I’m An Entitled Tech Worker In Need of Attitude Adjustment
The cashews in the giant plastic jars aren’t cheap, they said. I worked at a small startup and there was a rumor going around amongst the Engineers. At a meeting, leadership had been asked about increasing base salaries to be more competitive with the market. One of the company leaders had supposedly pushed back and suggested that the high cost of the free cashews in the kitchen should be factored in as compensation. I was young and naive but I got the message just the same — startups should be frugal and stretch every dollar. Also, when you see cashews, stuff your face — it’s salary.
Another startup featured a fridge full of very good and expensive Odwallas. Having lived in Cashew Land, I thought this was just extravagant.
So, nothing in my scrappy startup-filled decade in Silicon Valley had prepared me for the perks onslaught unleashed at Square which of course topped everything else before it by miles and yet, to my amazement, is quite frugal amongst its peer set despite competing for the same talent pool. After all, there’s no $100,000 chrome panda in sight.
After nearly 15 years in Silicon Valley as a lucky beneficiary of software eating the world, I frequently ask myself — what are these perks doing to our ability to empathize with our customers outside of our kombucha-laden bubble? Should we have any sense of guilt about our gilded existence while half the country hurts? What message are we sending to people in their first job out of college? Do we have enough gratitude? If seed stage startups are the spark plug of the ecosystem, how much harder have we made it for them to compete?
There are no easy answers. But at minimum we can be more self-aware, more honest about our privilege. And since honesty begins at home, I am starting by offering up a few admissions of insanely trivial things I’ve kvetched about despite the amazing office experience. Get ready to cringe.
Square serves 3 square meals a day (sorry, couldn’t resist) on an entire floor dedicated to the consumption of amazing, highly subsidized, freshly cooked food.
As with any all-you-can-eat buffet, Step One involves grabbing a sturdy plate and then overloading it like it’s the last meal before the executioner shows up. A few months into the job, as I grabbed a plate I realized to my horror that it was…made of paper. A polite sign nearby explained that the dishwasher was broken so, well, paper plates instead.
As I loaded up the plate, the thing naturally started to buckle under the weight. And I looked down at it and reflexively thought to myself — “Gah, I hate these paper plates, I can’t really load ’em up. Might have to get seconds. I can’t believe they didn’t fix the dishwasher in time.”
And then, in a flash, my head snapped back up. I looked around stupidly to check if anyone nearby had heard my thoughts somehow. My next thought — “I need a fucking attitude adjustment”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only case.
The word cabana evokes images of Vegas poolside debauchery. Uh, not quite. For informal and one-off meetings, Square installed dozens of square-shaped booths all over the office — get it? — and called them cabanas. Instead of Vegas-style drunken cavorting, these cabanas are used for vigorous discussions about…credit cards. And for semi-awkward 1:1s with a whole fourth wall missing as managers attempt to deliver feedback in hushed tones.
Regardless, these are always in high demand both for one-off meetings and temporary solitude from the open office. When I first started at Square, I was amazed at the quality of construction, the gamely attempts at sound absorption, even the short pilot to add RFID tags on them to record occupancy patterns.
But within months, I had started to bitch about the fact that it could take up to five minutes of walking around to find an empty one. Oh, the humanity!
The requisite attitude adjustment came one day as I was scrolling through old photos and found one snapped in early 2012 at LocBox. I’ve previously mentioned the prison-style office with the gas station-style shared bathroom key. In addition to these charms, the office had no private space whatsoever. Our poor Account Manager was frequently forced to talk to customers right outside the door, on the floor in the hallway, laptop and phone in tow. I also remembered that he never complained and just got it done. I’ve tried not to complain about cabanas since.
It was several months of gainful employment before I even stumbled upon this feature — there’s a small library tucked away deep within one of the floors. But we’re definitely playing fast and loose with the word “library” because there are likely fewer hardcover books than there are 24 inch screens atop several rows of desks. The primary feature in common with actual libraries is the social contract of silence as people stare into their screens to get shit done.
And yet, I quickly managed to find a problem to complain about. You see, the standard-issue desk chairs at Square are wonderful ergonomic seats that are infinitely adjustable, comfortable as hell and make me feel like the mad king on the Iron Throne.
But — alas! The library has been stocked with a similarly fancy but different set of chairs. Without casters. Or arm rests. Or height adjustment. Have you ever tried to type for extended periods of time on a beautiful but uncomfortable chair? Even the people that work at the DMV have chairs with casters and armrests. But instead of whining to the Office team, I’ve found a way to cope. It involves going to the library for a short period of time and then walking 150 feet to my desk, back to the comforts of the iron throne. I hate the walk but am rationalizing it as a way to build up to 10,000 steps.
The lunch lines get long at noon. But this isn’t about long lunch lines, per se, since that’s not obnoxious enough to merit a mention here. So — in addition to the excellent kitchen referred to earlier, there’s also a built-out Wise Sons deli 2 floors down from the main kitchen.
At lunch time, there are 4 decision-making variables — the menus for main kitchen and Wise (posted online, of course) and the relative line lengths for both. Of course, a tempting menu can mean a longer line and the extreme peril of having to wait to be fed. After 3 hours of backbreaking labor, waiting in line is simply unacceptable.
Since I’m clearly not the only one with this problem, the amazing Office team cleverly installed a CCTV (!!) by the main kitchen and hooked it up to an internal link that streams grainy but unmistakably live video footage. So I can now avoid the agony of waiting in line by sitting at my Iron Throne and watching people inch forward until the lines clear. I try not to linger on the page because it’s just creepy to stare like that.
But much to my chagrin, there’s no CCTV by Wise Sons so 1 out of 4 variables is unknowable. So on days when I have a hankering for matzo ball soup, I could be blindsided and find a long line after deigning to walk one whole flight of stairs.
But I persist. While I can’t even pretend to have achieved attitude adjustment in this case, I’ve stoically accepted that a little extra walking or waiting will be involved. But I do await that glorious day when I’ll be able to stare creepily at two live video streams instead of just one.
This is not a complete list. There are Larry David-style complaints to register about conference rooms, bike cages, standing desks and even self-serve espresso machines that break down and ruin afternoons by forcing a “downgrade” to Philz drip coffee. But if you’re reading this and you work a regular job outside of the SF bubble or a startup job with real risk, I’ve likely already revolted you three times over so I see no reason to increase your revulsion rate.
On the other hand, if you work in Big Tech, I wonder if you cringed in part because you recognized a little bit of yourself in these examples. If so, I hope you’ll consider preaching the virtues of adversity and the importance of grit to the new grads around you. I hope you’ll speak up the next time you hear someone complaining about running out of pheasant in the kitchen. I hope you’ll agree that we could all get better at cultivating an attitude of gratitude, not just for what we are all privileged to experience but also the great people that work behind the scenes to make these privileges happen and yet can no longer afford to live in San Francisco.
As the great Sheryl Crow once sang, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got”.
Even if it’s just cashews in a giant plastic jar.