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"Gangbang Interviews" and "Bikini Shots": Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem

For startups like Path, recasting geek identity with a frat house swagger is a dangerous game.

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

At the South by Southwest Interactive festival in March, I attended a talk titled "Adding Value as a Non-Technical No Talent Ass-Clown." It was given by Matt Van Horn, a 28-year-old executive at the social-media company Path. Path had generated a lot of buzz at the tech and media confab; it was recently valued at $250 million.

A crowd of about 100 was packed into the conference room, overflowing into the aisles. Van Horn stood stiffly in the center of the room, clipboard in hand, boyishly hip in a grey blazer, expensive-looking jeans, and eyeglasses with flashy white stems. He began with a story about chasing down a job at Digg, the once popular bookmarking site, shortly after he graduated from the University of Arizona. He said he'd won over Digg's elusive cofounders by sending them "bikini shots" from a "nudie calendar" he'd put together with photographs of fellow students posing in their swimsuits.

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Van Horn continued with some tips for hiring managers: He cautioned against "gangbang interviews"—screening prospective employees by committee—and made a crack about his fraternity's recruiting strategy, designed to "attract the hottest girls" on campus. He seemed taken aback when nobody laughed. "C'mon, guys, we all know how it was in college," he muttered.

Van Horn wasn't even 10 minutes into the talk, but several clearly irritated women (and a couple of men) had gotten up and walked out. I joined them and tweeted from the hallway:

Irritation ricocheted across Twitter among techies and media colleagues at the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Webb Media, and other major outlets, and I fielded outraged questions and comments for several hours.

The surprising thing wasn't that a 28-year-old "assclown" would channel The Social Network's Sean Parker—it was that Van Horn's comments came on the heels of a whole series of tech-startup flareups over everything from advertising women as "perks" at a company event, to a marketing video featuring a woman clad in a corporate T-shirt and underwear, to a startup pitch session featuring a recurring photo of "leaping bikini-clad women."

Many of the dozen or so people I interviewed for this story pointed to the rise of the brogrammer—a term that seeks to recast the geek identity with a competitive frat house flavor. The essence of it comes through in comments on the question-and-answer site Quora. "How Does a Programmer Become a Brogrammer?": Brogrammers "rage at the gym, to attract the chicks and scare the dicks!" They "can work well under the tightest deadlines, or while receiving oral sex." And they have their priorities straight: "If a girl walks past in a see-through teddy, and you don't even look up because you're neck-deep in code, expect to spend a lot of time celibate no matter how bro you go."

The phenomenon has drawn media coverage and generated a Facebook page, a satirical Twitter persona, and YouTube videos demonstrating the Natty Light-loving, popped-collar-donning lifestyle. Some developers insist that it's all just a big joke and doesn't represent any actual streak in tech culture. But apparently it's real enough for social-media analytics company Klout: The high-flying Silicon Valley startup came under fire last month for displaying a recruitment poster at a Stanford career fair that asked: "Want to bro down and crush code? Klout is hiring."

But recruiter beware, warn some veteran observers: A bros-only atmosphere will hurt no one more than the startups that foster it. "We simply cannot afford to alienate large chunks of the workforce," notes Dan Shapiro, a tech entrepreneur who sold his comparison-shopping company to Google and now works there as a product manager. Shapiro, who has blogged in the past about sexism in the tech industry, notes that "it is a widely understood truth that the single biggest challenge to a successful startup is attracting the right people. To literally handicap yourself by 50 percent is insanity."

As it is, women remain acutely underrepresented in the coding and engineering professions. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, in 2011 just 20 percent of all programmers were women. A smaller percentage of women are earning undergraduate computer science degrees today than they did in 1985, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and between 2000 and 2011 the number* of women in the computing workforce dropped 8 percent, while men's share increased by 16 percent. Only 6 percent of VC-backed tech startups in 2010 were headed by women.

Beyond the obvious workplace consequences—and potential legal fallout—of this imbalance, testosterone-fueled boneheadedness can also turn into a PR nightmare, especially in an industry awash in social media. Consider a recent fiasco involving Sqoot, a daily deals aggregator: In March the company advertised a hackathon in Boston with a flyer that listed "friendly female event staff" as one of the perks. A screenshot (first flagged by a man) got passed around on Twitter and Facebook, a flurry of blog posts followed, and sponsors started pulling out. One tweeted that Sqoot's "marketing isn't consistent with our company values." Another wrote:

Sqoot apologized, while claiming the whole thing was a misunderstood high-concept joke intended to "call attention to the male-dominated tech world through humor." Under pressure, they canceled the event: "Our words completely undermined our intentions and went further to harm the world we're trying to have a positive impact on…As a young startup, we learned a lot today and are better people and a better company for it."

Also in March, Reuben Katz and Christian Sanz, the cofounders of the online developer community Geeklist, got into a public spat on Twitter with a female coder named Shanley Kane. Kane had taken issue with a Geeklist marketing video that featured a woman dancing in a Geeklist T-shirt and her underwear. The video needed to be taken down, tweeted Kane, who describes herself in her Twitter bio as a "very nice girl, DPS princess, Warcraft junkie, Ruby/ROR [Ruby On Rails] weekend warrior, semiotician and beauty queen." The three went at it over several hours in a Twitter shouting match during which Sanz told Kane she was being inappropriate, complained about her "aggressive tone," and suggested that the fact that he is married and has a family show that he's not sexist. Katz pointed out that Kane's employer, Basho, was a Geeklist client—cc'ing Basho on a tweet implying that Kane was reflecting badly on both companies' brands.

Additional reporting contributed by Nicole Pasulka.

Correction: The original version of this article relied on incorrect information from the National Center for Women in Technology stating that the percentage of women and men in the computing workforce changed between 2000 and 2011. Thanks to the blog Uncertain Principles for catching the error.

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