Lloyd F Hough
8 min readFeb 3, 2023

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If you work at one of the large tech companies that, in the last few weeks, have laid off thousands of employees, you may be wondering what the hell is going on. Especially if the company you’re working for is not actually struggling economically right now. If you work for Google, say, you must be thinking, “What is it about the coming recession that makes a company that’s doing just fine institute broad layoffs for the first time in its 23-year history?”

The answer, my friend, is class warfare.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading The People [1830].

The people who control capital — that’s real money, not the impressive-to-your-parents salary and stock grants that your employer gives (or, until recently, gave) you as compensation — are doing what capital does. They’re coordinating their efforts to improve their position relative to the people who don’t control capital.

There’s nothing new about this. (See, for instance, K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1853].) There’s not even anything new about this in the world of tech, though it’s been a couple decades since Silicon Valley’s capitalists decided that it was time to drive down the compensation of engineers.

What’s somewhat novel about the present moment is the scale of the operation, and the level of coordination. Google, Amazon, IBM, Spotify, PayPal, Salesforce, 3M, Coinbase, and more are all conducting mass layoffs at the same time. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and many hundreds of thousands, the rest of us, are being told that we may be next.

To use the language of antitrust, these companies are a cartel that is using its monopsony power to drive down demand for labor.

Now, these people aren’t idiots. They aren’t coordinating this using the kind of smoking-gun paper trail that Google and Apple used when they colluded to drive down demand for engineers in 2009. (The FTC might still get it together to issue a consent decree in three years, but your job will be long gone by then.) They’re just “responding to external signals,” such as institutional investors idly musing aloud in fringe publications like the New York Times about whether or not labor in the tech sector could do with a wage cut.

The message is clear. They think it’s time for the (relatively) easy ride that tech workers have in the American workforce to come to an end. High salaries, stock grants, job security, good health insurance, employee-development programs, all that stuff that has made working for a tech company noticeably better than (say) working for a manufacturer or a distributor: it’s time for all of that to go away.

Capitalists in tech want to enjoy the same privileges as their peers in other sectors: increase worker productivity faster than they increase wages, so that they can get not just rich but stinking rich.

I’m not especially interested in name-calling. What good would that do? Jeff Bezos knows he’s a creep. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. Among the messages that mass layoffs send is, We really don’t give a shit what you say about us.

But now that they’ve clearly delineated the world into them and us, it’s time to take stock about just what “us” means.

Class consciousness

To keep this brief, and get to the meat of this article, I’m going to make an assertion here: If you are (or were) a tech worker — a software engineer, a site reliability engineer, a product manager, you know, the kind of people who actually do the work — you’re not in the same class as the tech executive.

The tech executive is in the capital class. They are compensated with 7-figure stock packages. Their interest is in maintaining the security of their position by upholding the values of their class. They share no interests with you.

If you haven’t grasped this idea yet, just move on. Go read Hacker News. Read Leetcode’s advice to the lovelorn. This isn’t for you.

On the other hand, if you understand that you are a worker, and not a capitalist, and you’re ready to look at how you and people like you should be acting to advance their interests, read on.

What are the interests of the tech worker?

Suddenly, this question has become a lot easier to answer! Look at how capital is trying to get over on you. What can you — we — all, collectively, do to defeat that?

In the present moment, the simplest goal that capital has is to drive down compensation for engineers by driving down demand for them. How do we thwart that ambition?

Well, let’s look at what “demand for engineers” actually is. A company like Amazon or Google or Netflix has built a machine that makes money. That machine requires a certain amount of tending. It also requires new features from time to time.

So the machine still needs workers, and it needs workers with specialized expertise. They not only need to know how to build and maintain things, they need to be able to build and maintain things within the context of their engineering organization. This is something that these companies used to pay a lot of money for. Now they want to pay less. A lot less.

These companies have enjoyed, as a product of their high compensation, an intangible but very real thing called “engineering culture.” Engineering culture encourages workers to collectively improve the company’s effectiveness. It encourages them to share knowledge with one another. To train each other. To build tools for one another. To bring new workers up to speed, and review each other’s work. To speed the company up. To seek out weaknesses in the company and fix them.

Engineers do this while they’re doing their actual job, the one the company thinks it’s paying them for: tending the machine that makes money.

