One of the most interesting essays I’ve read recently is “I Would Prefer Not To”: The Origins of the White Collar Worker, which describes the institution and existence of the 19th-century office clerk. Bartleby, the passively resistant clerk whose “I would prefer not to” leads to ruin and failure– in contrast to the prototypical clerk who performs the work eagerly, invested in the belief in graduation to a better job– has become one of the most famous American literary characters of all time. It wasn’t a great life to be a clerk: work spaces were cramped and hot (as now in technology, but without air conditioning) and the work was extremely dull. However, for many wishing to enter the American bourgeois, it provided social mobility due to its proximity to wealthier people: the emerging class of industrialists, bureaucrats and traders who’d come to be known as businesspeople.
I’m going to clip two paragraphs from this excellent essay, in order to explain certain historical forces that still dominate American business. Emphasis is mine:
Tailer’s worries over his position were common in a clerking world where the distance between junior clerk and partner was seen as both enormous and easily surmountable. No other profession was so status conscious and anxiety-driven and yet also so straightforward seeming. No matter how dull their work might be at any given moment, there was little doubt that clerks saw themselves, and were seen by their bosses, as apprentice managers—businessmen in training. Few people thought they would languish as clerks, in the way that it became proverbial to imagine people spending their lives in a cubicle, or how for decades becoming a secretary was the highest position a woman office worker could aspire to. Part of the prestige of clerking lay in the vagueness of the job description. The nature of the dry goods business meant that clerks often spent time in the stores where their goods were sold, acting as salesmen and having to be personable to customers. In other words, the duties of clerks were vast enough to allow them to be tasked with anything, which meant that so much of their work depended upon so many unmeasurable factors besides a clerk’s productivity: his attitude, good manners, even his suitability as a future husband for the boss’s daughter. A good clerk besieged his bosses’ emotions the way he did customers—flattering them to the point of obsequiousness, until the bosses were assured that they had a good man on their hands. These personal abilities were part of the skill set of a clerk—something we know today as office politics—and though they couldn’t be notched on a résumé, they were the secret of the supposed illustriousness of business life. The work might dehumanize you, but whatever part of you that remained human was your key to moving up in the job.
This was also the reason clerks felt superior to manual laborers. Young men entering a factory job had no illusions about running the factory, which is why a few of them began to join the nascent American labor movement. But clerks were different from people who “worked with their hands,” and they knew it—a consciousness that Tailer registers when he declares the “awkward and clumsy work” of a porter unworthy of him. Young men who wanted to get into business knew they had to clerk, and they also knew that clerks could and often did eventually become partners in their firms. “Time alone will suffice to place him in the same situation as those his illustrious predecessors now hold!” Tailer wrote in one entry, loftily referring to himself in the third person. But though patience was the signal virtue of clerking—to write on, as Bartleby did, “silently, palely, mechanically”—impatience was its most signal marker. From the shop floor, the top of the Pittsburgh steel mill looked far off indeed. But in the six-person office, it was right next to you, in the demystified person of the fat and mutton-chopped figure asleep at the rolltop desk, ringed with faint wisps of cigar smoke.
Clerking degraded over time, as companies became larger and business became more oligarchical, meaning that the probability of advancement into the sort of role that one had actually joined the company for, over time, declined for a clerk as the number of people willing to be clerks rose faster than the number of wealthy business people the economy could support. Clerking, of the traditional variety, also became skippable for people of upper-class descent, thus losing its prestige. In the beginning of the 19th century, virtually everyone who wanted to become a businessman (and, in that time, it was mostly men) went through a clerking phase, but in the late Gilded Age, the scions of robber barons didn’t have to clerk in order to become full-fledged businessmen, which led the more ambitious and intelligent of the era to determine, increasingly, that clerking was dishonorable because, clearly, some people were “good enough” to skip that phase. (Doesn’t this sound like the “everyone who’s worth a damn starts a company (trigger warning: link contains syphilitic idiocy from Paul Graham)” attitude in Silicon Valley today? Yes, much that seems new is the old, repeated.) Then business schools were formed, the best of these able to skip someone over the clerking phase into The Business proper, typically when that person was under 30. Clerking lost its former prestige and, with the declining odds of progress to the business ranks, the outcome that made the passage worth it, seemed to die out.
