-- Mario Savio
Love is the only motivating force, and while love can motivate some pretty awful things, it’s nonetheless impossible to do any good without it. I have no love left for my job or career, although I do have it for many of my friends and colleagues in software. And that's because I don't see how my work helps people I care about or even people on whom I don't wish any specific harm. Moreover, what I have to put up with in order to do my work is in danger of keeping me in a state of emotional and moral stagnation forever.
I don’t necessarily need to work on anything that helps people: some people love abstract puzzle-solving, and I'm one of those people. But when I’m at work as a programmer, I don’t spend much time solving abstract puzzles, at least not in comparison to the amount of time I spend doing unpaid emotional labor. Maybe other programmers are different (they spend their time shifting their unpaid emotional labor onto others instead? I don’t know.) I just know that’s how it is for me. Puzzly tinkering was one of my original motivations to work as a programmer, but it’s not a big enough part of the job to continue to be a good motivator.
Not only was I wrong about the degree to which puzzly tinkering would be part of my future life as a software engineer, I also failed to predict how hard it would be for me to keep my head above water in tech’s endless stream of macro- and microaggressions. Rapidly, getting up in the morning and going to work at my computer job became a source of frustration and the mornings became afternoons. I started to need coping mechanisms to cope with my coping mechanism.
I wrote the rest of this essay to wrestle with the question: “Given the many advantages of having a comfortable, high-paying, flexible desk job, are the frustrations I feel really bad enough to justify taking the risky path of searching for something more grounding? In the absence of pure intellectual pleasure and in the absence of the feeling of social benefit, will continuing to work in the software industry help me more than it hurts?” The short answers are “yes” and “no”. Here’s the long answer.
Flawed Coping Mechanisms
“All of y’all’s gold mines
They wanna deplete you.” -- The Coup
Programming thrilled me when I was 14 and needed a world to dive into that I controlled completely. I had had no control over my life up until then. The feeling of control that writing code -- making things out of pure ideas -- gave me was intoxicating in every sense that word has. Twenty years later, I don’t know if I’m wiser, but I don't want that escape valve so much anymore. I can give living in this world, with all of its messiness and blood, a trial period. I can try to dwell with that which I can't control.
I've thought about all of this for a while but this week I met the enemy and realized he was me. It's easy to bemoan brogrammers, it comes naturally to lambast gaters, but -- and by the way, in this paragraph I am addressing only my beloved fellow SADISTIGs (Sweet And Delightfully Introspective Sensitive Tech Industry Guys) -- that's because it's easy to find fault with somebody else for what lies in your own heart. I don't know about you, but I came here because I liked making machines bend to my will; because I wished I could figure out how to do that with people, but until I did, I was dead set on avoiding them. It's a hard thing to admit, but it's true. My past self wasn't a bad little dude, but the demons he ran away from into the twists of the compiler pipeline are dead. All of this personal bullshit makes me fundamentally not different from those concerned with ethics in video game journalism or with bro-ing down and crushing code, just more apologetic about it.
“Ah, the persistent myth of the meritocracy. You know what? I want to be judged for more than the code I write.”
I am far from the only emotionally stalled guy who works in tech, which is the point. If it was just that there were a lot of other folks like me in this field, that would be tolerable and maybe even a plus. But the tech industry is wired with structural incentives to stay broken. Broken people work 80-hour weeks because we think we’ll get approval and validation for our technical abilities that way. Broken people burn out trying to prove ourselves as hackers because we don’t believe anyone will ever love us for who we are rather than our merit. Broken people put up with toxic, dangerous co-workers and bosses because we’ve never experienced healthy relationships. Broken people sometimes even defend toxicity not because we want to do harm but because it’s simply what we’re used to. Broken people believe pretty lies like “meritocracy” and “show me the code” because it’s easier than confronting difficult truths; it’s as easy as it is because the tech industry is structured around denial. Why is it so compelling for some people to participate in a world where, ostensibly, they will never be seen as their entire selves and will be judged solely on some putatively objective numerical ranking within a total ordering of all hackers from best to worse? Since “some people” includes “me”, I have to guess that it’s because they’re terrified to be seen as their entire selves, since I know I am.
You Don’t Have to Have Complex PTSD to Work Here, But It Helps
“They say I’m running blind to a love of my own
But I’ll be walking proud
I’m saving what I still own” -- Indigo Girls
edited, 2015-04-14: If you don't like this section heading, please read the Clarifications section at the end of this post.
