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Who Works Engineering at Skullcrusher Mountain?
Quitting immediately is a privilege, what do we do when we can't?
Recent events at The Markup have given us a rare public flogging of a management decision. Executive management is America’s highest paid working classification but consequences for when they do a bad job seem increasingly unlikely. This has led to a rise in unions and also increasing pressure for employees to speak up, speak out or quit in order to create consequences for bosses where none exist. But what happens when you can’t?
In my experience, the decision to stop working with a person or organization often feels like an accretion of bad experiences. However, one time with a previous employer it was a single moment.
This is how it went down with the previous employer: I can remember this moment exactly. It had been a tough week because I already felt uncomfortable with the chain of decisions coming down from upper management: A focus on video I felt would be bad for the long term; a decision to interview someone, we’ll call them M, who was clearly a Nazi but—at the time—hadn’t been fully acknowledged as such by the general media. I was on the Engineering side and I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to object to an editorial decision. To an extent, I felt divorced from it. Even when internal casual conversation tied the decision (at least in part) to questions of traffic, something which felt bad and abnormal in an undefinable way, I was still one step removed.
Later that week, the interview with M was done and it was ready to go up. Executive management felt that this was a big deal, and if we pushed it out to prominent placement on front it would get even more traffic and boost our early video efforts. I had built a tool that allowed us to embed anything into the top slot of the front page, so we used that to embed the video to the front.
I was in a bar, it was after the work day, a Wednesday, and I was meeting up with a friend and had come there straight from work. Just after we sat down, I got a message that the Big Deal Video wasn’t properly showing on the front page, something about the embed code of the video and the embed management of the slot was conflicting and I needed to fix it. So I sat down at the bar, excused myself to my friend for 15 or 20 minutes and pushed out a code fix to deal with the conflict.
After I was done, a thought occurred to me, I was enabling this thing, this incredibly shitty thing, to happen. Though the general media would take months to come around to deciding that M was a straight-up Nazi, I already considered them as such and I was playing a pivotal role in this asshole’s self-promotion. That was the moment I knew I needed to quit.
It took just under a year before I did.
Image: Discussing the ethics of roofing for evil in Kevin Smith’s film Clerks.
“I'm alive because I knew the risk involved with that particular client. My friend wasn't so lucky. Any contractor working on that Death Star knew the risk involved; if they got killed, it's their own fault. A roofer listens to this [pointing to his heart], not his wallet.“
“I think what they did is pretty despicable but at the end of the day, I didn’t give a fuck,” one former employee said. “I was engrossed by the technical problems that this afforded me.”
From “The Perks Are Great. Just Don’t Ask Us What We Do.” by Juliana Reyes at WIRED.
I’m hardly the first to comment on working for organizations that are… less than good. It isn’t even the first time I’ve done so in this newsletter and we’re only on issue three (this has been entirely by accident, I swear). It is no mistake though that this has partly come out of interacting with ad tech. It has put me in touch with people who have come to see their jobs as somewhat of a farce, reorganizing the deck chairs atop a house of cards that could fall down at any second. Often these people operate on a different side of things than engineering, but never has so perfect a window been opened into the cognitive dissonance involved as with Juliana Reyes 2016 WIRED article about the Philly-based engineering-focused operation of a scamware startup, which I’ve quoted above. (Though Digiday’s Confessions series comes pretty close.)
Reyes’s story manages to have people who are completely divorced from the shitty unethical thing they are involved in, alongside people experiencing the horror of understanding their employer’s business model. In many ways, it was ahead of its time. It’s hard to imagine how shocking it was to read in 2016, and prescient, considering the Never Again Pledge was just months away.
We’ve now entered an entirely different age. Not only are some tech workers publicly struggling with the consequences of their code, sometimes successfully, now editorial employees are struggling with how their bylines are used by their employers. We’re all wrestling with not just how to support these public stances, but also how to respond to the blowback.
