Leaning Out
April 17, 2015 8:44 AM   Subscribe


 
Wow. I don't have much to say other than that I wish every adult professional would read this right now.
posted by Don Don at 9:00 AM on April 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


My god, LiveJournal! I had no idea it was still around. I have also never seen a case of burnout that bad. I feel for the guy.

The tech sector does have a lot of disturbing, broken behaviors, and I have to say, a lot of that culture is precisely why I refuse to even consider startups anymore.
posted by qcubed at 9:01 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


My god, LiveJournal! I had no idea it was still around.

Yesterday I felt the need to write a longer-form and somewhat more personal post than I felt comfortable with on Facebook, so I logged in to my LJ account for the first time in about 18 months and posted it. There seems to be just one other person I know still posting on a regular basis, though.
posted by Foosnark at 9:27 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Wow. Holy crap. I think I need to read this a few more times.
posted by town of cats at 9:30 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Fuck. This hit really hard. I've felt for a while now that I need to get out of this shit, and its getting harder and harder to avoid accepting it.

Good thing I'm literally on my way out the door to see my therapist!
posted by frijole at 9:32 AM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Startup/tech culture chewed up and spit out an ex boyfriend I cared for deeply, exacerbating his mental illness and contributing to his eventual suicide. This post is completely right--tech is full of broken people who used their programming skills to get away from rough or abusive upbringings, only to perpetuate the cycle of abuse on other broken people. Therapy is a dirty word. My ex was discouraged from seeking help because a documented history of mental illness might cause problems getting security clearance for government projects or give future employers pause (because, of course, companies that ignores rampant sexism and interpersonal abuse probably don't care too much about privacy or HIPAA violations, either).

I know women receive the bulk of the jaw-droppingly inappropriate behavior, but it's garbage all around. "Toxic" really is the right word for it, literally and figuratively.
posted by almostmanda at 9:34 AM on April 17, 2015 [33 favorites]


What has happened to the field of software engineering? I was a software engineer at Apple all through the eighties. From my own limited experience, most of the people I worked with were whole people they had lives outside of code. There were women engineers, not in the proper proportion, but they were there and from my point of view they just seemed to be treated like everybody else. I didn't notice any prejudice. As expected, there was the small minority of hard core coders, nerds in the parlance, but in general though respected for their skills they were looked upon by the rest as rather sad. I knew a few people who did the startup up thing back then and the eighty hour work weeks were about getting rich, pure materialism, and not some psycho-pathological sort of thing. So what happened? I've been out of this business for twenty years and everything I hear about tech seems to suggest that the sad nerds who were once a minority are now the majority and in control. After working in "higher ed" for sixteen years I've been looking for work for the last three years. The few tech companies I have had contact with seem to reflect this writer's critique. Sell your soul but don't expect any loyalty from them. Back in the eighties people loved their job and believed in what they were doing. The money was just a benefit. It seems that now people just work out of fear and fear breeds some pretty fucked up behaviors all around.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:37 AM on April 17, 2015 [35 favorites]


it's not just on the programming side. I'm in Ops and I just put in my 2 weeks notice at a start up. Moving to a company that was a start-up but is now in turnaround, privately owned by employees. The place I'm leaving isn't toxic in the way he describes, it's respectful, diverse, and sometimes takes the long view rather than burning up employees and customers to reach funding goals. But. The 'just work harder' and 'no crying' aspects really hit home. You're expected to value the success of the company, or even a single fleeting project for the company, over just about everything. Having a personal life is seen as weakness, even if that is never stated. When your boss works 15 hour days every single day, you either join in or get left out of crucial aspects of the job. That's just not for me. People work smarter and better when we have work-life balance, and VC funding requires growth, not stability, so it is inevitable that the execs eventually have to pull off some impossible and sometimes useless shit, which trickles down to everyone else. "That's what the money equity is for" is sort of a fair response, but in the end it's not worth it to me, and hopefully soon more talented people than I will start making the same choice--leaving behind the potential cash-in on an IPO or sale for the satisfaction and security of building something real and sensibly constructed, at established public or private companies (or -gasp- Nonprofits). You can keep the sexiness and free lunches. Maybe this will cause more startups to change their culture focus to Sustainable rather than College. But I doubt it. There's always another class coming up.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:40 AM on April 17, 2015 [12 favorites]


I was a software engineer at Apple all through the eighties. From my own limited experience, most of the people I worked with were whole people they had lives outside of code. There were women engineers, not in the proper proportion, but they were there and from my point of view they just seemed to be treated like everybody else.

That's pretty much my experience working at Microsoft today. I suspect I might not agree as strongly with the "treated like everybody else" part if I were a woman, but there's certainly nothing overtly toxic here in that regard.

No, the culprit here is the Silicon Valley startup culture and not technology as a whole.
posted by Slothrup at 9:42 AM on April 17, 2015 [20 favorites]


DAMN. This article doesn't say anything we didn't all already know, but it puts all these things we already knew side by side just right, so that we can see how they're connected and how they work.

Like this is one of the smartest things I've read all month. And I'm very, very glad to see that I'm not the only one who plays the "well if I somehow convince myself I still find abstract meaningless puzzle-solving in intense environments -- I swear, it's like everyone's convinced that they're Alan Turing at Bletchley, and that their skill at app debugging or whatever is the only thing that will stop a Nazi invasion -- ahem, maybe if I convince myself that I still find abstract meaningless puzzle-solving in intense environments satisfying even though now I'm a grownup, then maybe I'll stick with the tech industry next time and actually move up the ladder and not spend entire days on Facebook and metafilter doing nothing for anyone because I hate what I'm doing" game between short stints in the tech industry wherein I rapidly become consumed with despair over the utter waste of life and brainpower and end up spending entire days on Facebook and metafilter because I hate what I'm doing.

It is remarkably freeing to try on the idea, just for a second, that this pattern isn't indicative of something wrong with me, but instead is just what the tech industry does to people who try to grow up.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:44 AM on April 17, 2015 [33 favorites]


This describes my career in the gaming industry. It pretended to be a friendly casual place to work, but people were expected to crunch and egos clashed like icebergs and there were weekly screaming matches and I worked some 19-hour days and 7-day weeks and had nothing to show for it.

But not all tech jobs are like this. Probably, not even most. Just the bleeding edge new hotness.

I work with a bunch of engineers (as in, actual designing-an-aircraft sort of engineers) and the culture is very different. I can't say I like it but it's a quieter, slower, and less macho sort of nerdism. Crunch time does not happen. People take long breaks to walk around, have long chats in the kitchen, and/or hour-long lunches. Everyone goes home at the end of their salaried time. My supervisor cut his schedule back to an average of 30 hours a week. There is less pressure in general, even though what we do is far more important and useful. And I get paid better.

I'm still not sure I'm happy doing it; I miss geek culture and a modicum of creative freedom, and dislike this office building and the... corporateness of it all. But all I have to do is remember the abuse I'm not getting and it seems pretty good.
posted by Foosnark at 9:45 AM on April 17, 2015 [16 favorites]


That's pretty much my experience working at Microsoft today. I suspect I might not agree as strongly with the "treated like everybody else" part if I were a woman, but there's certainly nothing overtly toxic here in that regard.