Did it, really, though? Obviously, the job title of “clerk” doesn’t exist in any way that has the 19th century meaning, but I would say that clerking, culturally speaking, is still alive. Look at a typical Fortune 500 corporation. Most of the people in the business are (like a 19th-century clerk) in mostly-evaluative positions designed to lead into The Business, but they’re not called clerks, because there’s more specialization to that phase of the business career than there was in 1853. They’re accountants or executive assistants or marketing staff, with more prestige than “non-career” workers but strictly less prestige than executives (unlike physicians or professors, who live on a completely different scale). The assumption (not to call it valid) in each of these departments is that an X who’s any good is going to become a manager of X’s within 4-5 years and an executive (i.e. paid and treated like an actual business person) within 8 to 10 years. You might start as a process engineer or a salesperson, but if you don’t become a part of The Business proper within a certain amount of time, you’ve been marked as “non-career”. You weren’t invited to join the company; you just worked there.
Clerking evolved from an apprenticeship to a tournament at which most would fail, and the post-1870-ish specialization of the clerkship phase meant like must compete against like, as is true even today, for the limited supply of positions in The Business proper. Accountants competed with other accountants for the limited leadership positions, and marketing analysts went against other marketing analysts, and so on for each field. There was one group that realized, very quickly, that they were getting screwed by this: lawyers. Law is, of all the specialties that a business requires, perhaps the most cognitively demanding one that existed, at least with substantial numbers, in the late 19th century. It tended (like computer programming, today) to draw in the hyper-cerebral types insistent on tackling the big intellectual challenges. Or, to put it more bluntly, they were a very smart pool and it was tough for a lawyer to distinguish himself with a level of intelligence that would be dominant had time and opportunity brought him into a different pool, but might only be average among attorneys.
Lawyers realized that they were getting burned by “like competes against like” in the tournament for the opportunity to become actual partners in the business (i.e. executives and owners). The good news, for them as a tribe, was that they knew how to control and work the law, that being their job. They professionalized. They formed the American Bar Association (in the U.S.) and made it standard that, in corporate bureaucracies, lawyers report only into other attorneys. In-house corporate attorneys report to other attorneys, up to the General Counsel, who reports to the board (not the CEO). Law firms cannot be owned by non-lawyers. Accreditation also ensures (at least, in theory) a basic credibility for all members of the profession: one who loses a client is still a lawyer. The core concept here is that, while an attorney is a provider of services, attorneys are not supposed to be business subordinates (clerks). They have the right and obligation to follow ethical mandates that supersede managerial authority. This requires that the profession back them if they lose their jobs; the value of a limited-supply accreditation is that a person who is fired for exercising that (mandatory) ethical independence remains marketable and (in theory, at least) can resume his or her career, more or less, uninterrupted. Without that type of assurance, that level of ethical and professional independence is quite obviously impossible.
It may have made sense for most people in the corporate sphere to accept the (increasingly small) chance of ascent into The Business as enough of a reward to offset the negatives of being business subordinates. Perhaps only 5 to 10 percent of people in most departments were “Business quality”– I don’t know the answer to that– but lawyers knew that a higher percentage of them were, and that they wouldn’t get a fair shake in a like-competes-against-like system. In essence, they seceded from the existing, inadequate career track and formed a labor cartel (which is what professionalization is) in order to have a somewhat better one. They began to gain independent power and prestige, and managed to create their own firms in which terms for attorneys were (at least, for a time) better than what the standard corporate track offered them.
