What The Goddamn Hell Is Going On In The Tech Industry?

Sweet merciful Jesus, I woke up this morning and my inbox was flooded with horrific stories about how employers treat people. I knew things were fucked, but this was so much worse than I imagined, and that's not even getting into the comments on Hackernews. I am going to dig into some of those emails, but first...

I usually don't waste time on the negative comments because usually the person making it has obviously gulped down so much corporate Kool-aid that I am afraid they will projectile vomit Agile terminology all over me, but there was one that was so funny that I had to share it.

With regards to my post on saving half a million dollars:

There is a high likelihood that many other people in the org were lightyears ahead of the author. It's even more likely that an engineer or manager in their group was "Banking" the inefficiencies to use during a cost-cutting period - and the author ruined that chance... which will inevitably cause massive suffering and possibly poor performance reviews when there is nothing to trim."

My brother in Christ, I have a blog that is largely about corporate dysfunction and the soul-cost it imposes on well-meaning engineers, and you think that I'm the problem because someone else was deliberately wasting money so that they could pretend to save it later? In the words of the late Hitchens, "Do you see what brain rot descends on people?"

Incidentally that wasn't what was happening here, they really just never checked the database defaults. I'm sure someone is out there by 5-dimensional hyper-chess by deliberately going over the budget by a billion percent, but rest assured that this is not the simplest explanation. The whole idea that management must have a reason to do something this stupid is something I toyed with for a while, but it really only applies to the minority of cases.

I. We're Just Wasting Like 30-90% Of All Technical Productivity

I am near absolutely convinced that the vast majority of our species' ability to produce things of value for the human race is just utterly squandered at large companies. I suspected we were wasting about 50%, but the volume of stories I got, frequently from serious companies, including some of the FAANG places that mere normal engineers like me look up at in awe while we worship at the altar of StackOverflow, just blew my mind. A lot of them involved doing variations of almost exactly what I did in different stacks, and every single time management just buried what happened.

If you recognize yourself in these emails but didn't give me permission to write an email, then it isn't actually you, it turns out these stories are so similar that they really do sound the same.

I received:

  1. A few stories about idling EC2 instances, totaling a total of about $4,000,000 saved per month, which management buried to avoid looking bad.
  2. Another guy that discovered the same optimisations I made, with the same result from management.
  3. Some security guys that just... I don't even know what to say about these stories, but quite a few stories were about finding out that a large proportion of a company's servers were infected with malware or mining cryptocurrency, which management, guess what, buried.
  4. A guy, whose story deserves a whole post on its own, involving being told he's "not a team player" because he didn't stop someone else from flooding a server with crypto-bots.
  5. Some people discovering other multi-million dollar optimisations that were ignored because they didn't have admin credentials, so they had to write suggestions which were ignored.

There were some others, with a handful genuinely seeming to possibly add up to billions of dollars saved industry-wide, but the largest payout anyone ever received in the emails was $5K. Sampling bias, yadda yadda, listen, I'm pretty sure things are just fucked up.

The best story, which I have verified is true beyond all reasonable doubt, involved literally saving a colleague's life with immense personal effort and in traumatic circumstances, which was rewarded by not getting the rest of the day off and $50.

Like what the fuck is going on out there? I mean, I guess we already know what's going on out there - keeping a large company efficient is actually an unsolvable problem. I suspect that if you want to build a modern GPU, you just have to be able to sustain all that inefficiency or... you don't get to have anything that takes more than 50 people (or something in that range) to make. It's just all so much worse than I thought.

In fact, while a lot of those stories were bad, most of them probably weren't the worst places because most of the readers here are actually super talented engineers, which was evident from their excellent writing skills, open source contributions, and rugged good looks. The worst places wouldn't have any talented engineers. Like, Christ, let that sink in. It's like thinking you're in Hell with a few other people, desperately hanging on, then realizing that just in the next room is Super Hell which consists entirely of demons torturing each other.

Ack, it makes my skin crawl just thinking about it. There's a team out there where the main drama isn't one right faction and one wrong faction, there are two factions fighting to the death over how best to use a spreadsheet as a database for a production application. I feel like this has to be stopped but I don't have the strength.

It is fucking awful out there. Maybe we should set up a support group.

II. The Other Side

The other thing I wanted to highlight is that there were three kinds of respondents, both via email and on Hackernews.

The first type, my favourite commenters, whose grim-faced no-nonsense corporate visages grace standups across the world. Thanks to their fearless leadership and keen business sense, I have it on good authority that all projects are scheduled to move from red status to green status despite all those risks unfortunately materializing, which is no one's fault in particular. Despite the various challenges we have faced over the years and lack of forward progress, I think this retro is the one where things are going to change.

The second type, the vast majority, who read this stuff and immediately suffer flashbacks. My heart goes out to you, my kin. As a few people wrote in, don't let the bastards grind you down.

And the mythical third type, who aren't sure whether my stories are real. Like, they just assume that I must be making stuff up, because how could anyone do their work so ineffectively? God, I wish I was them. I read stories similar to mine and can just tell that they're true. I really, really wish I couldn't - if only I could toggle my brain back to that sweet pre-employment state, where I knew there would be some minor inefficiencies and I'd have a great time tackling them. Before I realized that wasting ten years of someone's career on a task that doesn't need to be done is actually a rounding error for many companies, and that some absolute clowns would spend all their time trying to gaslight their peers into believing the work was accomplishing anything.

Some of the third type are obviously actually also working at really stupid companies, but just accept the social fiction. It's probably good for them. However many of the others actually work somewhere functional, and their experience is so far divorced from the average engineer's that I only have one friend that has worked at both a good and a bad place - and I keep a lot of friends in the tech space between being pretty extroverted and this blog.

There's just some massive unwashed mass of utterly stupid companies where nothing makes any sense, and the only efficiencies exist in the department that generates the money to fund the other stupid stuff, and then a few places doing things halfway right. The places doing things right tend to be characterized by being small, not being obsessed with growth, and having calm, compassionate founders who still keep a hand on the wheel. And the people that work there tend not to know the people that work elsewhere. They're just in some blessed bubble where the dysfunction still exists in serious quantities, but that quantity is like 1/10th the intensity of what it is elsewhere.

However, it's really hard to tell these people apart.

Anyway, what I'm saying is, hold out hope. I'm aiming to keep a few conversations going with people via email that have made the jump, and I'm hoping to write up a guide on how to most effectively follow suit. If I can help even a handful of readers connect with like-minded peers and escape their hellish office settings, that would be enough good to last me a lifetime.

Plus then I can probably do some corporate backstabbing and stay karma-positive. Take me to management, baby, I want to buy an expensive hammock.