Workplace Culture: In Silicon Valley, Working Nine to Five Is for Losers

From today’s New York Times by Dan Lyons:

Silicon Valley prides itself on “thinking different.” So maybe it makes sense that just as a lot of industries have begun paying more attention to work-life balance, Silicon Valley is taking the opposite approach — and branding workaholism as a desirable lifestyle choice. An entire cottage industry has sprung up there, selling an internet-centric prosperity gospel that says that there is no higher calling than to start your own company, and that to succeed you must be willing to give up everything.

“Hustle” is the word that tech people use to describe this nerd-commando lifestyle. You hear it everywhere. You can buy hustle-themed T-shirts and coffee mugs, with slogans like “Dream, hustle, profit, repeat” and “Outgrind, outhustle, outwork everyone.” You can go to an eight-week “start-up hustle” boot camp. (Boot camp!) You can also attend Hustle Con, a one-day conference where successful “hustlers” share their secrets. Tickets cost around $300 — or you can pay $2,000 to be a “V.I.P. hustler.” This year’s conference, in June, drew 2,800 people, including two dozen who ponied up for V.I.P. passes.

But for some, “hustle” is just a euphemism for extreme workaholism. Gary Vaynerchuk, a.k.a. Gary Vee, an entrepreneur and angel investor who has 1.5 million Twitter followers and a string of best-selling books with titles like “Crush It!,” tells his acolytes they should be working 18 hours a day. Every day. No vacations, no going on dates, no watching TV. “If you want bling bling, if you want to buy the jets?” he asks in one of his motivational speeches. “Work. That’s how you get it.”

Mr. Vaynerchuk is also a judge on Apple’s “Planet of the Apps,” a reality show where app developers compete to win funding from a venture capital firm. A recent promo depicted a contestant alongside this quotation: “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.” The show’s promotional tweet added: “For the ultimate reward, he’ll put everything on the line.”

Good grief. The guy is developing an app that lets you visualize how a coffee table from a catalog might look in your living room. I suppose that’s cool, but is it really more important than seeing your kids? Is the chance to raise some venture-capital funding really “the ultimate reward”? (Apple pulled the promo after a wave of critical comments on Twitter.)

This is sad enough for start-up founders, but rank-and-file workers are buying into this madness, too. Last year, Lyft published a blog post praising a driver who kept picking up fares even after she went into labor and was driving to the hospital to give birth. Critics saw dystopian implications — “horrifying” was how Gizmodo put it — and Lyft deleted the post. But people at the company, including the driver herself, seemed genuinely puzzled by the negative reaction.

A century ago, factory workers were forming unions and going on strike to demand better conditions and a limit on hours. Today, Silicon Valley employees celebrate their own exploitation. “9 to 5 is for the weak” says a popular T-shirt. A venture capitalist named Keith Rabois recently boasted on Twitter that he worked for 18 years while taking less than one week of vacation. Wannabe Zuckerbergs are told that starting a company is like joining the Navy SEALs. For a certain type of person — usually young and male — the hardship is part of the allure.

The truth is that much of the extra effort these entrepreneurs and their employees are putting in is pointless anyway. Working beyond 56 hours in a week adds little productivity, according to a 2014 report by the Stanford economist John Pencavel. But the point may be less about productivity than about demonstrating commitment and team spirit.

“Everyone wants to be a model employee,” said Anim Aweh, a clinical social worker in the Bay Area who sees a lot of stressed-out tech workers. “One woman told me: ‘The expectation is not that you should work smart, it’s that you should work hard. It’s just do, do, do, until you can’t do anymore.’ ”

This has led to tragedy. Last year, Joseph Thomas, an engineer at Uber, committed suicide. His widow blamed the company’s gung-ho culture, with its long hours and intense psychological pressure.

Now some are pushing back. David Heinemeier Hansson, a software developer, is on a crusade to persuade entrepreneurs that they can succeed without working themselves to death. (The sad thing is that this even needs to be said.)

In a recent essay Mr. Hansson excoriated venture capitalists as brainwashing founders with “an ingrained mythology around start-ups that not only celebrates burnout efforts but damn well requires it.” He says V.C.s are exploiting founders. Their attitude is, “Make me rich or die tryin’,” he wrote.

“Die trying” is by far the more likely outcome. The vast majority of start-ups fail. The odds of striking a huge Facebook-level success are infinitesimally tiny. No one knows this better than the V.C.s, who improve their odds by spreading their bets onto dozens of companies and whipping them all into a frenzy.

Mr. Hansson’s essay singled out Mr. Rabois, the venture capitalist who worked for 18 years with hardly any vacation. This prompted a debate on Twitter, where Mr. Rabois sniped that Mr. Hansson’s take-it-easy approach to building a company would be perfect — “for lazy people who want to accomplish nothing.”

Mr. Hansson and his business partner, Jason Fried, run a Chicago software company, Basecamp, that employs 56 people and turns a profit. The workweek is capped at 40 hours and gets pared back to 32 in summer. Mr. Hansson has enough free time that he competes as an amateur driver in endurance car races.

In 2010, the two men published “Rework,” a book denouncing workaholism, and they’re publishing another one, “The Calm Company,” next year. Mr. Hansson told me that they’ve grown dismayed “seeing people being asked to give up their vacations, their sleep, their youth, their family and their morals on the start-up altar.”

They run workshops and do a lot of public speaking. Their talks usually go over well — although in San Francisco they often hear “incredulous gasps,” Mr. Fried reported. Mr. Hansson added: “People tell us we’re not ambitious enough. We’re not trying to change the world. The perversion runs so deep.”