Badge color caste system. Vicious pointless competition between divisions. The ongoing legacy of stack ranking. If you think things are fine at Microsoft, you're not paying attention.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:53 AM on April 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


“So many think they're good guys. But they're so invested in a culture that depends on proving they're right they don't see the damage done.” -- Jen Myers

That pretty much describes the atmosphere in almost every I ever had to sit-in on with the dev teams. The sniping at the others' ideas, and the constant geek-dick-measuring to prove their idea was the way to go. So many times I came away wondering if the direction the team decided upon was the right direction or just the direction the guy with the biggest geek-dick insisted we go?
posted by Thorzdad at 9:56 AM on April 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


I once worked at a semiconductor chip company where the CEO told the room full of people I was in that he was going to go downtown, buy a gun and come back and shoot all of us. They've since gone Chapter 7. So, yeah ... PTSD, SSRI, talk therapy ... It's all good.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:57 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


the biggest geek-dick

augh
posted by easter queen at 9:58 AM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


What an incredibly vulnerable and raw piece of writing. I hope he finds a new way. I could have written this same piece.

Exactly ten years ago I graduated college and jumped into the deep end of American materialism, 80-hour work weeks, using my entire life as a device for printing money.

I learned what an empty and unfulfilled (pointless) existence I was creating. As my depression progressed, I would go on 'sales calls' and spend hours sitting in my car, parked in the employee parking garage, reading books with spaceships on the cover. I even grew to hate having all the money I didn't need. My entire life became a bottomless pit of pointless desire. (In all honesty, there was still alcohol, which became its own tiny and sad daily vacation).

It took the absolute collapse of my entire life a couple years later for me to be able to actually say "fuck this, fuck all this eternally and forever, I quit, quit, quit" and then drop the match and sit back down in the lawn chair and watch the whole damned thing go up in smoke. And then throw the lawn chair into the bonfire as well.

And then, weirdly, it was the church that came and picked me up in this very strange and Medieval way. And I was so incredibly grateful that at one point I said to one of my many, many wonderful mentors, "I want to dedicate the rest of my life to the church, I love her." And my wise friend quoted Augustine, "The church is a whore. But she is your mother." They cautioned me against worshiping the church because that is what I had done in my previous life. I was substituting one material reality for another. They corrected me.
"Dedicate every moment of your life to helping other human beings survive and thrive and by doing this you will love and serve God."
I lived into this new reality for a long time before I realized that they had probably simply meant to quote a bit of ancient scripture for encouragement.

There are lots of ways of living in the world. We're just monkeys on a rock in space. We made all this shit up. Do the thing that makes your heart full. Starve or don't starve. Love or don't love. In the immortal and wise words of Professor James Douglas Morrison, "No one here gets out alive." Don't sell your whole life for a bowl of bean soup.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:00 AM on April 17, 2015 [102 favorites]


If you think things are fine at Microsoft

Sure. The pathologies are different, not nonexistent. But considerably less personal. And I haven't met anyone here who doesn't have a life outside of work.
posted by Slothrup at 10:02 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


We're still all chained to capitalism, though. I wish him well, I wish all of us well, but until we don't have to sell our waking hours for a place to sleep and food to eat, quitting a job you hate will always be a marker of privilege.

Not that I don't also complain, and don't also see how privileged I am in comparison to so many others. I have been jobless and desperate, and I am afraid to go back to that, but at the same time, there's a reason I spend so many work hours here.
posted by emjaybee at 10:09 AM on April 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


My plan B is still to starve to death on the street behind a cardboard sign reading YOU ARE ALL COMPLICIT or maybe just I BLAME YOU ALL.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:12 AM on April 17, 2015 [39 favorites]


Thanks, I wasn't sure what to put on the sign.
posted by Rat Spatula at 10:16 AM on April 17, 2015 [51 favorites]


What has happened to the field of software engineering?

To quote The Social Network...
"A million dollars isn't cool, you know what's cool? A billion dollars. "
posted by Theta States at 10:18 AM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't think I'll have to say why I was reminded of a comment officer_fred made today in the Ultra Orthodox thread about why fundamentalism grows in certain areas:
The best explanation I've heard for why we might expect extreme fundamentalism in modern society is the idea of evaporative cooling of group beliefs. Basically, in the old days no one could leave the group, so all groups were composed of a representative sample of people. So no group could be pure extremists; groups were always mostly composed of moderates, who kept things from getting too crazy. But in modern times, it's much easier to leave. And who leaves a small, religious community first? Moderates. Who doesn't leave? Extremists. And so over time, the group gets more and more extreme.
That said, I can't disagree with this guy's reasons for leaving. A lot of his story sounds all too familiar.
posted by barnacles at 10:21 AM on April 17, 2015 [30 favorites]


emjaybee - I completely agree that quitting a job that you hate is a mark of privilege. However, quitting a job that is literally killing you is akin to an animal gnawing off a long bone to escape the snare.

We've built this capitalist machine that both effectively ensnares and anesthetizes. Depression, anxiety, boredom, they sneak up on you. And then they get you on a mortgage (or a student loan) and the walls start to bounce up around you and you start believing crazy shit, like "money is real" and "if I don't keep this job I'll starve to death."

There are lots of clever people out there living into their full selves on dollars a day. They're dodging the traps and snares. They're typically very literate when it comes to the difference between their wants and their needs. There's actually a house full of them right down the street from where I'm sitting at this very moment.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:24 AM on April 17, 2015 [19 favorites]


barnacles: A kind of dead sea effect of extremism.
posted by Zarkonnen at 10:26 AM on April 17, 2015


We've built this capitalist machine that both effectively ensnares and anesthetizes. Depression, anxiety, boredom, they sneak up on you. And then they get you on a mortgage (or a student loan) and the walls start to bounce up around you and you start believing crazy shit, like "money is real" and "if I don't keep this job I'll starve to death."

There are lots of clever people out there living into their full selves on dollars a day. They're dodging the traps and snares. They're typically very literate when it comes to the difference between their wants and their needs. There's actually a house full of them right down the street from where I'm sitting at this very moment.


I have quit lots of bad jobs, myself. But if you don't keep some job, then yes, you will starve to death. Or you will be dependent on someone else keeping their job, in order to feed you. It's a trap that not many escape, and worse, those that do all benefit in one way or another from the labor and support of those that don't.

In other words, coops and communes are great. But to make ends meet, they often sell food, goods, or services, which other people buy with money earned from their jobs. Or with money inherited from parents who profited from the labor other people did in order to earn money to survive. There is no freedom from capitalism. Even if you go off the grid, you will need to buy things that come from the labor of others. Or at the very least, you will have to buy or rent the land itself.

I am all for alternate ways of living, but if we use them, we need to not act as though we've dealt the system a death blow by doing so. I think, long-term, our best bet is to shrink and tame capitalism through technologically-created abundance and a commitment to equality of opportunity.
posted by emjaybee at 10:40 AM on April 17, 2015 [30 favorites]


Not all tech jobs are like this. Mine isn't. We have very low turnover-I've been here for 4.5 years and we've lost just a couple of front end developers and no back end engineers on my team of fifteen or twenty.

I definitely get paid less than I could get if all I wanted was to maximize my salary, and my 'geek dick' definitely doesn't get all the exercise it could. But I work sane hours and enjoy my time at work. My co-workers seems really happy and it's hard for me to imagine anyone yelling at each other in the office.

