Saturday, May 28, 2016

"How To Party Your Way Into a Multi-Million Dollar Facebook Job" -- the sad state of business journalism [Why we need Gawker -- part II]

[A repost from 2011. Made sadly topical again by recent events]

Andrew Gelman (before his virtual sabbatical) linked to this fascinating Gawker article by Ryan Tate:

If you want Facebook to spend millions of dollars hiring you, it helps to be a talented engineer, as the New York Times today [18 May 2011] suggests. But it also helps to carouse with Facebook honchos, invite them to your dad's Mediterranean party palace, and get them introduced to your father's venture capital pals, like Sam Lessin did.
Lessin is the poster boy for today's Times story on Facebook "talent acquisitions." Facebook spent several million dollars to buy Lessin's, only to shut it down and put Lessin to work on internal projects. To the Times, Lessin is an example of how "the best talent" fetches tons of money these days. "Engineers are worth half a million to one million," a Facebook executive told the paper.
We'll let you in on a few things the Times left out: Lessin is not an engineer, but a Harvard social studies major and a former Bain consultant. His file-sharing startup was an also-ran competitor to the much more popular Dropbox, and was funded by a chum from Lessin's very rich childhood. Lessin's wealthy investment banker dad provided Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg crucial access to venture capitalists in Facebook's early days. And Lessin had made a habit of wining and dining with Facebook executives for years before he finally scored a deal, including at a famous party he threw at his father's vacation home in Cyprus with girlfriend and Wall Street Journal tech reporter Jessica Vascellaro. (Lessin is well connected in media, too.) . . .
To get the full impact, you have to read the original New York Times piece by Miguel Helft. It's an almost perfect example modern business reporting, gushing and wide-eyed, eager to repeat conventional narratives about the next big thing, and showing no interest in digging for the truth.
It is not just that Helft failed to do even the most rudimentary of fact-checking (twenty minutes on Google would have uncovered a number of major holes); it is that he failed to check an unconvincing story that blatantly served the interests of the people telling it.

Let's start with the credibility of the story. While computer science may well be the top deck of the Titanic in this economy, has the industry really been driven to cannibalization by the dearth of talented people? There are certainly plenty of people in related fields with overlapping skill sets who are looking for work and there's no sign that the companies like Facebook are making a big push to mine these rich pools of labor. Nor have I seen any extraordinary efforts to go beyond the standard recruiting practices in comp sci departments.

How about self-interest? From a PR standpoint, this is the kind of story these companies want told. It depicts the people behind these companies as strong and decisive, the kind of leaders you'd want when you expect to encounter a large number of Gordian Knots. When the NYT quotes Zuckerberg saying “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better,” they are helping him build a do-what-it-takes-to-be-the-best image.

The dude-throws-awesome-parties criteria for hiring tends to undermine that image, as does the quid pro quo aspect of Facebook's deals with Lessin's father.

Of course, there's more at stake here than corporate vanity. Tech companies have spent a great deal of time and money trying to persuade Congress that the country must increase the number of H-1Bs we issue in order to have a viable Tech industry. Without getting into the merits of the case (for that you can check out my reply to Noah Smith on the subject), this article proves once again that one easily impressed NYT reporter is worth any number of highly paid K Street lobbyists.

The New York Times is still, for many people, the paper. I've argued before that I didn't feel the paper deserved its reputation, that you can find better journalism and better newspapers out there, but there's no denying that the paper does have a tremendous brand. People believe things they read in the New York Times. It would be nice if the paper looked at this as an obligation to live up to rather than laurels to rest on.

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