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Hacking Technology’s Boys’ Club

Ellen Ullman's early journey to the heart of Silicon Valley and her radical vision for its future.

Marion Ettlinger

Code is not neutral. It can’t be; it’s a creation. “The engineer’s assumptions and presumptions are in the code,” the writer and programmer Ellen Ullman wrote in a 1995 essay published in Harper’s. “The system reproduces and re-enacts life as engineers know it: alone, out of time, disdainful of anyone far from the machine.”

The people who build (and fund) technology products in 2016 look largely the same as they did twenty years ago, when Ullman’s essay was published. White men still dominate the industry, as do white interpretations of diversity. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however, and it would look very different if it contained the “assumptions and presumptions” of multiple demographics. Software products would be more powerful, more accessible, and more democratic—Twitter, for example, would look a lot different today if it had been built by people for whom online harassment is a real-life concern. Lately, this idea has been gaining traction. 

Leslie Miley, a prominent engineer who has written and spoken widely on diversity in tech, recently told the podcast Reply All that not only is increasing diversity the moral thing to do, but that it’s also sound economics. “If you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds building your product,” Miley told the hosts, it will become “very, very narrowly focused.” Miley was the only black person in engineering leadership at Twitter, and he left the company late last year after finding its diversity efforts clumsy and inadequate.

Ullman was not the first to acknowledge this, but she was one of the first women to enter—and stay in—technology, close to the machine though at a remove from those in power. As a literary writer, a systems engineer, and a woman (she’s also bisexual and an ex-Communist) Ullman is that rare member of the coding tribe: a translator who deeply understands the world we live in and the worlds we build with software. She stands in sharp relief to the city’s newer batch of residents, who, by and large, are backpack-burdened young men pursuing the next overvalued opportunity. Ullman is petite and very thin, with short curls and enviable bone structure; her clothing is tailored, chic, and tasteful, mostly in dark colors. She looks notably adult amid the valley’s post-grad milieu.

I’m not looking to dox anyone, but based on context clues—her memoir—my guess is that Ullman is in her sixties. Age is irrelevant to creative work, but in Silicon Valley, especially on the startup side, there’s a bias toward young entrepreneurs and employees. In 2013, the investor Paul Graham, who runs the prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator, spelled it out to The New York Times. “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32,” he said. “After 32, [venture capitalists] start to be a little skeptical.” (Full disclosure: From 2013-2014, I worked for a Y Combinator startup. The CEO was 24.)

The generation gap is also what makes Ullman’s perspective so valuable: She’s lived through a tech boom or two, and she has seen that they are cyclical. “What happens to people, like myself, who have been involved with computing for a long time is that you begin to see how many of the “new” ideas are simply old ones coming back into view on the swing of the pendulum,” she said in a 2002 Q&A, “with new and faster hardware to back it up.”

As a writer, she is the author of numerous essays and two novels, The Bug and By Blood, as well as a well-received memoir, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents. (Ullman is currently at work on a nonfiction book about technology and culture, untitled but forthcoming in 2017 from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.) Ullman’s writing is as rare as her place in the tech community—and it’s not just because literary work about technology is almost entirely the domain of male authors. Her insights are finely wrought, philosophical, and lasting: In 1999, Ullman predicted that the internet would eventually replace human interactions with purely digital ones. “In the Internet age, under the pressure of globalized capitalism and its slimmed-down profit margins, only the very wealthy will be served by actual human beings,” she wrote then. “The rest of us must make do with Web pages, and feel happy about it.” In 2015, Uber poached 40 researchers from Carnegie Mellon’s autonomous vehicle division; the year before, at a conference in California, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick addressed a crowd: “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle,” he told the audience. “And then car ownership goes away.”

It’s important to understand that Ullman isn’t a technophobic scold; she’s as intoxicated by code as anyone else in Silicon Valley. “The first time I read Ellen Ullman, it was so amazing to have someone—a woman—writing about the joy and beauty of code,” Nozlee Samadzadeh, a developer and writer, told me over the phone. “Just the fact that I was able to see myself in her meant a lot to me.” But Ullman, like most women in tech, experienced some pushback. “I was a girl who came into the clubhouse, into the treehouse, with the sign on the door saying, ‘No girls allowed,’” she told me, “and the reception was not always a good one.”

When The Bug was first published in 2003, The New York Times ran a review that called the novel “thrilling and intellectually fearless,” noting that Ullman herself was an “indispensable voice out of the world of technology.” But not everyone was glad to see such a warm reception for her work. After a man shared the review on Slashdot, a technology-focused news site, the abuse began.

