On The Information and How We Operate

I wanted to share some thoughts about Paul Graham’s allegations that he was misquoted and misled in this recent interview in the Information. Our readers are very smart and I’m happy for everyone to have all the information and for Mr. Graham to continue writing about the topic. We’ve apologized to Mr. Graham for any confusion surrounding how his interview would be used. We do not want sources to feel surprised, which is why we communicated with him in advance. But we stand by our process, which I want to share here. We obsess over editorial fairness, transparency and trust and will always do so.

In our interview, which was explicitly introduced as an edited transcript, we made edits for clarity and length. This has long been a standard practice among journalists in the rare instances that they publish extended Q&As, because raw transcripts are messy and hard to read. Journalism inevitably involves making decisions about what to include and what not to include.

We edited a bit around some of Mr. Graham’s quotes on female founders. Specifically, we edited a “these” from the quote. The reason was simple. The “these” didn’t refer to anything. The paragraph that preceded it referred to Mark Zuckerberg being a hacker and it immediately followed a question about what would be lost if YC encouraged more women to be startup founders.

Here’s the relevant bit from the raw transcript. For those of you very interested in this, the full section on women is at the end of this post. 

Eric: If there was just the pro-activity line of attack, if it was like, “OK, yes, women aren’t set up to be startup founders at the level we want.” What would be lost if Y Combinator was more proactive about it? About lowering standards or something like that? Or recruiting women or something, like any of those options?

Paul: No, the problem is these women are not by the time get to 23… Like Mark Zuckerberg starts programming, starts messing about with computers when he’s like 10 or whatever. By the time he’s starting Facebook he’s a hacker, and so he looks at the world through hacker eyes. That’s what causes him to start Facebook. We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

Mr. Graham has since said the “these” referred to women who aren’t programmers. In our opinion, he didn’t say that to us. We’re happy for him to have clarified to the public.

We know that smart people can disagree and that people can couch our editing, or any editing, as malicious, which is simply bogus. So we updated the story to include the “these” and the context. Writing and reporting involves value judgments about what’s valuable. In many cases “these” is an important word. But in this case, we decided it wasn’t because it didn’t refer to a specific group of women and was in response to a question about women in general. You can read the full context above and decide.

On to the context of the interview:

Mr. Graham’s said that the reason for the interview was for a profile of his wife, which we published. That is true. But it is only half the story.

The on-the-record interview covered significantly more topics than we could include in the profile of Ms. Livingston. It was more than two  hours. Given the unusual length and breadth of the interview, we decided to publish it as a story.

But we didn’t spring it on him. Quite the opposite. We notified Mr. Graham and his PR person and went the extra mile and refreshed their memory on some of the topics. No one expressed any objection. In fact, his PR person followed up with a question about a photo we planned to use for the piece. Mr. Graham didn’t object to anything in the story, or the fact we published it in the first place, until Valleywag wrote about the story days later.

Some people may think we were sneaky. I don’t believe so and believe we specifically took steps to ensure just the opposite. On the record discussions with journalists are exactly that: on the record, meaning the material may be published. It is very common to use parts of older interviews in related stories, sidebars or even stories in the future. At the Wall Street Journal, my colleagues and I would do it all the time. By the same token, plenty of people speak on the record about a topic without knowing in what story the quote might appear. The Information will always go a step further and follow up and let you know when we plan to use the on-the-record comments.

The trust of the public and our subscribers is insanely important to us. Anyone who knows anyone who works at The Information knows that. For those of you who want to know more about how we operate, I want to be clear.  If you talk to The Information on the record we may use that information in different relevant stories. But we will always tell you and give you a chance to comment. We will also bend over backwards to be fair and listen to you, as we have with Mr. Graham, whom we gave our transcript.

By the same token, if you talk to us off the record we’ll never use it.

I know that trustworthiness is the heart of our business and that we have to earn and re-earn it every day. I know that’s even more important as a startup.

Thank you for reading.

The full transcript of Paul Graham on Female Founders

Eric: I want to circle back to women in YC. How much do you think YC needs to be proactive, has any moral obligation to be proactive about this, or anything like that?

Paul: For one thing the number of women is increasing. I think there were a dozen startups with female founders in this batch. It might have been as much as a quarter. I don’t know the exact number. Someone could go and count.