While workers are not directly responsible for the actions of their employers, they also create the inherent product by which their employers persist. A tech company does not survive without code, a media company does not survive without creators, and so on. Doing that work can be inherently self-satisfying. Many developers or writers may approach their output in a work-a-day manner, which is fine, but some do take genuine joy out of it. It is easy to obscure the overall evil of a company when you love the little corner of it you are responsible for maintaining. That creates a particular blindness. In other words: you shouldn’t have to love your job, but if you do, it makes it particularly hard to spot fault with the system that pays you.
Beyond that, as Jen Lowe states so plainly in the tweet above, there are other factors that keep people working at a place, even as they gain awareness that all is not right. To quit immediately when things become nefarious is a privilege accorded to those with resources and working significant others (or, alternatively, no one relying on them). People who don’t have high rent, who aren’t concerned about money flow, don’t immediately need insurance, don’t have potential emergencies medical, familial or otherwise. It is nice to have that privilege and I definitely don’t begrudge or criticize those who have it and use it.
The rest of us can get stuck in a disconcerting middle area.
I love my current job, but I came to it in part because I try to be strategic about where I work and this means spending the time looking for the next job, like I did after that evening staring at a video of M while using it to test my code fix, at places we no longer feel comfortable being.
I think part of the reason unionization talk is rising is many companies are being more obviously evil with greater consistency, not just in their treatment of labor, but generally. Most people do not have a boss who is so obviously evil as the rogue geneticist of Jonathan Coulton’s “Skullcrusher Mountain”, instead, we find ourselves being asked to do occasional unethical things. In my situation it was occasional bouts of sketchiness while the overall organization mostly did good. These are the liminal situations that we have to be most cautious about.
The dangerous space is where it feels like we are mostly doing good (or at least not evil) and only a little bad. Sometimes that is the case and everything is ok! We can be comfortable staying, or staying there long enough to quietly find the next job. But we could also be running the vents for a supervillain’s body incinerator and not realize it!
There is definitely a line. It takes work to understand it but I think that work is worthwhile. You don’t need to know how to do accounting to understand the general sweep of your business model. If you do try to understand how your company works it can provide a lot of mental security, the type that can let you sleep at night. At a good company with good people this is something you should be able to discuss.
Without that knowledge it can be very easy to be like the engineer in the Philly adware company, focused on the problems, while scamming grannies and empowering evil.
The other question is: what can you do when you don’t have the privilege available to quit, even if you want to?
I think this situation is creating some interesting results right now. For one, there’s a lot of leaking to the press happening from within the types of tech companies that would normally never leak anything. It’s clear this is an option, and perhaps even a way to push corporate policy away from bad practices.
Depending on your position, and if it would be difficult for the company to hire into it (say if they made a huge public mess of firing someone), you can potentially speak out internally, pushing leadership to act more ethically by being vocal. This option also is more available to those with particular privileges (especially, I’d think, men and expensive engineering hires), but if you can do it you may be able to create worthwhile change, or at least hold off situations where you end up complicit in shitty behavior.
Remember that your consent as labor to collaborate with bad management allows management to force consent to bad behavior on other employees. Perhaps you can start a union? Or at least a walkout. Or perhaps sign a letter in support of the folks doing the good behavior.
Finally there’s always the last resort: throwing yourself in the gears. If you can’t object, organize, or create external pressure, there is some degree to which you can work on the good things and delay on the bad ones. It isn’t the greatest option, but depending on the scope of bad behavior you may find yourself with a degree of moral obligation.
There have been times when I’ve had to put a lot more thought into this than I’d like and in more than one employment situation. There is an obligation to protest being put on labor, for better or worse, as we go deeper into this weird ultra-greed-focused era of capitalism. There is increasingly little choice but to look at the employer/employee relationship as adversarial.
Some employers look for every opportunity to milk every possible second of work out of workers and seek to take every advantage to extract money out of society. If that is the case then employees either have to resist or be taken advantage of, lest they get pulled further down into a realm with less options and a higher likelihood that their labor is put to use making the world a worse place.
Wherever you are, I hope you can find a way to hold the line and, at the very least, avoid making things worse.
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