Most Tech Jobs Are Jokes And I Am Not Laughing

It is a cold Anzac day in Melbourne, and I am brooding.

I've followed through on my commitment to interview in the tech industry without relying entirely on in-network referrals as I normally do (for a good reason - my network consists largely of the most competent people at mediocre companies!). It is dystopian out there. These are some anecdotes on my interviewing experience, the treatment you get as a job-seeker, and some serious reflections on whether I should just... well, outright leave the tech industry, despite the many conveniences that it affords me.


“Read ad. Send in resume. Go to job interview. Receive offer.” is the exception, not the typical case, for getting employment: Most jobs are never available publicly, just like most worthwhile candidates are not available publicly. - Patrick McKenzie

I have lived and breathed this advice since graduating, and it is the reason that I was allowed to stay in Australia while most of my peers were sent back to the extremely painful material conditions of their home countries. Nonetheless, now that I have permanent residency, I decided about two months ago that it was time to move on from working at the average company, the sad land where standup lasts an hour, management has the technical acumen of my 92-year old grandfather, someone will one day institute a compulsory return to office, and the kitchen tea is from the cheapest supplier.

Seriously, the tea in the office kitchen is disgusting to a degree that offends me. This isn't tea, it's hot leaf juice! If I'm going to be a human resource, can we at least concede that I'm an expensive human resource and warrant the extra A$5 for a real brand? It's got an aftertaste that I can only describe as "essence of licking batteries". I used to bring my own tea into the office in a little ziplock bag, but now I insist on imbibing their liquid hatred. Whenever someone asks me whether we have a good office culture, I take another sip from my mug of acid and say "I've noticed some substantial issues with management's behaviour" even as the scorching tide of face-scrunching bile ravages my taste buds. The tea is an eternal reminder of the gap between where I am, comfortable though it may be, and my fully realized potential. The tea causes me to radiate an aura that makes the thought leaders I know slightly uneasy around me. But I digress.

It has become exceedingly clear to me that the average company is not a suitable environment for someone that cares about the craft of programming. To make things worse, once your standards are high for yourself, I'm guessing that only the top 1% of companies in terms of workplace culture is not a personal offense. The only options laid out before me are:

  1. Have my own business be successful
  2. Find a top 1% company in terms of engineering culture
  3. Leave the technology space

Well, my business is bootstrapped and will take a long time to take off, so I guess I'm looking at #2. And for the record, I do take the idea of leaving the technology sector very seriously. There is much to commend it in terms of laziness, but I'm interested in doing good work with a solid team where I'm not treated like a recalcitrant toddler (where or not I am a recalcitrant toddler is very much still up for debate).

And, against my own better judgement, I decided to look for a job the normal way for the first time in my life. You see, the problem is that although I know many genuinely smart people, they all work at bad companies because I started at a bad company. There's a serious network effect in play, where I found work at an incompetent organization out of university, and my network has since spread itself to other incompetent organizations. Because they're smart, they've tended to float to lead or director roles... but the organizations themselves are still pathological. It looks like, and I am loathe to admit this, I might need to engage with the job market.

Keep my goal in mind for the rest of this post:

I want to work with serious people who are good at their jobs, affirming to spend time with, the company doesn't waste hours of my time on meetings or placating dysfunctional leadership, and the product should be one that I think that contributes meaningfully in non-trace amounts. I'm willing to take a title and a pay cut (and expect to do so when working with people who are hopefully going to be teaching me how to do this whole thing better).

Yes, that's a high standard, but is it too high? I dunno, stay in your fuckin' lane, pal. I moved to Australia explicitly so that I could be privileged, why would I stop at the amount I have now despite being grateful overall? For the inevitable person that gets upset that I haven't settled for less, I invite them to try painting themselves brown and working in Malaysia to simulate my early career.