And we have open heads! There is still a ton of demand for technical people and if you can't find a situation like this, in my opinion you're not looking hard enough. I think a lot of tech people have a hard time trading some salary for a sane work life.
posted by Kwine at 10:40 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is a great essay. It speaks to my own experience very closely, and in fact mirrors the reasons I just left a high-paying job myself. I'm really glad to be seeing these kinds of perspectives get more publicity, like tableflip.club and others. Thanks for the post.
posted by odinsdream at 10:41 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the pieces of advice I've picked up from people in the Black Lives Matter movement(s) is that it's worse than useless to react to having privilege (the privilege of having white skin in a white supremacist society, or having a job that pays the bills, or having a dick and presenting as male in a patriarchal society, or whatever) by feeling guilty about it. The appropriate way to deal with having privilege is to weaponize that shit, to exploit your privileged place in society as much as possible in the interest of destroying the institutions that grant you that privilege.

And, like, on the one hand there's that whole "the master's tools can't demolish the master's house" idea, but then there's also the fact that white people with blond/e hair and blue eyes can literally chain themselves to the front door of the Oakland PD headquarters without even getting arrested -- it's like a crazy superpower.

I'm not sure exactly how to weaponize the unique type of complex privilege involved in having a useless but well-paying job (do as little as possible for your work while actually working on social justice causes all day?), but (he counsels himself) there's got to be a better way to deal with it than moping around all day consumed by survivor guilt.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:45 AM on April 17, 2015 [49 favorites]


*hugs .edu employee ID*
posted by thelonius at 10:56 AM on April 17, 2015 [10 favorites]


If anyone's sane company is hiring global operations engineers, memail me.
posted by odinsdream at 11:00 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ditto, but s/global operations engineers/tech writers with weird resumes who know a little javascript.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:03 AM on April 17, 2015


When I worked at another one of my past employers, I took to watching a lot of episodes of “House, M.D.” because I really needed to see examples of people modelling exemplary professionalism and respect for others’ boundaries… by comparison.

Well, that's horrifying. When your job makes House look like a paragon of professional excellence.... christ almighty.
posted by sciatrix at 11:05 AM on April 17, 2015 [13 favorites]


I think a lot of tech people have a hard time trading some salary for a sane work life.

IME startup culture loves 18-25-year-old fresh graduates with no job experience that don't know any better. When they wise up and want any work/life balance, they are hastily shuffled out for more young people. Blaming them for their own exploitation and insisting they're blinded by money is pretty unfair--a lot of these people come from unstable or abusive home situations, as mentioned above.
posted by almostmanda at 11:08 AM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


At the risk of this being a "well, actually" I thought I'd mention that TFA is on Dreamwidth. It looks like LJ because it's based on the same code, but it's different people.

I come to this from having seen mjg59 having moved from LJ to it.
posted by one weird trick at 11:13 AM on April 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


"Bikeshedding" is genius. I've needed a word for this concept for a long time. I work in academia/research and while there is plenty of dysfunction and an abundance of bikeshedding, I am particularly grateful for the environment in which I work after having read that essay.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:14 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


a lot of these people come from unstable or abusive home situations, as mentioned above.

Well certainly a lot of people do in general but do you this this as particularly evident in "tech?"
posted by atoxyl at 11:20 AM on April 17, 2015


Man, though, I said at the start that this didn't say anything that anybody didn't already know, but on reflection I had seriously never put together the connection between being a programmer and being from Circumstances (as Roast Beef from Achewood would put it) before. Because I grew up poor, I tend to overlook how people with richer families can also come from Circumstances. Although most of the programmers I know grew up middle class or upper class, many of them grew up in relentlessly cold, aggressively neglectful middle class or upper class families. The best example of this is a guy I knew from high school who was meaningfully contributing to multiple free software projects from the age of like 13, while also working on a fantastically detailed multiplayer space combat videogame of his own... and who called his parents "mom" and "dad" when they were out of earshot, but who would be sternly reprimanded if he referred to them by anything but their first names when they were actually around. I think he works at Google now.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:24 AM on April 17, 2015 [12 favorites]


So what happened? I've been out of this business for twenty years and everything I hear about tech seems to suggest that the sad nerds who were once a minority are now the majority and in control.

It's not always the developers. The management culture in many parts of the software industry has gotten to be quite ugly, with some companies very blatantly viewing developers as disposable resources (or more disparagingly, "code monkeys") that can be bought and sold and traded around like property. Stuff like this comes to mind.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:24 AM on April 17, 2015 [13 favorites]


I absolutely think tech has a higher rate of people who come from abusive circumstances. Many of my ex's colleagues, both in college Comp Sci programs and startup companies, had weird social patterns, trouble making connections, trouble trusting others (personally and professionally), and discomfort staying in one place for a long time. Programming is a skill that you can develop at home, alone, without a lot of in-person social interaction or even parental support beyond access to a computer and the internet. It's easy to demonstrate that you can do it remotely, and I think it does lead to a lot of weird Cinderella stories where it's used as a ticket out of poverty or abuse or neglect.

I'm not saying it's everyone, but if those were your circumstances, wouldn't you work 16 hour days if asked? Wouldn't you feel like you had to give everything you had? I don't think it's just weird that it happens that way. I think this is the ideal employee for a startup that is looking to put in two years, get big, and get bought out.
posted by almostmanda at 11:38 AM on April 17, 2015 [12 favorites]


What has happened to the field of software engineering?

I've been wondering the same thing. This is not the way things were back in the '80s, when I fell in love with computers, and I don't clearly understand what caused the change. It seems to be a post-Internet-bubble thing. I wonder if the big crash disrupted the culture, when so many people got laid off, and so the original tech culture didn't fully carry forward when the "web 2.0" thing got rolling and brought all the money back.

There was a time in the worst of the post-dotcom-bubble crunch when it seemed like at least half of my friends were unemployed. Many of them never made it back into the industry, but on reflection I can think of more women than men who gave up and found lower-paying, non-tech careers, including the woman I was married to at the time.

Come to think of it, I've not really felt like part of the tech culture myself, since Web 2.0. I think they've mostly missed the point of the web, and the mobile industry is even worse, so I'm pretty much just hacking away at system software like I've always done, not really involved with all these new startups.

Programming is a skill that you can develop at home, alone, without a lot of in-person social interaction or even parental support beyond access to a computer and the internet.

yeah, that's my story for sure. The computer was a different world, where I had autonomy and agency. It wasn't too long before the computer offered a social life, too, since modems and BBSes meant there were people out there I could interact with in a way that was impossible in real life. And yes, I did work 16 hour days on a startup for a couple of years, until its failure was undeniable; but at least it was my startup. I hadn't thought of it as a "cinderella story" but I definitely owe the comfortable, connected life I am fortunate enough to live to the countless obsessive hours I poured into computer work during my teens and early 20s.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:44 AM on April 17, 2015 [10 favorites]


The management culture in many parts of the software industry has gotten to be quite ugly, with some companies very blatantly viewing developers as disposable resources (or more disparagingly, "code monkeys") that can be bought and sold and traded around like property.

So, what you're saying is that tech/development has become just like every other profession in the US?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:45 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


And see, for me the Cinderella event/ golden ticket out of both poverty and the tech industry is/was getting into an absurdly good grad school... where I've managed to fall into the same patterns of behavior - crunch time overproduction coupled with weeks and weeks of floaking, day after day working on incomprehensible stuff I can't begin to care about anymore, weird paranoid disconnect from almost everyone and everything.

