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The American Caliban

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or how I learned to stop worrying and love the corporation [Sep. 27th, 2009|11:57 am]
The American Caliban
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I enjoy my new job.

I thought I wouldn't. The past few years were spent at dot coms, which present themselves as an employee paradise. Casual dress, flexible hours, innovation, a fun atmosphere, perks, and the lure of possible big money cashouts: everyone wants it! The software tools are sexy and easy open source projects. It's all very cool. And if you screw up, everyone understands and it's all play money anyhow.

Now I'm at a large company. I work a fixed schedule and I wear Office Casual Clothing. There are policies and procedures for everything. Rank is important. Everyone is in a cube, some of us two to a cube. The software we manage is almost all proprietary and runs on proprietary operating systems. The work itself is locked into very specific tasks with step by step instructions. And if I blow it, I'm fired. Large sums of money rest on the competence of the staff.

It's way better.

The dot coms I have known were all doomed. Almost all of them were the classic two-founder startups going after a niche in the market. All of them needed outside money to achieve their goals, and in every case the outside money wrecked the company. Uncontrolled hiring wiped out the competence and the culture of these places within months. Executives who came in with the outside money were out of their depth and resorted to arbitrary decision-making and tyranny, and sometimes deliberately failed at their fiduciary responsibilities.

Here are some examples of things I saw at dot coms: People hired to do nothing to make a company look bigger; openly racist senior executives allowed to carry out their prejudices; nonexistent products fraudulently sold by salesmen who then left with their money; stolen patents; illegal or impossible business plans designed to fail just after an executive had left for a better job; and indecision actually written into the procedures of the company to resolve differences between founders.

These things happen at bigger and better-organized companies, but it's possible for all of them to occur at once at a startup dot com without any consequences for anyone involved. Too many of those places were all the boys playing the treehouse, complete with NO GIRLS sign, with the difference that being pushed out meant real broken bones down below.

In particular, the "two cofounders" startups were disasters. I'll make an exception for the last one I worked at, where both of them were smart nice guys who knew what they were doing and cooperated. Everywhere else it was a disaster: Beavis & Butthead meet Leopold & Loeb. They were all white college grad males. Almost always one was technical and the other was business. They were inevitably rivals and often boyhood friends. Neither one could be completely in charge, and neither one could be seen defeated. I've seen situations where the two actually alternated between winning and losing the argument, so that the company sailed along zig zag for months.

I won't ever work for a two cofounders startup again, unless it's the last two. The rest is just the whole company as fifth wheel in the meltdown of a friendship.

So why do I love my current corporate job? Because it's just plain old capitalism. Real money is being made and lost, and if enough is lost bad things will happen. Policies and procedures are in place that have been tested, and if they fail they are revised. Quality assurance is done by professionals with reliable tests. Software doesn't go into production unless several groups agree that it works. Pay arrives on time each time. Insanity in the office is punished. A real HR department deals with out of control coworkers, even executives.

There's nobody handing out beanie hats or taking us all to Dave & Busters, we have to wear normal clothing and show up on time, working from home is discouraged, the software and tools are totally uncool and often annoying, and there's absolutely no chance of the company being bought or taken public to make us all millionaires. I love it. It's just plain old employment at a regular profit-making company, making rich guys richer and slogging along. And the punchline? I'm making more money now.

With great respect to personal friends who are running their own startups well, the rest of you can keep your dot-coms. I'll stick with the totally uncool skyscraper job working for the Man. He treats us all way better.
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[User Picture]From: caladri
2009-09-27 07:48 pm (UTC)
Do you find it easier to avoid emotional/personal investment in such a job? A lot of my friends and I talk about the mythical "just a job" job as a way to be able to pursue outside Interests (like sleep) instead of struggling with being assimilated by a Very Friendly Startup. I half-tried it once, but I didn't have anything to take the place of my emotional/personal investment, and the company in question had a monstrous work environment (really openly-hostile; people didn't throw chairs in meetings anymore, but the people who used to throw chairs in meetings were still around and everybody knew it and "what am I going to say to X?" was used as a way of intimidating one by proxy) so I found myself a corporate nihilist with no work ethic or fear of being unemployed or whatever to drive my participation — in short, I just didn't put up with the shit and left. Which was admittedly a big improvement over how I would deal with abusive environments at companies that I wanted to be my friend, but made me take a few steps back from the "just a job" job. I currently enjoy consulting with small companies that aren't quite startups; I have some distance (physical and professional and emotional) and that allows for me to actually enjoy the people involved without it having anything at all to do with my work.
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[User Picture]From: substitute
2009-09-27 08:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think so. It's still a technology job, so the urge to do things right causes some attachment and frustration issues. And there are social problems at any job. More than anything I get invested in my own personal success there and whether I am appreciated, but that would happen at a Kwik-e-Mart.

