Moving from the heart of Silicon Valley to the center of national politics has been a shock to the system to say the least, especially for this Midwesterner. Some would probably guess that D.C. is paradise for a political junkie — and it is — but the Valley isn’t so bad either.
First things first: there is no “Stanford Bubble” in Washington. Unsurprisingly, almost everyone in the District is focused on national news and world affairs. One student here joked that even his taxi driver was more knowledgeable about politics than the average Stanford student.
The city is obsessed with news. Half a million copies of The Washington Post go out each day to residents of the District, Virginia and Maryland, which is not to mention The Post’s free daily edition, Express or the nation’s largest dailies, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Post reports that nearly 70% of DC area adults read it or an affiliate at least once a week.
Part of this phenomenon, of course, is the nature of business in Washington, D.C. Almost 40% of residents in the District work for the government, not to mention those whose private sector jobs revolve around politics. Washington, at its core, is a company town.
While this focus is often a refreshing change from The Bubble, it too can be a drag. Even as an ardent Democrat, I have found D.C. to be hyper-partisan. The immediate conversation after the debt ceiling fight was about which party and which individuals “won” — there was no time for a sigh of relief and a short respite. Hidden in every conversation about policy is a calculated political stance.
A far cry from Zuckerberg’s hoodies, Washington is not only hyper-partisan, it’s hyper-professional.
The attitude at work is to arrive early and stay late. Here, hard and dedicated work gets you recognized and promoted, but only if it’s visible. The opposite is true at Stanford; there is a reason we have the Duck Syndrome on campus.
Work permeates everything here: how you dress, how you drink, even how you walk. “Casual Friday” in the office may permit jeans, but those jeans must be paired with a blazer. “Dress to impress” has more meaning here than it ever did at Stanford.
While you might anticipate suits being more common than flip-flops, the professional role of drinking is less expected. Young Washingtonians love to go out to the bars, not only to relax, but also to network. That, of course, is not to mention the copious amounts of coffee consumed throughout the week.
Maybe it’s the caffeine, but the pace of life moves more quickly in D.C. People walk with purpose here, especially on the escalator down to the Metro: walk on the left, stand on the right. Mixing that axiom is much like heading the wrong direction around the Circle of Death: it will get you yelled at.
Unlike Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit, Washington is entirely establishment based. Indeed, it’s so bureaucratic, various interactions I have had suggest that co-workers deal with positions — not individuals, titles, not people.
In a similarly bureaucratic manner, “start ups” are a vague concept, still uncommon and unheard of in government. The expected career path is to work up through the hierarchy, not side step it with a new product.
But more than that, the role of technology here is much smaller. Blackberry has maintained its hold on government employees, despite its declining relevance in the larger smartphone market. Recall the battle over SOPA and PIPA that took place mostly during January of 2012. Government and Tech don’t always get along.
Stanford has its benefits, as does D.C. Most importantly, both places have something to learn from the other. The District should take itself less seriously sometimes and relax: it’s okay to have a drink without reciting your resume. On the other hand, Stanford students should try to engage with the nation’s affairs more. Likewise, my experience in Washington has shown me that we should recognize and applaud hard work; people shouldn’t try to hide it under the water.
Contact Nick Ahamed at nahamed ‘at’ stanford.edu.