“It started: ‘Ellen Ullman, I think I saw her naked,’” Ullman recounted. “My response: Get over it, guys. What are you, nine years old? You saw a girl’s underpants? Grow up. I am not intimidated by puerile boys acting like pre-teens,” she said. “Then came a barrage of more and more ugly postings. More and more pornographic.” Ullman was alienated from a culture she felt she belonged to, and didn’t return to Slashdot for years.

“It will not work to keep asking men to change,” Ullman told me. “Many have no real objective to do so. There’s no reward for them. Why should they change? They’re doing well inside the halls of coding.” To be perfectly clear: Ullman isn’t anti-geek-culture; she’s not anti-technology; she’s not anti-men. She doesn’t want to raze the clubhouse. She simply wants those inside to open the door.

San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood is the heart of the current tech scene, and it has always reflected the city’s shifting fortunes. Historically industrial, all kinds of people—gold rush prospectors, immigrant farmhands and merchant mariners, leather daddies, nightclub impresarios, collective-living Burners, artists, hackers, and the homeless—have, at one time or another, called the district home. SROs abound, as do repurposed factories now studded with startups; above and around them, condominiums bloom. “I had this ‘crane index’ during the first boom,” Ullman said to me, peering up at the sky. “How many cranes will tell me that it’s all coming to a bust?”

It was a warm weekday afternoon in December, and Ullman was taking me on a walking tour of SoMa, where she has lived since 1996. In the ’90s, she said, the tech industry’s influence on the neighborhood was just beginning, with startups tucked here and there “like sparrows roosting in abandoned barns.” Twenty years later, it’s sparrows all the way down. Ullman navigated us past Instacart (grocery delivery), Scribd (digital library), and WeWork (real estate), pointing out both household-name tech companies and startups fresh out of the incubator. “Now, it’s ridiculous because there are cranes everywhere,” she said.

Ullman has lived in San Francisco since 1972. Raised in Flushing, Queens, by adoptive parents uninvolved with technology, she went on to study English at Cornell University. Her adoptive father’s family, though, were computer scientists and mathematicians; she’s written that it was because of them that she went into software engineering, “a field for which I do not have native talent.” In Ithaca, she became interested in television and video art, and after graduation she struck out for San Francisco to become a photographer. But first she needed a job, and she was good with hardware. “There were big opportunities for anyone who knew what a compiler was,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I knew what a compiler was. I got hired.” Ullman’s first computer was a TRS-80, a small desktop machine with 4KB of RAM that she spotted in the window of Radio Shack.

Ullman went on to work for a number of startups—including a nascent Sybase, where, as the first engineering hire, she wrote software to manage relational databases. Her later work included building a web portal for AIDS patients and graphical interfaces for the UNIX operating system, pre-Microsoft Windows. 

Today, Ullman has a front-row seat to the latest boom, the evidence of which surrounds her home—the proliferation of startups on her block, an astroturfed “food truck lounge” around the corner, grown men riding scooters on the sidewalks. We stopped in front of a building that houses a host of tech companies, including Weebly (website builder), Hired (job marketplace), and Teespring (custom t-shirts). “I went up there one day, and almost all of them have liquor,” she said. “It’s like Mad Men meets tech.” A young guy wearing a private-security uniform was standing outside, watching us out of the corner of his eye, and he laughed at her description. “Is that accurate?” she asked him, and he nodded in reply.

I asked Ullman whether she still enjoyed living in San Francisco; she took some time to respond. “Elliot and I, we talk about how much longer we want to stay here,” she replied. (The Elliot in question is Ullman’s husband, the artist Elliot Ross.) “It’s like being professors on a college campus, where you get older and everybody stays 28.”

Two feelings emerged simultaneously: an irrational guilt that I, myself, was 28; and a deepening self-consciousness at the realization that Ullman was the first person I’d spoken with in months, my own parents notwithstanding, who was over the age of 40.

When I was 25, after reading Close to the Machine for the first time, I wrote Ullman a fan letter. At the time I was considering moving across the country to take a job at a data-analytics software company. I read more about her; I was encouraged by the fact that she’d done something similar, at the same age, and in her career had accomplished what I hoped for myself. We corresponded over email, and eventually she invited me to her airy, bookish apartment for a party she was hosting for a local literary journal. Writer types, draped in diaphanous linens, boots, and slim trousers—San Francisco elegant-casual—filled the loft, and there was a wealth of snacks and good wine. They talked about books, about rent control and the Google buses. They skewed middle-aged. I found it a relief to be among people who were invested in art and who had nothing to say about retention charts.