Ugh. Life, man. It'll kill ya.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:48 AM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


The problems I've seen in various contexts in the industry seemed to center more around non-technical managers inability to trust that they could effectively manage people they feared might be too smart to control or smarter than them. For a certain kind of manager, the idea your employee might be smarter than you (whatever that means) seems to trigger control issues. But that's just a vague impression I've gotten over the years so YMMV. Having had a pretty normal family life after age 5 (though with my grandparents not my birthparents) and having seldom found any colleagues willing to talk about such personal subjects anyway, I can't speak to the role abusive family life might play, but my instinct is that's sort of an emotionally manipulative way to deflect the role of bad managers in these kinds of problems.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:51 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Author here. I haven't even read through all these comments yet because I'm getting overwhelmed by all the validation. But this comment thread makes me unbelievably happy. Solidarity, y'all, and remember, if I can do it (albeit with a necessary stage happening right now that involves spending about 4 months in the bathtub), you can too, if you want to.
posted by mappings at 11:54 AM on April 17, 2015 [105 favorites]


Oh yay, I'm really glad. I was belatedly worried that I might have posted something intended for a more limited audience.
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:02 PM on April 17, 2015


And You Can't Tip a Buick, I totally hear your comments about Microsoft, as former dash trash (I was doing an internship there that I felt extremely lucky and privileged to have gotten, but the dash-trash system seemed much more malignant for perma-contractors).
posted by mappings at 12:03 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


As far as njohnson23's question about what has changed over time, it's a question I ask myself. I don't know the answer. I was born in 1980, so obviously I missed out on the '80s tech scene, and the grass is always greener but it does seem like that was a healthier and more gender-balanced time (particularly in the Boston area, where I grew up).

Was it the rise of venture capital in the '90s? Increased gender anxiety and polarization that went along with various economic crises between 1990 and the present? The popularity of first-person shooter video games, as at least one person has suggested to me? I have no idea, really, but I'd love to read the book or Ph.D dissertation of some sociology-of-technology researcher who takes on that question. (That researcher might even be me if I had a couple of extra lives to spare.)
posted by mappings at 12:07 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


I've been through it too. I got really lucky and found a way out with first a non-profit, and now with a small company run by fairly sane and nice people.

I also worked at large banks in tech (briefly, man did I scram outta that shit fast), and at startups, and for all the people asking "what happened to this industry" I am going to give my take: fast money happened. That's it. saulgoodman's observation about non-technical managers has merit, and there are of course a host of other contributing factors, like programmers tending to be towards one end of the social spectrum, but IPO's & venture cap are, for me, what drive the whip.

You end up with a bunch of (young) execs sitting around going "we've got 3 years to make our nut on this idea before it's (done by someone else | technically obsolete | etc)", and then you've got a room full of devs who are ready to suck down that "no crying" BS so they can stay afloat in the ego pool. They give you food and alcohol so you never have to leave, hang the equity carrot out there, and turn the room into a war zone. It's brutal. And effective.
posted by kris.reiss at 12:08 PM on April 17, 2015 [16 favorites]


ZenMasterThis, I can't exactly favorite your comment, but wow. The story I told in my post was the most blatant example of repressed rage being vented at work that I've experienced personally. As I said, venting it seems preferable... but not at a point when that venting starts to involve firearms.

With an increased interest (at least in the US) in gun culture *specifically* to reinforce power dynamics rather than challenge them (I live in Nevada, so I see that happening a lot), particularly the seemingly increased focus on forcing concealed carry into every sanctuary we have, I worry that something really bad is going to happen and particularly that some of my friends might be there when it happens :\
posted by mappings at 12:10 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Baby_Balrog, thank you for that comment. After a life of being told not to burn bridges, I'm enjoying the flames right now, but really, it's more of a warm campfire with sympathetic people around it.

I also hear you on religion; I'm an agnostic and occasional Quaker meeting attender as well as a recovering Movement-style atheist (before there really was a Movement, though); and sorting that out for myself is doubtless part of what got me here. Though there wasn't room in the post to talk about that at all.
posted by mappings at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2015 [11 favorites]


I have this half-baked theory, inspired largely by Fred Turner's remarkable book "From Counterculture to Cyberculture," that everything went sideways when the academic-facing relatively healthy Boston-based hacker culture that Richard Stallman and the Free Software movement came out of got hijacked by extremely cynical, viciously antihuman Bay Area hippies-turned-Wired-capitalists over the course of the 90s and 2000s. That said, I call it half-baked because I know I'm wrongly idealizing the 1980s MIT hacker scene, which likely had severe problems that I was just too young to see when I started reading stuff from it.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2015 [17 favorites]


I too work at [huge tech company] and I generally assume that my impression that "we don't have these issues" is rooted in my outright oblivious white male perspective. So most of the time I go around assuming everything is fine and dandy but at the back of my mind I get that it's probably not and I try to be more than just vaguely aware of that.

That said in the past I did work at both [successful startup] and [dysfunctional startup] and nothing brings out the worst in people than uncertainty. *Everything* becomes a high stakes battle, and is played out in myriad passive-aggressive and outright aggressive behaviors. It's no way to sanely earn a living...
posted by simra at 12:23 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh damn. DAMN.

I recently started working less (read: 40-ish hours, no weekends) and had a brief identity crisis. Time to reclaim my life in earnest from the MBA petting zoo that's taken over and stop playing the office martyrdom game before my burned-out state snowballs into a genuine midlife crisis.

This was a good read. Now that the job market's a bit less terrifying, maybe there will be more places to work in tech where the HiPPO effect doesn't exist.

Welcome to MeFi, mappings/Tim!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:31 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


emjaybee: yes, I am very privileged and am trying to be conscious of that in concert with my happiness about being able to change. I have never had enough savings before to allow me to take off 4 months to recover, and probably if I had had that sooner, I would have quit sooner.
posted by mappings at 12:34 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


thelonius: Re: the .edu IDs, I had one of those for about 8 of the 14 years that I'm summarizing in my article. It is not a panacea, and in fact, the single worst experience I had during that time (which I wrote about already) happened at a university.

That said, I originally got started in tech because of one professor who was the first person in my life who treated me like a person, so I don't want to discount the potential power of education. In computer science, though, corporate and military funding are having a particularly corrosive effect on the (historically, relatively) safe nature of academia.
posted by mappings at 12:39 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Survivor guilt is definitely a thing I have, and going way further back than my adult professional life. I was inspired by a quote from Paul Farmer (one of my heroes) in the book _Mountains Beyond Mountains_, which goes something like this: "Poor people don't want you to sit around wearing a poncho woven by Guatemalan peasants and talk about how unjust everything is. They want you to put on a suit and go out and raise money so they can get medical care."

I took that to heart, and I feel like I'm doing something that will result in me being able to shower and shave and put on whatever the equivalent of that suit is, on a regular basis, and do work I think matters to other people. Tech can't be that for me.
posted by mappings at 12:41 PM on April 17, 2015 [17 favorites]


sciatrix, that was at Mozilla.
posted by mappings at 12:42 PM on April 17, 2015


I guess "tech" is this world that I've maybe never truly seen. I guess I had affairs with it, I interviewed many times in and around the valley in a year of boredom and self-hatred, partly entertaining the idea of joining them but mostly interested to see what all the fuss was about.

They all wanted a minimum of 50 hours a week, they all wanted their folks to leave the building as little as possible and they all had despicable neoliberal business agendas that ultimately discourage technical literacy in their victims and encourage consumption centered society.

Probably most significantly, an interviewer looked at me with disgust when I told him "more than 40 hours a week or 160 a month is a deal breaker" and I've never gone back to their disgusting island prison (nor am I eager to visit their scions in Austin or Seattle and I wish they would stop moving up here.)