There are more serious concerns. People often say that you should not seek all that fulfillment from work, but I've tried enough to know that I need at least something from work. I wouldn't be happy with anything less, at least until I've got kids and have bigger concerns, but that means being unhappy with work is probably the expected outcome. And to top it all off, I have the very serious constraint of wanting the work to benefit society unambiguously - and it is obvious that the strongest engineering culture in Melbourne exists at cryptocurrency companies, which I refuse to work for on principle.

In any case, there's no point complaining without trying, so I brushed up my CV, immediately interviewed at a few places, and was absolutely horrified at what people are putting up with. This industry is fucking absurd.

II. Getting Interviews

The tech industry is fundamentally unserious about how it recruits, hires, and retains candidates. About which I have a lot more to say than could fit in a tweet, but, a good thing to know. - Patrick McKenzie

I landed two interviews with about forty minutes of work, and the way I did this was absolutely horrible. You see, I had always believed that submitting a CV was some sort of stupid joke. People just vaguely skim them at best, and usually it's clear during an interview that no one actually took the time to read the damn thing. I assume the filtering is being done by someone in HR that doesn't understand the field, or possibly a recruiter that doesn't understand the field. While I have occasionally lobbed a few conventional applications over the fence, I've never received an interview. Up until now, I always found a job through my network before this became relevant.

My unsuccessful CVs talked a lot about my contributions to the company. The typical advice is to ensure that lots of quantifiable data appears on a CV - "I increased revenue by 26% by running A/B tests". My CV looked pretty good on this front, with "Reduced Snowflake expenditure by A$500,000" and "Salvaged A$1.2M machine learning platform". Yeah, it turns out that no one cares. Under a model of the world where my CV was being filtered on by people that don't understand anything about quality, we test out a new strategy, baked up in-house.

I scrubbed all the personality out of my CV and wrote the word "Snowflake" as many times as possible. If I was facing homelessness, I'd probably lie and write the word "React" as many times as possible and be employed in two days.

That alone got me two interviews immediately, in a market where people have assured me that it's next-to-impossible to get employed. You've got to work on your frog-turned-scorpion disguise, folks.

Should I be surprised that I was unhappy with the quality of those interviews? No, of course not. Do I think they're entirely representative of the market? Yes, they obviously are. The CV-based market for serious people outside of FAANG is almost entirely fictional as far as I can tell.

III. Interview One

I've seriously interviewed or been interested in four jobs in the last year that didn't come from my own network. Every single one of them, even the ones that I was picky about, were absolute fucking jokes.

A year ago, I interviewed at a company which deals in small loans, located right here in Melbourne. It's supposed to be quite serious, which huge revenues and a very fancy office. The recruiter (a guy I quite like) informed that they were looking for an excellent candidate who would really elevate the business to the next level in the data engineering space. I'm informed the interview is not technical, just a "getting to know you" conversation, but that professionalism is extremely important - I should be very careful to wear a white shirt and so on.

I enter the call, and am greeted by some guy with absolutely atrocious social skills. Within two minutes, he starts reading off questions about Databricks, eyes clearly scanning a Word document. After fielding the first few questions, I realize that he's... not stopping. We're averaging about a question per minute, until he stops to complain that my video and audio quality is making it hard to hear me (a connectivity issue that was almost certainly on his end). He says we'll continue the interview tomorrow.

I leave, confused. But I turn up the next day anyway, against my better judgement.

And he does that shit again. We don't continue the interview, he asks me the same questions, in retrospect probably off a ChatGPT-generated list, and he's got a buddy this time. They both take turns asking questions off the Word document. At the end of the interview, they ask me if I have any questions, and I fairly bluntly ask them what they're looking for in a candidate, as they hadn't indicated any interest in social or business skills. I usually ask employers what areas of the business they were struggling with, and these guys said "We have no problems" despite all evidence to the contrary. I finally snap and ask "I was told this role was for a senior who could help elevate for the practice. To avoid wasting anyone's time and to be clear, are you looking for that or for someone to just help click buttons?"

They don't even have the decency to be offended by my rudeness and reply with "Oh, we're just looking for someone to click buttons."

The recruiter calls me the next day to inform me that my question prompted them to close the role, and re-open a new one at the junior level because they only needed a ClickOps monkey.

