A love/breakup letter to Big Tech

As you might know from my recent QUIT post, I recently left my year and a halfish of various contract positions as a corporate stooge in a major Seattle tech company. That active verb “quit” is a little misleading; said tech company is most certainly the one who decided to end my short-term contract this last time around, but the timing was pure serendipity for me since I was conflicted about having accepted this most recent leg of work with them. I had been itching for a graceful exit, yet majorly chicken about initiating one myself. (I had been having an amazing summer focusing on fun, gardening, getting healthy, and growing my consulting practice, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to give all that fun and freedom up just yet. But a job is a job and a paycheck is a paycheck, so I went back to Big Tech even though I wasn’t quite ready to return.) My corporate stooge overlord was both an amazing and an amazingly frustrating employer, and when I didn’t get hired on full time the first time around, it really broke my heart like no one has broken my heart since my early twenties. Like all heartbreaks, I came away from that bummer having learned a lot and figured myself out a bit better. I gained so much from my time working there, and I’ve been ruminating on how to quantify and describe those huge gains in wisdom and experience.

The positives:

Metrics matter. My stooge overlord former employer is very vocal and public in said corporate values about metrics and data, and thanks to working there, I’ve learned to better quantify my successes and back them up with numbers. (I always fumbled at this during actual interviews, but I feel like I’ve learned how to do this better in other areas of life, including what used to be just my side business.) I’ve installed better analytics tracking on all my sites. I use data-driven decision making now, when before I would call it “gut instinct.” One of the most helpful tips I got while interviewing there was about said gut. My interviewer gave me a helpful note about how, when she was working with non-data-minded people, she wouldn’t accept “it just feels right” or “my gut says X” as an answer. She would ask targeted questions to drill down into WHY someone felt that way in their gut, and invariably this would produce a more quantifiable, justified, analytical line of reason than the opinion-holder even realized they had in them. Her approach stuck with me, and I think I analyze everything that draws my attention more, well, analytically after that conversation. If I do ever go back to a Big Tech role, I think I’ll be able to represent my successes and strengths better with hard details instead of just enthusiasm.

Adapt or die! Unlike many corporate stooge overlord companies, this particular one does not appreciate people or processes that are stuck in old ways, or unable to cast aside prior notions and reevaluate their goals or methods. That Office Space archetype? Totally not applicable. The place is constantly shifting and changing, and they value culling the old out more than any environment I’ve ever been in. As someone who enjoys spotting and fixing the holes in an organization or team or its processes or documentation or whatever, I really liked that they valued my input that usually went beyond QAing my assignment and encroached upon QAing our specs, tools, policies, management, QAing the company itself, etc. Even if half my ideas were rejected for various totally reasonable reasons, it helped me learn to adapt better in my own ways. I’m now pursuing new and different revenue streams in my business and am open to approaches that in the past I had shied away from.

HUSTLE. I haven’t worked my ass off in quite that way for YEARS. When we burned the midnight oil or churned through craziness, we really really churned. I appreciate being able to really burn rubber at a major Forture 500 company; not since working for a crazy busy law firm have I been reminded how to buckle down and get shit DONE. I learned not just to get loads done but to be proactive and solve problems myself, and develop excellent judgment about when to self-help and when to escalate (and how much to holler about it). It made me better at learning solutions, finding DIY workarounds, and generally solving my problems instead of fretting about them or letting them block me.