Clerks in Silicon Valley
The engineer-driven maker’s culture of Silicon Valley is dead. VC-funded startups are, in most ways, large corporations. They’re young businesses but they aren’t small, and their notion of agility is misleading. They’re more like missiles, designed to hit one target or explode “harmlessly” (to investors) than they are like fighter jets. Since VCs encourage founders only to take one kind of risk (two sources of risk is considered to be too many) and developing a single new product is that supposed to be that source of risk, the result is that most of these companies have very traditional organizational structures. “Flat” organization is often a signifier of an undocumented and unstable hierarchy than of hierarchy’s constitutional nonexistence. It often doesn’t mean open allocation so much as an environment of undefined leadership in which half the people think they are the de facto leaders, and in which you have to watch your back for randos trying to manage you. The result of this is that most VC-funded startups feel very much like Fortune 500 companies, except with shitty open-plan offices and different perks (better breakfast, worse health benefits).
The clerkship model has lived on in most of business. Accountants aspire to be CFOs, HR people aspire to be VPs of HR or COOs, and it’s a reasonable assumption that everyone in almost every department who’s any good is planning to become part of Business proper (not necessarily in that company, with some going to other firms or starting their own) some day. The result of this is that the darker side of the clerkship model– total subordination to The Business– is tolerable. In-house accountants and marketing analysts (unlike software engineers) don’t object to the idea that they should subordinate to business people, because they expect to be business people within a decade. A ladder (if not the internal ladder, an external ladder elsewhere) will be extended to the smart ones, and the not-smart ones aren’t thinking far enough ahead to object.
That same assumption, while held over software engineers by executives, doesn’t actually hold up. It’s not reasonable to assume that every smart programmer will be invited to join The Business after ten years because there aren’t enough spots. Moreover, as with law, a programmer barely knows the field at four years of experience. If everyone who was any good at software became a manager after four years, and an executive after eight, then there’d be no one left in the field to write high-quality software. (This might explain why there is so little high-quality software out there.) The world of computing actually needs for people who are genuinely talented and smart not to move into management after five years, because someone has to write code that isn’t horrendous.
Executives don’t know what to make of this. What is wrong with these people, that most of them don’t want to become executives themselves? Do we have some bizarre constitutional antipathy toward the concept of making money? (Of course not.) The truth of the matter is that engineers don’t not want to become executives. We like money and prestige and status as much as anyone else. We just know the odds, and we won’t work as hard as someone less talented will for a corporate lottery ticket. Like competes against like, and we’re in the smartest and toughest pool by far in most organizations. In most fields of business, an IQ of (say) 130 would make one a pre-eminent protégé from the outset, and a 140 would stand out enough to have executives (assuming they could recognize intelligence at that level; some can and some can’t) tripping over each other to be a person’s mentor. In software, a 130 might still be somewhat above average, but it’s not special, because we’re just a more competitive pool. If you walked into the Goldman Sachs analyst program with a 130+ IQ and not-horrible social skills, you’d stand out enough that in your first week, your MD would be asking you whether you wanted your work assignments over the next year to lead to direct promotion or Harvard Business School or buy-side placement, and plan your next 12 months accordingly. (You’d still have to deal with punishing hours; no one escapes that.) In programming? 130 is enough to handle almost all of the work, but it doesn’t make you a stand-out.