They took my advice? They didn't realize that they just needed a nerd to push buttons? Like, what the fuck is going on over there?

IV. Interview Two

The second interview was a result of the previous interview, demonstrating that it is impossible to escape the power of human relationships. The same recruiter saw my name pop up on Seek, and sought me out for a role which involved setting up all the data engineering and machine learning capability at an organization entering the scale-up phase. I had only worked at mature companies, so this had a few things going for it.

  1. As a small organization, maybe it wouldn't be all red-tape
  2. I'm probably one of the few candidates in Melbourne who can make a serious attempt at building out both data engineering and machine learning capability from scratch
  3. It probably pays well with all those requirements

Oh boy, was I wrong.

The first thing I did to prepare for the interview was investigate the company. Their product is essentially just the software that lets people reserve desks at an office, and they had a few clients already. They were actually a subsidiary of a much larger company that had access to plenty of clients, so they were mostly facing a sales problem. However, during the course of this sleuthing, a few strange things pop up.

A few other strange things pop up.

I discovered that the CEO of the subsidiary... was the son of the parent company's CEO. Which does not necessarily mean there are some serious issues with the business - after all, perhaps he learned at the feet of a business genius from the ripe age of twelve - but let's be realistic, that's concerning.

None of their engineering staff have anything visible on their GitHub accounts - not even a project that they got two lines into and then threw away, which I honestly accept as a sign of baseline competence these days.

Finally, I hop into the interview and discover that the salary for a role described as the CTO's right-hand man, involving two sophisticated domains is... basically exactly what I earn now, doing one of those jobs in a non-leadership context. The interviewer, the CTO, argues with me saying that it's totally reasonable for one person to get all that work done inside of a few months despite the fact that entire teams of actually competent people would consider success in six months to be respectable, stating that "if you're smart and motivated, you can get amazing things accomplished", which is true but also keep those words out of your filthy mouth.

When I asked what AI features they had in mind... they had none. When I asked if AI would actually drive any sales (their real leverage was the parent company's sales team being deeply involved in office construction, not AI features) they said... they didn't know.

I pour on a little bit of charisma and secure a second round interview (and a higher salary). And despite the fact that I am basically certain that the job was mine, I was so disgusted by the treatment that I declined. Get outta here with that "we need a chatbot built" nonsense. You just import openai, get someone else to do it.

As we finish up, I offer to send them a different candidate who would be interested, and he asks me to cut the recruiter out of the process. A recruiter who previously described this guy as "extremely emotionally intelligent" and "a good guy". Cool, cool.

Those are the two jobs that I was hand-picked for.

V. Interview Three

I arrive for an interview with an international consultancy, and within thirty seconds realize that their in-house recruiter billed me as some sort of Azure specialist despite the fact that the word does not appear on my CV anymore - remember, I removed everything except the word Snowflake, and begrudgingly had one mention of AWS. They seem actually competent (though the work seemed like more of the "present yourself as a cog in some vast, soulless machinery" stuff I already get) and we parted on good terms once we realized something had gone terribly wrong.

VI. Interview Four

Interview four hasn't happened yet, and I've inferred that it probably never will, but even the application process was offensive.

A medium-sized organization in the psychology space was recently hiring for an AI lead here in Melbourne. This is something that I'm uniquely suited for, since I'm someone that has applied for their clinical training, is pretty well-qualified in the psychology space, has an AI background, and am otherwise the most competent technician that they're likely to see given their domain.

For one thing, it's obvious that they're confused, but that only makes me more eager to help them out because I really care about the mental healthcare space. They want an "AI and Automation" lead specifically, looking for someone that has extensive experience with machine learning and PowerApps, two things that have basically no overlap. The former is a domain so broad as for that requirement to be useless, and the latter is a strong indicator in industry that your team doesn't know how to engineer.

It's obvious that they don't even know how to filter for candidates, so I call their front desk to get ahold of the person that's listed on the job application, and then it all gets weird.