If you want a concrete example of how tech culture discourages us growing and being vulnerable, just read through the list of silencing tactics on the Geek Feminism Wiki. (I think it especially discourages us men from growing and being vulnerable. The culture is a bit less subtle about what it does to women and non-binary people.) I’m going to point out a couple that I’ve felt burnt by on the job:
- “You’re too sensitive”. This accusation gets used primarily against women, but sometimes against men who fall short of from commonly accepted masculinity ideals. A culture that considers “too sensitive” an insult is a culture that eats its young. Similarly, it’s popular in tech to decry “drama” when no one is ever sure what the consensus is on this word’s meaning, but as far as I can tell it means other people expressing feelings that you would prefer they stay silent about.
- The tone argument. is commonly deployed against political and technical disagreement, and its use reflects an underlying assumption in tech culture that emotional conviction makes an argument less valid rather than more.
- “Suck it up and deal” is an assertion of dominance that disregards the emotional labor needed to tolerate oppression. It’s also a reflection of the culture of narcissism in tech that values grandstanding and credit-taking over listening and empathizing.
I say that these tactics are particularly injurious to men not because I think we have it worse but because they get employed differently against women and I have less firsthand experience with that. From what I can tell, being a woman in tech means being judged and found wanting no matter what you do, while being a man in tech means (at least the chance of) success at the price of following an extremely restrictive set of rules that are corrosive to emotional well-being for many of us. I know which set of problems I’d choose, and in a way, I did choose. But the choice between bad and worse doesn’t make bad good.
Moreover, I don’t think tech toxicity bothers people who are used to being listened to and acknowledged as much as it does people like me. (I wouldn’t know, since I don’t come from one of those places.) But if you had a good early life, you wouldn’t be in tech in the first place. Yes, I'm exaggerating, but I do think there’s a toxic feedback loop between the kinds of trauma that cause many people to flee into the world of things-made-out-of-ideas, and the kinds of trauma that some of us will encounter in that world when we least expect it. For example, if you are a person who has never had your own subjectivity and feelings systematically erased, I imagine you will probably just laugh when someone tells you “you’re too sensitive”. (I wouldn’t know, again, since I’m not like you.) I’m hurt by that accusation because I believed it about myself in the first place; that statement and all manner of other little loops of gaslighting are woven into me like tapeworms. If we can blame ourselves for being too sensitive, we don’t have to confront something that is too difficult for most kids and a lot of adults to confront: that someone who loves you can hurt you. If you know what “triggering” means: it’s triggering. If you don’t know what “triggering” means, then now you know.
Being Right Vs. Doing Right
“So many think they're good guys. But they're so invested in a culture that depends on proving they're right they don't see the damage done.” -- Jen Myers
Here are some other tendencies that are both worse in tech than in other fields due to the way in which it attracts lost boys, and get reinforced by tech management in a toxic feedback loop of dysfunction and self-deception:
- Mansplaining arises from the desire to position oneself as an authority rather than to talk as equals. A related pathology is social pressure to perform having an opinion on everything that’s not important (sometimes called “bikeshedding”: as well as not caring about anything that matters. The latter tendency is what I explored in my first Model View Culture article under the name “false dismissal”.
- Relatedly, “well-actually”-ism is a verbal habit of interrupting conversations to make factually true but irrelevant corrections, in a way that prioritizes intellectual self-aggrandizement over shared understanding. Like mansplaining, well-actually-ism is rooted in fear and insecurity and I should know, because I’ve done these things all the time, and I know that’s why.
- Tech culture elevates heroes and “cowboy coders” who sacrifice everything to get all the work done themselves, gaining individual recognition and jettisoning healthy teamwork as well as their own long-term well-being. The “cowboy coder” -- the sort of guy who complains that code reviews slow down his workflow (which is true, in the same way that brakes slow down a car) is a stereotype, but one that you can observe in more or less any workplace. What’s more, you will observe that cowboy coders (often young, usually male, usually without sources of meaning in their lives outside of work) get praised just for fitting this pattern, regardless of the quality of their work. (My now-former colleague Jacob Kaplan-Moss illustrated this point quite aptly in his “who is Mark Zuckerburg?” slides in his 2015 PyCon keynote. )
- Failure to listen, failure to document, and failure to mentor. Toxic individualism -- the attitude that a person is solely responsible for their own success, and if they find your code hard to understand, it’s their fault -- is tightly woven through the fabric of tech. Even in places where people pay lip service to the value of documenting and of training new hires, their behavior belies it -- they fail to document because “there’s not enough time”, fail to mentor because they’d rather just hire senior engineers, and fail to listen because that entails the risk of finding out you’re wrong about something.
