Well Paid, but Afraid: What it’s like Working in Big Tech

If you join a company and you don’t immediately get added into an ERG Slack channel corresponding to your race, it’s probably because your company’s lead by racist leadership. Yeah, I said it. And, no, whites don’t get their own ERG—what do you take us for? Racists? No! We’re the race-conscious people of tech, working ‘round the clock to exorcise the world of racism one merged PR at a time. It’s our sworn duty—one might even call it holy.

As it happens, it’s also lucrative: most of us make one to three hundred grand a year in total compensation, depending on level, especially if we work at FAANG companies; we get months of paid parental leave (and not just for the birthing mammal). We hold a lot of sway on our leaders (as I write this, self-ID and pulse surveys file into my inbox, pleading with me to respond).

When leadership fears we might be “exhausted,”—political unrest in USA, pandemic malaise, Trump getting elected—we get spontaneous, company-wide days off. We may even be invited to company-wide sessions where we get a floor to share our support for our nonwhite colleagues, swearing our allegiance in the fight against the specter of white supremacy in our country.

Our playbooks are often public, extolling the importance of every one of our values, how we live up to them internally, and why they exist, with ICs dutifully reminding leadership of them at every opportunity! We’re given budgets of hundreds to furnish our home offices every year, no strings attached. We’re given travel budgets to visit company offices as we see fit; I could actually go on. So with all this being said, how could I ever want for anything at all? Well, I’m a tech worker, so you’ll have to excuse me as I complain anyway: we’re all scared of each other.

Let me explain. The public may know that we are very well compensated professionals, probably among the best—but what they may not know: we feel extremely guilty for it. I’ve never felt this way, but many of us do—it’s a large enough share of us that self-flagellation in the industry is extremely common, and even encouraged.

This is bad enough, but ask yourself: what do you suppose happens to people who don’t want to join in on this expected self-hatred? That depends entirely on how many of the repentant are on your team, and how much plausible deniability you maintain for yourself. For two of my ex-colleagues at previous companies, they’ve chosen to “LARP as a progressive all day,” as one told me privately.

The other, a VP, says he feels compelled to “live in the closet”—consider it! A classical liberal on a leadership team in the United States of America having to “live in the closet” to keep his job. And what would be his fireable offense, you ask? Believing in the very same ideology our country was founded on.

No, that was racist of me to assert, let me self-crit: USA was not, in fact, founded on the hypocritically applied ideals of liberal democracy, it was founded as a “racist, settler state,” according to an ex-colleague, remarking proudly in a totally open, internal Slack thread which went completely unchallenged.

And why wouldn’t it? Each of us in tech has a choice to make on a consistent basis: verbalize any disagreement with routine hand wringing about the crimes of the Western world, or pay your bills.

You might be wondering, “what could have possibly come up that would have made this kind of discussion even possible?” You have to understand, in tech culture, “bringing your whole self to work” is a staple—including all of your most extreme political positions and if there’s one thing you know about America since 2015, radicalization is part and parcel of its politics).

And what was it that was up for discussion that week? Why, the absolutely horrific events unfolding over at Basecamp, of course. And which were those? Well, one dude in Basecamp leadership had the audacity to propose a company-wide change that would ask his employees to stop arguing all day about politics at work and, instead, do, you know, your job.

After immediate internal outrage, leadership brought everyone together for a call, on which an IC demanded to know if he could count on leadership to agree that “we live in a white supremacist culture”—only for another dude in leadership to respond: “No.” Pro tip: you shouldn’t ask questions you aren’t prepared to have answered—queue the inevitable rage of little tyrants.

Please don’t misunderstand. I have exactly zero interest in dictating what your political beliefs ought to be. Be woke, be conservative, be a classical liberal, be nothing at all, or anything else, as I’ll work with you, regardless. But, if I may be so bold, I make one request: keep it to yourself.

I’m joined by leadership over at Basecamp and Coinbase, making this same request—you saw what happened to them: 30% of their ICs quit in protest abruptly, some crying and screaming on calls, hurling accusations of “white supremacy” at incredulous leadership. At both companies, the “white supremacist” leadership extended generous severance pay (greater than six months of severance at 100% your rate, among other benefits) to people who disagreed with the white supremacist request of “no arguing about politics at work.”

Folks like Brian Armstrong (CEO of Coinbase) are under the very dated assumption that all it takes to lead a company these days is grit and product expertise, but they run afoul of one thing: the America of today is not the one of yesterday.

To tech ICs, keeping politics out of work is white supremacy—in fact, defending neutrality is tantamount to being a white supremacist yourself. Basically, post the black square, or admit black lives don’t matter to you. Also, take it down two days later—or else. Make no mistake: those of us in the top 2% of income earners in the richest country on earth want you to know that it takes a privileged person to keep politics out of work.

I’m sure you can see the problem here—as the CEO of white supremacist shitlordery himself, Jason Fried (Basecamp), eloquently puts it:

Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work.

Here’s how I, a random ‘shitlord’ tech IC, would put it, though: working with a bunch of radicalized, little authoritarians fucking sucks. If leadership—literal CEOs—can get yelled at in public for not saying yes to “do we live in a white supremacist culture?”, what do you think will happen to you, a random IC at the company?

