A few years ago, someone shared this little axiom with me: Spending someone else's money and shooting down ideas. Those are two things that are easy to do. To be honest, they had phrased it better than that, albeit a little more black and white. Maybe it sounded a bit more like this:
You won't find two things easier to do than spend someone else's money or shoot down an idea.
Close enough. That little turn of phrase has stuck with me for a while now. I've been thinking about the spending someone else's money part for a few years since I started working as a programmer, often for companies with venture capital (VC) funding. Last year, I moved to work for a smaller company that has no funding (and is employee owned, at that), and the shift between the two has given me enough distance from VC-backed companies that I've realized I truly don't understand the system. I can live without understanding things (or so I tell myself) but I have collected a few observations.
From my perspective as an Individual Contributor (IC), looking up the rungs of the ladder at the founders or C-level people of a VC-backed company, I've seen some interesting manifestations of how easy it is to spend other people's money.
But before I get into those observations, I should mention that I have no groundbreaking thoughts on how things got to be this way. As far as I'm concerned regarding venture capitalism, some rich people wanted to get richer, and so they made some bets. Some won big, and so other rich people did the same thing. And the periphery of the hunt for the unicorn startups grew wider and wider. It's reductive. I'm no economist.
Let's talk about perks
Back to those observations, though. In my work, having never worked for a massive tech company (Google, Meta, etc) I've still gotten some perks at previous companies:
- a free lunch every week
- some $400 to spend on health and wellness every year
- A "set up your home office budget" of $500
- The ability to keep my old laptop after 3 years of working at a place.
- Free tickets to one concert a year
Not bad, right? Compared to other company's much bigger than my last, these are actually some pretty low-key perks. I've heard of people getting some $2,000 a year to spend on health and wellness. $1000 to spend on home office. $300 a month to spend on… whatever you want. The list goes on.
Some of the perks I'm describing come from companies that are indeed public and have successfully graduated out of being VC funded and into the world where everyone can inspect their finances and growth (or shrinking, for that matter). Not being VC funded doesn't mean this kind of treatment stops; there is certainly enough money floating around for the perks.
Having come from an industry outside of technology, and being mostly self-taught, I find myself looking at this sort of thing as pretty bizarre. But, the longer you stay in it, the more you start to consider it normal. When I first entered working in tech, I thought some of the people I worked with were a tad bit entitled. Now I see that (at least most of them) had just gotten used to working in a profession that pampers people.
Beyond that, people within this little dome of perks don't really talk about this subject often . Of the one or two times it has come up, it was a pithy comment and conversation changed course (we had work to do). One ex-coworker said something to the effect of, I just consider my job to the effect of VC investors are spending their dollars feeding my family.
I get it, no one is going to bite the hand that feeds, especially when it feeds you so well. But even talking about it can feel like taboo, as if a discussion about it would make the whole facade come crashing down. At the end of the day, it feels like a pyramid of capitalism, where even the lowest, building blocks (ICs) get treated so well (compared to other fields: teaching, nursing, etc) that we don't want to spoil it for ourselves .
But, in my own way, when I was stood upon by those up the pyramid, I started to see some repercussions for myself. I didn't really mind being stood on, I minded navigating the ambiguities of a company that has little to no fire under it, where accountability has gone dormant or deep underground. At times, it felt as though there was little immediate thought of perishing (I'm generalizing, bear with me). For some of these companies, it seemed like the worst-case scenarios for the people at the top would be the need to convince more investors to dump more money in. If that should fail, the minds behind the project could start another company, invest in another company, or be snapped up by another company .
A digression: the bullshit job
It was only after I left my last job that I realized how much (how little) time I worked. I had joined as a technical writer, taking a needed break from programming, and spent nearly two years with little work to do. I had acquired the infamous bullshit-job. The signs were there, but only in hindsight.
