On Thursday, April 9, 2015, I ended a 14 year career in the tech industry. It’s been quite a ride, from the transcendent joy of seeing a new spacecraft launch and enter orbit, to the debilitating lows of months of long hours, unpaid overtime, and incompetent and abusive bosses. In the 14 years since I left college, I’ve designed and tested software in the aerospace industry. I’ve been on teams that have won contracts. In 2012, I was lucky enough to get trained to command one of our satellites. I have a wealth of experience from which to draw as I move forward with my life abroad. Here now is my requiem for 14 years in the tech industry.
The Great Feminist Lie
Do a Google search on “Tech Industry Sexist”, and you’re going to find a plethora of articles which talk about “[Silicon Valley] making [the world] in a particular type of image”, or how the lack of specific genitalia cost 2 hopeful entrepreneurs $400k, or Ellen Pao’s failed attempt at extortion. Each of these will then be followed up by lamentations of how terrible the “technology industry” is as a whole because of Silicon Valley.
It’s as if the entirety of the tech industry to the media is being a Principle Software Engineer at Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Oracle, Cisco, et al. According to writers for The Guardian, Newsweek, and the BBC, among others, there’s nothing in the tech industry outside Silicon Valley or duping venture capitalists out of 7+ figures. Clearly, we can end this requiem right now, because the 14 years I spent designing, testing, and flying space systems doesn’t exist.
The tech startup scene in Dallas? Fake. Aerospace firms from LA to DC and Florida to Massachusetts don’t exist in the minds of the media. 3M owns 100,000 patents, and has its corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, yet if you only read about the technology industry in the media, you’d never know.
If I told you 9 major technology firms cracked the 15th annual list of America’s Top Corporations for Women’s Business Enterprises, would you believe me? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t either if I only read Newsweek and hadn’t lived in the tech industry for the last 14 years.
Here’s the reality: the tech industry is more than just the top .1% of industry jobs and it is more than duping the super, super rich out of a few million to try and win the App Store lottery; the tech industry is designing, coding, fabricating, integrating, testing, operating, and maintaining systems, from the very, very simple to the very, very complex. The tech industry requires a diverse set of skills and a diverse set of backgrounds.
Suffice it to say, the experience in my little corner of the tech industry is the opposite of the one the media narrative tells. Call it mansplaining if you want, but then the burden is on the media to explain why a simple majority of leaders from my direct supervisor to the president of the business unit where I work were women.
For the Amanda Marcotte’s, Jessica Valenti’s and Leigh Alexander’s of the world, it’s trivially easy to take shots at the tech industry from the sidelines—the palisades of the media world provide a sense of safety one never, ever gets in the tech industry.
About the Valley
Don’t get me wrong, I, too, have looked longingly toward the West from time to time and thought about trying to get work in the Bay Area. It would be even easier now that a very good friend has a job as a principle for a tech firm out there. That said, after he described the work environment out there, I came to a realization. I don’t have what it takes physically, mentally, or emotionally to work in the Bay Area tech industry.
It’s my Midwest upbringing. From a very young age, I was taught to clean my plate – a lesson which, as time went on, transcended dinner time. The best part of being an engineer in aerospace is the sheer number of boxes that require checking as one does their day-to-day work routine. Every day my plate is set with boxes to check, and it’s my responsibility to check them off. The type of work is irrelevant: writing a design document, requirement specification, test procedure, training materials, operational procedure, flying the spacecraft, or briefing the customer all come with a set of things one must do for the work to be deemed a success. It’s catnip for those with OCD, so I fit in with the “Business Rhythm” day to day very well.
My Bay Area friend’s week-to-week rhythm, on the other hand, was totally different. He’d get a stack of work on Monday morning with the understanding he couldn’t possibly finish it all. It was “okay” if he didn’t finish it all, and regardless of the status of the current week’s projects, there would be another stack of work on his desk Monday morning to add to the ever increasing list of projects to drive to completion.
Which is the point of this section: I can’t handle a workload like that. Most of the people I’m friends with can’t work like that. Most importantly, of the 1000 or so tech professionals I know, regardless of what company they work for, less than 10 have the combination of aptitude and desire to actively seek out an environment like that and succeed in it long term. Of those, I know of only a couple that would also want the logistical challenges of living in the Bay Area as well. If I’m generous, and set the number of tech professionals I know that would want to take on the work load, be successful in the environment, and work in the Bay Area at 3, the number of Bay Area “qualified” people among my colleagues as a percentage is still only .3%.