I work with technology, I program sometimes (I even wrote an exploit PoC yesterday), but I'm a public servant. I keep the trains, so to speak, running for some of the fundaments of civil society. I'm not sure I'd ever want to work in "tech", I'm not sure I ever have in the sense it's meant here, it concerns me the consolidation of technical talents into this abusive market oriented sector and the implication that "real tech" happens outside organizations in these vats of zombies. That should be more evenly spread across society, I think, and not siloed by SaaS and PaaS firms holding clients captive.

I think there may be a thing where "tech" is coopting "technology" and we're all a bit poorer for it's centralization.

I'll need to read this several times more, but very good piece I think.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:51 PM on April 17, 2015 [12 favorites]


Srsly though, mappings, not to give you a big head or anything, but this piece isn't just great, but actually seems kinda Important, with a capital I. Like, this sucker's gonna get extensively cited, if not by me then by some other cranky tech-adjacent academic.

And in any case, it's inspirational as all getout.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:56 PM on April 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


mappings, thank you for writing that piece, and for all the writing I'm suddenly finding of yours, that's linked from it and linked from here. You have an incredibly eloquent, human, and intelligent writing style that puts these horrible, difficult issues into perspective.
posted by xingcat at 1:02 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


On the topic of burning bridges: it was the most exhilarating and terrifying month of my life when I decided to abandon my academic career in favor of industry. My only regret is that perhaps I didn't take *enough* risks in that period, when I felt more free than I had ever felt before. Literally anything felt possible (and was possible). Like all good things the honeymoon period isn't indefinite, but during that time I felt wonderfully alive and completely unburdened.
mappings, enjoy your new-found freedom and make the most of it!
posted by simra at 1:09 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Buick, I also love "being from Circumstances" -- as someone who never wanted to use the word "survivor" for myself because I was afraid of being asked what I survived, I'll have to use that. (And I'll also have to read more Achewood).
posted by mappings at 1:09 PM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


What an incredible piece of writing. I'm not in tech; I'm a professional leftie and it is striking to me how many similarities there are, right down to the PTSD.

I came to my job (I work for a union) after a lifetime of political activism. I attended my first big rally at 13 and was organizing them by 15. My entire professional career, more than 20 years at this point, has been in social justice oriented organizations. I was motivated by a deep sense of injustice and the brokenness off the world. As were most of my comrades.


Over time, though, I've realized that a lot of that sensitivity to the brokenness is about externalizing one's own family of origin troubles and other kinds of trauma. I just see it time and again in people around me, and after a very long stress leave, can see with great detail how that is true for me. For some people that manifests as abusiveness, bullying and other toxic behaviours; for others it results in martyrdom, masochism, a cycle of over-working for approval that never comes and burnout. The place I work in now is pretty good at the moment, but that is following six years of terrible workplace bullying that included more than one case of physical assault.

If you had asked me 10 years ago whether I would take and keep a job in an environment like this I would have laughed. I was young and thought there would be an endless supply of cool jobs to get. But between my last job and this one, I suffered a terrible trauma and a couple of terrible re-traumatizing years, and the abuse that was rampant here--the sense of looming danger and constant threat--well, if you're going to be hypervigilant, might as well have something to be vigilant of.

Where this kind of work is different, though, is the all the overwork and misery is excused as working for the greater good. Martyrs are beloved. This particular brand of broken person works 80 hours a week because they have no life, but also because they feel guilty for their myriad privileges, and they wrap it up in self-sacrifice and altruism. And righteous anger feels better than shame or pain or any other number of feelings being broken provokes. It's a weird narcissistic form of self-flagellation.

I have a number of friends who have fled the professional left to work in self-care and holistic health types of work. The die-hards who remain are sceptical and dismissive of the pursuit of individual wellness as opposed to revolution and justice for all. But I think the desire to do that work springs from the same well of pain--only rather than trying to fix the broken world, they are trying to help the broken people within it.

Anyhow, I really love and am grateful for this writing.
posted by La Marquise Marionette de Chaussette at 1:35 PM on April 17, 2015 [27 favorites]


La Marquise Marionette de Chaussette, thank you so much. it sounds like we have a lot in common. Before college, my plan was to be a professional leftie, but then I found programming was both an all-consuming thrill and one that *didn't* require me to think about pain, which appealed at the time, for obvious reasons. And it paid better, so that's what I did.

Over the past couple years, events in the bigger world have pushed me into bringing together those two strands of my life in my time as a tech SJW. I'm glad for many of the things i've done as a result but it's time for me to take a break. And I am, indeed, considering a career in mental health care once I'm ready to leave my apartment.
posted by mappings at 1:45 PM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Not to melodramatically cross the streams of the two threads I'm participating in right now or anything, but this is pretty much how I feel about this post and these comments.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:00 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


You Can't Tip a Buick: as a westerner I have to stick up for Silicon Valley's hacker roots, which are after all the source of the tech culture I identify with. Think of the Homebrew Computer Club and the original Apple II scene: that was all driven by idealistic technohippies who saw personal computers as tools of liberation. This is part of the reason I was a Mac guy for a long time and saw Microsoft as the enemy: they represented the corporatization and homogenization of something good and quirky and individual. (I later learned that it was more complicated than that, in part because I went to work there for a couple of years, which didn't work out well.)

Yeah, I'm still in this game to change the world; software has always been more about politics than business to me, though it took a long time to figure that out. Smash the power, build more tools, give them away, let go: that's the plan.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:04 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Buick, finally: your description of being in grad school makes me wonder what you were doing inside my head. I didn't say very much about it explicitly in the article, but I did spend most of the time I'm talking about it as a computer science graduate student, after all.

Thank you for the kind words. I would be happy if it got cited, but really I can't imagine it would add that much marginal happiness on top of knowing that I was able to, through my writing, speak to individual people without knowing them. Writing is my "hobby", but that feeling that I got through to somebody is what keeps me going to a much bigger extent than anything that's ever been my full-time job.
posted by mappings at 3:27 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


[A]nd for all the people asking "what happened to this industry" I am going to give my take: fast money happened. That's it. saulgoodman's observation about non-technical managers has merit, and there are of course a host of other contributing factors, like programmers tending to be towards one end of the social spectrum, but IPO's & venture cap are, for me, what drive the whip.

kris.reiss you are exactly right. I've been in the Bay Area since 2007 and it's impossible to overstate the influence of VC on the culture here -- on the way people talk to each other, what they value, how they think.

VC has promulgated a very strong and clear story -- that we are changing the world, that what we are doing matters so much, that we are all heroes sacrificing for a noble cause. Some VCs may half-believe it, or maybe have neglected to update what they believe from 10 or 15 years ago. Meanwhile, the money machine keeps spewing out cash, and kids work 70-hour weeks for free beer and the approbation of their peers, until they burn out with depression or ADD or anxiety. There is no counter-narrative, and nobody questions the dominant narrative, including the useless, fawning captive tech media. It's really fucking grotesque.

(I know a guy who just quit mega-software-company. He had joined when it was a start-up, the same summer he graduated from college and got married. He told me he quit after it dawned on him that he and his wife of 16 years have never once gone on holiday together. He was like "I decided I wanted to actually get to know her.")
posted by Susan PG at 3:42 PM on April 17, 2015 [13 favorites]


Man,it's amazing how much of this rings true for corporate culture,as well.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:28 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


if I could give career advice to 18 year old me, I'd say "get whatever degree you need to get a job in the public sector (ideally municipal government), and then never, ever, ever leave." Everyone I know who works in municipal government is happy, healthy, and sane, while everyone I know in the business world is, to some degree or another, frustrated, unhappy, and, well, bonkers.