Programmers, to tell the truth, are a bad group to land with, professionally speaking, for two reasons. At raw intelligence, we’re the highest sub-discipline of business that there is (excluding, perhaps, computer hardware engineers and research scientists such as biochemists in drug companies). We’re smart, which means that people would be pre-eminent protégés and direct promotes anywhere else are just average to average-plus among us. Even in the 140s and 150s and up, we’re reminded daily of flaws in our logic by this nasty-tempered subordinate called the computer that “would prefer not to” correct our spelling errors (and that’s actually a good thing). On the other hand, in social skills, we’re one of the worst. We don’t look out for each other or protect the group, and we don’t have the organizational skills to operate collectively or even guard ourselves against divide-and-conquer tactics (e.g. stack ranking and Scrum) from The Business. In peer-based performance reviews, actual business people are wise enough not to sell each other out without a reason, and give each other glowing reviews. We give “honest” reviews, because we’re a bunch of social imbeciles who don’t realize that a collective willingness to sell each other to management while getting nothing in return is devastating to us (all of us, even the best performers) as a group. So, when you’re a programmer, the skills that are competitive in the field (i.e. it can hurt you to have superior colleagues) are amped to 11 while the skills that are cooperative (i.e. having superior colleagues is to your benefit, because you back each other) are thin on the ground. It’s our lack of organizational ability and collective self-respect that keeps our status low. Some think that in my writings on programming in the business world that I’m railing against “evil businessmen” and I’m not. As people, they aren’t any more evil or greedy than anyone else. Our failure to achieve the status we deserve, as technologists, is on us. If we don’t demand higher status, we won’t get it. Business people aren’t evil, but they didn’t get where they are by being generous, either.
Business people do note our disinterest, relative to other professional specialties, in working on the projects that the business values most. This is an artifact of our accurate appraisal of our odds of rising to a level where we actually care about a specific company’s performance. Let’s say that 5 percent of white-collar people actually get into “Exec” or “The Business” after 8 years. That’s a 95 percent chance of wasting eight years of one’s life doing grunt work on a promise that was never delivered. The potential rewards are considerable, and we (as programmers and technologists) like money as much as anyone else, but we know that the odds are poor. That small chance of being promoted into “The Business”, which we see as a bureaucratic machine that mostly prevents people from getting work done, isn’t enough to motivate us. So, we’ll favor the project that enriches our future career prospects (and, if we recognize a ceiling where we are, our ambitious become external) over the one that benefits The Business.
Programmers have another trait that confuses executives, which is that we don’t see highly detailed work as dishonorable grunt work that one wishes to graduate out of, as soon as possible. In fact, relative to executives, there’s a complete inversion in the relation between detail-orientation and prestige. Everywhere else in business, work that is hazily defined and evaluated subjectively (i.e. it’s good work if people like you, regardless of whether it’s right) is the most prestigious, because there is the least risk in it. Executives only have to worry about being liked by other executives; workers have to be liked and get the work done right, which makes the latter position riskier and less prestigious because the presumption is that anyone with social skills and drive will get into something less exposed to fluctuations in one’s own performance (and to random human error). Programmers, on the other hand, have created their own bizarre culture where intellectually demanding and detailed work is the most prestigious. “Low level” programming sounds terrible to an executive, and “back-end” sounds like “back office” to management types, but most of the best programmers gravitate toward that kind of work, and away from the business-facing “front end”, because we find requests like “make the button a different shade of blue” to be demeaning and intellectually fruitless, whereas we find the highly detailed and cerebrally taxing challenges of “low level” computing to be much more fulfilling. Business people realize that companies are extremely complex and that making “the big decisions” requires having an army of trusted people who can digest the complexity; to them, leadership involves stepping away from the details. Programmers, on the other hand, want to zero in on the precise, careful stuff that bores most executives. One might think that this orthogonality of interests could create a symbiotic pairing of equals between businessmen and engineers, but it rarely happens that way, because the former don’t want to see the detail-seeking weirdos in the latter category as their social equals. The executives have the power to start, and they keep it, and as a result the high-power minds in most organizations are also the most disengaged ones.