Firstly, they've never heard of the job, which is weird because the organization isn't that big, but nonetheless the lovely person who picked up the phone gave me the email address of the hiring manager. Oh, did I not mention that the hiring manager didn't leave contact details? We have a chat, and at least the person at the front desk liked talking to me.

After writing an email to the hiring manager (who hasn't replied yet), I realize that there's another email address way at the bottom, and it says enquiries should be directed to them. I send one more, very heartfelt, email. It includes sentences like "This is something I really care about."

They immediately respond with this even though I have been explicitly instructed to send all my communications to them:

Please direct all follow ups or applications for the position to

Being told to talk to HR at a place this disorganized is barely better than being told to go fuck myself, without the benefit of being forthright. It was at this point that I stopped bothering to look for jobs on the open market. It's probably for the best, because I should have known better than to voluntarily sign up to try and institute organizational change.

VII. Is The Tech Market Small?

It's a given that the tech industry is large - very, very large. I can't even begin to guess at how many jobs there are available for people who can make computers do things for a living. But something that I'm starting to very sincerely believe, and I don't know how it could be otherwise, is that the number of jobs for serious people is probably very, very small.

That is, if you have the goal I stated above...

I want to work with serious people who are good at their jobs, affirming to spend time with, and the company doesn't waste hours of my time on meetings or placating dysfunctional leadership. I'm willing to take a title and a pay cut (and expect to do so when working with people who are hopefully going to be teaching me how to do this whole thing better).

...then the market in Melbourne, a city with over five million people in it, might literally be between five and fifty roles serious roles. That could be off by two orders of magnitude, but it's clear that most roles that meet my criteria, even dropping the "meaningful product" requirement, are simply unavailable at most points in time, especially if you're on the open job market.

The most competent engineers I know (of the variety that want to work be on fulfilling teams, not use their power to try and transform dysfunctional teams into good ones) do not even flinch when I say something like "It feels as if 95% of engineering teams are cosplaying as being whatever we imagine real engineers to be". That, for the most part, seems to be obviously true if you work at the bajillion companies that aren't sexy enough to produce thought leadership. This explains things like why I've seen teams at major employers that store <4 kB of logs a day in fucking DynamoDB - they just read that this is what people do and want to do the cosplay better.

That is not to say that it is impossible to find good work, just that while the job market is large, the good job market is tiny. I wouldn't be surprised if finding a genuinely fulfilling job has about the same hit rate as starting a bootstrapped business from scratch.

Whenever I talk to people that worked at Pivotal Software1, while some of them agree that things weren't perfect at the company, they all largely seem to be dreaming of one day finding an organization that is even remotely as good. It's very much like watching a bunch of dwarves in the immediate aftermath of Smaugh/VMWare, roaming the lands and plying their incredible trade, but secretly only wishing that they could go back to their mountain stronghold.

I'm not anonymous anymore, so I can probably just outright name the best work culture I've seen and they have to deal with the fallout of being associated with me. This is what Taleb calls symmetry. Reader Matt Walkenhorst reached out to me last year to introduce me to Flip. They are the only team I've seen that doesn't make me want to set my head on fire. No one even knows they even exist. They've invited me to their office several times, and everyone seems to actually enjoy being there. Half the staff have the sort of demented keyboards that I know I'd barely be able to type on, at least one of them uses Emacs as their IDE, and they all talk about how happy they are to have finally found somewhere that doesn't suck.

I briefly met their CTO, Keith, over lunch with the team, and was really impressed by how normal he was. I won't quote anything spicy, but suffice it to say that the management there has strong opinions on how nonsensically the rest of the industry runs. I unfortunately didn't talk to Keith that much because it seemed extremely cringeworthy to immediately devote all my attention to the most well-titled person in the room, so the conversation was mostly Emacs focused.

VIII. Should I Leave The Tech Industry?

With the understanding that my standards for employment are extremely high, something I'm grappling with now is that it doesn't make any sense to stick around at mediocre organizations, and they are almost all mediocre if you unbrainwash yourself out of accepting the low bar.

