'Crazy stuff is happening at my work': Silicon Valley engineers are really freaking out right now


If you want to get a core sample of what Silicon Valley engineers are feeling these days, as the tech industry implodes around them, spend some time on Blind. The site — part job board, part social network — allows its users to remain anonymous, except for two salient facts: where they work (and for how long) and how much money they make. The employer info is a requirement for entry and is verified by Blind on the back end. The money thing, though, is enforced at the peer level. Fail to disclose it, and the first comment you receive is likely to be "TC or GTFO" — i.e., list your total compensation or, well, you know. The system is an elegant solution to the digital-age problem of decoupling identity from credibility. On Blind, no one knows who you are, but they know who you work for.

Blind is a fairly bare-bones site — a few images interspersed among a bunch of industry gossip and interest groups (e.g., Fitness & Nutrition, Blockchain & Crypto) where 5 million techies gather to chat. Many posts are just lists or a couple of paragraphs of inartful text. But somehow the lack of kinetic TikTok dopamine hit lets the emotional coloratura shine even brighter. In the upper-right corner of the site, open jobs and their salaries flash past on a sort of blinking ticker. The numbers are tantalizing. Google software engineer: $217.3K. Apple hardware engineer: $194.6K. Apple software engineer: $411.4K. Yahoo designer: $398.4K. You can see the attraction.

But now that tech companies are laying off employees and freezing new hires, amid a stock-market dive, lots of Blinders — that's what they call themselves — are less compensated than they used to be. So I spent the past few weeks on the site to try to get a sense of the vibe in the industry. And what I learned is that everyone is freaking the hell out — but not in exactly the way you might expect.

Silicon Valley, perhaps even more than the rest of corporate America, has long been engaged in a two-sided battle over the pursuit of happiness. On one side are the Optimizers, those who seek to leverage their quantitative engineering mindset to increase their efficiency and productivity in every aspect of their lives, all while keeping an eye on "FU" money, through either climbing the ranks of a FAANG company or starting a unicorn. These Blinders are the list-makers, the ones who crank through dozens of problems on LeetCode to learn the angles for a coming job interview, and the ones who track the metabolic implications of every workout on a spreadsheet.

At one point during my field observations, a Blinder (Microsoft, TC: $290K) asked how the employees of a particular quant company got so smart. In response, an Optimizer (Robinhood, no TC listed; commenters aren't asked to disclose their pay) offered the following advice on achievement:

Study constantly. Listen to lectures while eating, while shitting, while running on the treadmill. While commuting. While brushing teeth.

Don't cook or do dishes, only order food or use disposable food containers or eat at the office. This gives more time for working and learning.

No videogames unless with coworkers.

No masturbating or sex, it only takes away time from studying and working.

Like modern-day Stoics, the Optimizers take all-work-and-no-play to new levels.

On the other side of the battle are the Balancers, those striving for a chill sort of work-life balance — "WLB" in the local lingo. As they prepare for job interviews, they ask which FAANG company is the freest of office politics and whether they have to move to San Francisco or New York or will be allowed to work remotely. "Looking for a new job," one (Yum Brands, TC: $210K) writes, and bullets the criteria: "low toxicity (supportive and transparent culture), high comp, good WLB, a product that isn't totally meaningless." Really, is that so much to ask? Massage chairs and stocked fridges in the office clearly aren't cutting it anymore.

The Balancers are ready to work, but not for crummy managers. They have romantic partners. They might ask whether the company they just got an offer from is, if not a mitzvah assembly line, at least not actively making the world worse.

A woman works on a laptop alone in a dark office
In the Silicon Valley that emerges on Blind, the engineers who strive for work-life balance are just as burned out as the late-night grinders. 
moodboard/Getty Images
In the real world, there are no clear winners between these two camps. We're all just going to work and living our lives and trying to figure out how to make the best of both. But Silicon Valley has always over-indexed for Optimizers. The drive to have no qualms, to side hustle, to code for 14 hours and get angel funding — that's all as integral to tech's heroic origin stories as getting crosswise with a science experiment in a Marvel comic. Of course, the mental-health field has long understood that those traits all make Jack a dull (depressed, burned out) boy. But no matter! Grind through it. Optimize your workouts and your meds, and you too could be an erratic shitposter with $200 billion, a rocket ship, and a sexual misconduct claim.

Today, though? What I saw on Blind is that amid all the financial and pandemic instability, the Aesopian grasshoppers are just as bummed as the ants. Optimizers wish they could balance; Balancers feel guilty about not optimizing. Both are failing. If this is Silicon Valley today, nobody's happy, and everybody's burnt.