As the business sees us, we’re still clerks, and that’s a raw deal, because the number of leadership positions is small while the number of us who are intellectually capable of ascent into The Business is much higher (like, over 80 percent as opposed to the less than 10 percent who’ll actually get there) than in any other sub-field. This is exactly the problem that attorneys (also a high-IQ sort) faced: the clerking game, with like competing against like, hurt them, because they’d always have a surplus of strong people who couldn’t be given (and who would not have wanted, were there other high-power career options) management roles. They realized (as we ought to) that they were too valuable and powerful to accept the “5-10 percent of you will be selected, after an evaluative period lasting several years, for ascent into The Business; the rest of you will be viewed as leftovers and excreted over time” deal that everyone else got.
Unlike lawyers, we haven’t succeeded in creating the labor cartel that would be necessary if we wanted businesses to pay us what we’re worth in cash instead of empty promises. We have used the complete inability of those who pay us to evaluate our work to create an “art for art’s sake” culture wherein credibility among skilled engineers matters more than traditional corporate credibility. That has made the job more fun, but it hasn’t increased our pay or relative status. Also, our “art for art’s sake” culture has given us the rather negative reputation of being averse to working for The Business. That’s not even accurate! We don’t like to work for The Business as a subordinate. We know the odds on that clerk game, and they aren’t good. If The Business were willing to meet us as equals, we could work together and the orthogonality of our affinities (our attraction to detailed and difficult work, their attraction to subjective and holistic work) could be mutually beneficial; but they’re not willing to do so.
The clerk system also doesn’t work for engineers because of the massive talent inversion. Just as the lowest officer outranks the highest enlisted man, the lowest executive outranks the highest non-executive in most companies. In other words, the top programmers are still lower than the lowest executives, including those who ascended along far less competitive, non-engineering ladders. For example, at Google it is genuinely difficult to become a Director-equivalent Principal Engineer, because there are only a handful of those, whereas it’s hilariously easy (i.e., unless you fuck up severely, you’ll get it inside of a few years) to reach the Director level on the management track. It doesn’t make sense. Noting the comical talent inversion that comes with the concept of the programmer as a business subordinate, we have a hard time respecting the official order that the company tries to put out as the consensus on the value of each person. We know that it’s a thousand times harder to become an executive-equivalent “individual contributor” engineer than to become an executive, so treating us like plebeians with aggressive relative down-titling is going to leave us cold.
Unfortunately, we haven’t got the organizational skills to come up with anything appreciably different from the archaic clerking system that originally justified total subordination to The Business. It’s what we work under. There are plenty of good software engineers who don’t move up into the executive ranks (and, for all I know, that could also be true in other departments) but business executives assume that there aren’t, and consequently, “engineer” means “leftovers”. It means low autonomy (Scrum!) and equity slices well below one-tenth of what an equivalent business person would earn. We’re wise enough to that culture to apply proper cynicism in Fortune 500 companies. The work that is beneficial to our career objectives (which may or may not involve climbing that particular company’s ladder) we do well– and if we will be able to commit the work to open-source and gain an external credibility, we’ll do it very well– and the rest of it we “prefer not to”, and we can often get away with it because such an incoherent clamor of requirements comes at us that it’s impossible to do everything, and because it’s basically impossible for someone who isn’t one of us to evaluate our work for how difficult it is or how long it should take except on some inaccurate emotional basis that, if actually enforced, will just result in good people getting fired and morale going up in smoke. “Product managers” and the like can yell at us, but they really have no idea what we’re up to. This isn’t ideal for us, nor for our employers, and it leads many companies into a culture of prevailing mediocrity (at least, in engineering) as relations between engineering and The Business decline. The point, though, is that we have a lot of latent power that we have no idea how to use. We haven’t figured out how to assert ourselves and get some sort of social equality. Or, perhaps, we prefer not to.
