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Taking the shine off the Apple (and FB and Google)
What it means to be a developer is changing
Vicki’s Note: We’re really circling the drain of what’s left of America in 2020, aren’t we? I have nothing smart or relevant to contribute to the dialogue around BLM and police brutality, except to say that I am extremely disappointed in our government and law enforcement systems. If you only read one thing, please make it Jowanza’s post, where he describes what experiencing racism is like on a daily basis, in a lot of small ways that add up to one enormous burden.
Art: Carousing Computers, Eileen Agar, 1988
In The Soul of a New Machine, Tracey Kidder, a journalist observing team trying to build new computer hardware in 1981, writes,
“Much of the engineering of computers takes place in silence, while engineers pace in hallways or sit alone and gaze at blank pages.”
The work of programming has always been mostly portrayed as the interaction between a person at a keyboard and the machine, a quiet, internal struggle that occurs as the programmer tries to bend the computer to their will. Ultimately, the programmer is trying to write code that flips ones to flip to zero, and zeroes to ones.
Everything in programming is the process of flipping ones to zeros. Neural nets are ones and zeros, so is your Netflix playlist, so are the millions data centers cranking away in the cloud, turning all of our clicks and likes into electronic signals that other computers process.
A Beautiful Grind
It’s a very hard process, programming. For instance, take this recent rant on how hard it is to get up and rebuilding an old Android app. There is nothing outwardly glamorous about programming: it can often be a tedious, slow, grind where you’re constantly trying to reason your way through a million pieces of code. It’s like untangling and plugging together random combinations of a hundred thousand strings of Christmas lights all at once and trying to make sure the whole tree turns on.
And that’s just your own code. It’s even worse when you’re dealing with code written by other people, which most of programming is. Just look at all these Reddit postswhere programmers new to the workforce are wondering if fixing up apps is all there is.
No doubt about it, most programming is tedious, and most programming is maintenance work.
But somehow, over the past 20 years, that slow, needling, nitpicky, climbing through the darkness process has been transformed with sparkle and glamour, to the point where it has become not only cool, but sexy and desirable to be a developer.
They’re no longer sitting and arguing about arcane memory allocations away from the business people. They all now have cool laptop stickers, go to conferences, and are all legally required to wear nice glasses. (Guilty, guilty, and guilty, btw.)
Something happened in the last 30 years where developers transformed from some nerds sitting in the company’s basement, to the driving force of the company itself. Developers now have a lot of power, and, consequently, are doing just as much work in building companies as in building the code.
From dev/null to 10x developer
What happened? After the dotcom bubble and the housing bubble in the early 2000s, the economy bounced back, and with it came the venture capitalists. With the successes of companies like eBay, Yahoo, and Google, as well as a more stable American macroeconomy, the web rebounded, and so did the smaller company ecosystem around it.
Armed with laptops and inspired in large part by the essays of YCombinator’s Paul Graham and exhortations that shaking up industries and breaking up worlds was sexy, people flocked to Silicon Valley to start building companies using code as a force multiplier.
With the nascent rise of the cloud (AWS officially launched in 2006), computers were getting smaller and much, much easier to manage. At the same time, Apple introduced the iPhone which brought a whole new wave of both apps and developers into the market. And, as the number of users of the internet increased, the adtech market expanded to reach them and to subsidize many of the companies just starting out.
All of a sudden, flush with VC cash and subsidized by adtech, everyone was starting tech-based companies. There were companies that would drive you to your destination in black cars, companies that would do your laundry, companies that were spinoffs from Facebook, and companies that serviced all of the above and got rich (cough: AWS.) Programming became glamorous and sparkly.
Even Zuck, already riding high as a CEO for a long time, took a few minutes to come down from his cyborg tower to roll up his sleeves and make Jarvis, a very uncanny-valley level AI that was ultimately able to tell him his parents were at the door of one of his five adjacent houses.
As the platforms developers work on become larger and larger (and the volumes of data continue to grow with them) and impact more and more people (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and all the rest,) more developers came to Silicon Valley to try to make their luck by getting in early with stock options, which meant that the platforms now had to compete for good talent, which means the hype cycle grew on itself. Soon, pretty crazy things started happening in Silicon Valley.
Riding the uber-wave
Uber was one of these companies. In her book “Whistleblower”, Susan Fowler, who several years ago wrote the amazing post on which the book is based, writes that, before she started, Uber’s corporate culture was enormously alluring, the hottest in Silicon Valley.
