I have been working in the tech startup Mecca, San Francisco, for the better part of this calendar year, and especially in my roles in marketing and administrative support, two words have become the two I will probably always associate with this period in my life: company culture. Companies here are obsessed with this elusive idea, the concept of creating a workplace that is equal parts aggressive, laid back, progressive, and lucrative. We want to make lots of money! But it needs to be okay to drink beer at our desks! And let’s have a video game lounge! But keep the right attitude at all times or you’re out!
That last part is the part that stings, of course. Who has the right attitude all the time? Who, from the stressed-out CEO to the stressed-out intern can possibly keep a smile on their face from sun-up to sun-down (which, by the way, are often the operating hours of small tech startups), or repeatedly answer inquiries to their well-being with a chipper, “Great! I’m a rockstar! Everything’s amazing!” But that’s often the tone of expectation that is set in these workplaces.
With the recent suicide of one of Diaspora*’s cofounders, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the tech blogosphere has tentatively begun to discuss the undiscussable: depression runs rampant in this culture. Sites like BetaBeat run unfortunately titled articles focusing on how the success pressure on young entrepreneurs is partially to blame for the almost universal cases of anxiety and depression that run in the field. I’d like to acknowledge that being a 20-something handling multi-millions of dollars in investment money must be incredibly stressful, but articles like these hardly skim the surface of the whole story.
First, entrepreneur or not, a tech startup is a pressure cooker in which success must be total and must be immediate. Quarterly projections (and meeting or exceeding them) are not just goals, they make or break an entire organization. Couple this with the fact no one likes to admit (that tech people are typically, by and large, extreme introverts) and that entrepreneurial success requires a certain amount of extreme extroversion, showmanship, and charisma, and you’ve got a situation that no one in their right mind could sustain for long. In the same way that the ideal salesperson would go crazy forced to sit at a study carrel, alone, for 2 years, the ideal tech developer cannot constantly be shilling her own product for as long as it takes for a startup to attract high enough stock value to be considered salable (and thus, to hand the charismatic entrepreneur reins over to someone more enthusiastic and better suited for the role).
And that’s just the CEO. Once a startup starts hiring employees, they all have to play the game. The stress trickles down, sometimes exponentially. If the boss has to fake nonstop enthusiasm in order to retain the good faith of his investors, then so must his employees all play the Ideal Employee Game. Turnover is high in this sector, and it’s not uncommon to hear the vague and troubling refrain for many layoffs: they were a bad cultural fit. Which brings us back to company culture. It’s cool to play foosball and work vampiric hours in this industry, but god forbid you express a moment’s doubt at company decisions, or the well-documented sexism in the industry, or, of course, the sustainability of a culture that rolls its collective eyes at the ideas of “family time” or “personal space.” Tech startups are in a universal sprint, but the sprint isn’t just to the next launch date or the next investment round; it’s to the end goal of selling the company off and cashing in that vested stock. And that takes longer than the average sprint. Which means it requires Olympian perseverance in order to make it through with half a shred of sanity intact.
See, it’s stressful for the C-level executives (many of whom are kids, and inexperienced managers to boot) to maintain this charade for the sake of their investors, concerned that their board of directors (all more savvy businesspeople than themselves) might replace them at the first sign of weakness. And it’s stressful for the employees under these executives, who know they don’t want a “traditional” workplace and want things to be “fun and relaxed,” yet haven’t the first clue how to go about building a good support system for the workers they’re flogging like (well-paid) mules; these employees are concerned that the first sign of weakness on their own part will result in termination based on “cultural fit.” Which is ironic considering that startup culture is more a total absence of well-defined culture than any culture at all.
Here enters Adderol addiction, unchecked xenophobia and sexism, alcoholism (my personal favorite, of course), and any other number of obvious clues that not only is no one in charge here, but no one is capable of managing even their own boundaries or sense of well-being. Women have it twice as bad, since we’re not only strongly outnumbered in the industry, but we have a much higher instance of depression anyway. And unlike larger, more established companies, where there might be a Crisis Hotline number posted in the break room or an HR specialist on hand to refer you to a specialist, tech startups often function with fewer than 20 people on board, none of whom are experienced in human resources, all of whom have been discouraged, implicitly or explicitly, from acknowledging the big depression elephant in the room.
I’m lucky. After one truly awful startup experience here in the Bay, I swapped companies to a place that is pro-woman, pro-health, and pro-personal time. We have a yoga instructor on staff who leads us in stress-reducing exercises several times weekly, they bring in a massage therapist once a month who, with soothing music and aromatherapy, helps to decrease the physical burden that mounts from long days in front of computer screens, and we put together regular, optional group activities to help release the valve every once in a while. We try to make the activities fun, healthy things, like bowling, karaoke, or pumpkin carving. I work with a lot of women, and I’m lucky that I have a number of coworkers who care about their personal time, who think it’s okay to be honest about their struggles in the company, and who are working hard to make our company a genuinely good place to work.
Where I work is a black sheep in this field, though. I watch people at other companies try to live up to unrealistic overachiever working hour standards set by people who are addicted to speed. I watch women struggling to find a voice to express how entirely alone they feel in companies where it’s okay to refer to women as bitches, openly, and how they are concerned that complaining will mark them as off-culture, a bad fit, a trouble maker. I see people afraid to use vacation time they’ve earned, afraid to schedule doctor’s appointments during working hours (which are all hours), afraid to get sick but not taking care of themselves when they do. Who cares if the eventual, possible payoff will be considerable, if in the end every cent of it will have to go toward therapy and deteriorated health costs?
I count myself lucky. My job is demanding and a little bit overwhelming at times, but nothing compared to what I see elsewhere, and I find a lot more reward in its everyday experiences than I think most people in startups tend to do. And what about the countless other people in the tech sector whose supervisors are inexperienced leaders, whose working standards are shiny prizes carefully announced to veil the poor human conditions, whose payoff for this type of incessant punishment may never come? Because make no mistake: working in this field is working on a gamble. It’s not enough for CEOs who feel stress and depression to find people they can safely talk to; they have to create a safe space in their own workplaces for their employees to be human, too. I don’t know all of the forces in Zhitomirskiy’s life that combined to bring him to suicide, but I do know that right now there are tens of thousands of tech startup workers self-destructing under unreasonable expectations of not just professional performance but personality performance as well. Let Ilya’s death serve as a reminder that working on the technology that allows our achievements to be more than human does not excuse us from still being human, still having human needs, still needing human sustenance.
Let it be okay for the robot engineers to cry, for the hackers to admit defeat, for the chronically introverted to close the computer down for a while and ask for help. As a person who has gained so much, from this industry and from its innovations, I hope that this kind of wakeup call will remind us of the great humanity, fragile and in need of sustenance as it is, that is required to create great technology, and I hope that we will learn to work toward building an industry in which we not only attain great feats of innovation, but attain great depths of compassion and openness, as well.
2 replies on “On Tech, Depression, and Startup Madness”
Thanks for writing this. I knew Ilya–we dated in high school–and I’ve been sort of grasping at straws to figure out why/how this could have happened. The start-up world is one I know little about, and this sort of put things in perspective. Ilya’s death was a preventable tragedy, and I hope, as you said, it serves as a wake-up call.
I think this is a problem in a lot of industries. I worked a job that had a similar culture. It wasn’t tech, but you were expected to work INSANE hours. It really took a toll, and I was the only one who would admit it, which always came up in my review as being not in line with the culture. I wish I could share this with my former boss.