My extant scheme for never leaving college, ever, would be nearly as good as getting a job in municipal government, except for a) the ongoing adjunctification/postdocification of great swathes of academic labor, and b) the fact that academics, myself included, tend to be just on a baseline level seething cauldrons of weird neurosis and anxiety, and putting a bunch of people with those personality features in a room together and hoping to get anything done without massive angst is kind of futile.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:47 PM on April 17, 2015 [11 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick: the people I know who seem really happy are pharmacists, therapists, and musicians. (I mean, not all at once.)
posted by mappings at 8:15 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Welcome to MeFi mappings, and I have to say that this thread is one of those amazing things that happens here once in awhile when a community suddenly discovers itself all because somebody posted something. I think there is a lot of shared experience here and it's good to find out that despite the travails of some parts of the laboring world there are ways out. Thanks to everyone for sharing. There is hope for us all.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:17 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Welcome, Tim! Thank you for writing this. I hope you stick around on Metafilter; just from what I've seen of your writing online I think you'd enjoy it.
posted by Jpfed at 10:08 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've been writing computer programs as a profession for over 30 years and I really haven't run into this myself directly - though of course it's ubiquitous in the industry.

This is no accident though. Very early on I deliberately positioned myself to do the weird, interesting and obscure stuff, so I get to work on those puzzles a lot!; and I have two good habits:

1. I get excited and work hard at things for a while.
2. Conversely, I lose interest and do little work for weeks at a time and am good at making excuses and ignoring fake pressure from managers.

Alternating back and forth between 1 and 2 results in a pretty good output overall and limited burn out. I did get pretty strung out at the end of my five years at Google, but then I left...

I have an active life outside my work (playing music and lighting mainly) - even though a lot of that is programming-like too - and that's really helpful.

I read "The Peter Principle" around 1971 so it clearly colored my thinking. My father was an even greater influence in this matter...

No fault assigned to others who didn't make it. I was lucky, and I saw/was taught very early that I'd have to set specific boundaries, and managed to achieve that. In a different world, I'm a burnout in a closet.

Still - set boundaries! Have something in your life that isn't work. Learn to turn off. Don't sit in front of the machine doing nothing - go for a walk, or pet a dog. Keep your technology fresh - always have something cutting edge that you're working on somewhere, because it's an investment against an unpredictable future.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:27 PM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thanks, lupus_yonderboy. It's good to hear that there's a way to make it work.
posted by fivebells at 10:38 PM on April 17, 2015


No, the culprit here is the Silicon Valley startup culture and not technology as a whole.

I think Silicon Valley startup culture tends to attract the worst and most obvious examples. But I've worked in a few different startups in Silicon Valley, plus in IT in a totally different part of the country. I've encountered this kind of coping mechanism and toxicity in tech across disciplines and in multiple locations. I've also seen it in other demanding, perfectionist careers such as the arts and in the medical industry.

Excellent essay. Really rings true for me. I left tech for very similar reasons, although at the time I was in IT. All I knew was I had zero capacity for more stress and anxiety, and needed sleep badly after working 60+ hrs a week for many months, on-call 24/7. A PTSD diagnosis happened a couple years later while apprenticing for an abusive, alcoholic goldsmith who had not worked through her own issues and instead took them out on other people, mostly anyone who became close to her. She was and is suffering, and I harbor no resentment and only wish for her to find her own path to healing, but she has zero respect for boundaries and doesn't understand how much damage she causes to others, so had to cut her out of my life entirely- we had been friends previous to my employment under her. Anyway, working with her and being around and subject to her abuse up close on a daily basis triggered me something serious and brought up long repressed childhood abuse- never forgotten but also never acknowledged and named as such- and I had to walk away from that job for my own sanity, so I could begin my own journey of healing.

I'm much happier and healthier today, and I no longer seek work as a coping mechanism, but I had to find my own path to healing and develop good self-care and self-awareness. I'm finally happy, which is something new to me- not manic but content and grounded, for the most part. I can deal with difficulties in healthy ways and no longer feel overwhelmed, and I have a lot of love in my life and amazing friends and family. I'm just re-entering the workforce with a low-stress part time job that provides an apartment rent free and a salary, so I can pursue creative endeavors in my own time and make my mental health, well being and self-care my first priority. It's not worth any amount of money to go back to the person I was before. Now that I know what motivated me and what kind of person I became, now that I can see the truth, it's impossible to go back like I don't know any better, so it's impossible ever to go back. Once you know, lying to yourself is no longer done subconsciously, and no longer possible to ignore. It's just not worth anything in the world to be so unkind to myself, and by extension everyone in my life. Life is so much better now that I know the difference.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:50 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


And then, weirdly, it was the church that came and picked me up in this very strange and Medieval way.

I can relate to this somewhat. I was well along my road to healing, but it's never a straight line, and I had become stuck and temporarily mired in a bad place mentally, isolating and sleeping a lot, grinding through another depressive episode. Zen Buddhism changed my life. The meditation practice made an enormous difference in my mental health, but the spiritual framework is really important to me and has opened me up to so many things I feared, like giving and receiving love. I am lucky to have found a teacher who is empathetic and grounded, who embraces humility in a healthy way and isn't narcissistic. My sangha is full of wonderful, compassionate people. My practice is my rock and my refuge. But my path is no more valid than anyone else's. For me, Zen just kept coming up in conversation with people who have a history of trauma, and who have found it healing and grounding. Any kind of meditation can be helpful, as well as yoga, but Zen really clicked for me; as my teacher told me I was probably ripe for it. I sure was.

Lots of people come to Zen through suffering. But there are many roads to healing. Mine also includes therapy and a psychiatrist, plus a strong support network and embracing different opportunities to express myself creatively, to learn different creative disciplines, and to teach and help others, the latter two of which are just starting to blossom in my life. It's not the same journey for any two people, but it was very helpful for me to hear that others had navigated their way through. I'm grateful to have found a way that works for me.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:18 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


I can't speak to the role abusive family life might play, but my instinct is that's sort of an emotionally manipulative way to deflect the role of bad managers in these kinds of problems.

Abusive managers mostly won't find complicit employees in mentally healthy people. That's not blaming the victim, either, because I've been through it more than once. But refusing to work for horrible people or in unhealthy or toxic work environments is an indication of healthy boundaries and reasonable career goals; in other words mentally healthy people are far less likely to put up with toxicity. This is assuming some privilege, of course, but the drive for self-compassion fuels the struggle for a better life in abject circumstances, where abuse tends to run rampant alongside poverty.

Codependence takes many forms, and people who have been abused are more likely to fall into the same unhealthy patterns that formed their understanding of themselves and relationships with other people.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:48 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just this year found myself, well at least temporarily, tim/mappings. It took years. All the trips to regional burns, and Burning Man itself, helped of course. All the CCC congresses events helped more.

As teenagers, we often select our first careers by pursuing the promise of pleasure, entertainment, etc., in my case pure mathematics research. Yet, there is a fair degree of bullshit in any career, which may overwhelm the positives. And that's especially true if you realize even your pleasurable doesn't meet other needs, like not providing a sense of fulfillment, purpose, etc.

You must compromise between finding lesser downsides and finding something worth dealing with the shit for. I chose to deal with different, maybe even worse, crap, but do work that actually matters too, namely anonymity software.