Just look at what happened to James Damore (he now obscures his current place of work on his LinkedIn, by the way—I’m sure his new company appreciates it), Antonio García Martínez, leadership at Coinbase and Basecamp, etc., and you’ll have your answer. If your cancellation was notorious enough, you become a human hot potato.

Your applications would get filtered out immediately if you’re recognized. If you slipped through, ICs would freak out, demand your firing, and then leadership would get slandered all over media as being soft on a known “white supremacist,” or at least “irresponsible” for not doing well enough to vet their candidates for “white supremacy.”

This is otherwise known as blackballing. You’re a liability, and no company will take you on. And why would they? In a world where the mob is in the driver’s seat,—rather than reason and merit—they’re also protecting themselves, their board, and their business from a fiery crash.

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear; I don’t like working like this. Would you? I run scripts to delete my likes. I post almost nothing on socials. At the same time, I worry posting nothing means I am also at risk of being labeled “white supremacist,” thus losing my ability to pay my bills. No, I will not post the black square. And no, I will not dutifully delete the black square after it’s been posted. I want to keep paying my rent.

As an industry, as a people, are we going to allow for this? Is this cool? Because, right now, it seems like there’s a tight grip on every single inane, personal choice, and we simply don’t want to release it. But that’s the issue with mobs of hysterical, controlling people: there is no way to satisfy the mob and its corresponding little bands of roaming moral police.

I’m not old enough to have lived in the before-times, but they did exist, at least in the West. A time when bullies with personal issues, shrieking and crying at you across the office or far away, could not determine whether you could come in to work next week. Leadership didn’t pay any mind to the shrill wolf-crying of the mentally ill.

People did their jobs and generally didn’t share much about their personal views, nor did they solicit any from their colleagues by way of collective coercion. But that’s not how it is in the world of today, most especially in tech. The level of radicalization in the tech working population is very high, and it’s scaring me.

If it wasn’t this bad, I might consider staying in it longer but, at this point, my goal is to keep my head down and plan a decades-early retirement. I don’t want to live like this longer than I have to.

I don’t like feeling like all of this is “for me,” as a nonwhite, as I think I’m supposed to feel. I think I’m supposed to feel “supported,” that all these shunned people are signals of fealty to my honor—or something. They could even be viewed as sacrifices on the altar of racism, a show of faith that I’ll never experience it again. But I won’t. No one can control that. Why do we even want to? This isn’t normal human psychology.

Contrary to the near-constant messaging that “we want everyone to feel safe working here,” I don’t feel safer. I feel scared. I feel uncomfortable. I see people getting thrown under the bus over the most ridiculous things of the least consequence.

I see my white colleagues walking on eggshells, and it makes me feel awkward and deeply sorry for them. I see people extolling all day about the evils of “white supremacy,” a concept ever-ballooning in its definition and scope, and that “silence is violence.” All I’ve ever wanted was to pay my bills, build wealth, and retire—after all, this is a job. We make a product and I get paid to help. What more can I ask for? What more should I ask for?

If any of this actually was up to me, my white colleagues would not be feeling a sense of guilt, or having to “live in the closet” for having beliefs like: “America is pretty cool.” They wouldn’t feel personally or historically responsible for a lack of nonwhite participation in technical labor markets.

White kids in academia wouldn’t feel the need to falsely state their race in order to curry favor with academic panels. I would be able to speak freely on my socials about issues in my culture that do not exactly portray my home-countrymen as the hapless victims some in the mob want us to be, without accusations that I’m a “white supremacist” against my own ex-countrymen.

A previous white boss wouldn’t feel genuinely concerned about the numbers of nonwhites on her team, remarking “I was thinking, maybe, a more diverse candidate” when I referred a white male to an open role on our team we really, really needed to fill.

We would be individuals, not things to collect to assuage the white guilt she’s encouraged heavily to feel. Candidates in our hiring pipeline wouldn’t be demanding, on condition of continuing on in our pipeline and gracing us with her time, to know if we had any nonwhite females on our leadership team, resulting in my boss asking me sheepishly what I “identify as” racially, and if I’d be okay with chatting with that candidate.

When I’m invited to discuss my experience in “diversity in tech” in an interview, remarking honestly that I’ve had “a pretty good time,” perhaps it wouldn’t disappoint my interviewer. She would have felt happy for me. I’m not sure who asked for all this stuff, but it wasn’t me. And, as it stands, I’m pretty confident that if I said “I think whites are okay” on a public Twitter account, my colleagues would send those tweets immediately on over to people ops (that’s tech for HR).

Who asked for this? How many of us truly feel happy about all this? I know we all feel it.

All my family and I wanted was our natural rights respected, to be free from authoritarians, to be free to be successful without fear of the government showing up at your door with guns.

An American degree, an American career, an American life. And that’s what I got, because that’s possible here. Now, I make a typical tech IC salary, am planning a very early retirement and I no longer live in fear. I didn’t use to have a life worth living, but I do now and I don’t want to lose it now.

It’s this instinct of self preservation I have which keeps me on edge when I see rising authoritarianism, and from where I least expect it: my colleagues across the West, living charmed lives in liberal democracy—in all their strange, new, religious fervor.


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