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225

Life Aboard the Rocket Ship: An Interview with an Anonymous Engineer

An engineer fails up, down, and sideways.

(missing author)

0
terms
6
notes

<3

? (2018). Life Aboard the Rocket Ship: An Interview with an Anonymous Engineer. Logic Magazine, 5, pp. 225-245

232

But acquiring our assets was also a way to justify paying us a lot. If they're only going to pay you 2x the normal salary, then that can take the form of a very nice job offer. But if they're going to pay you more like 8x or 10x, it breaks the whole idea of salary bands, which is how big companies organize compensation by experience level. So buying your assets is the backdoor—it’s a way to get away with paying certain people much more.

As far as what they're buying—yes, they're avoiding paying more for a potential competitor later. But the inherent value in a talent acquisition comes from acknowledging that most projects in software fail. Finding a team that can actually ship something that gets out the door is rare. Even at big companies, most projects will not see the light of day. So to find a group of people that have managed to build something—even if it's small, even if it's humble—means they're probably a team that works well together. So they're worth a premium. That's the theory behind it, at least.

Also, they could make us sign a contract that locked us in for a long time. The deal to acquire our startup was a lump of cash and a job offer. We had to take both together. About half of the payment came up front, in the form of the cash. And the rest would come to us through salary and stock-based compensation on a vesting schedule over the course of four years.

—p.232 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago

But acquiring our assets was also a way to justify paying us a lot. If they're only going to pay you 2x the normal salary, then that can take the form of a very nice job offer. But if they're going to pay you more like 8x or 10x, it breaks the whole idea of salary bands, which is how big companies organize compensation by experience level. So buying your assets is the backdoor—it’s a way to get away with paying certain people much more.

As far as what they're buying—yes, they're avoiding paying more for a potential competitor later. But the inherent value in a talent acquisition comes from acknowledging that most projects in software fail. Finding a team that can actually ship something that gets out the door is rare. Even at big companies, most projects will not see the light of day. So to find a group of people that have managed to build something—even if it's small, even if it's humble—means they're probably a team that works well together. So they're worth a premium. That's the theory behind it, at least.

Also, they could make us sign a contract that locked us in for a long time. The deal to acquire our startup was a lump of cash and a job offer. We had to take both together. About half of the payment came up front, in the form of the cash. And the rest would come to us through salary and stock-based compensation on a vesting schedule over the course of four years.

—p.232 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago
238

The funding model for startups is venture capital. And venture capital is a hits-driven business: you expect the vast majority of your investments to fail, so the ones that succeed have to succeed on a massive scale. Venture capital is risky, and it requires a lot of money.

Until relatively recently, tech companies didn’t have enough money to compete with venture capitalists. But now they do. Today, you have four or five tech giants with cash piles big enough to really push people around. And this has only happened in the last decade or so—it wasn’t like that in the early 2000s after the first dot-com crash.

question:

On the one hand, Silicon Valley seems to revere entrepreneurialism. On the other hand, the industry is increasingly dominated by a handful of big companies—companies that, as you’ve explained, frequently acquire startups and burn down all their assets to ensure they don’t become competitors.

How do you make sense of that contradiction between the cult of the founder and the increasingly monopolistic structure of tech?

—p.238 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago

The funding model for startups is venture capital. And venture capital is a hits-driven business: you expect the vast majority of your investments to fail, so the ones that succeed have to succeed on a massive scale. Venture capital is risky, and it requires a lot of money.

Until relatively recently, tech companies didn’t have enough money to compete with venture capitalists. But now they do. Today, you have four or five tech giants with cash piles big enough to really push people around. And this has only happened in the last decade or so—it wasn’t like that in the early 2000s after the first dot-com crash.

question:

On the one hand, Silicon Valley seems to revere entrepreneurialism. On the other hand, the industry is increasingly dominated by a handful of big companies—companies that, as you’ve explained, frequently acquire startups and burn down all their assets to ensure they don’t become competitors.

How do you make sense of that contradiction between the cult of the founder and the increasingly monopolistic structure of tech?

—p.238 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago
242

I think what really shifted my thinking about my success was observing that most of the startups that are getting crazy amounts of venture capital aren't solving interesting problems. There is a lot of money going into squeezing more ad dollars out of users, and getting more attention and eyeballs. Yo is a good example. My app wasn’t much dumber than Yo. And they got millions of dollars of funding.

I also felt like people were becoming founders and investors not because they wanted to solve problems that would help humanity but because they wanted to be in the Silicon Valley scene. They wanted the cultural cachet. They wanted to go to the parties.

That was disillusioning to me, because I had really bought into the ideology that building a business was the best way to make the world a better place. That was something that was drilled into my head at my elite college. I had completely bought into it.

But over the years, as I saw what products were being funded and built, I felt disappointed. It changed how I thought about my own success. I wasn’t actually solving problems—I was just riding a wave of ridiculous overinvestment in social apps.

—p.242 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago

I think what really shifted my thinking about my success was observing that most of the startups that are getting crazy amounts of venture capital aren't solving interesting problems. There is a lot of money going into squeezing more ad dollars out of users, and getting more attention and eyeballs. Yo is a good example. My app wasn’t much dumber than Yo. And they got millions of dollars of funding.

I also felt like people were becoming founders and investors not because they wanted to solve problems that would help humanity but because they wanted to be in the Silicon Valley scene. They wanted the cultural cachet. They wanted to go to the parties.