Ambitious software engineers don’t like this arrangement. We don’t want to give middling efforts to behemoth companies that couldn’t give a shit about us. This has traditionally led us in the direction of entrepreneurship, and companies have had to create special positions to retain engineering talent. Corporate programmers are viewed as “the leftovers” not because all the good ones are plucked into The Business, but because (at least, in theory) the ones with any talent are supposed to start companies, become independent consultants, or move into pure research or architecture roles that distance us from the ugly parts of corporate software engineering like “make the thingy thing work this slightly different way” requests and pager duty. Contrary to stereotype, there are some excellent software engineers at Fortune 500 companies, but almost all of them find a way to a “research engineer” track before the age of 35, because churning through tickets from The Business is not a job that anyone wants (unless that person has a delusional belief that such work will lead to rapid ascent into The Business; but, honestly, your odds are better– still very low, but better– if you directly email the CEO and explicitly ask to be his protégé.) Most large companies allow mainstream engineering to turn into a ghetto while putting all of the technology organization’s surplus smart people (i.e. talented people who can’t or don’t want to become executives) into an R&D group. The problem with this approach is that, while R&D relies on mainstream engineering for implementation, a growing resentment between the small, protected R&D group and the gritty, underappreciated, Scrum-ticketed “mainstream eng” leads to diminishing clout for the former. The R&D engineers are highly paid and given nicer titles, but they aren’t listened to because, as far as the embittered “left behind” programmers in mainstream engineering are concerned, they don’t do any of “the real work”. The end result is that most of these R&D engineers end up spending time on “fun projects” that never go into production, and are eventually cycled out of the company.
What this tells us is that Fortune 500 companies can, at least in some cases, recognize top software talent and its value, contrary to stereotype. They don’t necessarily get it right, all of the time, at an individual level, and there will always be sharp people who remain stuck in mainstream engineering; but they do realize the need to have some A-level talent in-house, and they have the insight to know that if “work” is fending off a bukkake of Scrum tickets and user stories, A-level people will leave. That’s what an “innovation lab” or a COE (“center of excellence”) is for: to protect top talent. For the individual engineer, it’s unfortunately not terribly stable. There’s the perennial threat of a research cutback, in tough times, meaning that one is punted into mainstream engineering where the Scrumlords lurk. Usually, this happens when money is tight and management roles are being doled out (in lieu of compensation) to retain the decent programmers in mainstream engineering, which means that the “former R&D” engineers don’t even in land in management positions (all of those being taken by talented people in mainstream eng. that the company needs desperately to retain) or even on “green field”/new-code projects, but at the taint bottom, being asked “to help out” on legacy maintenance. Of course, if you want to turn a smart engineer into an ineffective idiot, forcing him to maintain idiotic legacy code (but without power, because the power must be doled out in lieu of compensation to key people already in mainstream engineering) is a very effective way of doing that.
Large companies don’t have a stable plan when it comes to top engineering talent. Labs and research divisions get cut so often that “research engineer” isn’t always the best long-term career path. It works if you live in that otherwise toxic cesspool called “The Bay Area”, because there are so many tech companies there, but it’s an erratic life for anyone else because research engineering positions are less common and it can require a geographic move to get one. The “software architect” track is more stable, but can be dangerously overconnected; because the work of the architects effects so many people, there are far too many meetings and horrible lines-and-boxes drawings and this forces the architect to delegate even the enjoyable parts of the job.
Corporate bureaucracies struggle with outliers in general, and intellectual outliers are a special breed of difficult, and intellectual outliers who aren’t eligible for rapid promotion into the executive ranks (because there aren’t enough spots, or because they prefer to write code and don’t want to be executives, or because they aren’t “a cultural fit” for the boardroom) are pretty much intractable. So… for the past fifteen years, a going assumption has been that such “intractable” high-talent people should, as if it were just that easy, just start companies and become founders. So, how has that played out? Poorly. Why? Because the VCs have proven themselves to be smart at a game that very few people understand.
