Personal Memoirs of a Silicon Valley Tech Whore: Part 1
Dave Chappelle has a bit in which he talks about how this one pimp manages to "get extra mileage" from one of his (the pimps) whores who is on the brink of quitting, of breaking down. The horrible story, expertly delivered by one the greatest stand-up comedians and storytellers to ever live, is an allusion to what happened to Mr. Chappelle in Hollywood - an explanation on why he left and went to fucking Africa of all places, choosing to renounce millions of dollars, his cut from a show he created. The story is from a book written by an actual pimp:
This story resonated with me, deeply. I see a lot of parallels between Hollywood and the Tech scene - both industries can be roughly divided into "the talent" and "all the others". The people who create, build, innovate, design, mold the universe to their wishes, as it were, are the talent - the programmers, designers, UX specialists et al. Then you have all the management types, the MBAs, the executives, the VCs, the whatevers. Strictly speaking, while the latter may claim they are necessary and indispensable, they create no value of discernible dimensions. The "Geels, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution" essay illustrates this point beautifully.
I invite you to take a stroll through my life's working history, and to look at it through the lens of Pimpology. I believe you'll be no less horrified than me at the results.
Born to be Prostituted
Retrospectively, I noticed the first warning signs that something was terribly wrong during my university years. I wasn't surrounded by geeks and nerds who were passionate about programming and wanted to build cool shit. Some of them were, but the majority were these... apathetic dead-eyed, tired dudes and gals (the whole 10 of them) who suffered through the studies, moaning and groaning about programming exercises I found delightful, crying about how silly and nonsensical this whole computers business is.
They weren't bad people, they just had no passion, no real connection to the field. Even the geek-hackers among us suffered through plenty of boring ass courses about CS theory and math, so I can imagine what horrors those who didn't even like programming suffered through. So the natural question that arises is, like, why? Why, because of money of course! This was a no-brainer cookie-cutter life: go study CS, and on graduation day you can land any number of hundreds if not thousands of jobs that pay 80k a year, and that's for the avergae-to-below-average graduates.
And I can't even say that I didn't know this back then - I just sort of coasted on the fumes of youthful energy and delusions. I didn't realize, simply refused to connect the dots and see that the industry would be filled with these people, and a lot worse... that I'd be working with MBA-types that send shivers up your spine, business development slick-as-fuck assholes with their ever-shiny shoes, ego-maniacal non-technical managers that call you up in the evening screaming at you like you're their slave, sociopathic executives with delusions of grandeur, VC's that look at you and see nothing but ROI quotas, and so on and on... the types of psychological pathologies I've witnessed, the kinds of bottom-feeding degenerates I've had the misfortune to meet and work with, the shit I've witnessed human beings do one to another - and all in an environment of plenitude, in first world countries, with salaries well above 100k a year, boggles the mind. Avarice and malice knows no bounds, and evil permeates the human soul - and the worst part is that the majority of these assholes, if asked, would raise their eyebrows in astonishment and would sooner stop acknowledging your existence than consider their own moral failures. I've seen the devil: moral degeneracy that is completely self-unaware.
My first experience with actual work was during my studies - I got a sweet gig working two days a week at a huge corporation that paid me what seemed at the time ridiculous amounts of money to polish UI buttons and fix bugs in a spreadsheet-type software (groan). It was cool and exciting. But, as I was half drunk from the fumes of my own enthusiasm, I noticed that the same weary, dead-eyed and simply-cannot-be-bothered people permeated the offices of this mega corporation. I thought Dilbert was supposed to be funny, not a fucking documentary. I had a good laugh, told some stories over beers to my friends, and made a toast for better jobs in the future. Optimistic as a young lassie straight off the bus. If I could go back, I'd slap the shit out of my own self.