Yes, my sample set is infinitely small, and before anyone gets upset by my assertion, I want to clarify. I worked with some top notch talent. Some of my former colleagues are patent holders, have been recognized by my former company and its customers for their technical proficiency, or have left to become engineering leaders with other firms. To say they are not qualified is not a slight in the least; rather, it is an acknowledgement that being in the tech industry in the Bay Area is another level of the Tech Industry entirely, and it takes a special subset of a special group of people to be successful in that environment. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a group of tech executives would look out on a group of convention goers and see almost nothing they like – that’s the situation for Bay Area tech executives everywhere they go.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but tech jobs in general aren’t the same as your average job in the service industry. Similarly, the top .1% of tech jobs aren’t the same as tech jobs anywhere else. Assuming a room automatically has top .1% talent in it is naive. Are there bad actors in the tech industry that give the overall industry a bad name? Of course there are. Does that make the tech industry as a whole sexist or misogynist? Nope.
As an example, in March and early April, I was tapped to be Deputy Test Director for a formal testing period. Deputy Test Director is a lot like being Vice President. I had a fair bit of down time, so to keep myself occupied, I started keeping an informal census of who was in the test lab day to day. You might be surprised, but for the overwhelming majority of the testing period, the majority of people in the room were women. Oh, the Test Lead and the lead Quality Assurance person were also both women. Again, a very, very small sample set, but a data point that I for one think needs to be told in the face of Newsweek fishing for clicks.
The Height of Transcendent Joy
I worked on the same program for 8 of my 14 years in the industry. In the earliest days of the program, everything was in the abstract. We discussed how we thought we were going to verify the requirements we were writing. We talked about how we thought the interface with the other parts of our system as well as the organization that would use are data would work.
Later, the abstract would become concrete. We would have real software to conduct formal testing on, deliver to the operational sites, validate our design, and transition our software into operations.
The highlight of my time on the program was the launch of the program’s first spacecraft. The launch was the culmination of years of hard work from a team of engineers, scientists, software developers, software testers, and operations staff.
A couple years later, I was trained as a satellite operator for that satellite. Satellite operations isn’t like what you see in Enemy of the State or whatever — most of the time, the operators are looking at screens filled with numbers. That said, watching the data flow from the spacecraft and through the ground system to be turned into products for our customers was a highlight of my career.
It takes a lot of work to go from an accepted proposal to a finished, operating system. Schedules can be tight, and our customers’ patience for programs that do not perform up to expectations have become less and less over the years as budgets have become tighter and tighter.
The consequence of our customers’ increasing desire for performance is the people doing the work day-to-day have an increased burden on them to perform. Sometimes meeting a schedule requires a large amount of people to work a large amount of hours for weeks or months. The periods of heightened workload are exhausting – mentally and physically. My experience, for the most part, has been the people in charge know the work we are doing and acknowledge the effort we are putting out day to day to ensure program success.
While large numbers of people in the part of the tech industry I was in are massively overworked, the mental and physical exhaustion from long hours is nothing compared to the stress associated with job uncertainty.
For large programs, specific people with specific expertise are needed for specific periods of time. An example of this is when Systems Engineers with requirements in development expertise are brought in to help decompose the requirements given by our customer. Once a complete set of requirements is finished being developed, the number of Systems Engineers is reduced significantly. People who are not kept on usually can find other jobs in the company, but it could mean a person is required to take a position they don’t have a lot of experience in, or they might have to look at jobs that are far away from their current job site. The worst case scenario is there not being enough work across the site, business unit, or company to absorb the people rolling off a program.
Combining the uncertainty of longevity with long hours of entirely mental work can lead one to focus exclusively on the negative. Indeed, I had a bout with depression and anxiety during 2012 and 2013 that required monthly therapy and medication to control.
The Final Movement
The American tech industry can be vexing sometimes, if for no other reason than it is very, very hard to get out of once you are in it. It took immigrating to another country across an ocean (Vive la Norge?) to induce a clean break from the industry.
Yet, as I sit here and write about the last 14 years, I can’t help but feel loss. Sure, I have a commendation from NASA, and sure, I’ve watched as incompetent and abusive people took all the credit for all the hard work my team had done over the course of months. Would I do it all over again? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!