There is no reason at all for engineers to continue performing this kind of free labor for entities that are trying to cut their wages. It is in their interest to do the exact opposite.

If you share your knowledge with a colleague, then you are making yourself replaceable. If you train a junior engineer, then you are leveling up someone who costs the company less than you do. If you build a tool, you’re making it possible for capital to get more productivity out of its workers at the same time that it is reducing workers’ wages.

Let’s look at the dimensions of engineering culture in companies that have decided they don’t want to pay to nurture it:

Training: Sharing your knowledge with a colleague is just making yourself replaceable. If you train an engineer junior to you, then you are leveling up someone who costs the company less than you do. Don’t.

Tools: It’s good to build tools for your own use. That lets you perform at a higher level, and makes it likelier that you will keep your job. But sharing tools with your colleagues defeats this purpose. You no longer stand out relative to them, and you also are making it easier for capital to get more value for less labor. Unless your company explicitly values this work (i.e., has a meaningful metric that comp is tied to), you shouldn’t do it.

Documentation: The entire point of documentation is to make it easier for the people who come behind you to work. You should write as little documentation as you possibly can.

Interviews: Obviously, you shouldn’t be conducting interviews. Your company is trying to hire people for less than they’re paying you, so that they can cut you loose in the next round of layoffs. You have no interest in facilitating that. If you can’t avoid doing interviews completely, you should use interviews to make it clear to prospective hires that they should work somewhere else.

Code reviews: Don’t be lax here. Don’t let bugs through: that’s sabotage. It’s not in your interest as a worker to let capital think that its workers are saboteurs.

Technical debt: Obviously there’s no reason for you to focus the slightest attention on repaying technical debt. That just increases the value of the company without increasing your value to the company. Systems with a lot of technical debt are especially difficult for cheap new hires to navigate effectively, too. That’s what you want.

Meetings: Meetings are especially good because they provide the opportunity to identify problems and push their resolution up the management chain. In a world where forgiveness has been replaced with layoffs, it is vastly better to ask for permission than forgiveness. Do this frequently. Encourage your managers to do the same. They’re in the same boat you are.

Process improvement: Is this your job? Then no.

Class warfare and the conscientious engineer

If you’re a conscientious engineer, you are probably going to find the above suggestions somewhere between counterintuitive and horrifying. You should! They are horrifying! This is how deeply capital’s war on workers is scarring our profession.

These people are actively trying to take your wealth away from you and keep it for themselves. You need to protect yourself.

Oh, yeah, we should also have a union. Sure. Let’s get on that one of these days.

But right now, capital needs to understand that if they want value, they have to pay for it. And we, as workers, need to understand that if things have deteriorated to the point where we’re being squeezed out of our jobs even though our employers are so profitable that they’re buying back stock, there’s no reason for us to provide the slightest bit of value that we’re not being paid for.

The turnaround

The most important thing to understand about the present moment is that while we’ve gone a couple of decades without this kind of concerted effort at driving down tech salaries, it’s a thing that has happened over and over again. Unless your company is fundamentally unsound (I’m looking at you, Spotify), there’s a bottom.

Once the company reaches the bottom, and capital starts suffering from the damage it is inflicting on the company, it will turn around. The history of Silicon Valley is full of these moments. The classic signal is getting rid of the business-focused CEO and hiring an engineering-focused one.

As the people who are the direct losers in this phase of the game, it is in our interest to bring the turnaround about as quickly as we can.

The death of engineering culture that I’ve talked about here is going to happen, sooner or later, in all of these companies. That’s because it is entirely natural for workers to perceive what their interests are and act accordingly. This all happened at HP back when Carly Fiorina was their CEO, for instance. But it took years.

It doesn’t have to. We know what’s happening. We know what’s coming, too. That means responding now. Don’t wait two quarters to see how the wind blows before grudgingly deciding to act in your own interest. Your CEO has already killed your company’s engineering culture. Let it die quickly.

Today is the day to schedule a meeting to discuss the aspects of an engineering issue that should really be handled by your manager’s manager. Today is the day to skip over the opportunity to explain that thing that you do every time that thing crashes. Today is the day to set your interview preferences to “never.”

We built this in the first place. We can build it back once capital has taken its punishment.

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