On exploitation

At this point I have written this post three times. I find this subject difficult to write about and with sufficient nuance - as to not come as an apologist of the tech hustle culture. Which I am not. At the same time, if you have previously read me, I like intensity. I believe that in order to achieve something meaningful, one has to put in the effort. I also sometimes have trouble separating work from my personal life. I am quite open about this, I even mention it here. Bottom line, I am truly privileged: I do exactly what I want, even if I had the magical powers to pick some other job.

Ok, the cat is out of the bag. Let’s go.

A few days ago, I saw this tweet:

And although I will leverage it, I am only interested in the general idea, rather than its particulars - author, or GitHub itself.

For the last decade I constantly missed the idea of “working smarter”. I am simply not as intelligent as people that preach it. I say this without a hint of irony. In the smaller companies I have worked, 40h per week wasn’t enough. No matter how much we cut, focus, slice and re-scope. I am always missing some kind of mental stretch that allows me to shave a non-trivial amount of time. In these companies I can put north of 50, sometimes 60 hours per week. I don’t say this as a badge of honour, but rather as an honest recollection. Balancing constraints, clients feedback, competitors and personal excitement is hard. Time spirals above what I am legally bound to. I never felt that I had to spend more hours than what I had written in my contract. This is a privilege - I know that if I leave after my day is over, nothing will happen to me. And even if it does, it wouldn’t be too difficult to find something else.

There’s a stigma if one works longer than what’s required is as bad thing. An example are articles like this getting blasted. Don’t get me wrong: there are clear signs of toxicity in it. But I can’t shake off the feeling that the broader message rings true to me. Despite the extra time I put into those roles, at no point I felt exploited. In fact quite the opposite. The places where I put the most hours, where I obsess the most, I did it because I enjoyed it. I learned a lot from it, and have no doubt that it made me a better professional and person. It made me aware of the sort of problems I like to tackle, but also the culture and companies I want to be a part of. There’s a sense that people that are ok with these conditions are naive. Kids that do not know any better and are relentlessly taken advantage of. Sure, there are and they will learn from these experiences. And hopefully find a company that suits them better. But what about the others that take great joy from working in fast-paced, challenging environments?

Sometimes the employer is the problem. Candidates are hired for something they didn’t expect, or not warned at all. They find themselves trapped into a job they hate, and can’t get out of it (e.g. sponsored visas). Abusive managers take advantage of more agreeable individuals. Making them work a lot more than what they should or want. I vehemently condemn such cases. Companies should be crystal clear about the challenges and intensity of the role they are hiring for. Candidates should be treated like adults and capable of making an informed decision if an offer is given.

This topic is tricky to discuss, because it can touch a nerve or two. I do wonder that maybe this is my own misinterpretation: the duality between intensity and exploitation. Maybe it’s impossible to separate the two and whoever thinks otherwise are just a case of Stockholm syndrome? If someone is fulfilled doing what they love, what’s the business of anyone to say it’s wrong?