I'm not (yet) a developer (though that is my long game), but I have run into similar situations in data science. I had an idiot boss (boss of my immediate boss) who sat around all day with his feet on his desk, staring off into space, but demanded that we all work 60-ish hours a week. And this was at a bank, where the standard was 40 and they made a lot of noise about their support for work/life balance and having family, etc. Anyway, he was a dick, too. Passive aggressive, the whole nine yards. So I found another job with a rapidly growing tech company and received an excellent offer. It seemed like a fantastic opportunity to really take my skill set (in data analytics) to the next level. I'd be the data guy and the role would work directly with the CEO, President, and all the other acronyms at the highest levels. The work I did would directly impact everything. Seemed cool. And for a couple days, it was. I went in early, stayed late, and worked my ass off to learn everything. They had three or four different databases running MySQL and MS SQL, and none of the data was documented. Which is to say that the only ones who knew what a given field was in the database were their 3 developers. When I started they presented me with a list of 114 reports they wanted created for the company. When I left, after having produced a significant number of those reports, the list had grown to 124. From the first day it was a constant struggle to figure out how to pull data from all their various databases, determine which fields were the right fields (i.e., it's called X, is it X? Or is it called X but it is actually Y? Or it is called X, it generally is X, but sometimes it's Y?), and smoosh everything together fast enough for their near-daily meetings. After a week the President called me into his office and told me I wasn't coming up to speed fast enough. I was completely stunned. And I attempted to professionally defend myself against his baseless assertions. I pointed out that I'd only been their a week. That I had a huge amount of data in a number of databases for which there was no data dictionary of any sort to make sense of. That I was making rapid progress in both learning the data and making effective use of it. That he'd be hard-pressed to find anyone else who could do any better than I was. I pointed out that I was doing everything in my power to get up to speed as rapidly as possible: I was coming in early, staying late, and working weekends. In the week I worked there I put in close to 70 hours. And I didn't get to see much of my family (wife and daughter). It sucked. But I thought that it might be worth it.
The clincher came when, in our conversation, I told him that I was rapidly coming up to speed, but that doing so fully would take time. He told me (verbatim), "we don't have time. We need to go faster and faster. I don't have time for you to come up to speed." Then he gave me (implied with a grim smile full of teeth) a week. "We'll see how you're doing in a week..." he said.
But after he blind-sided me like that, I put in a long day, mulling things over. Then I went home and talked to my wife. The conclusion I arrived at was similar to your own. It could've been a great opportunity if the company leadership (namely my boss the President) wasn't completely unrealistic and divorced from reality. To this day I have no idea how they expected anything different than they got from me. Did they truly expect me to come up to speed even faster than I was? Within a week? Or was our weird and painful conversation some perverse sort of pep-talk?
Either way, in talking it out with my wife, when it came down to it we realized that it just simply wasn't worth swimming in the sea of vipers. There was no way I was going to work 70-84 hours a week for the salary I was making ($57,000/yr). Not when it was working for people who clearly had no idea what they were asking of their employees and how to treat people. They just didn't deserve to have my talent, abilities, and work ethic on staff. I wrote a one sentence resignation letter and dropped it at their office the next day. I said "This letter serves as notice of my resignation, effective immediately." I decided that any more long-winded explanation of my reasons for departure would be lost on a person like the President, so I put all those reasons in a Glassdoor review of the place. True to form, I received an email out of the blue from the President a month later. "Abe, saw your Glassdoor review. What gives?"
Also, similar to your experience, I got the impression after a couple days that I wasn't the first data guy they'd tried to bring on board. Though no one would talk about it, I got the impression that they, too, hadn't stayed very long.
Anyway, I share my story by way of commiserating with you. It's shocking to find such horrid work environments somehow persist, even for highly skilled individuals. We expect better treatment, and often get it--which makes it all the harder to take when we don't. Of course, in your case and mine, I wouldn't take that kind of treatment no matter how much the job paid, or how much I liked the work or product.
Thanks again for sharing!
I think that statements like these are things that inexperienced, starry-eyed founders say because they don't realize how stupid it makes them seem. It's the employee equivalent of saying "We have no competition!" or "When we build it, customers will come!" to investors. Anyone who's observed how things actually play out knows that it doesn't work like that, but it seems plausible to first-time founders who aren't particularly grounded in reality.
Your story seems quite similar to mine. I still get chills down my spine thinking about it. But it was a great learning experience, now I know with my experience, and with the valuable input I've received on HN, I will be much better equipped to deal with similar situations in the future.
And if the environment is toxic and they'll repeatedly try to get people to do the job, they'll get absolutely nothing done in the long run?