On Tuesday, 12/10/19, I quit my job. Friday 12/13 was my last day.
When I quit, I wasn’t sure how vocal I would be about my experience. Part of me acknowledged that the healthiest thing would be to just move on and leave negative thoughts behind me. Another part of me knew that suppressing those negative thoughts would ultimately drive me crazy and would be a disservice for anyone in a similar situation, people in unhealthy work environments that are too scared to take action for fear of losing a regular paycheck, their healthcare, or even for facing legal consequences.
The whole process of quitting and then speaking up about it was honestly a complete mindfuck as I was constantly navigating this space of being open but not so open that I would risk being sued.
I want to write a bit about this experience because I think it will give me closure. I also especially want to share the outpouring of support I received from people, in private messages, emails, and text messages. When I started being more and more open, I was a bit disappointed / frustrated that people I know in similar toxic circumstances weren’t also speaking up, passively “liking” a post without otherwise acknowledging how pervasive these problems were across companies in tech. But in the end, everyone has their own level of comfort with revealing how much they’ve been screwed over. I completely acknowledge that I came from a unique point of privilege; I had saved enough money to comfortably quit without a job lined up, I wasn’t beholden to the tech industry because I don’t plan to work in it again, and I quit knowing I had full support of the people I might rely upon in the future for references.
Writing about quitting was ultimately an exercise in writing as carefully and clearly as I could. This is a blog post about subversion and rebellion through language.
The Initial Announcement
When I first announced I left my company, I wanted to be sure to definitively prevent any questioning around if I was dismissed / fired from my job. This led to the phrasing “I decided to leave” — it was ultimately my choice alone.
Further, I wanted people to know that the choice was sudden and likely the result of a negative experience. People do not decide to leave jobs to “rest” unless something traumatic happened. Further, “short term collaborations” hints at not having something immediate lined up (having to leave on short notice) but also not being so lost that I don’t have something planned in the near future.
At the time I shared that I quit, I wasn’t planning on being super open about why it happened. But I wrote a vague statement that also hint that something strange happened to me that probably was Not Good:
Protecting Your Legacy
Before I left my job, I got a lot of DMs on Slack from my coworkers saying how much they appreciated working with me. I decided to preserve those messages so that I could further provide evidence of not being forced to quit because of poor work.
I asked people to literally copy and paste messages they shared with me elsewhere (in Slack DMs, on Twitter, etc.) to LinkedIn as recommendations, to save them for “posterity.”
The Employee Agreement
I quit without signing a non-disparaging agreement. Of course, not signing an NDA does not give you the liberty to say whatever you want; I still signed an employee agreement contract at the start of my working at the company.
This document has a section specifically around “proprietary information” which essentially states that you cannot share anything that is not “publicly known” or reveal the identity of Company employees. All information that you have about the company needs to be destroyed at the time of your termination.
My interpretation of this agreement is that 1) I can share my experience as long as the references I share are already fully public (no company-only communications), 2) I cannot name anyone by their name, 3) nothing proprietary can be revealed.
To cover my bases, I also proactively sought out legal advice. I am lucky enough to have spent time at Harvard Law in the Library Innovation Lab, a partner to the Berkman Klein Center on Internet & Society (also at Harvard). I reached out to lawyers I know from my fellowship there. This gave additional security because I knew who to turn to in the case that any legal action needed to be taken.
Clearly I could not share any propriety information that was only accessible to people within the company. I did, however, have records of my own experience that were captured entirely outside of the company’s properties.
One record I didn’t expect to be helpful at all in this scenario were records from using BetterHelp, a tele-therapy service I used for a few months earlier in the year because of difficulties resulting from my experience at work. (I don’t necessarily recommend BetterHelp and ended up stopping my subscription in favor of seeing a therapist in person — can chat with you about that if you’re interested).
Using my transcripts from these conversations, I could point to evidence of my frustrations with work without being explicit about it in my own writing. These tweets introduced the idea of having to seek out therapy in the first place for the first time in my adult life (not that therapy is only used to respond to trauma — it’s helpful for talking through anything in your life, and I recommend it!)
These screenshots helped me point to concrete external evidence of what my situation was like. I hope it’s obvious that having a therapist set a goal that you’re in bed by 1:30am at least 2 days a week is a sign of a very unhealthy lifestyle:
I was also able to find objective data that implied that I was undervalued. An example of that is my original job posting, which I found on Internet Archive.
