Trend of the Day: Hacker Hostels

Excerpted from BRIAN X. CHEN:

“This is not some kind of dorm, but a “hacker hostel.” It’s one of several in the Bay Area that offer short- or long-term stays for aspiring tech entrepreneurs on the bottom rung of the Silicon Valley ladder, those who haven’t yet achieved Facebook-level riches. These establishments put a twist on the long tradition of communal housing for tech types by turning it into a commercial enterprise.

The San Francisco hostel is part of a minichain of three bunk-bed-stuffed residences under the same management, all places where young programmers, designers and scientists can work, eat and sleep.

These are not so different from crowded apartments that cater to immigrants. But many tenants are here not so much for the cheap rent — $40 a night — as for the camaraderie and idea-swapping. And potential tenants are screened to make sure they will contribute to the mix. Justin Carden, a 29-year-old software engineer who is staying in another hostel, in Menlo Park, while working on a biotech start-up, talks about the place as if it were Stanford.

“The intellectual stimulation you get from being here is unparalleled,” Mr. Carden said. “If you’re wanting to do something to change the world and make it a fundamentally better place, you need to be around the right people.”

Hackers — the Mark Zuckerberg variety, not the identity thieves — have long crammed into odd or tiny spaces and worked together to solve problems. In the 1960s, researchers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory slept in the attic and, while waiting for their turn on the shared mainframe computer, sweated in the basement sauna.

When told about the hacker hostels, Ethan Mollick, an assistant professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies entrepreneurship, said they reminded him of his days in the last decade studying at M.I.T., where graduate students would have bunk beds inside their small offices.

“We work so hard and we don’t care about where we’re staying,” he said. “That’s how you learn. People always complain that academic study of computer science doesn’t do a lot for you as a programmer. What does are these sorts of environments.”

Airbnb, a popular Web rental service for apartments or single rooms, has helped commercialize this idea. A quick search for “hacker” on the site turns up dozens of listings in the Bay Area. Not all the operations are above board. Katy Levinson, who runs another hacker house, declined to give its exact location because she had heard about several houses being shut down after running into trouble with landlords.

The other houses run by the operators of the San Francisco apartment, who call themselves Chez JJ, are in Mountain View and Menlo Park. Each one has a host, or “captain,” who sifts through the requests pouring in on Airbnb from would-be guests.

The captains, all women, screen for personalities and occupations, rejecting applicants who are not techies or simply have a poor attitude. Sasha Willins, a 26-year-old graphic designer who is captain of the San Francisco apartment, has a gentle way of saying no. “It’s not so much rejecting as it is asking so many questions until they withdraw their application,” she said.”

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