This is more of a normal job in that we all give a damn while we're there or on call, and we do our best for each other as well, but no one is going to flip out and leave in an ambulance because of the job.

My own experience is that the treehouse atmosphere of a dot com causes a lot more emotional stress, perhaps because of the infamous "because the stakes are so low" rule of life.
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[User Picture]From: annie_r
2009-09-27 08:18 pm (UTC)
Working with sane, sensible adults makes a huge difference, doesn't it?
My first job out of school was at a startup. It took a long time to get over the year I spent there. For a number of years I've done contract work for large corporations - many of the perks, but little involvement in the drama. Little personal satisfaction, but I'm treated very decently and really have nothing to complain about, especially in this economy.
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[User Picture]From: taskboy3000
2009-09-27 09:40 pm (UTC)

mod this up!

As an increasingly old fart, I'm also drawn to the BS corp jobs rather than hip startups. I just want cash and I don't want to sleep at my desk. That's really not asking a lot.
I don't want to deal with coworks parking their motorcycles in my cube.

I want perks and I'm willing to sell my soul for them (if the price is right).
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[User Picture]From: smallstages
2009-09-28 01:19 am (UTC)
I read this and at the end said to Gordon across the room, "I like substitute.

I really enjoy reading your writing. I've been reading Joan Didion all day, too. You are just as easy to read, in that good, trustworthy driver-writer way.
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[User Picture]From: substitute
2009-09-28 05:44 am (UTC)
Thanks very much! I'm in good company there!
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[User Picture]From: scromp
2009-09-28 03:50 am (UTC)
Oddly enough I started straight out of college in one of the biggest, most enterprisey companies you can name. And yeah, it was about like you describe, and free of the kind of bullshit I have heard from the startup culture. Of course it did have its own special sort of bullshit and eventually (>13 years!) I found that I had grown tired of it. Tired enough to move on.

My new job *feels* like a startup - to me - it was, once, and there are weird manchildren who are too important to adjust their ways to the changing environment, there are people who flip out and put on mildly disturbing displays of .. well. belonging.. to the family of great apes. There are also some really smart people the likes of which I haven't seen in a while.

The new company is about 2% the size of my old company, and yet it's -still- a fortune 500. There's a sense of relative scale there, I guess. There are processes and a good solid engineering ethos, etc. There's real HR, and an end-to-end commitment to basically moral and competent people management, and for the most part everyone knows what they're doing.

This kind of makes me terrified about what's below this layer.. I think if it was any *more* startuppy I wouldn't know how to deal.
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From: jpeace
2009-09-28 07:03 am (UTC)
I read this and I am glad you wrote it.
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[User Picture]From: travisd
2009-09-28 01:39 pm (UTC)
I would have to agree with you. I've been at a "real" company for 12 years now. Prior to that was s dot-com-ish place. The peaks at $bigco aren't as high maybe as a startup, but then again the valleys aren't as low. Stability is good. I can do my job, get paid fairly for it, and not worry too much about coming in one day to find that the next round of funding didn't work out and I need to find a way to pay my mortgage with office furniture and servers.

Excellent piece of writing!

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[User Picture]From: culfinglin
2009-09-28 02:06 pm (UTC)
Oh, the manchildren-companies. I've worked for one full-time, and done a lot of freelance work for a few others. I don't miss them at all. The NO GIRLS sign is especially onerous when you happen to be a girl.