The venture-funded ecosystem in Silicon Valley is the first postmodern corporate organization. It chooses not to be, legally and formally, one company; instead, it’s a federation of about twenty marquee venture capital firms and the few hundred technology corporations that live and die and are bought (i.e. the founders get paid performance bonuses arranged by their VCs and people who owe favors to the VCs and work in large companies, and the startups are assimilated into those large companies) at their whim. More feudal than traditionally bureaucratic, “Silicon Valley” doesn’t have a clear president, CEO, or leader. It’s a fleet of a few hundred well-connected investors who all know each other and make decisions as a group, like an executive suite, but who work for nominally competing firms. Its main contribution to the business world is the notion of the disposable company. The core innovation of the VC-funded iteration of Silicon Valley has nothing to do with technology itself, but with the understanding that “companies” are just pieces of paper, that can be thrown away at convenience.
Cutting a division in a corporation is hard, because the company wants to retain some of the talent that’s within that division, but that makes the controversy over the decision persist. If you cut the self-driving car project and make an AI researcher work on “user stories” and answer to a Scrumlord, you have a pissed-off, very intelligent (and, therefore, probably quite articulate) person under your roof who will make of himself a constant reminder that things used to be better. On the other hand, the clean cut (that is, firing the whole division, cutting generous severance checks, and moving on) is seen as too brutal by the masses and too expensive by HR to be justifiable. The disposable company is the solution to this problem. In a single large company, cutting a division leaves the rest of the company to question your judgment, while attuned people in other departments start to wonder what fate has in store for them. On the other hand, an executive suite (VCs) running a fleet of disposable companies can just stop funding one of them and it, because of the massive burn rate that it needed to take on to meet your demands, runs out of money and dies.
The VC-funded dynamic also allows for title inflation. Middling product managers, put in charge of their own disposable companies, can be called “CEO”, while the actual executives have the away-from-the-action-seeming title of “investor”. This allows the people with actual power and status to build up extremes of power distance that seem innocuous. In a large company, executives who deliberately ruined a middle manager’s professional reputation would be accused of harassment and bullying, sued, and possibly terminated for the publicity risk brought on the company. In the VC-funded world, a founder who runs afoul of investors is blacklisted for it, but without consequences for investors. The cynic in me suspects that the appeal of the “acqui-hire” system is that it allows a bunch of “good ol’ boys” to circumvent HR policies: you can’t not-hire someone over a protected status, but you can not-fund her.
More importantly from an engineer’s perspective, the dishonest presentation of the career structure of the VC-funded world enables a brash, young male quixotry that investors believe (not for good reasons) is the key to technical innovation. The myth is, “you could become a founder and march to your own beat“. The reality is that “founder” is just a middle management title in a job that very occasionally delivers a large performance bonus. The cleverness behind all of this is that it manages to reframe what business is, in such a way that engineers are left with a severe distaste for it. First of all, VC-funded companies have a hilariously high rate of failure: possibly 80 to 90 percent. This is presented as normal business risk, but it’s not; the actual 5-year survival rate of new businesses is around 50 to 60 percent (which isn’t very different from the 5-year survival rate of any new job, these days; I’d love to work in a position where there were even odds that it’d be worth it to keep coming into work 5 years later) and many of those “failures” performed acceptably but didn’t offset the opportunity cost for the proprietor. The VCs want founders and peasant engineers to believe that it’s the nature of business to implode in fiery wreckage because it enables them to take massive risks with other peoples’ careers. Worse yet, VC-funded companies have a severe correlation risk, as anyone who was in technology in 2001 can attest. The rate of total business failure (and, thus, job loss, often without severance because the money literally isn’t there) is low during comfortable times, but spikes. When it does, the peasant engineer loses a job at the same time as many other people are losing their jobs. Second of all, in order to make the founder job look “too difficult” for the typical engineering peasant, the fundraising process has been made into a six-month, soul-raping ordeal. No one would ever tolerate a six-month interview process where breaches of ethics and privacy (such as back-channel reference checking) are considered normal, for a regular middle management position. It’s the dressing-up of the position as being something more– an “entrepreneur” rather than a head of a disposable company, responsible for continually managing up into the investor class– that makes it salable.
