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Silicon Valley is evolving and focusing on employees (nationalgeographic.com)
92 points by howsilly 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

I am, by accident, a small part of a "culture transformation" at a large, well established corporation.

The group doing this has the same intention (to improve the employee's experience), but I have observed this is consistently at odds with the leadership's desire to keep employees at arm's length, and maintain the strategic control over employees.

For example, you can't be nice to employees and then lay them off at the same time- such an act instantly violates trust, therefore leaders say they want things to be better for employees but are often not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to follow through.

So then you get stuck in a conundrum, and the leaders look and often act like hypocrites. Employees do that too.

It's been an interesting time in this role, like I said, for me it was somewhat accidental and I can clearly see the arguments from both sides. Still working on it but, I'm not sure how you resolve some of these issues without the right attitude - that maybe we are not "leaders and employees", but that we are all "professional colleagues" - and then following through with the proper organizational supports and programs to help such an organization survive and operate, and still be able to compete.

"you can't be nice to employees and then lay them off at the same time"

You absolutely can and you must. Being professional and being nice are not exclusive. Quite the opposite.

A professional manager understands that being nice doesn't mean protecting someone from reality just because reality sucks. It means showing them respect during the process.

Completely agree. This reminds of the scene from Moneyball where trading players is discussed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTjhHrcyiQI.

When I was consulting, I would cite this scene often, both referring to how I would prefer people to treat me, and how we should treat other independent contractors professionally.

Contractors aren't employees though. Most employers wouldn't want to pay for expansive contractors for the bulk of their workforce nor does society really support that.

The lesser and lesser rights of employees is a power grab. Employees still needs to pay high rents, expensive mortgages, bring up kids and everything else. If anything that has become harder to do successfully by working.

I really don't think a lot of companies are going to come out favorably in hindsight if there is a downturn.

Absolutely agree. As an employee there's a whole different social contract, but I still think directness and forthrightness is the best way.

I quite agree with you. I think this is more the perception of the leadership I'm working with than my own opinion. However, convincing them of your point has been the difficult part. Their fear of undermining their position is high.

The word 'professional' itself is a way to distance yourself from your actions and consequences and works to dehumanize the people you work with. What does 'professional' mean'?

Is it 'unprofessional' to deceive your employees and customers or users? Is abusing the privacy of your users professional? Is it unprofessional to layoff workers for short term gains? Its definition itself is contextual to power and what it defines at that time. Individual bad behavior is not unprofessional, its just bad behavior.

I don't want to work with people who insist on butting their heads into my personal life in order to avoid "distancing themselves from their actions" and "dehumanizing" their colleagues. I want predictable behavior that's limited in scope to the business tasks at hand.

If your boss needs to take into account the personal consequences on the employees they fire, then now employees have to start playing a bullshit game of convincing colleagues how precarious their personal situation is and how much stress and uncertainty is in their life and how their family depends on them. The stoic professionals who just get things done at work are effectively getting punished for focusing on delivering value to the business.

Like, I get it, professionalism definitely has downsides. It also has advantages. People know how things are going to work and can focus on things that are more relevant to the core business. It's a trade-off.

There is some well tread ground here, albeit not in the software world. The National Society of Professional Engineers, for example, has a (in my opinion) clear and detailed Code of Ethics [1]. The "Fundamental Canons" section is as good a description as I can think of for what it means to act professional as an engineer:

    Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
    Perform services only in areas of their competence.
    Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
    Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
    Avoid deceptive acts.
    Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.
[1] https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics

I thought we were talking about managers here. And that laying people off as a manager was somehow the "professional" thing to do. But let's interpret this in the context of the Professional Engineer ethics. Let's say there's a bad quarter. Is laying off people to make the results look a little better for the next quarter promoting the health, safety and welfare of the public? Is it honorable? Was the company clear about this policy in advance? If not is it a deceptive act? When companies issue statements about layoffs are those typically objective and truthful?

Maybe we need a code of ethics for managers.

That is a simple view of how a company works. It's much more complex than "make the results look a little better for the next quarter".

Entire forecast change when numbers are missed. People are also hired based off those numbers. Should we also not hire more employees when the out look is better?

Companies need to be healthy to continue to be able to employ at all. So yes. It is the duty to cut cost and maintain healthy balances based off future expectations.

It would be far more dishonest to simply let the entire company fold effectively laying off everybody to prolong a subet of employees jobs for a little longer.

But beyond that it's rare that layoffs happen for a single quarter miss. And unless you are pure EBITA driven laying off probably won't make anybody looking for revenue groth happy either.

Companies are complex living organizations. The notion that laying people off is always bad is a bad notion.