I didn’t share my own judgement of my situation in these tweets — I shared a link that had objective evidence of my offer and merely posed a question to other people, who could tell me if I had been appropriately compensated.
That gave others the opportunities to speak up for me:
Leaving Things to the Imagination
In the midst of getting more into describing my actual experience, I started getting frustrated that I couldn’t flat out say how I was wronged. But then I realized something that could work in my favor — by not being able to concretely talk about what happened, I could leave some of those gaps to be filled by the readers’ imagination. Sometimes what you imagine can be worse than reality.
This tweet above, for example, talks about leaving a job on principle. You can imagine lots of principles that could be violated that might lead someone to quit a job suddenly. By which one(s) are responsible here? Who knows!
I also knew that people that followed me on Twitter knew I would wake up in the middle of the night somewhat regularly, even prior to leaving my job. I have suffered from bouts of insomnia that got worse over time through my previous job:
It wasn’t just insomnia, either — I also had stomach aches that resulted from stress:
^ The tweets above are dated and were shared before I quit on 12/10. And I wasn’t sharing them with the expectation I would quit when I did — the circumstances around me quitting was when I reached a breaking point of realizing exactly how undervalued I was. I just want to clarify that these were not calculated moves in preparation for quitting, but rather merely evidence that the problems I had were not new.
After I had quit, I could use the examples of poor sleep and stomach aches to talk about the lack of HR:
Some examples backfired on me! Subtext is very hard to convey in tweets. At one point, I shared the message,
Anyway, I love independent artists and teachers, who are often so underpaid and undervalued. hope they continue supporting them, in all ways! [Dec 18, 2019]
But I ended up deleting this thread because my tweets were understandably but frustratingly read as sincere.
Embedding Issues in Advice
I realized that I could collect my grievances and embed them in advice I would give to others — a win-win situation. This led to a series of tweets around what I had taken away from my experience:
My writing took on this structure again as I realized how badly my experience and work had been undervalued. I wanted to share advice to other PhD HCI graduates, and it also served as a way to share, in objective measures, how my years of experience were not accurately accounted for:
Telling My Story
At this point, I had shared enough indirectly that I felt there wasn’t a path forward without being more explicit about what I had personally experienced. This led to me sharing two distinct stories about things that happened to me, ultimately sharing context around what happened, rather than what the internal exchange was (since I couldn’t legally do that).
The first was my own experience with physical assault, which to be honest, I still have a very hard time reading and would rather not post the entire thread here:
I close my story by sharing how dangerous it is for people to report being abused, something I was worried about with my own work situation:
At this point, it wasn’t necessary for me to paint the full picture of what happened to me at work:
I wish I could share what happened because it’s such a bizarre and upsetting situation that I don’t believe anyone could imagine, but I can’t for legal reasons. Notice that I don’t implicate anyone by name here.
The second story I share has to do with spiraling into depression:
I think dissatisfaction with work is probably the most pervasive problem in the industry, and my particular example of it I think is pretty relatable for anyone working in a hyper-growth startup.
Again, I could point to dated evidence, messages between myself and my therapist from June 22, 2019, written at 12:20am, to share my experience.
This all culminated in sharing my exit letter, which I’ve been told is quite nice (in terms of painting my experience in mostly a positive light!): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1xgUIZDq8GHtlGTj1aK2U0MqfUCBnKck-3aHLFifOPBM/edit
Note that of course this letter is “nice” because I still wanted the letter to be professional, as I shared it with the entire company upon leaving.
Weirdly, in writing this, I’m realizing it sounds like this was all very planned. Actually, it wasn’t at all. I continued my pattern of naturally waking up at 2/3am and then writing whatever came to mind. I never draft tweets — there is some negotiating that goes on in my brain every time I write a tweet, to figure out exactly what words I’ll use, but it typically happens on the order of ~15 seconds.
I was super overwhelmed with the number of people that reached out to me. My goal was to share my experience to help other people avoid similar problems. But I didn’t expect some of the other consequences of speaking out.
Almost all messages of support was shared through private communications — emails, Twitter DMs, and text messages. In an effort to protect people’s identities, I’m just going to share some of the corresponding text that I received. I hope that by sharing this, I’ll help people know that they’re not alone and that many people are dealing with similar problems I shared, across companies in tech.
Thank you for your tweets recently. They are reminding me that other
people are actively doing the things I need to also do. That I need to
take care of myself first, that I am strong, that you are strong, that
we don’t need to put up with terrible shit that doesn’t serve us and
just takes advantage of us. That we have so much more potential if we
allow space for it.