That’s something I’ll probably be asking Jessica [Livingston] more eventually, but yeah.

She’ll have to go count too. There’s a couple of reasons why there are not as many female founders. There’s two questions, “Do we have some problem specifically? This you could identify by looking at the pool of YC startups versus some other comparable pool. I noticed that Andreessen Horowitz, for example, has a page on their site with their seed portfolio which are presumably all companies of similar stages, or at least the time they invested.

I happened to notice because about a quarter of them were from YC, that means three quarters of them are not, it would be interesting to go and see. If you want a pool of startups at similar stages and qualities, it would be interesting to look at that other 75 percent. If you want to know some demographic questions about founders, see what the founders are like at those other startups.

Eric: You haven’t done that?

Paul: No, I only discovered this page a couple of days ago.

Eric: That’s a good idea. I will look at it.

Paul: A lot of people think that we have no way of telling if we have some bias. We do actually, because we go and analyses the people we miss. If the reason we accept few female founders is that we’re biased against them, we would be able to tell this. We would be able to find all these companies we missed.

Like, “Gosh! Half the founders a female,” right? It’s nothing like that. It’s more like one of the founders is female out of all the companies we’ve ever missed. I don’t know for sure, but it’s very few. It’s definitely not the case, that there’s all these good female founded start ups applying to Y Combinator, and we’re throwing them all away. We would know very quickly, if that were the case.

I’m almost certain that we don’t discriminate against female founders because I would know from looking at the ones we missed. You could argue that we should do more, that we should encourage women to start startups. It’s not enough if we merely have…That we should be causing them to start startups and not merely accepting or rejecting them fairly.

The problem with that is I think, at least with technology companies, the people who are really good technology founders have a genuine deep interest in technology. In fact, I’ve heard startups say that they did not like to hire people who had only started programming when they became CS majors in college.

If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it own their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.

It’s already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that, because probably…

Eric: The point is that it’s very different from what you guys are doing in the first place.

Paul: You can tell what the pool of potential startup founders looks like. There’s a bunch of ways you can do it. You can go on Google and search for audience photos of PyCon, for example, which is this big Python conference.

That’s a self selected group of people. Anybody who wants to apply can go to that thing. They’re not discriminating for or against anyone. If you want to see what a cross section of programmers looks like, just go look at that or any other conference, doesn’t have to be PyCon specifically.

Or you could look at commits in open source projects. Once again self selected, these people don’t even meet in person. It’s all by email, no one can be intimidated by or feel like an outcast for something like that.

Eric: If there was just the pro-activity line of attack, if it was like, “OK, yes, women aren’t set up to be startup founders at the level we want.” What would be lost if Y Combinator was more proactive about it? About lowering standards or something like that? Or recruiting women or something, like any of those options?

Paul: No, the problem is these women are not by the time get to 23…Like Mark Zuckerberg starts programming, starts messing about with computers when he’s like 10 or whatever. By the time he’s starting Facebook he’s a hacker, and so he looks at the world through hacker eyes. That’s what causes him to start Facebook.

We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

Eric: What you’re saying is that they’re not out there to be found?

Paul: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. It is changing a bit because it’s no longer so critical to be a hacker. The nature of startups is changing. It used to be that all startups were mostly technology companies. Now you have things like The Gilt Groupe where they’re really retailers, and that’s what they have to be good at because the technology is more commoditized.

That’s probably why we have more female founders than we used to in the past, because the nature of the startups that they’re working on is different. You don’t have to be a hardcore hacker to start a startup like you might have had to be 20 years ago. It’s partly software eating world, and partly that there’s just more infrastructure.

Now that there’s Heroku you don’t need to do all that yourself, you just write some Ruby app and put it on Heroku and bang, it scales. Or AWS, you don’t have to a sysadmin quite as much anymore, you have Amazon racking your servers for you. It’s a combination of startups moving into different domains, that whole software eating the world thing, and infrastructure being more available so you don’t have to be such a hardcore nerd even to start a startup, like you used to have to be.

I remember the old days when you used to have to be really like…When we started a startup back in the ’90s we had the servers in our office with us. You couldn’t even co-locate servers in those days let alone have AWS.

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