Just fyi CCC Camp (FB) happens this August, come along if you like. Congress is every year, but camp only every four years.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:07 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


saulgoodman: “The management culture in many parts of the software industry has gotten to be quite ugly[.]”
Perhaps it's especially so in software, but I think that's true of business in general. One of my favorite books to give away to interested colleagues is Patton's One Minute Messages. I think I've bought a dozen copies over the years. It's sort of The One Minute Manager meets Patton.

Reflecting the bygone era of the 1990s when this was still true in some places, Province writes, "The main purpose of business today is to stay in business and to provide jobs for the nation's workers[.]" Profit is secondary to that. As businesses at every level have moved away from that simple truism, things have gotten more and more dire.

That's what made that article by Natasha Lampard that was posted to the front page recently so frustrating for me. From the time I was a boy I learned from my father that of course the goal should be to build something of lasting value. I remember doodling "50th Anniversary" logos for his company that wouldn't be needed for decades. He wound up parting ways with that business he helped build, but that's a story for another time.

Another factor in toxic workplaces is the fact that apparently the vast majority of businesses are run by people who have no idea at all what they're doing. I've used them as an example before, but I know of an outfit around here, small but still with revenues in the millions, that doesn't track inventory. They think they're "running lean" by buying parts only for orders in hand.

In the meantime, the entire production department shut down two weeks ago because they were out of a 75¢ jumper cable that's needed for every finished good. Even with work stopped, the owner insisted he, "doesn't keep inventory, and won't buy anything that's not on an order sheet." He brings in people to see the production facility and brags about what a genius he is for not keeping materials on hand. It apparently never crosses his mind that the production workers he's sending home for lack of work need that money to pay their bills and feed their families.

Because of the low capital requirements to getting started, I think software is especially vulnerable to the "founders" having a good idea and the skill to make something of it thinking they'll just figure out all that "business" stuff later. Having a good idea doesn't make a person a leader, and past a certain point one's ideas aren't as important as their leadership. One can learn to be a good leader, but it starts with realizing people need good leadership and that starts with foundation of good leadership: Loyalty towards your subordinates.

Point being, I'm right there with mappings, although in my case it's more about my life and not necessarily my work. I look at my “How to Start a Christmas Tree Farm” link about once a week.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:16 AM on April 18, 2015 [12 favorites]


1. I get excited and work hard at things for a while.
2. Conversely, I lose interest and do little work for weeks at a time and am good at making excuses and ignoring fake pressure from managers.


This... I'm learning how to punt, and so far, nothing awful has fallen yet. :)
posted by JoeXIII007 at 6:49 AM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


There was a key moment for me. I was working at Drexel Burham Lambert in the 80s, and my boss showed up on Friday evening and told me to do something by Monday. But my father was in town, and I knew that I didn't have much longer with him (and indeed, he did die a few years later).

I simply didn't have the energy to fight with my boss, so I smiled and said, "Sure." Then I spent the weekend with my father. On Monday, I got in, did a little scribbling, and then approached my boss, "Hey, I'm stuck on this detail." "Here's the solution, good work, keep it up!"

If that had gone badly, I might well have gone onto a different path and be in the loonie bin by now.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:42 AM on April 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


It apparently never crosses his mind that the production workers he's sending home for lack of work need that money to pay their bills and feed their families.

Or like the people running Uber and its many clones, he consciously considers that an externality that's not his problem.
posted by Slothrup at 8:53 AM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is an interesting cautionary tale. I come to it from the perspective of someone who has been fully in this world for less than six months and is very happy to be, since being laid off in the fall at the end of a decade in journalism and moving into project management. As a reader of tech blogs (and a fan of Rands) for years, I've long seen major parallels between the world of editorial and the world of Web development, and I turned to blogs about development to make sense of my own situation. Unfortunately, the burnout that can occur after years of poor management by sociopaths and broken people is yet another similarity.

The sense I have is that people in fields where there is a pervasive mythology about the importance of the work or what the work means about your individual identity are particularly susceptible to these problems if deliberate steps aren't taken to establish policies that enable a safe and sustainable environment and demonstrate healthy habits from the top down. Software development and journalism are both creative, collaborative fields, as well as pursuits that will soak up all the time you can throw at them, and it's easy to fall into emotional traps when it feels like your identity is on the line—and you know and are continually reminded that hundreds of people would love to have your job. That's doubly the case for all of us who rode out the recession in these types of environments. It's perhaps more dire for someone in journalism, because the pay just isn't there, so the tension between wanting to leave an abusive situation and needing to maintain a source of income is palpable. That said, as the author has found, there are limits to human endurance, and sometimes you have to get to a point where you no longer care what others think about your career and your choices to find enlightenment, or at least seek something that's better for you. I reached that point at least a year or two ago, and the dread economics of editorial took me the rest of the way in the end.

In any case, there's a reason the phrase "recovering journalist" is in currency. I know that I have a tendency to be a martyr, and that has long roots in my upbringing. I also know that on a very deep level, I don't want to repeat the mistakes of managers I've known who fostered unsustainable, crunch time–driven, fear-filled environments. I don't want to be a micromanager, nor do I want to be someone who wants to be buddies with the team but fails to communicate and support them and betrays them when things get real. Conversely, I worry that family obligations that have fallen upon me in recent years will hold me back. The long and short of it is that I have a real fear that either family obligations or emotional baggage from years of working in a sick system will be my undoing in some way. Even though getting laid off was in many ways one of the best things that could've happened to me at this point in my career, it did leave that one last sting on my psyche.

The question for me now is how to take that fear and that knowledge I have of how bad things can get and turn it into drive—but not let it drive me into bad habits. I want to learn as much as I can and help my current team in a sustainable and emotionally and physically healthy way. This thread and the other relevant thread going right now about "full-stack employees" are interesting to me, at the turning point I'm at in my career, because I want to work in tech, and I have for a long time. I've long seen this as a logical progression for me, given my skill set and my background working on the Web, and I want to make it work. And I've always been the kind of jack-of-all-trades type who has a hunger to learn new things (and needs to be ready at any given time to do so to stay current in my field).

More than anything, after years of being a key content creator upon whom an entire enterprise rested, I need less weight on my shoulders. I need to be able to relax into my role. I need the work to be spread out and sustainable. I need to be a member of a team that cares for one another and isn't fractured into factions. And I need to be able to connect with people in an honest and open way. I didn't realize how much I thirsted for human connection until I was cut loose from the unforgiving, impossible publication schedule I was on, in which one week out of every four was devoted to shipping the same products in the same unsustainable way, largely working through lonely late nights with little support. Whatever the sins of a Slack-driven lifestyle may be, at least when I end up working late now, I know members of my team are there with me.

So those are some thoughts. mappings, I understand completely how you could get to the point you got to in tech, because it happened to me in journalism, and I just hope that I can take the lessons I learned in that parallel field and make it workable for me.
posted by limeonaire at 11:38 AM on April 18, 2015 [8 favorites]


And then, weirdly, it was the church that came and picked me up in this very strange and Medieval way... There are lots of ways of living in the world... There are lots of clever people out there living into their full selves on dollars a day. They're dodging the traps and snares. They're typically very literate when it comes to the difference between their wants and their needs.

fwiw, a friend sent me The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete, which is about raising a puppy (we recently got a puppy!) but it's also about how the monks of new skete breed german shepherds for income [alt view? $4,500‐$8,500?] anyway, like i know how some monasteries brew beer or bake stuff to help support themselves, but it strikes me as a potentially healthier, sane and communal way to organize production that's already out there and been around for a while. but it's not like anyone can just join a monastery :P

i've heard of cooperatives, industrial democracies, worker ownership and benefit corporations but they don't seem like they've really caught on at all... yet?