I also wanted to thank you for your writing — especially this tweet hit home: https://twitter.com/scientiffic/status/1206323586916659203
Couldn’t put it in words before, but reading what you’ve written here, I feel emboldened to take control myself!
I’m so happy that you are out and moving on. You are going to do great work and spread important messages. I know someday I will take the same step. Seeing you do it is inspiring. Your exit letter is fair and calls out important truths about your experience (and undoubtedly the experience of others, now and in the future).
Your day on Twitter has been leading me through a fair bit of self reflection on my own current start-up situation. It’s amazing how far down the rabbit hole we all end up sometimes.
You don’t know me. Our paths never crossed. I have seen you on and off on twitter and I have always been amazed by your work. I hope you are getting all the support you need during this tough time. I have been there and it is harsh. I see and recognise the pain in your tweets. It reminds me of struggles I had faced when the wounds were fresh. Hope you survive this. Hope we all survive this. In the meantime, please allow yourself some rest.
Thank you for sharing so much information about your work experience. I have been thinking and talking about it a lot with friends and coworkers. The emotion you conveyed in your tweets resonated with me deeply and it got me thinking about how challenging navigating work environments can be. You are a role model of mine and do such amazing work. I’m looking forward to seeing what you do next in academia.
It sounded like a truly terrible place and I’m glad you’re out of that situation. I also understand the anger and I’m glad it’s coming out on ways that are helpful to others as well as freeing for you.
Your story about quitting your job resonated with me a lot. I too am facing similar challenges at work, and have also started therapy for the first time! I was thinking about applying for [company], but now I’m not sure what to make of it. It is very discouraging to see that many people are unhappy at work, and often I wonder what went wrong in the system. Seeing you share your story made me feel less alone. I hope both of us can come out from our experiences stronger.
I know how difficult it is to leave a job (especially one that you had high hopes for) and I’m inspired by your transparency and actions. Finding the right professional fit for me has been way more difficult than I expected — and most of the places I’ve idealized have ended up, to a degree, being smoke & mirrors…now including [company].
I [thought that] [company] was a dream company, but reading about how they mistreated you and the other problems you’ve exposed has changed my perspective completely. One of the things that excited me the most about landing a job there was that I would be working with you.
I would have applied to [company] if I hadn’t gotten a job [elsewhere] because of the product and cool people there, so it’s good to hear your candid internal perspective.
I definitely considered joining [company] at a point so very thankful I see it with eyes fully opened.
The information you shared did have an effect (in that I will not interview with them or recommend them). I feel like I dodged a bullet.
Thanks for being so forthcoming. I’ve started thinking about doing something else and I was seriously considering [company] based on its public persona but you’ve given me a lot to think about.
Just wanted to say thanks for speaking out about your experiences. It’s been an important reminder for me that, of course, it’s naive to take it at face value when a company is saying, “look at all the things I’m doing right.”
They put on a good appearance, but it sounds like that might be a bit hollow. Anyhow, just wanted to say you are awesome and thanks for making things!
Do you realize how we all talk about our experiences working with you? I assumed you were being compensated well because that’s how important your work was.
Hey, just wanted to say I saw your tweets and I’m sorry you didn’t get treated fairly. The work you do inspires me.
I am so sorry this happened. I have not experienced the same situation but I can definitely relate to the difficult, trapped feeling after starting a job where reality and expectations are not aligned. I admire your courage and strength of will, with your shift of mind in the last few months, ultimately leaving, and pursuing a career path after some reflection. It sounds like you have a stellar resume — any design or engineering school or institute would be very lucky to have you as part of their community. Best wishes with the transition.
I hope whatever is next is respectful, kind and appreciative of your amazing talents.
The unexpected response was messages from people reaching out to work together, from many people I admire!
Just noticed on an obscure website called Twitter that you might be open to short term collaborations. Would you be open to considering working on some design tooling with the [competitive product of company] team? Would love to explore that
I saw you recently left [company], and are on the academic market. I’m not sure if you’re focusing exclusively on Universities/academia, or if you’d be interested in industrial research as well. I’m not sure how much you know about the research group, so [here’s] a brief pitch […] I think you’d be a strong candidate.
I’m thankful to have some closure on this situation. No one ever fully recovers from any experience that cuts deep. But I am ready to move forward and am so thankful for all the support I received. Hopefully, if you’re in a similar situation, my own experiences can help give you a path towards a better, healthier future.