I like academia because it's a good mix of freedom and rules. Eccentricity is accepted, but seriously destructive viciousness isn't. There's enough structure to keep everything running smoothly (if a bit too much bureaucracy here at Saltmine U.).
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[User Picture]From: capn_jil
2009-09-28 05:07 pm (UTC)
thanks for posting this.
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[User Picture]From: alfaguru
2009-09-28 05:34 pm (UTC)
I worked for a two cofounders startup in the Days Before The Internet. Despite them both being slightly arseholish, it worked well and became fairly successful, mainly because they both had technical and business skills, and a similar idea of how the company should work.

The idea behind the company was actually about how it operated rather than having an original product as such - having seen how other consultancies worked, they spotted there was an opportunity to compete by being much leaner and more technically-savvy than the big boys.

They ran the company without debt and in the early days only recruited by word of mouth. The result for the first 8 years or so was constant growth and a fairly contented workforce with relatively little churn. Things got a bit messier later, but failing to manage growth beyond a certain point is par for the course. They got out with a load of cash and long term employees like myself got a few bob, too.
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[User Picture]From: wanderingaengus
2009-09-30 05:11 am (UTC)
Having bounced between the two, your story reminds me somewhat of the difference between for-profit and non-profit gigs. It's a relief to get away from people who expect there to be no job/life distinction and fall into a world of transactional relationships.

Also -- to throw more fuel on the fire, my brother worked in Silicon Alley back in the 90s boom, and his boss was a con artist with a phony resume who sexually harassed him in her spare time. Looking at Google, it seems like it took the company 11 months to go from getting a $17 million investment (on top of god knows how much else) to being sold for $4 million.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-10-02 01:06 am (UTC)

Love the corporation

> Now I'm at a large company.

Well, maybe the large company gives you the structure you need. Dot coms gave you freedom, but you need direction...like a lemming.

> Uncontrolled hiring

That's what Paul Graham has warned us about. Please read his pieces.

> in every case the outside money wrecked the company

Notwithstanding, don't blame the companies.

> Executives who came in

Again, that's what Paul Graham warned us about...please pay attention.

> the "two cofounders" startups were disasters

Microsoft, Sun, Yahoo, Google...go to bed, buddy...you need sleep.

> With great respect to personal friends who are running their own startups well,

Oh, so where is your head? I think you don't know...drop your drawers and find out.

g'nite,
-jwcorpening
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[User Picture]From: substitute
2009-10-02 01:15 am (UTC)

Re: Love the corporation

I'm not sure what you mean by "please pay attention." I didn't own or manage any of these companies, so there wasn't an opportunity for me to apply any of Mr. Graham's ideas. Nor do I understand why it's assumed that I read Graham at all. Perhaps this comment was intended for another site?

Why does a lemming need direction? Lemmings are very successful animals. They're inaccurately used as a metaphor for people engaged in self-destructive activity because of mindless imitation, but I'm not sure why that applies to someone who works well in a structured environment.

I'm interested in your ideas, but I'm not sure how it's helpful to imply that I have my head up my ass. Also, were I to have my head up my ass I couldn't be wearing any drawers, so your metaphor failed.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-10-02 02:37 am (UTC)

what?

Ok, so working for a company is better than working for a doomed startup, full of racists and incompetents. Really? That certainly is good advice, I am just not sure that anyone else needs that to be explicitlt pointed out. I can't wait for your next article, eating a donut is better than being punching in the face.
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[User Picture]From: substitute
2009-10-02 06:10 am (UTC)

Re: what?

If the blow to the face is not too severe this may not be true. Facial tissue heals rapidly. A donut, however, has significant glycemic impact and may permanently damage your insulin response slightly. Combined with the sodium and saturated fat, it probably poses a worse long-term health risk than a moderate face-punch.
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[User Picture]From: hep
2009-10-02 07:18 pm (UTC)
my favorite part of this post was the post. (a+ writing). but my second favorite part of this post is how several people took it super personally and came over here to white knight for startups out of a misplaced sense of low self-esteem. a++ entertainment.
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