My business only benefits from my conventional employment if I take the time to climb the ladder, which is a political exercise that I'm really good at, but being good at it comes with an understanding of how disgusting it all is.

If I set my standard to "at least as good as Flip", there's really no reason to stick around my typical employers because they aren't making me competitive for those roles. The only way to do that is self-study, because at my normal jobs I'm just slapping people on the knuckles and saying "just use Postgres, you bastards", and then they use DynamoDB anyway the moment I look away. One day, one of those people will finally clue into this blog and I want them to know that I do not forgive them for storing our ETL logs in DynamoDB. Please retire to do something that doesn't hurt my soul this badly and that you might actually have an aptitude for, like burning down orphanages or kicking puppies.

Really, shouldn't I just do something else entirely for my day-to-day expenses while I wait for Flip to open up a role? What's the point in pretending that the place that was wasting half a million dollars on their cloud spend is going to teach me anything?

There are all sorts of wonderful benefits to working at incompetent companies that have at least parts of their culture in order, such as not doing backbreaking labour and not getting screamed at by an angry Australian construction manager, but I still can't shake the feeling that I owe myself something better than "I've found a company where I can zone out of meetings to cook a healthy lunch", particularly with the Australian winter coming around, where I must once again face the reality of the sun being gone by the time I clock out.

And then I must ask myself questions such as where do I go? What would I do instead? I've earned money without depending on a company before (which everyone should try) which drastically changes one's relationship with it, but the truth is that Melbourne is very expensive. Back to clinical psychology? I'm suspicious of any plan that starts with "I pay the university system a lot of money and then my problems will be solved". Here's a relevant snippet from an obscure webcomic I discovered as a kid that was highly formative:


Become an electrician like a friend that just quit engineering? Carpentry? Automobile repair? Write a fantasy novel? Start a cult? Back to privately tutoring statistics? There are thousands of ways to make a living, that all come with different upsides and downsides, some much more fun and much less wise than others.

I live a strange dual-life, where most of the people I talk to know about my strong opinions, and basically know what my energy is. I'm anti-productivity cult, I like craftsmanship, I love tabletop RPGs and reading, I adore Terry Pratchett, so on, so forth. You can guess a lot about me from my writing. It filters for people that I love talking to. All my consultancy's advisors and our lawyer are readers, because I really have no reason to work with anyone else. Even Flip is a company I'm only aware of because of my writing. There are many, many people that I speak to these days, and I am perhaps too lavish in expending my time, but it is hard, when you can speak to another human with an open heart, to get enough of that.

When I turn up to yet another interview, and see another interviewer struggle to even treat me like a real person, I am the soot-stained dwarf, longing for my lost homeland. Are they behaving rationally? I don't actually care, I just want nothing to do with it. And no, I don't have ten years of Azure experience you fucking bastard, just skim my CV.

For now though, I think I'm done looking for a new job outside of my network, whatever that means. I suspect my new standard for a job might be work with a reader, and I'm going to look at totally different fields in the meantime. At the very least, it'll be an interesting life experience. This is something I am seriously mulling over, and any advice is welcome. Reach out with alternative fields if you left tech, jobs if you're happy at work, or with general thoughts.


Sometimes people remark on my blog and say something was depressing, and it usually surprises me what people find depressing. It is invariably the stuff that I don't find depressing at all.

Someone is reading everything I just wrote and thinking "That's depressing". There's nothing depressing there - why does it matter if most I.T jobs are cosplaying at real engineering? Are you cursed to not dream of better for yourself? Will you die the moment you stop calling yourself a software engineer? In 2024, it's not hard to do something different. Just work on yourself, treat people well, and be authentic. It'll take some time, but that's okay. It took me years of slogging to leave Malaysia for Australia, and it sucked, but it was also fine. The struggle builds character, though between us I would have preferred not struggling.