This entire system obscures lines of sight and it solidifies power for the entrenched. The best way to hold power is to convince those who don’t have it that they don’t want it, and that’s what the VCs have done. They’ve made the middle-management job– being a “founder”– so intolerable that it appeals only to the egotistical, convincing the peasants that they don’t want to rise but should accept their state of subordination. What’s more, this ruse hides the “effort thermocline” (the point at which jobs become less accountable and easier with increasing compensation and social position) by placing it not within a company but between firms: the founders live at that painful top-of-the-bottom point just below the effort thermocline, and investors get the easier life, above it. The line-of-sight, from an engineer’s point of view, is that you have to change jobs twice to get into the executive suite: first, you become a founder and a hustler and a champion fundraiser with little time for intellectual or technical enrichment; second you become an “investor” which, again, is a completely different and not-exciting-sounding job. For the programmer, the visible (again, we’re talking about lines of sight rather than actualities) path to social status and power is so fraught with peril and malice and career-wrecking personal risk (since investors can black-list insubordinate founders, to a degree that would be enforceably illegal in any other setting) that the direct path seems not worth taking.
Yet Silicon Valley is driven by engineers who genuinely believe that they’ll become part of The Business! Otherwise, they wouldn’t throw down the 90-hour weeks. If it seems like I’m being inconsistent, here, that’s not the case. I’m ascribing an inconsistent attitude. See, software engineers in the VC-funded world are smart enough to know that the average-case outcomes are undesirable and that the direct path to power requires selling one’s soul. Where they are misled is that they’re brought to believe in indirect paths to power that don’t actually exist. The engineer works 90-hour weeks because his company “is different” and because the founders promised him “introductions” to investors that will supposedly enable him to bypass the hell that plebes are put through when they try to raise money. Most Americans, for an analogy, rate “politicians” quite lowly, and yet they tend to think highly of their politicians (which is why the same people keep getting elected). As they tend to see it: “Congress” is awful; their Senators and Representatives, however, are good guys who fight the system for them. There’s a similar dynamic in the young, white/Asian, upper-middle-class male quixotry that powers Silicon Valley. These software engineers are cynical and smart enough to realize that most “corporate executives” are worthless parasites, but they rate their executives highly. Like the degenerate misogynist who puts a woman on a pedestal as soon as she smiles at him, they put their own executives/founders on their good sides because those people treat them with basic, superficial decency (while negotiating them into employment contracts with 3-year non-solicits and 0.05% equity in a post-A company). Not a subtle bunch, software engineers tend not to realize that actual corporate sociopaths aren’t like the flamingly obvious “cartoon asshole” bosses in the movies.
There’s more that I could say about this. I’m at 6.4 kilowords and I don’t know how to end this essay, but end it I should, because it’s gotten long enough already. In essence, Silicon Valley has managed to confuse a certain set of inexperienced but talented software programmers into a permanent clerk status, without them realizing what’s going on. With lines of sight obscured by disposable companies and social distractions (“the cool kids” and “30 under 30” lists) and various other machinations, software engineers have been led into accepting an arrangement (corporate clerkship, requiring total subordination but offsetting it by a small chance of selection into The Business proper) that they rejected, the last time it was presented to them. Like everything else that happened in California in its golden age, Silicon Valley has been commoditized and made into a brand, and it has been leveraged brilliantly to make a powerful set of people (specifically, talented software engineers) ignore their own interests. Talented (if politically naive) young people, mostly software engineers, who wouldn’t be caught dead in the typical corporate arrangement (the clerkship system, which is still the management model for large companies’ technology organizations) will gladly throw down 90-hour work weeks in exchange for 0.01% of someone else’s company (“but the founders promised me investor contact, and I know that they’ll deliver because the CEO is so nice to me!”) In reality, if they’re going to work that hard, they should figure out how to organize around their own interests, and win.