That was disillusioning to me, because I had really bought into the ideology that building a business was the best way to make the world a better place. That was something that was drilled into my head at my elite college. I had completely bought into it.

But over the years, as I saw what products were being funded and built, I felt disappointed. It changed how I thought about my own success. I wasn’t actually solving problems—I was just riding a wave of ridiculous overinvestment in social apps.

—p.242 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago
243

Get wealthy and solve the world’s problems—this was the message that I absorbed early on. You couldn’t do one without the other, the argument went, so don't feel bad about becoming rich. The profit motive is the only way that we can possibly solve problems at scale.

I truly believed that. And it remains a widespread belief in the industry, and in the engineering departments of elite institutions. But to move forward, I think we are going to have to challenge that belief very directly. That's why I'm skeptical of some of these newfound regrets expressed by Sean Parker and others. I don't think they're actually attacking the core notion that the profit motive is the best way to make the world a better place. They still believe they can centralize large amounts of capital in these massive corporations and pay themselves well and solve the world’s problems. I think there are some inherent tradeoffs that they're not yet acknowledging.

—p.243 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Get wealthy and solve the world’s problems—this was the message that I absorbed early on. You couldn’t do one without the other, the argument went, so don't feel bad about becoming rich. The profit motive is the only way that we can possibly solve problems at scale.

I truly believed that. And it remains a widespread belief in the industry, and in the engineering departments of elite institutions. But to move forward, I think we are going to have to challenge that belief very directly. That's why I'm skeptical of some of these newfound regrets expressed by Sean Parker and others. I don't think they're actually attacking the core notion that the profit motive is the best way to make the world a better place. They still believe they can centralize large amounts of capital in these massive corporations and pay themselves well and solve the world’s problems. I think there are some inherent tradeoffs that they're not yet acknowledging.

—p.243 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago
244

When you’re an engineer, you’re constantly being told to do things that are clearly not good for the user. If you’re building any kind of app or platform that makes its money from advertising, you are trying to maximize “time spent”—how long a user spends with your product. Time spent is considered a proxy for value delivered to the user, because if your product wasn’t useful, the user wouldn’t be using it.

Here’s how it typically works. An order comes down from on high: the board says to increase revenue. What's the best way the management team knows to increase revenue? To increase time spent. So they issue the order, which gets percolated down the tree, and now everyone is working on increasing time spent. This means making the product more addictive, more absorbing, more obtrusive. And it works: the user starts spending more time with the product.

But every worker knows this is bad. Every engineer and designer knows this is awful. They’re not happy making these features. But they can’t argue with the data. The engineer and the designer who care about the user don’t want to put these features out in the world. But the data says those features are increasing time spent—which means they’re good. Because more time spent means selling more advertising, which means making more money.

—p.244 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago

When you’re an engineer, you’re constantly being told to do things that are clearly not good for the user. If you’re building any kind of app or platform that makes its money from advertising, you are trying to maximize “time spent”—how long a user spends with your product. Time spent is considered a proxy for value delivered to the user, because if your product wasn’t useful, the user wouldn’t be using it.

Here’s how it typically works. An order comes down from on high: the board says to increase revenue. What's the best way the management team knows to increase revenue? To increase time spent. So they issue the order, which gets percolated down the tree, and now everyone is working on increasing time spent. This means making the product more addictive, more absorbing, more obtrusive. And it works: the user starts spending more time with the product.

But every worker knows this is bad. Every engineer and designer knows this is awful. They’re not happy making these features. But they can’t argue with the data. The engineer and the designer who care about the user don’t want to put these features out in the world. But the data says those features are increasing time spent—which means they’re good. Because more time spent means selling more advertising, which means making more money.

—p.244 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago
245

So long as you’re working for a company, what other metric besides profit could there be? That’s a similar question. You can make small surface-level improvements here and there. But you’re not going to tackle the core problem until you tackle the profit motive.

The directives to increase metrics like time spent come from above, but the actual work is being done by tech workers on the ground. And they're doing this work because their performance is measured by whether or not they moved that metric and whether or not they implemented those features—even if they know they’re bad for users.

But there's no way they can push back on it. They can talk about it—in their company Slack, in their public forums, at their all-hands meetings. They can express a lot of malaise about it. But they can’t argue against the experiment succeeding, because you can’t argue against increased profits.

You could imagine different structures of the company that might not have this problem. You could imagine a world where these companies empower rank-and-file workers to make certain decisions themselves, and give users a voice in those decisions. Workers and users could together decide what metrics to optimize for, and what kind of technology they want to build.

<3

—p.245 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago

So long as you’re working for a company, what other metric besides profit could there be? That’s a similar question. You can make small surface-level improvements here and there. But you’re not going to tackle the core problem until you tackle the profit motive.

The directives to increase metrics like time spent come from above, but the actual work is being done by tech workers on the ground. And they're doing this work because their performance is measured by whether or not they moved that metric and whether or not they implemented those features—even if they know they’re bad for users.

But there's no way they can push back on it. They can talk about it—in their company Slack, in their public forums, at their all-hands meetings. They can express a lot of malaise about it. But they can’t argue against the experiment succeeding, because you can’t argue against increased profits.

You could imagine different structures of the company that might not have this problem. You could imagine a world where these companies empower rank-and-file workers to make certain decisions themselves, and give users a voice in those decisions. Workers and users could together decide what metrics to optimize for, and what kind of technology they want to build.

<3

—p.245 missing author 3 weeks, 6 days ago