On the Tech Sector & Vocation

“Detroit hustles harder.” I saw this slogan on a t-shirt in San Francisco recently. This was in Hayes Valley, home of artisanal ice cream stands, a Warby Parker frame shop, and children’s clothing boutiques. The shirt resonated with me. Growing up in a Greater Cleveland that seemed ever lessening in commercial and cultural influence, I absorbed an imperative to do whatever one can to carve out a niche in the face of an uncertain and threatening economic future.

The real question, though, is Who Brands Better?
Image © Aptemal Clothing LLC. I make no claims to ownership.

It wasn’t always true, though, that America’s rust belt centers stood for grit and determination. The downfall of the American automotive industry, at least in the cultural imagination, can be traced to workers who had achieved a level of job and economic security that left them unwilling to apply sufficient hustle.

Today’s tech scene seems to celebrate the opposite impulse — concepts like growth hacking or the minimum viable product bring with them instructions to “fake it till you make it,” that is to never stop hustling. And yet the San Francisco Bay Area offers something no longer accessible in the Midwest: secure vocational jobs to those who can train themselves up for them.

It comes as no surprise that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of “vocation.” For one thing, I was introduced to the work of sociologist Max Weber at the right time to permanently freeze his frameworks into my toolkit for understanding the world (Weber’s works include Politics as a Vocation and Science as a Vocation).

Plus, as a good Millennial, I’ve spent the past ten years hung up on the “what am I going to do with my life” question. And, as with many Millennials, I have parents who achieved success by picking a path early and sticking with it (mine are professors of American history).

So what is a vocation to me? I can think of a few ways to answer that question:

  1. A vocation is something you can be trained for in school and then get a job in. This includes manual trades — like HVAC repair — as well as some forms of “knowledge work” — like law or journalism.
  2. A vocation is a set of rules through which a professional community self regulates (for instance those enforced by the legal bar, or political “conventional wisdom”).
  3. A vocation is a framework through which to measure one’s success and impact according to metrics other than money (e.g. quality of publications for an academic, or lives saved for a surgeon).
  4. A vocation is a shared ideology. This ties into the previous answer. To settle on a shared definition of success beyond the material, a vocation must buy into a way of seeing the world through which following its rules and principles grants one some form of non-material merit.
Max Weber will be played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the biopic.

But vocations no longer exist for Millennials, right? We’re each going to work in 10 different industries in our lives, and must be constantly ready to pivot from sales calls in the morning to financial analysis in the afternoon to social media strategy in the evening — or something like that. And then after dinner, we’ll each cultivate a Tumblr of cultural criticism memes featuring robot dogs.

The long decline of the middle class has definitely put the squeeze on vocations. In the rust belt, a sense of professional pride is seemingly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer people can afford. Scarcity will do that — with stagnant incomes and a shrinking sphere of defined vocations, it may be harder and harder to get both a comfortable income and a sense of fulfillment out of work. Hence the hustling.

The coast with the most. Income growth.

But in the Bay Area tech scene the rules are different. A whole list of distinct vocations are recognized here, populated by people who need not fear (for now) that their skills and training won’t be enough to secure them a good job in their chosen field. They’re data scientists, machine learning engineers, scrum masters, even social media strategists.

Sure, most of them want to attach themselves to the right start-up and hit it big. But they’re also told that they have a defined “skillset” that they should stay true to — it’s a not an engineer’s job to worry if the feature they’re building can be explained to the user; that’s a product marketer’s job — and that this skillset should by itself is enough to secure them a livelihood.

For several years, vocational training programs (“hacker schools”) have been springing up in response to demand for tech sector skillsets, with curricula that in 12 weeks will enable their graduates join the select. And good for those who offer and take these programs. The career outcomes are enviable, and they help meet a market demand for the creation of more software to cut through existing “frictions” and re-map our economy. (Though not always to the benefit of existing workers in the industries affected).

Meanwhile, the success of many tech companies suggests that, as long as everyone pulls their own weight, the division of production between different individuals with their own clearly defined ends is still possible. An engineer cares about producing code that executes, a product manager cares about prioritization and user needs, a UX designer cares about the usability of an interface, and a growth marketer cares about driving adoption.

What am I building to here? No ultimate answers, just a few more questions:

  • Does the seeming tie between a sense of vocation and an atmosphere of abundance suggest that vocations are, in fact, a luxury? Or are they a complement to other production inputs?
  • If the ideology of the engineer is to create, is the ideology of the entrepreneur to “disrupt”? And of the venture capitalist to “profit hack”?
  • How does society build checks to ensure that these ideologies remain in service to broader social and economic needs?

Originally published at kornblith.blogspot.com on August 17, 2015.