Might as well be bankers?

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Today's Tech Is Like Yesterday's Wall Street

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The banking industry got a lot of flak after the death of an overworked Bank of America intern in 2013, when Wall Street's sweatshop work culture was contrasted unfavorably with that of tech firms, which provided all sorts of creature comforts to their employees. Well, evidence is mounting that working for tech giants can be just as unforgiving as working in high finance.

The New York Times has published a long expose of the corporate culture at Amazon. One employee said the company regularly drives people to tears, another that it turns people into "Amabots." According to the story, Amazon employees with personal problems that reduce their ability to work as hard as others -- cancer, for example, or a miscarriage -- get low performance reviews and are squeezed out of the company. Those hoping to find a work-life balance soon realize that they're expected to answer business e-mails after midnight; when they don't, they get angry text messages demanding a reply. In short, the story paints a typical vision from workplace hell.

This should be nothing new to anyone who paid attention to the episode in Ashlee Vance's authorized biography of Elon Musk, in which the Tesla founder scolds an employee for missing a corporate event to witness the birth of his child. According to the book, the e-mail read:

That is no excuse. Am extremely disappointed. You need to figure out where your priorities are. We're changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don't.

In April, Ben Farrell, a former Apple employee in Australia, wrote a bitter blog post about the iPhone maker's corporate culture, saying that when he missed a business trip because his pregnant wife was hospitalized after falling down some stairs, the company listed the incident as a "performance issue." Farrell wrote:

I'd often receive aggressive chats at all hours, and harassing texts every fifteen minutes asking "are you online? Your status shows you as away – are you there?"

Even at Google, where people can bring dogs to work and meals are free, dozens of reviews on Glassdoor, the workplace recommendation service, attest to the difficulty of finding a work-life balance. "You really do need to work extremely hard to get ahead," one reviewer wrote. "It's in the advanced stages of becoming another big company, so you've really lost the sense of intimacy and flexibility that came with a smaller company."

Tech-company founders typically find it hard to believe such stories. Musk responded to Vance's report with an angry tweet: "It's total BS & hurtful to claim that I told a guy to miss his child's birth just to attend a company meeting. I would never do that." Bezos, also obviously hurt by the Times story, fired off a memo to employees urging them to "escalate to HR" or write him personally if they encountered the kind of insensitivity described. He added, "I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company." 

I'm willing to believe that Musk doesn't remember sending the e-mail, and that Bezos has a picture of his company that's different from the one the Times reporters pieced together by talking to former and current employees. The problems, however, are there; it's enough to read Glassdoor reviews about both Amazon and Tesla to see that the companies have fiercely competitive environments and are very demanding of their employees' time.

The problem may be that many of the people making complaints aren't techies, but employees from traditional corporate functions such as sales, marketing or finance. In tech businesses, these people are the fungible lower caste. The companies aren't necessarily as good as traditional corporations at dealing with their office drones, because they have grown out of a culture that held them in contempt. Software developers may not complain as much, because they like a technical challenge and thrive on constant contact with others who can help them hone their skills. 

But that can't be a sufficient explanation. The tech leaders wouldn't have gotten where they are without strong business functions. They make a special effort to hire creative people for the non-tech jobs, too, while marketers and financiers also like working shoulder to shoulder with other top professionals.

It's more likely that at least the tech industry's flagship companies have taken over from finance as the new big-money frontier. You can get rich as a successful Amazon executive receiving stock grants, or as a Tesla employee with stock options; these companies don't even need to make a profit for you to get rich. It's a lot like the banker bonuses of old, and, unlike on today's Wall Street, there's no stifling regulatory attention, no danger of being dragged through the mud for doing something that was common practice before but is suddenly an ethical violation today. 

The heady smell of money being made comes with cultural strings attached: a boys' locker-room atmosphere much like that described in Michael Lewis's Wall Street portrait "Liar's Poker"; a sense of being kings of the world (in tech companies, it's described as "changing the world," but the connotations are the same); a work-hard-play-hard ethos; and a certain insensitivity to those who suffer setbacks.

This is probably inevitable, so long as tech valuations are higher than in almost any other industry. If anybody hoped that sensitive, freedom-loving, tech-savvy millennials would revolutionize the corporation, the money-driven counterrevolution has already arrived to disillusion them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net