Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hi Tech Sweat Shops

Grim account of working at HubSpot, a tech start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
I joined the company in 2013 after spending 25 years in journalism and getting laid off from a top position at Newsweek. I thought working at a start-up would be great. The perks! The cool offices!

It turned out I’d joined a digital sweatshop, where people were packed into huge rooms, side by side, at long tables. Instead of hunching over sewing machines, they stared into laptops or barked into headsets, selling software.

Tech workers have no job security. You’re serving a “tour of duty” that might last a year or two, according to the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, who is the co-author of a book espousing his ideas, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. Companies burn you out and churn you out when someone better, or cheaper, becomes available. “Your company is not your family,” is another line from Mr. Hoffman’s book.

His ideas trace back to a “culture code” that Netflix published in 2009, declaring, “We’re a team, not a family.” Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position.” In this new model of work, employees are expected to feel complete devotion and loyalty to their companies, even while the boss feels no such obligation in return.

Unfortunately, working at a start-up all too often involves getting bossed around by undertrained (or untrained) managers and fired on a whim. Bias based on age, race and gender is rampant, as is sexual harassment. The free snacks are nice, but you also must tolerate having your head stuffed with silly jargon and ideology about being on a mission to change the world. Companies sell shares to the public while still losing money. Wealth is generated, but most of the loot goes to a handful of people at the top, the founders and venture capital investors.

The Netflix code has been emulated by countless other companies, including HubSpot, which employed a metric called VORP, or value over replacement player. This brutal idea comes from the world of baseball, where it is used to set prices on players. At HubSpot we got a VORP score in our annual reviews. It was supposed to feel scientific, part of being a “data-driven organization,” as management called it.
How do we bring an end to this? Can Americans be brought to support European-style job security rules? I doubt that corporations will ever change policy on their own, since some of the grimmest places to work (e.g., Amazon) seem to be the most successful.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"How do we bring an end to this? Can Americans be brought to support European-style job security rules?"

Considering the cocniptions spawned in the average American when they catch even a hint of "socialism", I'm not that this behavior can be ended any time soon.

It ultimately boils down to which values we as a people choose to promote and tolerate. We have a pretty deeply imbedded streak of selfishness and ruthlessness in America currently which is going to take a lot of work to uproot and replace with more wholesome notions.

Unfortunately, I suspect change will come, as it so often does, in a generational wave. Young people growing up with these awful behaviors and values will perhaps recoil from and reject them, and work to supplant them. Or maybe they'll just accept them as "the way of the world", and grudingly live with them. Maybe it'll take things getting far worse to motivate a pushback against it all. Who can say?

Possibly the starting point for leveraging away from this situation will come alongside the minimum wage debate. In the course of demanding a fair living wage for all Americans, people might also start demanding job security and fair working conditions. But there's going to be a lot of resistance - America by and large hates workers, hates unions, hates regulations, hates "big government", and so on.