With a nod to Cate Huston.
I have resigned from a 20 year career in tech. For many reasons, I decided to flip some tables in 2015. I have some not yet coherent observations on this that I will share in case they help others. I benefitted greatly from others’ posts on their decisions to leave tech and how they did so, and would like to pay it forward.
“This is my last tech job.”
A few months ago, a thought struck me out of nowhere. It was not a particularly bad day at work and there was nothing obviously awful going on. I simply thought “This is my last tech job” with absolute certainty. If I were a person of faith this might make more sense, in that it may have seemed like “a message,” but I simply observed it and thought “Huh! Ain’t that something.”
But from whence had this thought come? I was curious.
“No more desk.”
For the past several months, my body has been in physical revolt against office work, against the very act of sitting down and typing all day. My body doesn’t want to be seated and looking at a screen anymore. It wants to go outside for many hours per day. I’ve noticed it’s happiest with a minimum of three hours per day of exercise. Still, this mind-body split surprised me. It was as if I, Evie, had a very explicit limit of Sitting Time, the limit had been reached, and that was that. No more.
But the physical revolt extended further.
“No more business travel, either.”
My employer has a stressful, highly unpleasant practice called work weeks. During a work week, employees from offices all over the world are flown in to a single location, usually to a single hotel in that location. Once there, they are together almost 24-7, camped out in conference rooms, expected to work 12-20 hours together. If there are any non-working events, they are things like “team dinners,” which are of course all about work.
God help you if you’re an introvert, as am I.
I’ve attended almost three years worth of work weeks. One year, we had a work week every two months.
At my last work week, I worked 14-20 hour days, five days in a row. I slept from 4 AM to 7 AM. And, as the great corporate salary ruse intends, no one was paid overtime.
I think it gave me PTSD.
Another work week lay on my horizon for early this summer. The email reminders to book travel began in February. I deleted them almost immediately. It was too upsetting. I would see a work week email, be shaken and distracted from my work, and delete it so I could get on with my day.
My husband heard about this work week dread for months. “I just can’t, right now. I can’t do that again.”
In April, the shaming emails began. These were in the style of “If you’re receiving this email, it’s because you’re on the Bad List. You don’t want to stay on the Bad List, do you?” (I couldn’t make this up if I tried.) Then the messages became more targeted at us individual laggards: “Evie, we notice you have not registered for the work week or booked your flight. You must do this by Friday.”
I tried to make the best of it. I thought I could outwit myself: vacation! I told my husband I’d plan a vacation around the work week to tempt myself into going, and I did — a glorious, highly ambitious vacation promising maximal work week distraction. Sea planes to islands, chartered private boats to uninhabited places, hiking in remote mountains. I perused maps, paid deposits. I said “All right, self. Now buckle down, log into the employee travel site, pick a flight, grow up and be responsible.”
But it didn’t work. It sounds completely insane, but it was as if my fingers could not click the button to book the flight. It was as if my hand did not work, wasn’t accepting signals from my brain.
Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I would get up from my desk, make myself a cup of tea in the kitchen, take a walk outside, breathe, and return to my desk to finish booking my travel. But my hand would not work.
I could not bear to go. I could not abide another work week. I never booked my travel and I canceled our “vacation” plans. This work week is not the only reason I quit, but it is one reason I quit now.
“Why is this my job?”
I’d also begun to ask, as a Woman In Tech, why it was my job to fix a sick culture and to remain within it in order to do so.
In recent months, typical sexist crap had continued at work. It was nothing new or unusual but there had been an uptick in volume. Two male colleagues had, for example, in the same meeting, brazenly tried to pass of my work as their own. As they did so, IRC messages from male colleagues in the same meeting popped up: “Whoa, WTH? Isn’t that your work?” and “Wait, why are they talking about your stuff? Are you going to say something?”
My male colleagues did not ask these questions of their male colleagues. They asked me. They asked me why other people were trying to represent my work as theirs, as if I could know. It was I, and only I, who was supposed to do something about this.