Poise and pause. My first role in this stint was very reactive. I worked for an incredibly stressy and tightly-run team, with a powerhouse of a manager who still baffles me with her badassery. (She is literally the only person I’ve ever met who is allowed to use the phrase “works hard, plays harder” in any kind of profile anywhere ever.) My job was essentially to jump when she or any of her higher-ups (or the workflows they managed) said jump, so I did a lot of putting out fires and reacting to the freakouts of various internal and external stakeholders. However, one note she gave me when I pressed her for candid feedback was about how quick to react I was, and how that could be perceived as negative even though I was trying for a positive. Even though reacting quickly and taking care of issues smoothly was an important part of my job description, I would get a little too enthusiastically worked up about putting out the Fire of the Hour. She urged me to take a minute, take a breath, step back from what the emergency was, restate it to the requester, and then roll up my sleeves and tackle it, pointing out that such poise in the face of crisis is a trait that many higher-ups in corporate culture displayed. I utterly failed to implement this level of poise and pause when, say, answering questions during a FTE interview loop, but the feedback still stuck with me nonetheless. Now I think I’m learning to handle crisis or perceived crisis a bit better, and I’m OK pushing back on everyone from clients to contractors who are overly demanding when it comes to getting a response out of me. I still have a long way to come in this department, but I’ve never received this kind of high-level critical feedback in the thoughtful way I did from anyone at any other company. I keep the Christmas card said boss wrote for me on display in my office, because compliments from someone like her frankly mean more to me than from just your Average Joe coworker.

Picky coworkers! I LOVED how opinionated and high-standarded (shut up) my coworkers were. The wit and fervor that would emerge on things like wiki pages, For Sale listservs, signs in the kitchen or elevators, etc. was a total delight. If I ever needed a referral for a type of business, not only would I get great recommendations I knew I could trust, but I’d get detailed dossiers backing up those choices. Yelp could never be as useful. The pickypants fights that would sometimes break out were hilarious, too. There was literally an internal wiki page called something like “we are not SAVAGES, people” which contained instructions on how to flush toilets and make coffee properly. LOVE.

Perceptive coworkers. The feedback I received from mangers and from people who interviewed me was some of the most helpful I’ve ever heard in my life. Because this company deeply values reflection and self-improvement, I feel like people were more at liberty to be practical and candid in how they evaluated my strengths and weaknesses, and while the more critical points were never easy to hear, they were always deeply appreciated. I feel like I could have paid a career coach for five years of regular input and not gotten even a fraction of the insight and assistance I received for free from my generous coworkers, friends, bosses, and mentors there. People who work there are sort of conditioned to a certain type of analytical directness that was so refreshing. Mentor-type people there immediately identified the traits in my personality that suited me well for certain types of work, and they honed in on what I enjoyed and what mattered to me better than I myself knew how to do. It was disarming but very welcome.

Concision. While every blog post I ever write including this one might lead you to believe otherwise, I swear working in this particular sector of corporate stoogehood really did help me learn to tighten up my business communication. The company I was at valued keeping it short short SHORT and need-to-know only. Because of that, I’m getting better at getting to the point and summarizing my often complex or confusing feedback in a more digestible format, and I’m better at deciding when to provide top-level information as opposed to going into too much detail. Sort of. :) I’m at least conscious of needing to whittle down to the main message with certain audiences now. Nope, not you; other audiences. :P

The negatives: There were, of course, a few things I liked less about this particular Big Tech stint. Like how, after a year of pouring my heart and soul and sanity and every spare moment into trying to land a full-time role there, I was sorta groomed and encouraged and then ultimately turned down. Yeah, that part stung. I still completely understand why I didn’t wind up fitting that mold, at least for the roles I tried out for, and I’ve learned much about how to present myself better both at lean companies like that and in general to the world. Before I went there, I was considering consulting full time instead of getting a Proper Corporate Stooge Jobby Job, but a dose of that invigorating culture made me recommit to having a J-O-B job and really work at it. I’ve never wanted a corporate stooge position so badly, or tried so hard to get one, only to fall so very hard. In the end, it worked out for the best since I don’t think I’m cut from quite the same cloth as the people that make Big Tech great, but I still say it was like having my heart broken after being, well, let’s say proto-corporate-engaged. Anyway. All that said, here’s some of the stuff that I certainly don’t miss:

Extreme budget consciousness. This is a big one. The company’s desire to cut costs wherever possible was certainly understandable, and definitely had a lot of positive consequences for them as a market leader. But sometimes, when your monitor size is restricted for insane Office-Space-seeming reasons, or when your corporate-kitchen-supplied compostable fork dissolves into mush (yes, like that episode of VEEP) when you stir lukewarm leftovers with it, you sorta wish they’d just spend an extra buck and make their employees’ lives easier or more comfortable or ergonomic. Until recently, I had never been one to expense much in my life, but my very severe tennis elbow that developed in 2008 has meant that I’m extremely sensitive to shitty ergonomic setups now. I had also come from a fairly cushy and accommodating PC gaming company that was sensitive to wanting to avoid RSI in its employees. So in that sense, I suppose I had been a bit spoiled. But still. Curved split keyboards and adjustable height desks, people. They make a big difference! I know such things add up, but I don’t miss feeling like I had to whine and seem like a special case, or deal with constant dumbass comments over the fact that my monitor and laptop were stacked precariously upon piles of dictionaries and reams of copy paper to hack a reasonably healthy setup. (That may be more a commentary on social acceptance of proper ergonomics in general. I’m much more sympathetic to my friends who require special diets or medical aid now it sucks to feel like the squeaky wheel to get your basic needs met.)

Get there first. I can’t deny that the company I worked for beats lots of other companies at lots of different games because they get there first, and make big-picture moves that sometimes seem baffling in the small picture. But as a perfectionist and a pickypants, I hate the model of placing what I perceived as more value on winning the tech race than on perfecting the journey. I think this is partly unique to QA, so I suspect that only working somewhere as polish-obsessed as Apple could really ever satisfy this itch of mine. (I’ve always felt that we released imperfect stuff at every QA or editing role I’ve ever held. So maybe it’s just me. But still.)

Infrastructure. Many things about working at this tech powerhouse felt slapped-together, right down to its campus. The flow of the numerous lines in the overstuffed cafeterias was exhausting. The friggin’ Starbucks across the way from my building had only one standard width door, so people constantly jammed coming in and out of it. One FTE coworker was on a waiting list for a company (paid) parking spot the entire time I worked with her. One of my contract roles shifted between three different buildings, at numerous different desks and on different floors, and I hear it’s scheduled to move again… partly because it seems like the whole leg of the company I belonged to didn’t anticipate their own success and growth. I don’t miss feeling like everything was done after the fact, or that I have to fight everyone for a spot in line or a parking place or a cup of tea in the kitchen. For all the company valued efficiency on paper (if you will), so many basic human comfort things (like don’t block all the silverware drawers with the only microwave, what?) felt less than efficiently planned out at times. (Then again, I’ve felt that way about other corporate stoogey jobs/buildings/systems, too. I guess I was just hoping that working for the Efficiency Kings would mean fewer silly problems like that.)

SLOW YOUR ROLL! While a huge part of me thrives in a busy and fast pace, I feel like the culture in this last stoogeship engendered a very unhealthy work-life balance for most employees, particularly the full-timers. People raced down the hallways, scrambled through lunch/ate it at their desks/skipped it entirely, hunched their shoulders and carpaled their tunnels, kept their networking-only coffee meetings to a tight 15 minutes, skipped from meeting to meeting, and just generally felt like they were always huffing and puffing from one emergency to the next. I never got that same feeling of constant urgency and upset during my tenure at other mega tech companies, stressy though everyone was there. It was a less SPEEDY kind of stress elsewhere. I think the place I just left attracts a certain go-get-em wife-and-kids-be-damned attitude that burns people out quickly, but rewards those who get off on cortisol spikes. I loved it while I was there most of the time, but there were definitely moments of not-love, and I’m not sure how sustainable it is in the long run. I’m still friends with a lot of very stressed-out full-timers there who envy my newfound freedom despite their fancy résumés and reliable paychecks and whatnot.

The takeaway. All in all, despite the negatives I LOVED the culture of this fast-paced startup-feeling company. I’ll always be grateful I had the chance to soak it up and learn from it. Who knows; maybe someday I’ll find myself back there or at another tech powerhouse. But something tells me that this might have been my last taste of Big Tech from the inside, and I’m kinda happy about it since I seem to have more fun using it than creating it. So thanks, guys, for teaching me lots, mostly that I totally have it in me to make it on my own now that you’ve cut me loose. ♥ I sincerely loved working with the amazing people I encountered in Big Tech, and I hope they all identify with more positive points than negative points from this tome!