I've been reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which I picked up after learning that George Lucas was inspired to write Star Wars after reading it. You might also find it interesting to note that Lucas decided to get into film after surviving a car crash that resulted in this:


And Star Trek's Gene Rodenberry survived three plane crashes, which resulted in the deaths of many other passengers. I'm just going ahead and extrapolating that I should be bolder without risking the near-death experiences. You aren't supposed to leave steady jobs, you aren't supposed to work three days a week instead of buying a house, and you aren't supposed to critique your employers. Were those the smartest things I've ever done? Obviously yes, it just keeps paying off to be myself.

Anyway, the book is about the power of story in the human psyche. I'd like to leave with a few quotes from the foreword by Clarissa Estés:

In an ancient story called "The Conference of the Birds," a flock of a thousand birds, during a time of great upheaval and dark ness, suddenly glimpse an image of wholeness—an illumined feather. They thusly feel encouraged to take a long and arduous journey to find out what amazing bird this illumined feather be longs to.
There are some birds who also wander off the path and those who flee it. The birds are, in essence, questing for the fiery phoenix, that which can rise from its own ashes back up into illumined wholeness again. In the beginning, the thousand birds set out to enter into and pass through seven valleys, each one presenting different barriers and difficult challenges. T h e thousand birds endure increasingly hostile conditions, terrible hardships, and torments—including horrifying visions, lacerating doubts, nagging regrets. They long to turn back. They are filled with despair and exhaustion. The creatures receive no satisfaction, nor rest, nor reward for a very long time.

Thus, more and more of the birds make excuses to give up. The attrition rate continues, until there are only thirty birds left to continue this harsh flight that they all had begun with such earnest hearts—all in quest for the essence of Truth and Whole ness in life—and, beyond that, for that which can light the dark again.

In the end, the thirty birds realize that their perseverance, sacrifice, and faithfulness to the path—is the lighted feather, that this same illumined feather lives in each one's determination, each one's fitful activity toward the divine. The one who will light the world again—is deep inside each creature. That fabled lighted feather's counterpart lies ever hidden in each bird's heart.

At the end of the story, a pun is revealed. It is that Si-Morgh means thirty birds. The number thirty is considered that which makes up a full cycle, as in thirty days to the month, during which the moon moves from a darkened to a lit crescent, to full open, to ultimate maturity, and thence continues on. The point is that the cycle of seeing, seeking, falling, dying, being reborn into new sight, has now been completed.

Her poem, entitled "The Daemon," refers to the angel that each person on earth is believed to be born with, the one who guides the life and destiny of that child on earth. In the piece, she questions this greater soulful force about going forward in life. The daemon answers her quintessential question with the ancient answer:

It said, "Why not?"
It said, "Once more."

These responsories are an echo from twenty-one hundred years ago, when the venerable first-century-BCE rabbi, Hillel, encouraged in his mishnah, "If not now, when?" This simple and powerful encouragement to go on with the journey has been expressed in different words, at different times, to the yearning but timid, to the uncertain, the jaded, the hesitant, the dawdlers, the postponers, the fakers, the foolish, and the wise. Thus, since the beginning of time, humanity has lurched, walked, crawled, dragged, and danced itself forward toward the fullest life with soul possible.

Others, including the Persian poet-priest Kabir, tell instructive stories through poetry using themes like this: First thing in not too much to say that an abundance of compelling and unpredictable heroic stories can re-enspirit and awaken a drowsing psyche and culture, filling both with much-needed vitality and novel vision. From the ancient storytellers to the present, the idea has always been: As go the souls that lead, so goes the culture. In the morning, do not rush off to work, but take down your musical instrument and play it. Then test your work in the same way. If there is no music in it, then set it aside, and go find what has music in it again.

I suppose that's all for now. As I mentioned, I'm still on the lookout to work with readers, and I don't terribly care if it's even paid so long as it's a fun team or with an open source project, so please reach out. In the meantime, I'm going to be thinking about what to do while I wait for work that has music in it, sending an application in to Flip for the heck of it, spending the day with my partner, and, most importantly, making some non-corporate tea.

  1. Which Jesse Alford describes during my recently released third podcast episode