I typed back “Why is this *my* job? Why is it only my job to say something, and not yours?” Silence.
But I began to ask that question more often. “Why is this my job?” Why is it my job to do the emotionally draining, unpaid work of coaching people to not be sexist? Of mentoring other female employees who are also suffering, though I cannot fix the problem by firing someone who ought to be fired? Why is it my job to defend not just my own work but that of other female employees? When Girl Develop It and Hackbright and all of these other groups take office tours, why is it my job to be interrupted in order to lie to them, to tell them they should want a job that I would never recommend they take?
Recently, I’d also started working with a Very Difficult Asshole. He treated his male colleagues almost as badly as he did his female ones, though he was worse to women, treating them like secretaries with arbitrary, small requests that it was not their job to provide. He was dogmatic and overly ambitious, yet frustrated in his ambitions because he didn’t yet have the skills to match, being 24 years old and just two years into his first job. He interrupted people, talked over them, shut them down, ignored their ideas, ran roughshod through meetings and made product decisions arbitrarily, without data. He burned through team members rapidly: people could take about two to three months with him and then asked to be moved.
I spoke with Very Difficult Asshole very directly a few times (more emotionally draining, unpaid coaching work) and, when he did not improve, spoke with two of his managers, either (both) of whom could have reprimanded or fired him.
Manager #1 used the well worn “But he’s productive” excuse, meaning, he can do whatever he wants because he produces work (as everyone should be all the time anyway). Never mind everyone else who is also productive, to say nothing of how much more productive others might be without him around. Worse, this manager spoke as if the fates controlled Very Difficult Asshole’s career: “I mean, he’ll be an engineering manager someday, he’s ambitious.” As if it were written in the stars.
Manager #2 said “I talked to him and he said he’s fine, and really likes working with you.” I see. We care how he feels and his word is gold. Never mind how 10 other people might feel, or what they might have to say.
Can you be healthy in a toxic, sick environment?
Our culture asks and expects people to be healthy while immersed in sick, toxic environments. We remind people to get at least eight hours of sleep of night even in noisy cities with too much ambient light, while interrupted by mobile-device-enabled employers who expect answers at 1 AM.
We are supposed to manage stress without being able to manage the sources of stress: abusive managers, abusive work practices, unfair wages. This tells us that our feelings, and the results of having them, are the problem, but not the things that caused those feelings in the first place.
We talk about work-life balance even as we foreground that statement with “work.” We don’t call it life-work balance, or just balance. We ask ourselves what kind of jobs we want, but not what kind of lives we want.
Silicon Valley/Bay Area tech culture is sick in so many ways that I don’t think it’s possible to remain part of it and expect that you can be healthy.
My employer was fond of painting propaganda on the walls of the office, phrases for the code gulag members to march along to like “This journey is only 1% finished” which is always true. You’re always at 1%, meaning your work is by definition an exercise in futility, a Sisyphean task. How encouraging!
What’s unsettling is that many of my younger colleagues (the exceptions being those from China, Russia and Poland who’ve seen this sort of thing before) don’t even recognize propaganda as such. They seem to have been so marketed to, so standardized tested for so long, such perfect products of our school-jail system that it seems normal to them. I can only assume schools don’t teach much history these days. They must skip right over 1919 Soviet phrases, 1967 Czech ones and Mao’s Little Red Book, to say nothing of labor rights, unions and the entire history of early industrialization and the Gilded Age.
Don’t work for frightened people, especially adults who are children.
While this was not an issue at my employer, it is an issue in Silicon Valley at large right now, and a reason why I no longer wish to work for tech companies. There are too many mental children with too much money and zero tech skills playing at having a start up. (Based on the actual children I know, I’d honestly feel better with physical children in charge. They are harder working and more humble.)
