhelpful label, one that turns defensive the very people we’re trying to persuade to be more inclusive.

It’d be a worthy obituary: Tech Bro, 2015–2019. Having lost all relevance, the term died peacefully on Tuesday in Seattle. In lieu of flowers, please stop thinking of only yourself.

Show Comments