Working Conditions

For the last week, an article from the New York Times about the working conditions at Amazon has been making the rounds on social media.  It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the gist is: Amazon works you to the bone and you can’t take time off even if you’re sick, just had a baby, or your husband died yesterday.  80 hours a week is the low end of expectations.  

I have no way of knowing if the article is true.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between the article’s insistence that Jeff Bezos is a slave driver and Jeff Bezos’s claim that he values his employees immensely and that they’re a caring company.  I suspect that some employees were treated terribly by some managers.  But “some” can add up to a lot at a big company like Amazon.  Even if just 1% of Amazon employees were treated as badly as the article claims, that’s about 1500 people. And that’s just if you’re talking current employees.  The numbers that have left would add to that.

Whatever the truth is, my first thought was, crap, more publicity about how much it sucks to work in tech.  I thought that before I even read the article.  This Slate article I thought was a good response to the kerfuffle; however, it doesn’t completely dispel the idea that working as a programming is grueling.   The author outlines three things that he finds off about the article:

First and foremost, good software engineers are still in high demand. For all the coders out there, writing production-level, high-quality code is still at a premium, given the amount of it that is required at this point. Combine that with the need for engineers to be able to work well with others, not be hopelessly dogmatic, and not get burnt out, and there’s generally a pretty strong argument for not treating your coders like total garbage.

Second, engineer attrition is bad. A new engineer will take months to get up to speed on an existing codebase to perform as well as her predecessor, and that’s assuming she’s as good as her predecessor (which is nearly impossible to predict for a cold hire).

Third, coding speed is highly variable. I saw work that normally would have been assigned to a team of five people given to a single high-speed engineer without incident. Some engineers simply prefer to do a more thorough job without cutting any corners, with the final 5 percent of perfection doubling the working time. Some engineers simply do additional, elective work to make their lives or the lives of their teams and other teams easier. Some engineers simply make more mistakes in the normal course of things and have to spend more time debugging to produce code of sufficiently good quality.

The first two of these, I was glad to see.  Basically that good programmers, who can not only code but work well with others are still in demand and that it sucks for the company to lose one of these good programmers.  The last I guess is about hours worked.  If you have two days to finish something and you’re a slow coder, you might have to work round the clock to get it done.  If you’re fast, you might just work a normal 8-hour day for two days in a row and be done.  I’ve certainly seen that in my experience as well.

Finally, the author makes the point that we shouldn’t be too worried about the software engineers who are forced out of Amazon.  They have in demand skills that can garner them a good salary.  The blue-collar workers that work in the warehouses are much worse off, both from a treatment standpoint, and from an ability to find good work if they leave.  We should be more worried about those conditions.

Leaning out

The Internet is abuzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s book and initiative Lean In. Critics are saying that her approach is unrealistic and supporters are saying that she’s right, women do need to step up more. I wonder if Sandberg has ever taken a Gender Studies class. If she has, then she would understand that all the leaning in in the world sometimes doesn’t get you to the top. And since when is the top the only goal. As someone in my last job once said, there aren’t enough of those spots to go around. If everyone in the organization wants to move up within the organization, then there’s going to be a lot of disappointment. That’s true more broadly. There’s a pyramid structure that exists in the work world. As far as I know, Sandberg hasn’t acknowledged that.

In the comments to a post by Penelope Trunk, someone called Sandberg’s book and books like it, career porn for women. I read The Feminist Mistake, and I’ll probably read this one just because I don’t like arguing against things I haven’t read. Many of the women I read on the Internet started out as career women. Some still are. Many, including myself, have shifted careers in order to balance their lives better. One thing I know in middle age that I didn’t know as a young woman is that neither the workplace nor the family structure have shifted enough to make an intense career plus family a real possibility for women. Nannies are often only possible after you’ve made it. Before that, you either take out a loan to pay for childcare or hope your partner can pick up the slack. If he’s in an intense career, that’s a nonstarter.

The workplace needs to shift before the family can. It needs to measure output not facetime, so that a parent can leave to manage a doctor’s appointment. It needs to allow that for men and women, so that women can ask their husbands to share the burden, knowing that it won’t harm his career (or hers, when it’s her turn). We need subsidized childcare so that women in their early careers, before the paycheck matches the hours worked, can put in the hours needed.

Alternatively, we need to place less value on work. I’m notorious for asking, “What do you do? ” to anyone I’ve just met. And despite having all kinds of anxiety of this question when I was in various states of transition over the years, I still ask it and still there’s at least some judgement. I’ll admit to being disappointed with friends who’ve stepped back from a career when I know we’ll that sometimes the sacrifices aren’t worth the paycheck. Part of me wants them to push for what they need to stay, but I know that often the organization will never give them anything because there’s someone without kids or with a stay at home parent standing behind them ready to take their job.

So maybe women need to work on some skills that will allow them to move up or take on more responsibilities (as if they don’t already have a lot) but we also need to examine our practices and prejudices to make things better for all of us in the workplace.


Laura at 11d has an interesting post and comments about giving advice to current grads about what careers to pursue.  There are comments trying to speculate about what industries are hiring, suggestions to do what you love, and suggestions to become a plumber.  I have a son in high school whose love of video games leads him to consider video game development as a career.  But, he has not done anything toward developing a game aside from a camp he attended back in sixth grade.  We bought him software, but he’s barely opened it.  And game developing isn’t the glamorous job most gamers think it is.  Yes, it can pay well, but the hours can be long, and if you’re at a start up, the risk that you won’t have a job when the launch fails is pretty high.  NPR had suggested that game development was a job that is surviving the recession.  May be true, but may not be cut out for everyone.  The thing that I’m aiming for when I talk to my kids (and sometimes even my students) is to keep their options open.  Don’t narrow your field of study too quickly.  Choose a field that you like, but that offers a variety of options.  Someone in the comments at 11d suggested math.  I suggested computer science.

I came out of college at the tail end of a recession.  I, like many of my classmates, escaped to graduate school.  Some went to law school or med school.  The ones who didn’t typically became accountants or worked for financial institutions.  I was vaguely aware that the economy hadn’t been good, but I didn’t think about choosing a career that was financially viable.  My biggest concern was finding work that was fulfilling.  That may have been a naive way to go into things, but I suspect that many a college graduate thinks this way.  Had I been thinking solely about money, I would have taken my English degree and headed off to law school.  Or I would have continued with my Business or Economics major.

I have never considered a career something that you do from 9-5 for money and then go home to other things.  It’s always been tied to my identity and values.  I couldn’t work at an investment bank because its principles are contrary to what I believe in.  I’ve always said, of course, that if I really needed the money, I’d do almost anything.  But first, I’d try to do something that I felt good about and that made me feel good about the contribution I was making.

That said, I don’t envy recent grads.  I think the advice of “do something you love” is good advice as long as a) they can find a job doing that and b) they understand it may not make them rich (unless they’re in love with working at a top law firm or being a doctor or something).  And quite frankly, what you love sometimes changes over time.  There are things I didn’t enjoy that I enjoy now that had I liked them back when I was 22 I might have made a career of it.  Like Intellectual Property issues.  There is a point at which the cost of retooling oneself exceeds the payoff.  I think I’m there.  Going to law school doesn’t make much sense for a 40-something washed up academic who isn’t at all mobile.  Likewise med school.  But maybe that’s just me putting limitations on myself.  The recession certainly makes one think slightly differently about doing things for money.