When I found myself there again last August, it was the same as I remembered it: minimalist furniture, wall of books, full of light. Ullman was the same, too—we chatted formally until she uncorked a bottle of white wine. We exchanged stories of sexism in the workplace and the isolation of being a literary writer. “If that’s what you want to do, you’re doomed,” she said. “I’m sorry to tell you. You have no choice.” She was nice about it; it appears she herself has no choice. “When I am writing, and occasionally achieve single focus and presence, I finally feel that is where I’m supposed to be,” she told me. “Everything else is kind of anxiety.” It is cathartic and unnerving to realize that it’s not as easy as it looks, holding both worlds in your hands. It is also inspiring.

“Ellen Ullman’s frank prose and dauntless ambition showed me a new way to survive the world of technology and make it my own,” Diana Kimball, product manager at the productivity startup Quip, wrote to me recently. “Close to the Machine moved me, but it was her 2013 New York Times op-ed—“How to Be a ‘Woman Programmer’”—that electrified my entire social circle. The example she set, of resilience through realism, helped me to find a way to stay in the arena.” Without that kind of predecessor, staying in technology—and in the Valley—is difficult, if not impossible. And without people committed to bettering life in technology, who are themselves close to the machine, nothing can change.

“I am dedicated to changing the clubhouse,” Ullman told me. “The way to do it, I think very strongly, is for the general public to learn to code.” It doesn’t have to be a vocation, she said. But everyone, she argued, should know the concepts—the ways programmers think. “They will understand that programs are written by people with particular values—those in the clubhouse—and, since programs are human products, the values inherent in code can be changed.” It’s coding as populism: Self-education as a way to shift power in an industry that is increasingly responsible for the infrastructure of everyday life.

“We really need to demystify all the algorithms that are around us,” Ullman told me as we walked down 2nd Street. “I keep hearing over and over, we want to change the world. Well: from what to what? Change it so everyone gets their dry-cleaning delivered?” Who will build the future we’ll live in? What will it look like? Right now, the important thing is that we still have a choice. “That’s why I’m advocating that everyone should learn to code at some level,” Ullman continued, “to bring in their cultural values, and their ideas of what a society needs, into this cloister.”

It is tempting to compare the dotcom bubble of the 1990s to today’s bullish tech market. This is especially the case in the Bay Area: As in the ’90s, there are widespread evictions, displacement, and rent hikes; there are startups with no discernible revenue models mainlining venture dollars, with the same opulent parties and similarly dubious job titles. Despite all this, the current boom appears to have more staying power than the first: People rely on technology in a way they didn’t twenty years ago. Software is finally both ubiquitous and indispensable.

“The first boom, from 1995 to 2001, was kind of punky,” Ullman told me as we sat at her kitchen counter in August. “Of course people wanted to make money, but it was more like, ‘Let’s make a revolution. Let’s hack, let’s code.’ If the first boom was like a disobedient band of dreamers and hackers, the new boom is more like a well-drilled army on maneuvers,” she said. And indeed: It’s hardly a revolution. (Later, she would refer to the current cohort as “business casual,” a quiet indictment.) “They want to change the world, but they work all the time,” she said. “So what exactly do they know about the world except as it is presented inside the cloisters of VCs and startup culture?”

Though she retired from the tech industry at the end of the last boom, to read Ullman’s work is to remember she’s been with us all along. Code, for all its elegance and power, is just a tool. “As with all advances in technology, the new offerings are often helpful, and marvelous—sometimes frightening, as with advances in surveillance,” she said. “The services are enormously convenient, but then there is the culture left behind. When we receive the dry cleaning delivery, we no longer see who does the work. We don’t see the tailor in the window, the presser surrounded by steam. When you order food on your phone from GrubHub, you don’t see the cooks and helpers in the hot kitchen.” The question of who delivers to whom, she continued, is directly related to inequality at large—it’s essential that the technologies we create and use are also building a world we want to live in.

One afternoon last summer, I invited Ullman to my workplace. Within minutes, she and two young engineers were debating the merits of strongly typed languages, a conversation they’ve had many times before; it quickly became clear that Ullman had tipped the scales. “See? I told you so,” one said, vindicated. As enjoyable as it was to watch her, I was in over my head. Ullman noticed immediately. “Sorry—you must be bored,” she said. “This is fun for me.”