That first job didn't last for long. I lost interest pretty quickly - once the novelty of getting paid and going to work in this sprawling complex of cubicles filled with engineers whose lives seemed to me to be at a dead end (why in the hell would anyone over 25 work at this place, I kept wondering to myself. It was a graveyard for engineers), there wasn't any reason to remain there. I got off easy, some of the people I studied with have become institutionalized prostitutes at that place. The health insurance, you see, is pretty hard to beat. God bless.
Becoming a Silicon Valley Whore
The first job post-graduation is where I, unbeknownst to myself, officially started my career as a Silicon Valley Whore. A couple of friends from the university told me they got jobs at this one company, and that the management was cool, that they were working on technically-interesting stuff, and while the product wasn't anything spectacular or ground breaking, the money was good and you had a lot of freedom. Looking back, that is one way they get you - through your friends. First, they help to convince you sign and work there. Then, you're reluctant to leave because even though the work is shit you're having a blast with your friends. At least initially. When boredom sets and you start getting frustrated, they throw money at you - there's always some decent bulk of options just about to vest, nothing huge but significant enough for you to have serious doubts about leaving. What are 6 more months, after all. Writing this makes me sick to my stomach - this sort of "smearing" that happens, where you discount your own time and essentially trade it for your soul, at the tender age of your mid-20's - it's a deal with the devil. And you don't even realize you're doing it, that you're signing the god damn contract for your soul, because there is no contract. It just sort of happens, and bam - you find yourself in this golden cage of convenience and soon-to-vest options. You're too busy fussing over bitches and what gym to go to, and which pub to drink yourself under the table at after work (which is another warning sign you just ignore - the heavy drug abuse at that time, which we all engaged in, wasn't healthy. It wasn't fun. It was venting pure frustration, looking for something to give ourselves away to, per David Foster Wallace, because work sure wasn't cutting it).
While I was immersed in the stupidity of my mid-20's, busy consuming way too many drugs and thinking my big break is on the horizon (Ha!), I also noticed something curious about the senior, older engineers. Them guys, besides being obviously much more experienced and competent than me technically, seemed to approach things very differently than us youngins: they were mostly engaged in assuring their own future with the company. While I was dreaming about building cool next-gen shit, and worried about just how smart the code I wrote was (forget that it did the job!), they were already fully cognizant of where they were - this was no Google (of the early years, not the horror show that is the modern Google), no sonny boy, you were a worker bee at some gray security software company that peddled software no one wanted or even used, but were mandated to purchase in order to comply with governmental standards. The way to leverage this situation to your own benefit is simple - you use the same trick the very company you work at uses (but on a much smaller, personal, scale) - you make yourself indispensable, and then hike up your price until whoever's paying (the company who you're working for) can't possibly pay any more. You squeeze 'em dry.
I always wondered why we didn't use any popular open source libraries or frameworks, why we insisted on using C++ over C# (some hand-wavey explanations about performance, coming from engineers who believed that using an int was faster than using a bool because of cache alignment... which is ridiculous in itself but this was in code that was severely I/O bottlenecked anyway - hilarious shit retrospectively, though back then I was nodding along severely, trying to wrap my head around these dark arts of optimization voodoo), and why, oh why in gods love, non of this code had any fucking comments. It was all part of the plan. They wanted things to be difficult on purpose, they wanted it so that no one understood anything too deeply, to have all technical decisions go through them because they were the only ones to see the whole picture. Then, they could demand all the money in the world. They could demand to be assigned to whatever projects they wanted. They were indispensable. Meanwhile, I and the other street hookers were typing our lives away, thinking we were making progress.