These child-run businesses may be start-ups, but they are not tech start-ups, which means the work is not very challenging. It’s not like they’re building operating systems. Like most companies, these start-ups use commonplace technology created by others to support decidedly non-tech start-ups: food delivery services, personal assistant services, glorified property management companies that claim to “build community” while really just subletting properties and probably violating federal housing fairness laws.
Let’s take a recent real-world example. You are 24-years-old and the co-founder of a start-up that is imploding. The first person you call is:
A) Your first board member
B) Your favorite angel investor
C) Your mentor
I’m sure you guessed the answer to this one (D). You also ask your parents to fly in to town, because they’re not busy doing anything. VCs, feel free to use this quiz as a screener when deciding who does and does not deserve your money. (I suspect, though, that this parental thing is what some VCs like. I think they like people who remind them of their sons, and/or themselves when they were young men.)
The person who told me this story said “Well, they are 24.” I reminded him that, by the time I was 20, I had already sold my share of the programming services company I’d started at age 19 while going to college full time (we had five employees and an intern); gone to work for one of my clients, at their start-up I’d been supporting; they went bankrupt and stiffed me with a bunch of unpaid business travel; and I got audited by the IRS because the W2s I eventually received had my name but not my social security number on them.
I never called my parents about any of this. Why? What on earth for? To bother them about problems that weren’t theirs? Hadn’t they done enough for me? Yes, yes they had.
Practice saying “That’s none of your business.”
A lot of large corporations feel entitled to information that is not theirs, to which they neither need nor deserve access. At root, this tendency further erodes whatever tenuous line in the sand exists between work and personal life, and collapses work/life divisions.
When another employee (someone who reported to me) said he wouldn’t be going on the upcoming work week trip, HR told him that he would have to show proof that he had vacation plans during those dates, and that he had booked them prior to knowing about the work week. (Apparently, vacation only comes in the form of plane tickets and hotel reservations, and not camping in a tent wherever you may land, but I digress.)
When he told me about this, I only said “Tell them that’s none of their business. You don’t have to do any such thing. And if they persist, get a labor attorney.” See why I’m a great manager?
It is not company business where you are going, with whom, when you planned it, or how you’re getting there. No employee has an obligation to provide an employer with this information, or with most information.
It reminds me of the entitlement Henry Ford felt over his employees’ lives. Ford had a Socialization Organization that visited employees’ homes and enforced “character” rules. Employees who wanted to qualify for the $5/day wage weren’t supposed to gamble or drink. They were supposed to become Americanized, wiping whatever traces and traditions of their homelands (in my family’s case, Poland) out of their private residences and private behaviors. None of your business, Henry.
Another instance of this occurred when obtaining Covered California. After hours spent reviewing plans and still not being certain of what I was seeing or what my benefits would be, I opted to use a broker. She informed me that, if I’d been fired (left involuntarily), I could purchase coverage directly from Blue Shield, without having to go through the Covered California marketplace. If I’d left voluntarily, however (as I have, for a life of financial independence and part time self employment), Blue Shield would not sell me the plan directly and I would have to purchase it (the exact same plan, for the exact same price) through Covered California.
Blue Shield, apparently, believes I should not voluntarily leave a large employer for a life of independence and freedom. It’s unfortunate because, as I’m sure their data indicates, leaving one’s job is one of the best possible things for one’s health. As such, any health insurance company should not just support but actively encourage such moves. I, for one, feel like a million bucks and about 10 years younger. I’m eating better, spending more time exercising, get lots of sun and fresh air, feel no stress, and am sleeping 8-10 hours a night, no problem. I run into friends and they ask if I’ve gotten Botox or lost weight.
Anyway, while on the phone during one of my marathon sessions as an unpaid intermediary between Covered California and Blue Shield, the Blue Shield rep asked me “You left voluntarily?” I said “Yes.” “And can you tell me more about why?”
No. That’s none of your business.
“This, too, shall pass.”
But I can’t wait for that. I’m out. And it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
I waited too long, but at least I didn’t wait any longer.