At the beginning, I tried to make work to do. This was met with ambiguous verbal discouragement. So, I backed off. I needed the time to rest, anyway, so rest I did. I did my work, it was met with satisfaction. While I recovered from a minor burn out at my previous job, I started to draw. Then paint. Then I started to program again. All on company time, all while still attending meetings, doing what was asked of me. And repeat.
Some people commended me for this. Some said that the forty-hour work week was over and that so long as I got my work done to my and my team's satisfaction, it didn't matter. I believed this, and somewhat still do (circumstances dependent).
But what lingered was a sense of dissatisfaction and plenty of guilt (contextually, this was around 2020). But at the root, I think humans want to contribute positively with their capacities to work. This has been documented in many places — including Bullshit Jobs. And while I was happy to be improving at painting and drawing, those were internal tasks. I wasn't taking those to the world.
Eventually, I would join a team again, at the same job, transferring back into programming. Immediately I felt better. I was relieved of guilt, I felt like I was learning and improving at my craft, and I was part of a team. We were all moving in the same direction.
When I left that team 8 months later when my current job was offered to me, I realized how much time I had squandered in terms of staying sharp at my work. It would have been wise to seize those two years and put them to use studying and learning (or look into a potential career shift if it was true that I was over programming). I’m not beating myself up over it—but it was a good lesson.
I've since stepped back from this story to try to be less myopic. I understand that corporations are full of inefficiencies, places to hide, non-work to be done; take all of that and put it on top of the standard cruelties the hegemony act on minority groups. I make no claim to understand how dysfunction and non-work can happen in workplaces; it's truly beyond me. But still, this experience and several others leading up to it, pulled back the wool on a few things, so to speak. For a long time, I had a child's perception of work, conceptually, where fairness, collaboration, and efficiency were present and considered .
Back to the money spending
With all that said, I think the chances of the above occurring are higher when the financial foundation of your company is built on the investments of people who are far removed from what you're actually doing. As the rich gamble on the less rich, it opens up cracks in the foundation where people like myself can sit and have a slow-motion existential crisis (other people seem to be better at dealing with this and just play video games during work hours).
As we spend money that isn't ours, accountability can distance itself for the people doing the work. Why should I care? This isn't to say that the people and groups providing the investment money aren't aware of this; it is, I imagine, all well and understood and part of taking the risk. I also imagine that VCs are already sufficiently tuned into a specific understanding of human nature in the realm of work, which presumably helps them to get more wealthy.
Out of the forest
So, as I tried to describe above, for a time I was wandering around a misty forest, trying to feel like a contributor. I learned a few things, and I hope to learn some more each time I enter and exit the forest . Since then, I've also re-stumbled onto 80,000 hours, a non-profit that tries to help you make an informed decision about how you wish to spend your career.
I don't necessarily see myself making a radical change any time soon to attempt to fill a career-shaped-hole inside me. In fact, taking a job where a VC-fund effectively feeds my family doesn't really matter to me so much as that that is what I want.
As I've watched people spend other people's money, as that money has benefitted me over the past several years in multiple ways, I've seen how low the stakes were for me, down here at the bottom of the pyramid; I see how far I have been from pushing my boundaries and moving beyond my limits. And as you expect, it's mighty comfortable here.
But please — reach out and let me know what you think, even if it is easy to shoot down an idea.
My own complexes, guilt and a desire for fairness are usually driving my desire to talk about these things. Generally, these thoughts aren't comfortable fodder for conversations over free lunch . ↩︎
And while you could argue that tech is exemplifying the future of work (I am not arguing that), it doesn't mean a transition away from the previous status quo and culture of work wouldn't feel challenging, or that questioning it wouldn't feel taboo in the face of how other's must work. ↩︎
I wouldn't say this was true all the way down the pyramid (especially with the wide swathes of layoffs). ↩︎
Considering the cards I was dealt, I can see how I arrived with this naivety in tow. ↩︎
This will probably be my new norm for the next few years as I've since become a consultant, who sometimes works for VC-backed companies. ↩︎