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My Month in a Hacker House

This was my first summer in Silicon Valley and it did not disappoint. Before I even arrived, a friend offered to rent me her couch – for $1000/month.

Phillip Cohen in the bedroom of a hacker hostel in Menlo Park, CA.
Phillip Cohen in the bedroom of a hacker hostel in Menlo Park, CA.
David Cahn

For many college-level hackers like me, Silicon Valley is the be-all and end-all summer destination; warm weather (but no humidity), thousands of potential internships, and the opportunity to be surrounded by other geeks are just some of the perks.

The descent of “summer interns” in May – and their departure in August – is a bit of a Bay Area tradition. Intern season officially begins when the first Google interns decides to pitch a tent outside the office instead of renting an apartment – and ends when school starts back up in late August.

This was my first summer participating in the annual Silicon Valley tradition and it did not disappoint. Before I even arrived, a friend offered to rent me her couch – for $1000/month.

“This is how it works out here,” she said. “Rent is ridiculous. If you want to find something cheaper, go live in a Hacker House. But be warned, they’re not so well-kept.”

Being completely unfamiliar with the concept of a Hacker House, I decided to Google it. It turns out a Hacker House is just a frat for nerds; lots of guys live together in a big house, and they’re able to save money on rent.

I eventually settled on a $900/month AirBNB in a wealthy suburb. “What a steal,” I thought! “This is cheaper than the couch I almost rented, and I get my own bed.”

When I pulled up to the house in my Uber ($4.75 from my office), I figured it would be messy with dishes in the sink and clothes on the floor. After all, what can you expect from 20 college kids living in a house together?

When I told my friends about the arrangement, even they laughed at me. “How do you fit 20 people in house?” most responded, with a mix disbelief and amusement.

When I knocked, a twenty-something year old engineer answered the door and introduced himself as John, short for his longer (and harder to pronounce) Indian name. The Tesla engineer, currently a Computer Science Masters student, was generous enough to give me a tour of the house.

Near the entrance is a conference room, where guys are playing video games on their laptops. In the dining room, a couple of kids are coding (one I see in the same seat every night for the rest of the summer, always deep at work).

A big TV in the living room is hooked up to a Nintendo box, and two others kids are playing a shooting game. In the bedrooms – there are three for guys and one for girls – kids are lying in bed reading books or watching TV on their laptops. Everyone sleeps in bunk beds, so that more people can fit in the house.

“This is basically sleep away camp for engineers,” I say to John. I must look ridiculous at this point, because John is laughing.

Each person I’m introduced to is that much more impressive. Two college freshmen (soon to be sophomores) are interning at Google. Three residents are at Tesla; one works so hard I don’t see him until one morning when I wake up at 6:00 am and he’s already ready for work. A handful of my housemates turn out to be Stanford researchers, studying everything from physics to machine learning. One is barely 18 years old.

My friends are from all over the country. Some go to snobby East Coast schools – Dartmouth, Princeton and Penn are all represented. A sizable group of kids are from the area – attending Cal or Stanford. Yet others are from Tennessee, Georgia, China, and Africa.

What’s most remarkable about the house is just how well kept it is. There is never a night I’m woken up in the middle of the night. The bathrooms are always clean. The refrigerator is a bit overfull, but people are generally respectful. And there’s no theft. Laptops are left lying around the house.

The dishes could be cleaned more often, but you can’t win them all.

We read in the news all the time about a changing economy and a generation that is more diverse than ever before. Millennials are frequently mocked for being glued to our devices, but what I saw in Silicon Valley was not a stereotype or a cliché; it was a dynamic, entrepreneurial place where young people of all different backgrounds, colors, and experiences come to make an impact.

David Cahn is the co-author of When Millennials Rule: The Reshaping of America (Post Hill Press, August 2016). Names in this article have been changed to respect the privacy of those mentioned. 

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