“I [asked] my software engineer friends what they thought. Every one of them had the same answer: Uber was the cool place to work, it was the best place to do cutting edge engineering work, it was the place everyone wanted to be.”
Susan continues about her first holiday party at Uber,
“Inside, everyone was dressed to the nines, laughing and mingling over drinks under dancing, flashing lights. In another room, there was a ‘silent disco,’ where everyone wore headphones in which a DJ’s music was blaring. Staff members waited at the walkway between the two buildings, where they were handing umbrellas to party guests.
All of that pales in comparison to the infamous Vegas holiday party that Mike Isaac, a journalist at the New York Times, describes in his outsider look at Uber, “Super Pumped.”
Kalanick spared no expense. Uber rented hundreds of rooms up and down the strip at Bally’s, the Quat, the Flamingo, and others. Each employee was given Visa prepaid credit cards filed with money for food, fun, and festivities. They didn’t always need them; the private parties were stocked with free food and open bars.
Both Fowler and Isaac describe the formation of a specific kind of culture around these Silicon Valley companies: individualistic, aggressive, and very competitive, slathered over with a lot of feel-good extras on top, like ping pong tables, free dinners and a mentality that, if you were flipping ones and zeros for one of these companies, you were changing the world.
In 2011, during a programming conference sponsored by Twilio, a video emerged that I thought embodied the spirit of what the top companies were like at the time. Rob parodies and completely leans into the nascent term “brogrammer.” After the video, “brogrammer” spread like wildfire around the tech community, and then through the tech press.
In the larger tech market outside of Silicon Valley, things weren’t as extreme. A data scientist is a statistician who lives in San Francisco, went the joke at the time, and I definitely felt some of that VC-money tinged pixie dust, even all the way in the conservative Philadelphia job market.
As Fowler put it, we got used to taking for granted being handed a multiple-thousand dollar Macbook Pro to sit around in jeans and push code all day. The individualistic, quiet culture of programming became infused with the hyper-orgiastic, optimistic culture of Silicon Valley-flavored capitalism, and the two collided. Salaries in Silicon Valley skyrocketed as the companies competed with each other for top talent. It became not unusual to receive an offer that, taking into account equity that vested over a number of years, could take your total compensation to well over $300k, if you could pass the whiteboard interview.
And, a rising tide lifted all boats. As every company, whether they were in tech or not, competed to be Apple, the demand for developers only continued to grow.
Developer bootcamps became flooded with people also wanting to live the dream. People on YouTube started giving tours inside the big company offices. In probably the most interesting and bizarre trend, programmer influencers started popping up on Instagram.
Additionally, people with thousands of followers started tweeting inspirational content about the glamour of programming, making it seem easy and interesting.
All this was bound to end, as all good and terrible things do. In 2016, the American election sent the media scrambling into a tailspin looking for ways to justify what happened. Social media filter bubbles and election tampering became a key talking point. During that same year, Cathy O’Neil published “Weapons of Math Destruction,” thus kicking off a previously-untapped examination of ethics in machine learning algorithms. In 2017, Susan released her blog post about Uber.
In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit Facebook During the same year, Google, who had long been under the questionable leadership of Eric Schmidt, finally removed “Don’t Be Evil” from the corporate code of conduct.
Then, finally, the mainstream tech media started waking up to the idea that maybe the tech companies had gotten too large (good companies don’t scale) and needed some sort of external control that internal black box leadership was not providing.
For the past couple years the tech press, and finally, the federal government, has been hitting the tech giants harder, which in turn is having a ricochet effect on the industry as the top people in the industry start thinking about what exactly they’re building and why.
Developers started to become vocal. Recently, there were the Google employees that quit over the drone project. There are the employees who quit GitHub over their work with ICE. Kickstarter began to unionize.
It started to look a little less sexy to work at a big tech company. Not by too much. After all, they were still forking over hundreds of thousands of dollars in total compensation packages. But maybe enough to make you pause for a minute.
But all of a sudden, it started to look like maybe writing complex distributed systems was actually the easiest part of being a developer. The harder part was actually navigating through these behemoth company cultures.
The World Turned Upside Down
And then after all of that, 2020 completely changed the game, again. First, coronavirus directly exposed all the weaknesses in the economy, one of which was the VC-funded sector of companies completely not making any money whatsoever. A lot of companies that hired quickly began layoffs just as quickly, leaving thousands of people in the lurch. Google, a stalwart, stopped hiring for the year. Tech sector darlings like StitchFix and Airbnb, all shed staff extremely quickly.