- Invulnerability to criticism. There was a famous Linux kernel bug report about a bug that would reformat your hard drive when you didn’t want it to. The software maintainers responded by saying “you should have known better”. This is a particularly extreme example of a general tendency to accept technical bug reports as attacks on one’s most cherished self, to be defended against to the death. I’m not even talking about cultural bug reports here, which I once wrote about in Model View Culture. If you take criticism of your project as an attack rather than as helpful feedback, what does that say about how you will take criticism of your personal behavior?
I understand the reasons why all of these failures happen, and I’ve lived most of the reasons. I’m a very critical person; I’d like to get better at balancing doing the Right Thing(™) with validating and embracing commonalities. I’m not going to find very many incentives to do that, or role models to look to for how to do it, if I stay in tech.
Nobody sets out on purpose to make any workplace a pit of despair. But in tech, the failures are self-reinforcing because failure often has no material consequences (especially in venture-capital-funded startups) and because the status quo is so profitable -- for the people already on the inside -- that the desire to maintain it exceeds the desire to work better together.
“There’s No Crying in Startups”"It takes mighty big courage to pack up and go
'Cause even a bad life is still a life that you know.”
-- Brooks Williams
I have found that the more I try to curb my own antisocial and self-defeating tendencies, the less I succeed in tech. Being sensitive makes you suspect. Approaching technical discussions as collaborative efforts rather than cage matches gets you frozen out. Performance gets assessed on rough approximations to individual “impact”, without regard to how much you helped your colleagues do their jobs. I think that I’m capable of continuing to work in tech, as long as I force myself to be continue to be the person I’m tired of being. No stock options are worth as much to me as the still, small voice inside is; no amount of money and benefits is going to get me to tell that voice to shut up now after 14 years with my hand over its mouth. All the tendencies I’ve criticized in this essay are ones I’ve seen in my own mirror. To be in tech is to be in permanent adolescence or at least to maintain dual personalities, one for work and one for home. The latter is way too much effort and as for the former, who in the world would actually choose that? I wouldn’t, because being a teen can be fun (at 16, at 27, and at 34), but not as fun as having been one.
“Aren’t you being melodramatic here, Tim? Aren’t you applying concepts to tech companies that are really for describing family structures?” I would have thought so too until during my first week at a new job (disclaimer: not my current job), I watched a grown man and father of four literally stomp out of an office at 3:21 PM on a Thursday, not to return until the next day, because the company’s CTO was making him feel unheard during a meeting. At the time I wasn’t sure if he was going to come back on Friday. (He did.) To be clear, neither man in that interaction was behaving particularly laudably, and at the same time both had valid points. A third man, my boss at the time, stepped in to explain to the CTO, “I think when you said [whatever] to [REDACTED], the way it made him feel was…” I remember being pleasantly amazed at hearing that kind of communication from anybody in a corporate conference room, although it was a bit less nice when the CTO literally replied with, “I don’t care about hurt feelings. This is a startup.” I also remember thinking that because this company was small, I was finally getting to see behavior acted out explicitly that usually takes place just below the surface in bigger companies. So no, I don’t think I am being melodramatic. If anything, my former colleague (the most senior back-end engineer at this company) who stomped out of the office was, but I wouldn’t even say that, because I sympathize with the pressure that led him to act the way he did at the breaking point. This was actually a pretty reassuring experience for me because up until then, I’d wondered if I was projecting. That day I realized that I wasn’t, any more than the overhead projector in your average office is in 2015. I actually prefer daily screaming matches to ever-present rage repressed at high pressure (one of which, at least once, made me cry in the bathroom at a previous office), but I would kind of prefer to have neither of those things in my workplace. When I worked at another one of my past employers, I took to watching a lot of episodes of “House, M.D.” because I really needed to see examples of people modelling exemplary professionalism and respect for others’ boundaries… by comparison.
There’s a reason why it’s become a cliché for startups to describe themselves as being like a family: because a lot of us come from families defined by abuse, neglect, multigenerational trauma, addiction, lying, leaving, coming back, leaving again, and conspiracies of silence about it all. We bring all of that into our work “families”. Sometimes we need more than free kombucha on tap in order to cope and heal; when we don’t get it, we take it out on each other because that’s easier than confronting those who have power over us.