This is part of the reason I was a Mac guy for a long time and saw Microsoft as the enemy: they represented the corporatization and homogenization of something good and quirky and individual.

also btw...
Microsoft forms strategic partnership with Cyanogen [1,2,3]
posted by kliuless at 8:08 PM on April 19, 2015


What has happened to the field of software engineering? I was a software engineer at Apple all through the eighties. From my own limited experience, most of the people I worked with were whole people they had lives outside of code.

All lot of this stuff isn't true everywhere. I work large, boring corporation in a fairly large software development group. While I won't say it's the best place ever or free of cultural pathology, it's a lot more laid back than the silicon valley startup stereotype (though fear of that stereotype has encouraged me to stay put and not get a job elsewhere).

However, I think that startup stereotype has gotten to be the stereotype for software engineering in general, at least among younger people. When I mentor a new grad employee, at some point I usually have to tell them that I appreciate their eagerness, but overtime is stupid and I want them to go home and stop staying so late to finish more stupid tasks. I suppose that there are assholes elsewhere that would do the opposite and exploit them.

I'd also like to plug Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, which is my favorite book about software engineering work culture. The authors set out to write a book about how a manager can create a productive team, but they realized there's no formula for that, so they wrote about how managers screw up good teams and how happy people are more productive.

I work with a bunch of engineers (as in, actual designing-an-aircraft sort of engineers) and the culture is very different. I can't say I like it but it's a quieter, slower, and less macho sort of nerdism. Crunch time does not happen.

I don't have any personal experience with it physical engineering, but I get the impression that "getting it wrong" is much less of an option because "getting it wrong" means death and/or large monetary losses, so they have to have a much more "professional" culture. Crunch time is really just a period where everyone goes crazy and makes more mistakes than normal while not making much more progress day for day.

I think software engineering (especially outside of embedded control systems) is much less professional because the costs of half-assing it and fixing the bugs later (if at all) or redoing it ("re-engineering") are much, much less.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 4:04 PM on April 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


I agree with cosmic.osmo there except: it's not that the costs of half-assing software are less. Bad software does kill people sometimes, and often wastes time and energy that could be spent on better things. The difference is that the software industry has managed to socialize the costs of its mistakes very effectively, while privatizing all profits (h/t to Larry Lessig for that turn of phrase.)
posted by mappings at 10:42 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I missed this because I have just spent 3 days without pay trying to get a piece of shit Oracle Java problem solved. For a boss that fired me, in December and rehired me at %30 less pay because a HUGE PHARMACEUTICAL company can't afford my contractor wage (for the record I got paid less than a full-time employee BEFORE the pay reduction) I have been there for 18 years as a contractor....

I spend my days in alternating anger and depression and wish I had become a carpenter or worked at mcdonalds instead of chasing money
posted by mrgroweler at 7:10 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I work in a very different industry, but this part really smacked me in the face as being My Life, right down to the Google Calendar and weed and 2048:

"I tried leaning in, which for me means some combination of “just work harder” and spending a ton of non-work time developing complicated structuring and coping mechanisms to make me feel OK about doing something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing. RescueTime, Todoist, Google Calendar, Trello, weekly schedules, written to-do lists, eugeroics, SSRIs, caffeine, cannabis, fancy drinks, spending too much money in coffee shops, knitting during meetings, big headphones, Twitter, IRC, Slack, post-it notes, text files with lists of questions to ask, animated .gifs, playing 2048 on my phone in the men’s room at work for 30 minutes or longer at a stretch, repeatedly reloading Fucks On Back Order. None of these things are intrinsically bad and many are pretty damn good, but when I invest a lot of my time structuring my work hours with some of them and recovering during my non-work hours with others, all in the service of something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing, I have to start asking why. It’s a lot of effort, largely performed during non-work hours, for a relatively low yield in terms of actual productive work that helped my employer. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s found that leaning in tends to mean leaning into a black hole. The rise of the lifehacking industry, as well as meditation and mindfulness programs for temporarily calming down workers so they can be productive while experiencing abuse, suggest that capitalism does well when it can simultaneously hurt people and sell them palliative care for that hurt."

Welcome, mappings! Stick around if you wanna. You seem like a cool dude.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:13 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


YCTaB from another thread: "we've been moved into service jobs where our value to employers comes primarily from our ability to perform our own suffering — to scrape and bow for our betters, no matter how stupid their demands are, no matter how much we have to ignore our own needs to service their wants. Until such time as machines can show real agony, and then (and this is important) mask that real agony behind a waitron's fake smile, we won't starve. Instead we'll continue to be employed supplying affective labor for the people who matter."

The Smartphone Society: "Individuals don’t get paid in wages for creating and maintaining digital selves — they get paid in the satisfaction of participating in rituals, and the control afforded them over their social interactions. They get paid in the feeling of floating in the vast virtual connectivity, even as their hand machines mediate social bonds, helping people imagine togetherness while keeping them separate as distinct productive entities. The voluntary nature of these new rituals does not make them any less important, or less profitable for capital."
posted by kliuless at 10:14 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know I'm a bit late to the party here, but powerful, enlightening essay and good discussion, everyone. Makes me happy that I dodged that particular bullet early in my career. Here's to hoping mapping will stay on here.
posted by Harald74 at 2:20 AM on April 22, 2015


MartinWisse from 'the full stack employee' thread: "Just another attempt to put a happy face on the unpleasant reality of job insecurity and increasing demands on those lucky enough to have work and passing on of responsibility for this from employers to employees. It is no longer enough that you [do] your job, you have to be passionate about it and be glad to 'invest' more in it, preferably on your own dime."
posted by kliuless at 12:12 PM on April 24, 2015


So I read this a week ago and it's sent various thoughts bouncing around my head and wanting to get out.

I consider myself a hacker (old-school non-computer-crime sense) by disposition. That is, I think of coding is a form of creative expression.

For people like me, working at a startup promises the chance to get paid to do what you love. It's the hacker equivalent to getting your band signed by a major label. Of course, it turns out that once you're no longer allowed to stop doing a fun thing, it stops being fun.

This is one of the three big lies of startups: that it's fun. It's not fun; it's just a job. It may be a nice job but it's still less fun than going home and working on your own projects. And because it's supposed to be fun, you're expected to like working 80-hour weeks. Needless to say, investors love this.

(The other two big lies are this will make you rich and this is important work.)

I worked at a startup just after graduating and I completely bought into the whole late-hours culture thing. It was by the grace of God (or just dumb luck) that I soon decided to move closer to my then-girlfriend and switched jobs to a mom-and-pop compiler company run by decent people who kept sane hours. By the time I left there, I had more sense.

A thing that really influenced me was sex and cash theory. It was really liberating to embrace the knowledge that I would always have a day job and to plan accordingly.

Currently, I work at a bank writing software that inserts information into a database. I do this for 40 hours a week and then I go home. It pays well and is a lot more fun than you'd think, and write my own stuff on the train in the morning or on the couch at night.
posted by suetanvil at 9:11 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


suetanvil: Yeah, that was what I thought I was going to do with my current job and the one before it, the 40-hours-a-week and then doing fun stuff thing. I'm glad it works for you. It was killing me.
posted by mappings at 2:08 AM on April 25, 2015


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