The chance to become the next 20-something tech celebrity billionaire has not lost its power. Every year thousands of fresh recruits flood into San Francisco, hoping to be baptized into the religion of the hustle. As bad as things have become today, there might be worse to come.

The Maddeningly Simple Way Tech Companies Can Employ More Women

From the New York Times, August 15, 2017 by Katherine Zaleski:

I am the co-founder of a company that helps clients find ways to diversify their work force. We recently set up an interview at a major company for a senior African-American woman software engineer. After meeting with the hiring panel, she withdrew her application, telling us she felt demeaned by the all-white male group that failed to ask her any questions about her coding skills. She described how one of the men had made it clear to her that she wasn’t a cultural fit and that therefore they didn’t need to proceed with technical questions.

I hear stories like this regularly, as I work with companies in Silicon Valley and beyond who want to bring more women onto their tech teams. Higher-ups declare their intention to hire more women. But the actual hiring is still all too rare.

There’s a continuing debate about the reasons for the lack of diversity in the tech sector, including candidate pools that are mostly male, and stubborn, superficial notions of what it means to be a “cultural fit” for an organization — the template for which is often based on young white men. But at least one small component of this problem is immediately solvable: Many companies are alienating the qualified women who want to work for them, and who they want to hire, during the interview process itself.

While Silicon Valley companies are enthusiastically putting money into STEM programs in schools and nonprofits focused on diversity, with the goal of creating a richer pipeline of talent in 10 years, they’re missing opportunities to make simple, immediate improvements by changing how they communicate with women who are sitting across the table from them now.

Read the entire article here.

Class Actions Lawsuits by Women Could Fight Discrimination in Tech Industry

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Anita Hill:

The recent leak of a Google engineer’s screed against the company’s diversity initiatives is a reminder that the notion of Silicon Valley as the seat of human progress is a myth — at least when it comes to way the women behind the latest in technology are treated.

The tech industry is stuck in the past, more closely resembling “Mad Men”-era Madison Avenue or 1980s Wall Street than a modern egalitarian society. It may take the force of our legal system to change that.

The leaked memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” called on the company to abandon its efforts for gender diversity and replace them with a focus on “ideological diversity.” The author even claimed that biological differences make women poorly suited to engineering. While the document may be unusual in its explicit embrace of this kind of backward thinking, the attitudes that underlie it are nothing new in Silicon Valley. Google’s decision to fire the employee responsible for the memo neither dispels the notion that a systemic problem exists nor solves it.

Since a former Uber employee published her blog post detailing her experience with the ride-sharing company’s toxic, male-dominated culture, a stream of female coders, engineers and others have come forward to discuss their experiences with sexual harassment and hostile, discriminatory workplace cultures. Companies like Google, Tesla, Twitter, Microsoft and Oracle face allegations of sexism in the form of individual lawsuits and Labor Department inquiries.

Sadly, these types of cases represent only one element of the industrywide discrimination against women in tech. There’s also an alarming gap in pay and promotions, which has devastating effects on women’s careers.

Read the entire editorial here.

Outrage Over Wall Street Pay, but Shrugs for Silicon Valley?

From the New York Times Blog “DealBook” by Steven Davidoff:

Big paydays on Wall Street often come under laserlike scrutiny, while Silicon Valley gets a pass on its own compensation excesses. Why the double standard?

Take Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive and current chairman of Google. Google’s compensation committee last month awarded Mr. Schmidt $100 million in restricted stock plus $6 million in cash. The stock vests in four years and comes on the heels of a $100 million award made in 2011.

It’s unclear why Google felt the need to award Mr. Schmidt this amount.

When asked for comment, a representative of Google directed me to the regulatory filing Google made disclosing Mr. Schmidt’s compensation award. The filing states the award was paid “in recognition of his contributions to Google’s performance in fiscal year 2013.” How about that for detail?

Mr. Schmidt already owns shares worth billions of dollars in Google, and has a net worth of more than $8 billion, according to Forbes. So the latest award amount is just a few ducats to him.

As chairman, Mr. Schmidt does make a substantial contribution to Google, including helping the company negotiate a settlement with the European Union in an antitrust case. But his pay is extraordinarily high for a chairman. The typical director at a Standard & Poor’s 500 company was paid $251,000 in 2012, according to Bloomberg News. Mr. Schmidt is above that range by over $100 million.

Still, the pay award was greeted with few questions and apparently no criticism from Google’s shareholders or others. Compare this with the continued outcry over Wall Street executive pay.

The latest was the criticism of Jamie Dimon’s pay for 2013, given the many regulatory travails of his bank, JPMorgan Chase. The bank’s board awarded Mr. Dimon $20 million in pay for 2013, $18.5 million of which was in restricted stock that vests over three years.

In doing so, the JPMorgan board stated that the award was justified because of JPMorgan’s “sustained long-term performance; gains in market share and customer satisfaction; and the regulatory issues the company has faced and the steps the company has taken to resolve those issues.”

While JPMorgan may be hogging the regulatory limelight at the moment, other Wall Street banks have faced that glare and have been questioned about their chief executives’ compensation. Total pay for Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, no stranger to regulatory scrutiny, has not yet been disclosed, but he was recently awarded $14 million in stock. Once his cash bonus is announced, Mr. Blankfein will probably be paid an amount similar to Mr. Dimon’s.

Like JPMorgan’s board, Goldman’s board has sought to justify such pay and is criticized just the same.

This double standard for finance and technology doesn’t make sense.

Read the entire article here.