“I'm gonna K. I. L. L. one of us, baby. Give me time to decide on which.” -- Tonio K.
The person I would like to be is also someone who acknowledges fear and pain and doesn’t always retreat into fury at injustice. I love my fellow tech SJWs, but for me -- and in this paragraph I am calling out no one but myself -- the siren song of righteous anger always lies in wait to take away the small soft things inside and leave me alone on the floor with a rage hangover. There is an infinite amount of injustice in the world and an infinite amount of completely justified anger that can well up from any of us who take the time to think about it. Anger is a very useful strategy for activism; I try my best to never coerce people who are marginalized -- especially by groups I'm in -- into suppressing it. But maybe it's time for me to be a bit more liberal in what I accept and conservative in what I send out, Postel’s-Law-style. For lots of people, alcohol is a useful tool for making social situations a little more manageable; a minority get consumed by it. Maybe anger is a little like that for me. I wouldn't work in a bar if I was recovering from alcoholism, so I'm not going to work in tech while I'm trying to integrate the parts of myself that aren't angry. There are too many temptations.
“I want to leave
You will not miss me.” -- The Smiths
So that's why I have to quit tech for somewhere between a little while and forever (inclusive). It's not just that I don't want to, but that, in a very literal sense, I can't. I'm not doing any favors by sticking around when I'm unable to pull my weight. I don't know what's going to be next for me, but it won't be this. If I can find a job doing something involving comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, or even both, that would be neat.
I also don’t think it’s any great loss for tech that I won’t be in it, since I’m neither particularly bad nor particularly good at the work I do; I’m proudest of my minor contributions to tech culture criticism, not any code I’ve ever written. In 14 years including grad school, I doubt I’ve earned the invisible “valued contributor” merit badge anywhere. I’ve job-hopped, quit jobs when I could have stayed and resolved interpersonal conflicts, taken unannounced PTO, checked Facebook and Twitter for literally entire work days at a time. I am neither proud of nor sorry for any of these lapses, because ultimately it’s capitalism’s responsibility to make me produce for it, and within the scope of my career, capitalism failed. I don’t pity the ownership of any of my former employers for not having been able to squeeze more value out of me, because that’s on them. What’s on me is how I spend my time, and I don’t want to spend any more of it pretending I don’t know what I want.
Not everybody can turn their coping mechanism in a career, but I had the chance, and it was an offer I couldn't refuse. After a year or two of being in the tech industry, programming became a less effective coping mechanism and anger became a more compelling one, since the tech industry has so much cause for anger to provide. Over time, the second one replaced the first one almost totally, taking away my original reason to even like programming at all and demoralizing any remaining scraps of work-ethic out of me. It’s sad to have to report that this is true, but it would be sadder to pretend none of it happened.
“And I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You'd stay the hell out of my way." -- The Mountain Goats
I tried leaning in, which for me means some combination of “just work harder” and spending a ton of non-work time developing complicated structuring and coping mechanisms to make me feel OK about doing something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing. RescueTime, Todoist, Google Calendar, Trello, weekly schedules, written to-do lists, eugeroics, SSRIs, caffeine, cannabis, fancy drinks, spending too much money in coffee shops, knitting during meetings, big headphones, Twitter, IRC, Slack, post-it notes, text files with lists of questions to ask, animated .gifs, playing 2048 on my phone in the men’s room at work for 30 minutes or longer at a stretch, repeatedly reloading Fucks On Back Order. None of these things are intrinsically bad and many are pretty damn good, but when I invest a lot of my time structuring my work hours with some of them and recovering during my non-work hours with others, all in the service of something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing, I have to start asking why. It’s a lot of effort, largely performed during non-work hours, for a relatively low yield in terms of actual productive work that helped my employer. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s found that leaning in tends to mean leaning into a black hole. The rise of the lifehacking industry, as well as meditation and mindfulness programs for temporarily calming down workers so they can be productive while experiencing abuse, suggest that capitalism does well when it can simultaneously hurt people and sell them palliative care for that hurt.
“Just work harder” always sounds appealing to me too, because in fact I love working, I feel uncomfortable when I’m doing something that I can’t characterize as work, and I can work way harder than is good for me. But that’s only when I feel like there’s a reason to do it: whether the reason is making a software system better in a way that I can see and get tangible feedback on from others, or making other people feel like they’re less alone, or just having clean dishes. When I don’t see the reason why I should work harder, I can’t work at all. So I don’t think leaning in is helping me or helping my employer.
