Jan 04, 2018

Two lenses on working in tech

Found myself reading again Susan Fowler's magnificent One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber (a). It should probably be required reading for everyone considering working at a tech company.

Nestled among Fowler's saga of sexual harassment & institutional response (which is hard to excerpt and you should really just read the whole thing if you haven't already) is this gem:

In the background, there was a game-of-thrones political war raging within the ranks of upper management in the infrastructure engineering organization. It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor's job. No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: they boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like. I remember countless meetings with my managers and skip-levels where I would sit there, not saying anything, and the manager would be boasting about finding favor with their skip-level and that I should expect them to have their manager's job within a quarter or two. I also remember a very disturbing team meeting in which one of the directors boasted to our team that he had withheld business-critical information from one of the executives so that he could curry favor with one of the other executives (and, he told us with a smile on his face, it worked!).

I haven't had direct contact with this sort of political craziness myself, which I'm very grateful for. But my guess is that it's not unique to Uber.

It also seems very hard to get a read on how things actually are at a firm without being there yourself. Compare Uber's perfectly manicured Careers site with the perfectly manicured site of someplace similar. Are they really so different?

Compare also Uber's glassdoor ratings with those of someplace similar. Uber is 4.2 out of 5 (average of 1,800 ratings), whereas our comparison firm is 4.1 out of 5 (average of 1,100 ratings). Can we be confident that similar socio-political shenanigans aren't going on elsewhere, when Uber looks like such a great place to work from the outside?

This isn't to say that every place in tech is clearly as problematic as Uber. And there's probably a lot that's great about working at Uber too – that 4.2 isn't entirely astroturfed.

I think the lesson here is that to really understand how a place is, you need to actually spend time there. At the very least, you need to talk with multiple, trustworthy insiders who won't just give you the company line. The view from the outside is insufficient information.