The best & brightest in tech are working with the best tools on the biggest problems, and that's what gets talked about, regardless of what the mass is doing.
I don't think that's true—there is a subset of the best and brightest who work on greenfield projects very decoupled from existing customer bases, and they get to blog / present / post a lot about what they're doing. There are quite a few "best and brightest" people who are in large companies or slow-moving industries. They're often constrained to existing tooling, because moving to fancy new tooling is a huge risk and time sink for limited reward. They might be using cool personal tools—fancy editors and keyboards and window managers—but the stack they work on is generally "legacy".
And usually the problem of "How do we make this work slightly better for millions of end users" ends up being a bigger problem than "How do we do something really cool as a demo."
You can handle a lot of restrictions if the domain/problem is interesting enough and the constraints put on you don't feel too taxing, e.g. because they aren't enforced for your role or team very much. I feel like company size just isn't a good indicator for personal enjoyment/growth/$whatever, lots of research oriented divisions in larger corporations will let you work on interesting topics and hand off the engineering part to teams with people that enjoy that particular aspect of our world, both working for the same company.
Two, they have their pick of workplaces and focus on finding the biggest problem or perhaps the biggest paycheck, not the most freedom in tools. I have perfect freedom in tools hacking on OSS by myself; I don't look for that in a job.
Why do you assume it's impossible to have a fulfilling career writing Java 8 CRUD apps for Windows Server 2000?
I work with Java 8 on a greenfield high-frequency transaction platform for a very large company. It is extremely satisfying to build the "world's largest" of something, and no amount of shiny features in a cute new language would deter me from this work.
Incidentally, it's the same curiosity that has the current article near the top of HN right now. It's not a point that has been articulated so often, or so recently, or so well, so it's fresh. Even if we already know it, it's a fresh reminder. (And also, of course, there's the catnip of the meta dimension.)
That doesn't have to mean new and shiny.
By way of analogy: the F-117 stealth fighter--the world's first operational stealth aircraft--was developed by the best and brightest (Lockheed Martin Skunk Works) and solved the biggest problem (visibility to radar). Aside from having a weird polyhedral shape and innovative radar-absorbing material, nothing about the plane was the "best", "latest", or "cutting-edge" at all. Much of it consisted of parts from other aircraft hacked together. If you actually do want to have the best cutting-edge technology all in one plane, you spend 25 years designing the damn thing--that's the F-35.
The F-35 has them. The Yak-141 didn't. Therefore, it absolutely is an exaggeration to say the F-35 was "lifted wholesale" from the Yak-141. Two of the three F-35 variants don't even have the lift fan!
We should be so lucky. Nobody knows who's the best, what the best tools are, or what the biggest problems are. We only know the ones that get written about.
Writers cover what's flashy, who's the best self-promoter, and what makes the most money.
Sites like HN and Reddit are aggregators in the literal sense. They take a large volume of data points and reduce it to a select few that get shown to most users. that aggregation function is "most interesting", not "most representative". Those are direct opposites of each other: interesting is almost by definition unusual.
I always find the subreddits that try to explicitly not target polar extremes the most fascinating from a sociology perspective. For example, this photo of a sink faucet is the most mildly interesting submission of the past year:
Does that mean all other submissions were less interesting, or less mild?
1x $100 eBay turbocharger
1x $1000 misc expenses
27x $1000 JDM long-block
There's probably less fun ways to spend $30k on a Civic too
Example A - Honda Civic 1.6 i-VTEC
Registration Fees - S$220
OMV - S$19,370
Excise Duty (20 percent of OMV) - S$3,874
COE (as of 23rd March 2018) - S$38,000
ARF - S$19,370
VES - $0