I work in tech, or used to, like most of my circle in San Francisco. But it was never clear to me, what I really did. I changed the world, of course, but what did I really do? My father ran his own business of gas stations, and also sold cars. My lawyer friends wrote up legal documents and endlessly argued about stuff, and doctors did what doctors did. Teachers taught kids, professors taught slightly older kids, writers wrote, and I worked in tech. I worked at T-tech companies, and tech companies that were more or less a custom CMS. The term lost all its meaning, we all kind of knew, but we all played along.
Google and Facebook, for example, by most people’s standards are tech companies. If you ask media companies, however, Facebook especially is also a media company. Facebook doesn’t like that comparison, mostly because of the scrutiny attached to being a media company. But it feels right, in that for more than 50 percent of people, it’s where they get their news.
Of course, some others disagree. The argument goes that companies that fall within the same category should be comparable, and Business Insider is nothing like Facebook. Facebook is a tech company, that’s in media business by accident. That also feels right; Facebook shuttles engineers back and forth on 101 by hundreds, and Business Insider mostly has reporters. They are in the same business on the demand side, attention and page views, but how they go about generating and commanding that attention is so different that we shouldn’t not call them both media companies. That seems somewhat generous to Facebook, but still fair.
But what is a tech company then? It’s easy to write off WeWork and Hampton Creek as being hippies who want to catch a whiff of the tech vibe. But where do you draw the line? Mayo is not tech, and self-driving cars are, but, say, is textual analysis of content? What if I analyze some news, and make financial decisions on it; does that make me a finance company, or a fintech one? If I decide to show that news to someone based on that analysis, am I a tech company or a media one? Am I a tech company if I help people route shipping containers across the world, using computers. Or what if it’s not containers, but trash? Call yourself “Uber of Trash” all you want, but you won’t get this guy, who worked at Uber, to call you a tech company.
I worked at 5 different companies, who all were tech companies. Three of them primarily sold ads against content and hired engineers to keep the blinkenlights on while sales people brought in cash. One produced original content, two had the users do the content generation. This is the business Facebook and Google is in too, but they managed to delegate the content generation to users for free, and automate away the sales part, practically minting money out of thin air. Twitter managed to the former, arguably, failed at the latter. It’s not this stuff is trivial; all 3 companies I worked at failed at either side of this.
Then another company I worked at built a file system, and then build products on it, and sold it to people, which felt like something a tech company would do. We built something with code, and then charged people to use that.
Then came Uber, which built a platform that brought drivers and riders together. It felt like a tech company in that people used an app to get where there were going, but a lot of the work initially was really about keeping the lights on, while we either wired together off-the-shelf tech, or should have. It wasn’t until the company started building its own maps, and its own self-driving tech, and some nifty security stuff (which I worked on) that it felt like a tech company.
During all this time, a career spread across 5 companies in 3 cities, I was a techie who worked at a tech company. I wrote code, reviewed code, sat in meetings, interviewed candidates. There wasn’t much in terms of that I did at one company, as a techie, that was different from doing it any other place. Business folks, we thought were replaceable, as they came and went, but we never realized we as amorphous as they were.
One of my friends worked at a photo sharing app for a few years, only to switch to self-driving car company. A few friends did the opposite transition; going from hardware companies to app companies. Another one that worked on software used by astronauts now builds software sold to city administrators. If you ask any of them, they all worked in tech too. We read the tech news, raise money from tech VCs, get harassed by those who hate tech. In the end, the entire discussion becomes so abstract, that it becomes pointless. But you can take it even further.
Tesla, for example, is a car company, that also sells batteries. But look deeper: they really want to be a transportation company where you can use a Tesla network to get where you want, which you may not have bought. That’s probably why Model 3 has a driver facing camera, and comes with no key. You use an app to get transported; your ownership of the car is incidental. It’s almost like an ICO, where instead of buying tokens, you buy Teslas to fund the Tesla transportation network. So is Tesla car company or a transportation company or an energy company?
A friend once told me that datacenter colocation companies are mostly in the HVAC business. That seemed odd at the time, but I see her point now. The company bought electric from the grid, turned it into cooled aisles, and leased space. There’s a running meme in popular business books that you buy at airports that McDonald’s is mostly a real estate company, but how different is keeping meat at a certain temperature than doing it for racks? Is anything not a tech company by this definition?
That’s the crux of the issue. The term “tech” company means as much as calling your local bodega —not that Bodega— an electric company because they use it to keep their fridges running. A few years ago, one of the content companies I worked at used to own and operate its own servers; today that seems crazy. Most, if not all technology, gets commoditized once its put to use as other figure out how it works and build cheaper versions of it. Tesla dazzles people with its self-driving tech, but ask Continental, and they will sell you the same tech used in most other cars.
You can think endlessly about what makes a tech company a tech company. Is it the fact that a company creates leverage using technology that makes it a tech company? The number of patents it has? Is it that it hires engineers, and mostly engineers? Maybe it’s the DNA of the founders, because as the adage goes the only real product of a company is its culture. It’s definitely good cannon fodder for blog posts, hot takes.
I think the discussion itself is not a useful one, which possibly makes this essay even less so. The term has lost its meaning, for the most part, and it’s at best aspirational, at worst misleading. But I’ll also chime in, not to make a distinction; not to help decide whether a company is a tech company or not but to decide what a company does.
See who gives the company money, and who the company gives money to. Try to figure out who the masters are. It seems awfully reductionist, but so is the term “tech company”. And if this doesn’t make sense, maybe just retire the term altogether. There was a time it had a meaning, but not anymore.