So far I haven't mentioned who my pimp was at the time. Curiously, it wasn't my direct manager. The poor soul got railroaded himself - took a week-long vacation, only to come back to the ruins of what he had built for over a year: the VP R&D came in and took over, and "reconfigured" priorities and project assignments. I still remember the look of despair and complete powerlessness in his (my managers) eyes when he came back and stood in that all-hands meeting, where the changes were officially announced. I wonder if he ever went on a vacation since then, the trauma must've been that deep. Anyway, he was no pimp. The real pimp was this one guy who was real close with the founders of the company, a guy who wasn't doing all that much work as much as he was bullshitting and being away from office. A real easy-going fella, real nice to talk to, can make you feel like you've been friends since kindergarten in about 15 minutes of chit-chat. Had a knack for instilling deep trust in people, a natural P-I-M-P. To this day I haven't met anyone like him, and I'm somewhat bewildered as to why I still like him. I guess you can say he had style. He was truly fun, and you could never get him riled up - even when I tried and said some really unpleasant shit in heated moments I couldn't get under his skin. Master of Zen, King of Pimps, a fucking preordained Jedi. He was the one to hire me and place me in the team with my friends, a strategic decision, no doubt. He was also the one to prevent me from quitting when I thought I've had enough.
Every whore has her limit. Ask any pimp. A bitch can suffer only so much abuse; we all have certain limit on the mileage on our souls and psyches, we just never know the exact number. A good pimp knows to recognize when a bitch is near her limit and get that one last drop out of her. So here I was, bored out of my mind, the money stopped having any sort of meaning to me, the work itself was boring, several of my friends already quit - I was ready. I was done, at my maximal mileage - or so I believed. Then, comes in the pimp, the Jedi, and says to me "Boy, you're really talented you know, how about this - we have this nice cool project we're starting from scratch, and I want you to be there - to bootstrap it, to be responsible for the design and large portions of the implementation, I believe you can do a really good job with it". I was flattered beyond words. I didn't even think before accepting, I plunged into the project with my whole heart and soul. I worked my ass off for months, and for a time life was good. I felt like I was building something Great, that I finally got my break, my chance to show my talents, to stretch my abilities to their full extent. The team grew, we hired some really good people, and I got the chance to work with some of the best programmers in the company, people I really enjoyed working with, and the manager assigned to the project was awesome - one of the truly nice people I've had the good fortune to meet in this industry - and everything seemed to click.
And then, when we were about 20% of the way to a working product, something you can actually use in the real world, the project got cancelled. We all got called into a meeting, were told this was it and that we're all being reassigned to work on different projects. Just like that, all the hard work went down the drain. I might as well have been playing with my balls for all these months for all the good it did me (the "you must've learned a lot, and developed as an engineer" line is a sad excuse for optimism, point is the effort was completely wasted). There were some conspiratorial murmurs and whispers going around about how the project was never meant to take off, and that the higher management never even approved it and so on... but back then I didn't even care, I was just so depressed. I remained in the company for another year, not doing much besides browsing hacker news and writing dumb code-toys, mostly to amuse myself while I waited for my options to vest.
Several years go by, and I happen to meet one of my former teammates, someone who I worked with on the cancelled project. Over beers, we inevitably end up talking about the cancelled project, and why oh why it closed and wasn't the whole ordeal ridiculous. He says it sure was, and didn't I know? The project was a hoax. He laughs. I smile dumbly, waiting for an explanation. The project, he says, was never meant to take off - it didn't even make sense roadmap-wise for the future of the company, and in any case, he had the chance to talk with that one Jedi, the one who started the whole thing. The Jedi, he says, never meant for the project to become an actual product, it served only two purposes: a) talent preservation, b) talent acquisition. You think it's a coincidence, he asks, that the best programmers in the company worked on it? It was basically a summer day camp, an amusement park to attract the Cool Kids.
And this is, ladies and gentlemen, how you pimp the fuck out of young software engineers. You string them along with money, false promises of personal growth, and cool, entirely pointless projects. Along the way, you squeeze out of them the actual work you need them to do. You dangle the proverbial carrot of the Great Project in front of them, while making them work on the nasty assignments, fixing bugs, maintaining whatever god forsaken codebases your degenerate company depends on for cash flow.
... I wish I could say those were the last of my days as a Silicon Valley Whore.