in Culture, Information Technology

About that Amazon story, or, on burnout in tech

One of the things that bothers me most about America is that it’s not enough to like something or be good at something. You have to aim to be the best. Apparently, things are not worth doing unless you do them to the extreme, which presumably is why workout regimes like CrossFit are so popular. You’re not really working out unless you’re doing an Olympic-level workout. (Presumably, after you’re seriously injured, you’re not having “real” surgery unless you’re going to the most expensive hospital.)

It’s therefore really weird for me to read articles like the New York Times’ recent “exposé” about Amazon’s culture and working conditions. (I use the word loosely, as the topic has been covered before.) The quote that stood out for me was the ex-marketing person who said, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” I laughed because I feel like that’s all of tech. Here we are in an industry where even someone who is a junior software developer is paid a starting salary twice that of a cop or a teacher. Yet those developers feel inadequate for not being immensely “successful” right out of the gate. Several years later, they’ll often demand to be promoted to “senior”, because they feel that’s the pace they should be advancing, even if they haven’t actually have acquired the skills to justify that moniker (which, by the way, in my books includes mostly skills that have nothing to do with one’s code; that’s a topic for another time). But skills apparently don’t matter, because it’s primarily about money and the title. It is this relentless pace across the tech industry — and really, the world economy, because tech is in service of the buying and selling of goods — that leads to burnout. Yet we don’t seem willing to discuss the underlying tectonic forces in our economic system.

Tech burnout, too, is a symptom of the way we in America glorify individual achievement. It’s a systemic thing that has little to do with the tech field specifically, except that the pressures are often significantly higher. Venture capitalists, after all, are investing in tech not because they necessarily believe in the products, but because it is a better performing asset class with shorter horizons for return-on-investment. Many books in the “lean startup” movement describe failure as a healthy part of learning, but there’s an insidious undercurrent to these words: the assumption that those who have failed will always rise again to even greater things (translation: generate a better ROI next time).

It’s said that failure is what ultimately produces winners. But what about the folks that fail and never recover, or choose not to? Take my brother-in-law for example, who started an agricultural business that collapsed in the 2007-2008 financial crisis. He doesn’t seem eager to ever repeat that adventure, so despite the fact that he’s my age, he’ll probably work for someone else for the rest of his life. But the American Dream says that he’s actually a failure, because like a phoenix, he’s supposed to rise from the ashes. Instead, he’s made a choice for himself, after what he’s been through, to prioritize his family and a steady income over the turmoil of being an entrepreneur. Yet still we judge him for his choices because they don’t fit the accepted narrative; even I do, much as I try not to. The culture is insidious.

I’ve long believed that this relentless drive for speed in technology delivery is going to lead us to crash and burn in many ways: economically, socially, emotionally. You can’t simply keep whipping a horse to go faster and faster, because it will fall over. But that’s exactly what we’re doing in the technology industry today. Relentless optimization for speed of delivery, really, is just a downstream effect of investors attempting to achieve a greater return on investment in a shorter period of time over their other investment classes. This behavior will lead to ruin as the expected “hockey stick” growth curves and short time horizons for realization of a 10x ROI apply unnecessary pressure to technology companies and to the humans working for them. It leaves no time to try to build something high-quality and enduring for our society, or even to get a group of disparate humans with disparate ideas to work closely together. All that is lost in the quest for a high return and a rush to the exit as soon as possible. And this time when the bubble bursts, the effects will be worse than 1999-2001, because technology is now so intertwined with the rest of society.

If you want to know why tech burnout exists as a problem, have a look at the incentives under the hood and the economic systems under which our society operates. Beyond the monetary impacts of a collapse, though, is the human impact. Sad to say, I expect to see the amount of anxiety and depression in tech workers rise over time, as well as the number of suicides. The riskiest thing about working for a startup isn’t that the startup will fail to achieve product-market fit, or acquire customers, or any of the other myriad things that can go wrong in product development. The riskiest thing is that working there could actually kill you.

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  1. First, thanks for the good read, Julian.

    I don’t believe it’s really an “America” thing. I’d argue that Japanese business culture is worse (or better depending on POV), even if the approach there or reasoning is more introspective. Germany perfection standards? I’m sure there are plenty of others.

    It would be interesting to research the previous instances of this in the world over the last century, because surely startups are not the first place this has happened. I have to believe this exists in any highly competitive and/or money-driven industry (which is all of them). Profit-driven “Time to market” pressure isn’t new, and “market” hasn’t been a physical location in a long time in tech. I wonder, too, how the software world now compares to, say, 1988-1998. There are books written about the nearly 24/7 workweek at Microsoft and other large boxed-software non-startup companies. One could even argue that rapid delivery of features nowadays, and the removal of physical software media delivered to shelves, removes some amount of a specific type of pressure that used to exponentially build before release or explosion. I’m not suggesting that pressure’s less per se, I just mean that it’s distributed very differently.

    Okay, enough from me. I have a deadline.

  2. I was going along reading this, thinking to myself, “welp, it beats digging ditches for a living,” which is my usual retort when the going gets tough for me as a tech worker — until I got to this part: It leaves no time to try to build something high-quality and enduring for our society, or even to get a group of disparate humans with disparate ideas to work closely together.

    That is super incisive and sad. Most of the folks I have worked with aren’t chasing the paycheck, but are drawn to technology by the promise of how it can improve people’s lives. And as you know, I’m personally kind of a big fan of helping people work together in teams that can effect change. So yeah, if in the end we are just cranking out pulpy junk in a race to the finish, and not forming meaningful relationships along the way (except perhaps those rooted in shared experiences of pain), that is a major bummer.