My experience from an S&P 500 tech company is that people can be laid off one quarter only for new people to be hired the next. The people making those decisions are completely disconnected from the hugely negative impact this has on the company's ability to execute. There was no real need to layoff anyone, there's plenty of cash, it's purely for engineering the business results and ultimately trying to engineer the share price. The people laid off could have been contributing immensely and the new hires contribute nothing if not negative for a while.

Economic cycles are not a surprise, they happen, a company with enough resources can easily absorb them, use the down turn to double down on developing new products, and come out stronger on the other end.

Laying people off isn't always bad, but at least 80% of the time it's the wrong long term decision. You've spent years on these people learning your products and technology, and now all that knowledge is gone. The impact is continuously felt years down the road. The movement of people this and a variety of other reasons is a net drag on companies. This treatment of people as some sort of "resource" that can be scaled up and down on demand is a joke.

All that is not to say that if you have a problem with specific employees you can't fire them, that's a completely different question.

EDIT: Lemme give you another example I witnessed personally from a multi-billion dollar company. Production of a certain (highly complex) product in was moved to Mexico for a projected cost saving of about 5%. The factory was closed, hundreds of people were laid off. Years later the production cost in Mexico was higher than the cost in the original factory and production was moved back. It was absolutely clear the original decision was iffy but it was done for the optics of making it look like the company is working on cutting costs. It impacted not only those people who got laid off but local supply chains etc. Overall a negative decision for the company, the economy, and the people involved, driven purely by bean counters with no clue. If the company did "focus on employees" and really considered the loss of know-how, the cost of recruiting and training people, the loss of trust, the impact on morale etc. maybe we would have had a different outcome.

Agree mostly but it is nevertheless a useful term. What it means precisely is determined by culture. And culture is another problematic term, for roughly similar reasons.

For me, when I started working at a company in 2007 was hearing our CEO call us a 'family.' It didn't feel very family-like in 2010-2012 when the layoffs finally came. I stayed there a few more years and 'family' came back into the communications, but have since left.

Language like that marks the top of a business cycle or bubble for me.

Sounds like an ideal worth pursuing but that's hard to achieve in reality, "family" definitely seems like something worth pursuing over the course of the Infinite Game.

you can't be nice to employees and then lay them off at the same time

Absurd. I've done it. When the reason for the layoffs isn't to benefit some rich overlord (person or entity), then people can accept it, if you give them reasons to believe you'll be fixing the problems that led to the layoff. It requires communication.

It sounds like you're fighting an uphill battle. Culture change needs to start at the top with the CEO or founder(s). They should be driving the entire initiative. In addition to lending legitimacy to it, they also lend authority to it... And since there are always those that will resist change (for various reasons: they don't agree, they don't see the value, they prefer the old way, etc), the initiative needs that authority to bring those people onboard or to treat them like any other antagonist on a team (move them or replace them).

If you don't have that, then I would find a way to get off that team. That's a failed culture change, and is just waiting for management to change its mind and quite possibly, fire the entire team.

If management wants employees to trust them, that should start with management. And they start that process by openly communicating and listening.

On layoffs: Everyone in the company is an employee... the company makes money and issues paychecks. If the company doesn't make enough money to pay those who work there, there isn't some sacrifice that can be made. Either the company lays off those they cannot afford, or it closes it's doors permanently. Everyone understands this. They are all adults, and if you communicate openly about the health of the company, they will understand.

And if you have a situation like that, and management communicated openly, then the employees will start to trust that when management says everything is going great, that it is actually true. Trust begins at the top too.

> If the company doesn't make enough money to pay those who work there, there isn't some sacrifice that can be made. Either the company layoffs those they cannot afford, or it closes it's doors permanently. Everyone understands this. They are all adults, and if you communicate openly about the health of the company, they will understand.

Aren't layoffs frequently about the owners just not making as much money as they would like, and not about survival?

There is pressure from owners (shareholders/investors) to increase profits.. and that can be a problem for the company if they are not performing as well as other similar investment options, since investors will take their money elsewhere, making it harder to raise money in the future. But that's a pressure the company is under constantly.

The executive team turns that into an action plan. The action plan always reflects the need to constantly make progress. In other words, it's never the case that greed is suddenly a reason for layoffs -- since that existed every day the company was operating.

Companies aren't laying off divisions that perform well and contribute profits to the company. They layoff to solve an issue that has been identified. That issue needs to be communicated.

The fact is, no company is a perfectly performing entity. There are always parts that perform inefficiently; no longer reflect the mission of the company; etc. And sometimes layoffs are required to improve the company.

Here are some resources on the topic of self-management, in case you're not familiar with them yet:

- https://sociocracy30.org/

- http://www.reinventingorganizationswiki.com/

- https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/

"Still working on it but, I'm not sure how you resolve some of these issues ..."

i can recommend two books that discuss exactly these issues and go even deeper:

"The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership " and "What drives people".