'You need to be OK not amounting to anything'

When Optimizers can no longer maintain the impossible level of abnegation they strive for, they come to Blind to ask why. What's wrong with them? If "sleep is a superpower," how come none of them can get any? What's the best way to get jacked while still consuming three desserts and a caramel Frappuccino every day? "Despite the fact that I keep making more and more money, and advancing my career, I feel like I'm running out of energy," one (company small enough to be redacted to protect the user's anonymity, TC: $280K) confessed. "I didn't use to be this way. I'm only 28." Doesn't want to go to work, doesn't want to work out, just wants to eat and play video games.

The responses were telling. To the credit of Blind's culture, they were uniformly supportive. One commenter said that, despite the original poster's demurs, these were all signs of mild depression and worth dealing with. Avoid social media, meditate, and get a hobby with other people. Another suggested prayer. Several also urged finding balance. "Don't work too hard for the sake of money and promotion," one wrote. Another chalked this attitude up to maturity. "When I was making under $100k TC in the bay, there was a real need to advance my career to survive and live comfortably," the commenter wrote. "Now that I'm at $300k TC, an extra $50k or $100k isn't going to drastically improve my quality of life. In addition to this, working harder doesn't seem to improve my career."

If the Optimizers are flailing, you'd think the Balancers would at least be smiling, having traded equity for equanimity. But no. It's all guilt. "I'm a few months away from hitting 30 and here I am … just sipping whiskey, watching TV, and posting on this app," one (Snap, declined to list TC and got told to GTFO) reported. "Haven't found start-ups, not earned FU money yet, heck not even a manager or staff at my current company." At least, this person said, they have good friends and a girlfriend.

screen grab from Blind asking what the least toxic company to work for is
Blinders — that's what they call themselves — can remain anonymous but are required to post their companies and their "TC" (total compensation). 
screen grab from Blind

But as a despairing Balancer, the poster got a little less sympathy from the crowd. "Accept that you are a conformist," one commenter wrote. "If you plan to change that you need to be okay not being cool. You need to be okay not amounting to anything." Having a girlfriend at all was grounds for criticism. Another commenter suggested that "it's usually a matter of getting started when you're someone like you." Which, yeowch.

I've cherry-picked examples for effect here, of course, but they're pretty representative of how Blinders are interacting right now. Yet even in the relatively short time I spent clicking around on the site, the tone of the conversation shifted. A few weeks back, before the tech crash hit, Blinders seemed preoccupied with gathering tips on nailing an interview at a FAANG company and which ones were the best to work for. (Google tended to win; Amazon tended to lose.) They also had a lot of questions about the activities of daily living — what to eat, how to talk to potential romantic partners, and how to read the news. 

But now, as the economy has begun to curdle and tech stocks have tanked, I noticed a lot more action in Blind's mental-health subsection. ("Some crazy stuff is happening at my work. but now instead of stocking up on pills, I'm just thinking about GTFO.") The landing page on company layoffs is popping these days, and people are asking whether they should've bought their house after all because their equity just nosedived. Or whether they should just get out of tech altogether. "Met a guy in Vegas this weekend that lives in Ohio. The early 40s and built a business of 30 car dealerships, fitness clubs, restaurants, etc from nothing," a Blinder wrote (Snap, TC: $198K). "Dude was playing 200/400 NLH at Bellagio and flying back this Sunday in a chartered jet. No college degree, just work ethic and grit. Made me question all of my life's choices."

Back in the olden times of early May, the underlying question of whether it made more sense, in today's Silicon Valley and Valley-adjacent businesses, to be an Aesopian ant or a grasshopper was a subsonic vibe on Blind. Now that vibe has risen to the surface and gotten much louder: It's a palpable bass line. If all a Blinder focused on was working, and the jobs are going away, what's the point? If striving for work-life balance doesn't work, what's the point? If tech is headed into an economic crisis, can anyone still pull down mid-six figures, be they Optimizer or Balancer? More and more Blinders, it appears, are forgoing a number for their listed TC and putting a peanuts emoji there instead — as in, I get paid peanuts.

The Valley has boomed and busted before. People who have seen these cycles come and go tend to be more sanguine about them (as long as they manage not to lose their houses. But when a boom goes bust amid simultaneous crises of public health and mental health, that quiet tug-of-war between Optimizers and Balancers ends without a winner. Stereotypically, Silicon Valley engineers are grinders. But maybe they're actually the meat.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post