Reimagining work in the tech industry

Software engineers' growing dissatisfaction will come back to bite the corporate overlords

There is no lack of conversation on the ongoing bursting of the tech bubble, but unfortunately it is mostly shallow, uncritically centering the interests of venture capital and companies dependant on it. Satisfaction supposedly flows downstream - when the venture capitalist is unhappy with their investment companies will try to save money by layoffs and desperate attempts to establish control over the remaining workers, most notably by way of the ridiculously forced recent crackdown on remote work. But what if we turned this on its head and considered how software engineers’ workplace satisfaction actually flows upstream as well - the impact it can have on generating value? Indeed, there is another, less talked about bubble that is bursting - the software engineer’s satisfaction bubble.

Much like tech investors, many tech workers have gone through their own enthusiasm to disillusionment pipeline. While the investor simply hopes to make money, the engineer (at least the ostensibly love-of-the-craft one, as opposed to one entirely cynical) hopes also for other types of return on investment. While these are of course personalised, they do follow patterns: work having impact or making a difference, feeling challenged and able to grow technically, ideas being respected and considered, having the freedom to arrange the specifics of how work is done etc. When these expectations are not being met, the engineer will (again, similarly to the investor) usually have a bargaining period where they will attempt to individualise the issue: it is only this time, only this project, only this manager, only this company - tech as a whole is still great. But after a while, an overwhelming notion of a fundamental, systemic issue at play sets in, and it is not imaginary. There is no lack of anecdotal evidence that such issues indeed run rampant in the tech industry: from the long-standing discourse on the fundamentally flawed hiring practices in software engineering, to the more recent accounts of fake work, mismanagement and other bad practices of large, elitist tech companies.

One reason that this phenomenon is not taken seriously by those who hold the power in tech is likely the notion that since software engineers are usually well compensated, any other feelings they may have about their work are irrelevant. Capitalist ideology will have you believe that the risk the investors are taking risking capital is the only true risk, while the risk workers are taking by selling their time, especially for a high monetary value, doesn’t really matter. But highly skilled, passionate engineers being contractually obligated to do little or nothing of value (whether it be value to themselves, to society, or weirdly enough, oftentimes to the company itself) for 40 hours a week is in itself a detriment to the individual, even without considering potential problems like hiring discrimination, lack of worker protections etc. It is in fact a considerable risk of wasting one’s time, talent and quite frankly, one’s life. But unlike the investors many workers may not feel safe voicing these concerns out loud. This has created a subtle but palpable wave of discontentment, frustration and even quiet quitting echoing throughout the industry - a veritable bursting of a bubble. Those in power likely feel it, but find ways to ignore it or believe they will be able to suppress it, while only making it worse.

The impact of such an atmosphere is likely much more significant than most imagine. Compared to other products labor produces software has many specifics which make the relationship between the work and value more complicated than with other simpler goods or services. Most software today is not just made and sold once for a set price: it follows a wide variety of business models from subscription to sales commission to advertiser-based and so on, and it also constantly evolves, is rewritten, rebuilt - unlike a book or a painting which is written or painted once. Software is more of an entity than an object, and the conditions in which it is being produced are part of it, they shape it - the likelihood of a unmotivated engineer producing high quality software consistently is slim. What is bad for the worker is, in the long run at least, bad for the product. Of course that is a fundamental truth of all work which capitalism is by design unwilling to admit, but it is all the more true when we are dealing with so-called ‘highly skilled’ work. Software engineering is technical work, but it is first and foremost creative work, which is precisely why it has such unique capabilities of producing value. And like all creative work it suffers when it is forced, micromanaged and overly controlled. Tech work is supposed to automate tedious work, not be made into tedious work by managers obsessively infringing their rigid beliefs of what working is supposed to look like onto others. In an age where tech is eating the world, it is unsustainable for it to simultaneously eat its workers as well.