Thank you for the recommendations!

I've read about servant leadership, and I think it's part of a broader awareness and awakening that we can be and do things differently than we did in the past. It certainly fits with how I prefer to act, whether a leader or not.

I think where the leaders I'm working with are struggling is, many were groomed under a different system, and it has been a challenge for then to adapt to/believe in some of these new principles.

These things take time. Your job is to make sure they are constantly reminded an alternate path is available. Thats it really.

It doesn't matter if the majority of them are struggling or rejecting things. All it takes is one of them to make a breakthrough. And then its like dominoes.

Once upon a time, most leaders hardly ever visited a gym or bothered about their health. Today it's a rare thing to find one that doesn't. That didn't happen overnight. The key is for them to see other leaders having success with the approach.

I would not trust a company that didn't have the good sense to lay me off when necessary.

>Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin invent Google in their dorm rooms.

This is such a ridiculous version of "Stanford PhD candidates Larry Page and Sergey Brin invent Google as part of their doctoral research."

Almost as ridiculous as "Silicon Valley is evolving and focusing on employees" I'd say.

My advice for anyone starting the world of work is become debt-free as quick as possible, invest, and save. Smile and say yes to any company that tries to tickle your feels.

No matter who you are, you are expendable. Don't ever forget it.

I talk to so many people in tech who stick with jobs they’re unhappy at or underpaid at who stay out of loyalty the company. But that company will fire them in a heartbeat if things go badly for them.

This is why we have so many tech companies doing unethical things.

I disagree. If your employees are desperate to work for you, exhausted, and utterly dependent that’s when unethical products are built. Employees with more mobility and freedom are less likely to get their hands dirty unless their sick perversions align with their manager’s.

If you are living in Silicon Valley and not independently wealthy you are desperate to work. The cost of living there demands it.

If you are the holder of in-demands skills like coding or UX design, you do need to work; just not at any particular company. Hop on to the one that doesn't offend the conscience.

Nonsense, you could be mid career and have saved up a bit, exactly like suggested.

Savings of 3 months minimum. If you haven't got a job in SV in 3 months, move elsewhere. You should still have enough savings to do that because the new place will be much cheaper.

Stop trying to buy a boring house in a boring suburb at age of 28 and you’ll be fine.

I'm currently thinking that both of you are correct.

I'd like to hear more and/or otherwise.

"Silicon Valley has empathy" propaganda. The only empathy SV has is how to masquerade empathy for dollars.

This is why I always tell people when they are young with no responsibilities...milk as much money from your employer as you can. If you don’t have a significant amount of equity (5%>), you are not in it “together”.

Your employer went into to startups to make money, not to “make the world a better place”.

exactly. Startups//Employers in Silicon Valley forces that narrative of making the world a better place in order for people to accept being paid less and getting less equity.

Also, with all the revelation of the last couple years, I'm not convinced at all that Silicon Valley makes the world a better place.

That's not unique to Silicon Valley, the entire economy works like that. Which is why so many working class people are falling further and further behind. At it's root, this economy is basically the capital class doing the minimum they have to do to protect capital investments. It's just that the minimum the capital class has to do in Silicon Valley is more than the minimum they have to do outside Silicon Valley.

My experience of $bigcorp2 is much better than $bigcorp1, and I completely believe it has to do with the second not being a tech company — but instead a traditional company that moved into tech.

So, I think tech companies have a kind of pathological treatment of their workers we don’t see broadly.

(You’re also greatly simplifying why working class people are falling behind, to the point of misrepresenting it.)

My company takes care of their employees much better than pretty much any other tech company I've ever heard of, and while it _is_ a tech company, I can only conclude that it's for the following reasons:

- It was founded and is still headquartered in the suburbs of Dallas and has nothing to do with SF/SV. We technically have a sales office in SF, but that's just a place for our account managers on the West Coast to meet with clients (we also have similar sales offices in NYC, London, and Amsterdam... though I think the London office has been expanded into a real office with a handful of non-sales people regularly present).

- We're an enterprise B2B telecom, not some web/social/mobile-driven B2C company. B2B has a number of different cultural mores from B2C, and that's reflected in our internal values. And telecom in general is a whole 'nother ballgame entirely. It's a much more conservative industry than the rest of tech. When I tell random people what kind of company I work at, I usually say "we're kind of an enterprise ISP", which is about as far from SV-typical tech companies as you can imagine (though I stress the kind of, because we're more than just an ISP).

Working here doesn't feel like working at a tech company at all. It feels like working for a traditional enterprise, and I like it that way.

