Anna Wiener: Uncanny Valley

In her spellbinding memoir, Anna Wiener takes readers into the mysterious world of Silicon Valley. As a nontechnical employee in technological startups, she witnessed and experienced sexism in the relentless industry dominated by young white men. A woman who had her offer for an engineering position revoked after she negotiated for higher pay. A woman who had been demoted after her maternity leave. A woman who had been fired after reporting she had been raped. Misogyny in the tech bubble isn’t new, but reading it from a keen observer and exhilarating storyteller is heartbreaking. Of course, the book delves into other aspects as well. As a contributing writer to The New Yorker, Wiener’s prose is just a pleasure to read and to learn from. Here’s one of my favorite sentences on designers: “The cofounders had prioritized aesthetics and hired two graphic designers off the bat: men with signature hairstyles and large followings on a social network for people who referred to themselves as creatives and got excited about things like font sizing and hero images.” She is dead-on and I could not stop laughing when I read it. Her experience on programming is even more hilarious that I have to quote in in full passages. Wiener shares:

Engineers I knew talked about how the world had opened up to them the first time they wrote a functional line of code. The system belonged to them; the computer would do their bidding. They were in control. They could build everything they’d ever imagined. They talked about achieving flow, a sustained state of mental absorption and joyful focus, like a runner’s high obtained without having to exercise. I loved that they used this terminology. It sounded so menstrual.

Working in tech without technical background felt like moving to a foreign country without knowing the language. I didn’t mind trying. Programming was tedious, but it wasn’t hard. I found some enjoyment in its clarity: it was like math, or copy editing. There was order, a clear distinction between right and wrong. When I had edited or vetted manuscripts at the literary agency, I moved primarily on instinct and feeling, with the constant terror that I would ruin someone else’s creative work. Code, by contrast, was responsive and uncaring. Like nothing else in my life, when I made a mistake, it let me know immediately.

I love this book and highly recommend it to designers and developers as well.