Alexandra Wolfe’s Anthropology of Silicon Valley

Simon & Schuster / Mark Seliger

The writer and author goes inside the tech world of coders, billionaires, and striking it rich.

In Valley of the Gods (Simon & Schuster, January 17), Wall Street Journal staff reporter Alexandra Wolfe takes a look at Silicon Valley through the eyes of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s inaugural class of Thiel fellows—kids he gives $100,000 to not go to college and instead try to start tech companies. Filled with delicious name-dropping and riotous anecdotes, Wolfe’s book (which covers topics she’s written about for Departures) reveals a universe of budding talents trying to hack everything, from marriage to fashion to morality, as a means of capturing the ultimate prize: striking it rich in the modern-day gold rush. Here, her take on it all.

Why Silicon Valley?
I started reporting the book after the 2008 recession. The mood was grim in New York, but in Silicon Valley, everyone was so happy and sitting on bouncy balls. I had no technological skill, so I thought I should write about it. I wanted to be part of that optimism.

Peter Thiel was your Silicon Valley “in.” How’d you meet him?
I met Peter Thiel at a salon dinner he hosted in New York that was unlike any dinner party I’d been to in the city. He had all these people come and talk about why their thinking was really controversial in their industry. I was so unused to going to an event where there was no social expectation that you have the same outlook as everyone else: Everyone was supposed to have an out-there opinion.

How did you decide to center your book on Thiel’s fellows?
I was not part of the tech world, so I wanted to see Silicon Valley like they did since they were fresh off the boat too. I thought it was an interesting sociological experiment to take these kids right out of high school and say: Can you swim? I wanted to see what happens if you try to find your fortune out West without having a skillset under your belt.

Were you surprised that so few fellows flourished?
Initially I thought more would be successful. But in the end, I think the fellowship program turned out to be a microcosm of Silicon Valley: There are a lot of ideas, and only a few huge successes. It’s actually really hard to be a successful tech entrepreneur.

Would you advocate for kids to not go to college?
I think a certain group of kids should go to college. Even Peter Thiel says if he had to do it all over again, he’d still go to Stanford University. But I think there should be less societal pressure around going to college. I like that the fellowship program illuminated the fact that there are other avenues you could take.

What was one of the challenges with writing the book?
Everything gets outdated so fast in Silicon Valley. So much has happened in the last week, or the last month. They are always investing the future.

How does New York differ from Silicon Valley?
There is this whole expectation in New York that people get lucky breaks that they turn into billion dollar companies. I felt there was this expectation that you move to Silicon Valley and millions and millions of dollars will come to you. Also, the pace out there is extreme: They try something, fail, and try something else.

Do you think the tech scene’s pace is healthy or detrimental?
It’s such a motivating way to be. “Pivot,” which glorifies failure, is a really positive word in Silicon Valley—though it really means you’ve colossally failed. But what a great way to live! I think it’s a good outlook on life.

Seattle has a big tech scene. There are also places like Silicon Beach. Can these places replicate what’s happening in Silicon Valley, or is Silicon Valley unique unto itself?
I think the engineers are probably unique in Silicon Valley. Just because the Silicon Valley ethos is everywhere, doesn’t mean it’s something that can be replicated. It’s kind of like Ralph Lauren’s equestrian boots: Just because you dress a certain way doesn’t mean you can actually ride a horse.

So you’re saying that wearing a hoodie like Mark Zuckerberg does or putting on the sneakers that Steve Jobs wore doesn’t make you the founder of Facebook or Apple by osmosis?
In Silicon Valley, there’s a huge difference between the brilliant people there and the people who are trying to be brilliant. There are tons of people who try to copy the idiosyncrasies of all these geniuses who started billion dollar companies, but they didn’t copy their genius.

Do you have any aspirations to become a tech mogul now?
Well I can stay that reporting the book made me want to take a coding class. I never learned how to code. If I have kids, I want them to start coding! But the idea of living that life made me miss the humanities, books, and tangible items. It made me so nostalgic for analog.