Back in 2012, I was invited to a dinner in San Francisco.
It was being hosted by a venture capitalist, and I knew I couldn’t miss it; he knew me from Cash Mobs and wanted to introduce me to some of his friends. As I walked up to the house, two other guys were walking in front of me. We all walked up to the front door and, when they turned around, I caught my breath. They’d started Twitter a few years earlier. We shook hands, and after our host’s son let us in the door, one of them turned to me and said, “Do you think that he has any Scotch?”
I looked at the wall. “He has Picassos. I’m pretty sure he’s got Scotch.”
Over the next hour, I met the founders of maybe 20 other companies that are household names. We had dinner, foraged by a Scandinavian chef flown in just for the event, drank wine (and Scotch), and talked for hours. Around midnight, I got an Uber back to my hotel – back in the old days, when Uber was a new invention – and had a tough time getting to sleep. At some point, one of the guests had joked that if the house had been bombed, most of Internet 2.0 would have been destroyed. I ran over every detail of the evening I could remember, the conversations, the laughter, the sparks of ideas that had flowed across the tables, the immense sense of possibilities that had existed. To paraphrase The Great Fitzgerald, there was an excitement in the evening that I knew I’d find difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that we had all done immensely exciting things just a while since and that there were immensely exciting and profitable things hovering in the next hour.
I couldn’t believe I’d been fortunate enough to have met them.
The next day, our host picked me up from my hotel for a day of meetings. The first thing he asked when I got in the car: “What did you think about last night?”
“I don’t know what kind of phones any of those people have.”
He turned down the radio and stayed silent while he slowed for a red light, then turned to me and said, “What do you mean?”
“The Twitter guys weren’t tweeting. The Instagram guys weren’t taking photos of their food. The Yelp and Foursquare guys weren’t checking in. The Facebook guys weren’t tagging their friends. They were all just talking. Some of them were friends, but if they didn’t know each other already, they were getting to know each other.”
His brow furrowed. “Well of course,” he said slowly. “That’s how business is done. You have to be good with people.”
I wanted to tell him: the technology that they were all working on was profitable solely because it was taking people away from those interactions, from face to face meeting. I wanted to tell him that in any other room full of people dining in America, in Europe, maybe in Asia, too, that nobody else in such a large group would have spent that much time away from a screen. And that’s why they were billionaires.
It’s one of those moments that I think about every few days. Specifically today, I read Cal Newport’s warning “Are we going to let smartphones to destroy a generation?”, and Jean Twenge’s excellent article of a similar name, all about the threat to youth that smartphones pose to mental health. Daily, though, I’ll see a group of people texting away, or a couple on a date, ignoring each other in favor of their screens. Once, a guy was so focused on his screen that he walked into me, the phone bouncing off my shoulder; he then shouted, “Watch where you’re going!” and turned back to his glowing friend without any hint of self-awareness.
But the four-month programming course I’m on is far more like that dinner five years ago. I always sit near the back of our classroom, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single person focused on anything other than the lectures and work. I’ve never seen such attention, such ambition, and such dedication in such sustained supply as in this classroom.
And when we go out, there’s camaraderie. We’re getting to know each other, learning from each other, bonding. We’ve set a date for our first game of Diplomacy; we’re coordinating our Tech MeetUp trips to make sure that we have friends to talk to if we feel nervous or overwhelmed; we’re helping each other on assignments, and talking to each other about our lives. We’re getting away from our phones and our computers – the ones we rely on every day – to learn about each other, face-to-face. It’s exciting. It’s different.
I don’t know what the point of this post is. Maybe I just wanted to get to the point where I could say: the people I’m getting to know in CodeClan Cohort E15 get it. And if that VC’s idea of how “business is done” is any guide, you can expect big things from these men and women in the future.