I’m leaning out, because to be a better person than the one I am now, I have no other choice. I'm not saying I'll never come back, but I am saying I'll probably never come back. This is my choice; it doesn’t have to be yours. I’m not taking a moral stance that I would prescribe to others, or in fact, making this decision based on abstractions at all. I don’t aspire to sainthood and I would happily stay in a sweet desk job with flexible hours if it wasn’t destroying me from the inside. The question I tried to answer in this essay is: “destroying me from the inside? Really? Is it doing that?” And I believe the answer is yes.
I don’t know if the alternatives I’m considering are going to be better or not, but I’m at a point where all I can do is find out for myself. I know that every single field of employment has its own unique blend of coffee and bullshit to offer, and choosing a career is a matter of picking which one you don’t mind sipping. I don’t know whether other fields will be worse or better, I just know that tech’s tainted tonic interacts badly with the poison that’s already in me. If what works for you is staying in tech, great! Try to leave it a little better than you found it.
Postscript to Herokai
I hope I’ve made it clear that while it’s not me, it’s also not you. I had to realize all this stuff sometime, and it’s probably not a coincidence that it happened while I was in the comparatively safe and supportive culture that Heroku has. To Leigh, Jake, Evan, Fred, Tristan, Omar, Jamu, Charles, Mary, Ari, Daed, Courtney, Joy, Liz, Jacob, Meagan, Tef, Matt, Geoff, Greg, and Mark: Thanks for the laughs, lunches, and corgi GIFs. Don’t be a stranger. If I forgot anyone there who I should have included, it’s because a week straight of less than 4 hours of sleep a night has rendered my brain into a chia pod.
- 2015-04-14: Yes, I actually do have complex PTSD (beginning with experiences at age 5 or younger, so, pretty well before I ever got paid to touch a computer) and today is actually the first day I've ever said that in public. I'm feeling a little raw about that and the way I usually deal with those feelings is jokes, hence the section heading. I also see how it could be seen as trivializing. I feel like there's no point in suffering if you can't make jokes about it later, but I should probably have included this clarification in the first place.
“Code reviews slow you down like brakes slow down a car” is something I saw on Twitter once. I don’t remember who tweeted it. If you know, or if it was you, please tell me!
“Lean Out” is the title of issue 3 of Model View Culture, for which Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane deserve credit.
Edited to add: The term "well, actually" was coined by Miguel de Icaza, and I learned about it from the Recurse Center social rules.
Edited to add: While I originally learned about the concept of emotional labor from the writing of Barbara Ehrenreich and Laura Kipnis, I also owe one to Lauren Bacon for her article "Women in Tech and Empathy Work".
Edited to add: I first saw the Mario Savio quote on an office door in Soda Hall at the University of California in 1999. It took me the past sixteen years to understand it.
Edited to add: I owe much to Julie Pagano's article "I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community" -- arguably I never would have had any of the thoughts expressed in this piece without reading hers a year and a half ago.
Edited to add: I alluded in this piece to the chorus of Stephen Fearing's song "The Bells of Morning", which was written about the École Polytechnique massacre and which I wrote about previously in reference to Gamergate.
Edited to add: If you happen to live in (or can travel to) Portland, Oregon, and need a therapist, call Cat Pivetti at 503-740-9555. (nb. the initial phone number I put there is incorrect, as is the number on the page linked to, currently.) I don't credit her with me becoming the person who wrote this article, but I do credit her for helping me find what was in me that I put into it, and I think she does that for other people too.
In this piece I’ve drawn on insights from conversations with many different people and from writing by many different people. Nothing I’m saying is new, but I hope that this particular presentation may find itself useful to somebody else. Because there are too many influences to name, for the sake of not privileging any one of them unduly I’m not listing most of them. But know that if you think I made a good point anywhere in this essay, it’s more likely than not to be a point that a woman made me think about. A number of friends and current and former colleagues of mine read and commented on drafts of this essay; for prudence’s sake, I won't enumerate or name them. But if you are one of the people who proofread for me: my gratitude to you symbolizes why I didn’t quit this industry ages ago. I’ll miss y’all.
OutroVienna Teng, “Level Up” (s/o to brainwane via yatima for turning me on to this one):
"Call it your day number one in the rest of forever."