I, Too, Left the Tech Industry

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?
I can’t.

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
D) Mommy

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.

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122 thoughts on “I, Too, Left the Tech Industry

  1. Whatever gives you happiness is worth every ounce of sacrifice, monetary or not. And it takes great courage to leave behind something that you spent 20 years in, I mean it is almost like you gave the biggest part of your life to it. It gives me jitters to think something like this. You won my respect. Kudos to you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The characters you describe sound very much like they were plucked from my own experience, and I imagine many others work with these same kind of lowlifes.

    So many places “encourage” health and wellness while doing nothing to improve the toxic environments that drive people crazy in the first place.

    No sane person would encourage another to try to maintain balance in an abusive domestic situation, so why then do so many employers expect employees to do the same.

    I’ve learned that ANY job can majorly suck when done with the wrong people and unfortunately corporate environments are all about the wrong people advancing and getting into positions of authority where they can absolutely make the lives of those around them a living hell.

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I stumbled across your post on WordPress’ front page. Thank you for writing. I gave so much extra to my former employer that was unrecognized (and what was recognized went underappreciated). The bitterness over losing my job 5 months ago still hurts very deeply–so much so that it seems I’ve become incapable of looking for other work yet. My skills are intact, but confidence is shattered. It’s a strange and unnerving place to be. Congratulations that you have made it beyond the borders of your industry’s insanity.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow. This was such an interesting take on the issue considering the constant admiration for the start-up/tech culture that is developing… I really enjoyed your writing style and wish you the best of luck with your future (non-tech related) endeavors!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The amazing way I feel reading this right now. Glad I could come back and finish up. Especially the none of your business aspect, but what if employers love their employees so much that they would want to listen to anything just anything no matter how weird. Why tell when you’re going to get NO as an answer. Truth is they just want you to get the job done. I feel this way too to have some freedom. I look forward to transiting very soon. I am archiving your post somewhere maybe just someday I can share my own experiences as the scenarios play out.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As a 20 year old who feels like working for a tech company is the only way forward, this was refreshing. Even though we’re all expected to give up the life part of the work-life balance at the drop of a hat, I’m glad someone, 20 years down the line, held on to what they value.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It really is amazing what being able to get insurance without having a big employer does for you! I’m looking forward to hearing more about your experience post-tech. I’ll be following.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks! You made me appreciate my place of work a lot more. I know how ambitious jerks who want to make a career at the expense of others can make everyone’s life miserable. Unfortunately, the corporate environment encourages and promotes such people. I’m fortunate to work for a relatively small company that is free of this nonsense or, at least, I don’t deal with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This article resonated with me. I too left a secure, well-paying job with a medical software company at a time when the industry was booming. I wasn’t happy with the High School 2.0 atmosphere, the games that people play with (on?) each other, and the “golden handcuffs” that some are all too happy to have put on them were beginning to chafe.

    Your “it’s none of your business” thoughts are sage advice. At the time, I didn’t have the courage to say those words but a co-worker came to my defense against a prying colleague one day with a similar sentiment and I will never forget it.

    Best of luck in your new endeavors!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My health made the decision for me. My multiple sclerosis took away my ability to walk. Chasing wiring from a wheelchair is not fun! I had no choice in the matter. Network engineering was my dream job and I loved every minute of it.
    Being unemployed sucks to put it politely!
    Jeanette Hall

    Like

  11. Congratulations. I’ve never worked in the tech world, but I know what it feels like to work in an environment that made me feel physically sick. My marriage suffered because I was so stressed out. It paid great but my health and sanity were worth way more. To this day I do not regret my decision. So once again congrats! (Applauded) 😁👍✌😎

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Reblogged this on sola rey and commented:
    I too had some of my creative ideas stolen in the past by my male co-workers and they were acting like they had the idea along! The worse part is that most of them know what their doing it’s wrong but still these vampires walk around with an odd self righteous demeanor that I can’t understand or explain. I Love this article by the way and I just wanted you and others to know your not alone. Thank you for sharing. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow! You did a very big step there. I really admire you courage. I too, getting tired of my tech work. I want to hear more about your life. Keep on posting my friend! Can’t wait to hear more from your story. 😊☺️😉

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve learned a lot already and can’t wait to put some of those phrases in practice. By the way, your text is far more interesting than Cate’s. I think you put us in your shoes with more fun and a clearer writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I look forward to reading more of the next chapter of your life. It sounds like you should be doing what Timothy Ferriss’ 4-Hour Work Week – writes about. You deserve the break from the insanity of corporate life. I totally hear what you’re saying here.

    Liked by 1 person

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  17. Evgenia, thanks for the post. I went through similar motions, but in a far less eloquent way. I gave my notice a couple of weeks ago, because I’d had enough of the corporate bs. I’m not leaving tech, though, just taking a month off to return as an independent contractor.
    I feel I’ll have more control over the hours I work.
    Regarding Blue Shield/health coverage, were you able to carry on with the same plan you had with your employer or did you have to start a new plan? I wonder if that’s possible, to avoid having the deductible clock reset itself.

    Like

    1. Hi David — I was not able to continue the plan I had with my employer, which was Anthem. I started a new plan through Covered California, our state ACA exchange, as it was 1/3 the cost of COBRA for both my husband and me. This did, unfortunately, mean the deductible clock reset itself, but we never come anywhere near hitting it anyway (a blessing in itself, I suppose, if financially inconvenient). I wish you the best of luck in your courageous transition. Independent contracting is treating me well so far. I definitely have a lot of control over when and how long I work.

      Like

      1. I too left the Tech field, but as a result of the Y2K bug being resolved, and the amount of software development being reduced to almost nothing. But tbh, as a mid-40s coder, who came late to the industry, I was considered a geriatric almost by many, despite having written in 35+ languages and variants over the 20+ years I was either a student, lecturer, or tech industry stalwart.
        After leaving, and having time to think, I finally realised, I preferred not working until 2am almost every night keeping up-to-date, and getting to grips with two platforms, Oracle and Microsoft, in the hope that this would keep me employed.

        And the relief felt was like the Sword of Damocles, that had been hanging over my head, had been removed. The air felt lighter, and my humour decidedly better. Chilled in a glass, would be a useful analogy.

        W.

        Like

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