Companies outside of the VC space that actually make revenues also started to cut costs, and hiring was one of the first things frozen for many of these as well, particularly at once-darling Uber, where the CEO, true to Uber form, rejected managers’ appeals to take paycuts to save jobs.
Second, almost all white collar workers started working at home immediately, throwing the market into uncertainty and changing the salary negotiations game. If you can now hire from the entire market, you can now afford to have a lot more people compete for the same position.
And you can also adjust the salary based on the market you’re hiring into, which is exactly what Facebook talked about doing.
The Facebook chief executive laid out the company’s future remote-working plans during a videoconference with employees Thursday. Zuckerberg said Facebook will “aggressively” ramp up the hiring of remote workers, though not all employees would be allowed to permanently work from home, at least at the start.
And those who choose to work where the cost of living is less should expect to be paid less. “That means if you live in a location where the cost of living is dramatically lower, or the cost of labor is lower, then salaries do tend to be somewhat lower in those places,” Zuckerberg said.
There are a lot of theories about what this will do to the labor market. Mine is that it will, in the long-term make a lot more jobs accessible to a lot more people, but that it will also flatten salaries and create a premium for people who are willing to risk COVID to come into an office.
Of course, it remains to be seen what actually happens to the companies who are just now (as opposed to already) pivoting to remote life, but this shift, combined with the other things, is giving employees some power (the ability to interview for any job anywhere) but taking away a lot more (the ability to correctly negotiate salary in a down market.)
Additionally, continuing the process of high-profile employees leaving, recently, Tim Bray, a very high-profile Amazon employee and long-time tech blogger, also left over Amazon’s response to employees at Amazon warehouses who protested over the company’s refusal to secure their safety during COVID.
And, finally, now that people are working remotely, cool offices are no longer a perk, taking some of the shine off these big companies.
Not down to work at FB? Yeah You know Me.
And, finally, there are the protests against police brutality across America. In addition to the systemic problems they’re exposing, they’re hitting the weak spots in our online platforms all over again.
Last Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Fox News to defend his decision not to remove two Facebook posts by Trump about mail-in voting. The posts clearly violated Facebook's policy prohibiting misinformation about voting methods. Zuckerberg said Trump's posts would stay, but the company would take down posts by Trump that advocated violence.
Zuckerberg's decision was particularly unpopular with a group of people the billionaire CEO cannot afford to alienate: his employees. On Monday, Facebook engineer Timothy Aveni publicly announced he was quitting in protest
Which I think is pretty brave, and it will be interesting to see how he resolves this for himself.
Hello Brave New World
Being a developer started out being all about the work itself: the intricacies, the complexity of building hardware and software, trying to get various components to work together technologically to build something amazing: Amazon, the iPhone, Uber.
For the first 50 or so years of programming, the profession has been mostly about interacting with the machine and getting it to do its bidding, sitting in small dark rooms, alone with the machine, tinkering with it, and then giving some higher-up manager the output.
Once that technology was working, for the past 20 years, developers started to demand premiums in terms of salary and name-brand recognition, and started to enjoy a lot of leverage in the job market.
But now that the world is turned completely upside down, things look very different, at least in the short term. I’m hesitant to even plan a week ahead let alone a year, but I’d venture to say that the next ten years of software development will look very different as the power and economic structures that built this generation of companies shifts from underneath us.
I think what we’ll see is that, for the majority of developers thrown into the remote work pool, salaries will stabilize. Right now it’s a buyer’s market, and on top of that, a buyer’s market that’s now only constrained by timezones and how many countries you want to deal with paperwork for.
From the social perspective, I think we’ve had a good amount of people leaving companies for social reasons, but I think the number is growing. I think the larger Facebook walkout will expand the amount of principled leaving that happens at FAANG. It probably won’t spread all throughout the industry, but at top companies, at least, developers will feel emboldened to say more about the policies these companies are trying to navigate, and will consider that a company’s stance of specific issues
From a larger, cosmic perspective, we are all on a swiftly-tilting planet, and there’s really no telling what the next week will bring, much less the next ten years. The only thing that remains the same is that we’re still flipping ones to zeros and zeros to ones, and fortunately, with respect to tech job security, that’s still as error-prone as ever.
What I’m Reading Lately:
Weights and Biases did an interview with me. It was fun!
William is doing a newsletter on remote data science jobs
Pardis has good data science threads
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!