And that's not just me talking: we regularly win awards on Glassdoor because lots of other people think that way. We also have a TV screen in the office that shows our latest Glassdoor reviews. One day, I noticed a particular line scroll by, and it was interesting enough that I hopped on Glassdoor to ctrl-F for it so I could look at it in its entirety. Here's the Pros section from this person's review:

> Good work/life balance. Management has Texas values rather than imposing a Silicon Valley-style groupthink. Growing and profitable.

It looks like I'm not the only one who's realized that the reason this company is so good to their employees is because they're not from Silicon Valley.

I would hazard a guess that there is an evolutionary lineage type of thing going on here: SV companies have borrowed both workforces and managerial skills from each from the Fairchild days, and as that became increasingly VC-driven it became almost systematic for newer companies to get extremely large in record time. Doing that puts the company on foundations that are fundamentally weak - there's no legacy to follow, just empty air. Hence the default model became a PT Barnum style hokum story, something that stirs up hearts and minds but will show them the egress once their wallets have been emptied.

SV tech companies aren’t outliers in terms of being money driven, but they are outliers in sanctimony. The only major sector I can think of that competes on that axis is health care.

Journalist's or Architects would beat SV for that hands down

Individual journos or architects, sure. Firms? Fat chance.


> The Wall Street Journal plans to close its news operation in Boston, eliminating nine positions, amid a historic decline in newspaper revenue. > > The affected journalists can apply for other positions at the newspaper, said Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Journal and editor-in-chief of the paper's parent company, Dow Jones & Co., in a memo to staff on Thursday.

The Boston Bureau was home to, among other things, the hard-hitting investigative healthcare reporter, Keith Winstein, the author of Mosh.

Eh. I don't know anything about architects and architecture, but neither most news outlets nor most journalists are doing all that well financially. The saving the world shtick is easier to take when there are actual sacrifices being made.

Architecture is low pay and looooong hours unless partner at a hot/top firm. Apparently the thrill of "building cool stuff" and "changing the world" makes up for the low pay. Typically architects age into consulting or management. Thinking about it, not too different from the tech industry.


I have never worked at a company that used that phrase in a straight faced fashion. Silicon Valley encompasses a lot more than consumer driven tech startups. It includes old standard companies like National Semiconductor, Nvidia, AMD, Intel, and so on.

I think you've wrapped yourself in an echo chamber that you don't care to be inside.

And, in fact, those "boring" companies account for most of the employment. Cisco alone probably employs more people in the Bay than the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem. (Disclaimer - I have looked up precisely zero actual numbers on this.)

The start ups that talk about saving/changing the world are typically the ones that seem to be doing the least to change the world out of pure empathy. I see that the most in digital media, or the companies that are in a really traditional area but are being hip about it, something like point of sale systems.

"We're immanentizing the eschaton one SAP plugin at a time."

Haha... levity definitely helps in enterprise software.

We develop ERP/CRM plugins, and I don't even pretend to sell employees on a "change the world" mission.

(We do, however, strive to build the best picks and axes so others can change the world).

Crypto-Gnosticism does describe the silly-con valley faith.

Do you believe changing the world is a real goal, or a convenient phrase used to convince the naive to work hard and cheaply? Let's not give too much credit, it's a sales pitch and almost everyone knows that.

"I feel sorry for people who sell their creative energy for the sake of money and popularity."

This is called 'a job'.

drb91 3 months ago [flagged]

This is called “being exploited for an unfair share of profits”.

Software engineers have access to a large space of choices on share of profits vs. risk.


What about a job is unfair, exactly?

I don't necessarily agree but 'drb91 clearly wrote that the share of profits is unfair.

Since when did life become fair ?

Karl Marx called this "surplus value".

The means of production in our industry range from dirt cheap to free and open source.

> This is called “being exploited for an unfair share of profits

So you're fine with nursing assistants getting paid like shit?

Even in as lousy a subthread as this one, this comment stands out as breaking the site guidelines. Would you please review https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and follow the rules when posting here?

I'm guessing SpaceX isn't part of this given they share the front page with a story about laying people off.

SpaceX also isn’t headquartered in SV

Who cares what’s actually in the valley, it’s just a shorthand for the tech industry.

There is still something special about the Silicon Valley location vibe that you only see while living there. Everyone in tech around you making a LOT of money but pretending it is not their goal. That they want to make the world a "better place". Then going to SF and seeing so many homeless and poor people being down looked by tech hipsters.

Do you think the majority of tech SV workers look down on the homeless and poor at a greater rate than say traditional blue collar workers do?

Probably on the same levels as traditional blue collars. What I find shocking is the dystopia with that morale high ground of "making the world a better place". It all feels very fake and hypocritical.

I have never read it that way, but rather as a shorthand for VC dominated tech-startup culture. I’m a developer that’s never worked on the west coast though; it may have different regional connotations.

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