It’s been weird times lately for me, and for many others. If it hasn’t been weird times for you, that must be some nice bubble you’re living in.
I write this on a Sunday. Friday was my last day as an employee of The Des Moines Forge Of Pillar Part Of Industry X.0 By Accenture. Fortunately I’m a techbro and had a job offer the same day at a slightly higher salary. I don’t think I’m going to take it.
I happened to rewatch Atari: Game Over yesterday. In it, Howard Warshaw, developer of not only the ill-fated E.T. game but also such unquestionable classics as Yar’s Revenge, reflected on how his brief experience at Atari kind of ruined him for subsequent job prospects. Made him expect better, want more, be less willing to compromise for the sake of going along with the typical corporate environment. Not just because of the wild party culture of Atari in the early 1980s but just as much because of the heights of creative achievement that he and his co-workers reached together, enabled by that openness in which they could bring their whole selves to work.
When I came on at Pillar, it was in the process of being acquired by Accenture. Accenture is the biggest corporation you never heard of. It employs literally half a million people globally in all sorts of consulting and professional services sectors. I knew of this, it was brought up in my interviews. I seem to have a knack for coming into companies at these moments; my hiring at Banno, my previous job, came at much the same juncture of their acquisition by Jack Henry & Associates. And just like with Banno, the message that went out in Pillar was that what the acquirer saw in the acquiree, the thing to which they attributed the smaller company’s success that made it such an attractive acquisition target, was its great culture, and that the big company’s intentions were to learn from that and spread the lessons out to the larger company and with that we were going to rock the world and it was going to be great.
I’ve had a fraught relationship with employment all my legally-employable life. The workplace was always just an even more repressive corner of an already repressive world where I never quite belonged and suffered because of it, yet if I didn’t find a way to slot myself into it, I would never be able to support myself or a family. Pillar brought me out of the shell I’d built around myself since I was a child, showed me my viewpoint was valid and valued in a way I didn’t realize was possible. It took time for me to adjust and really begin to open up, and I still feel like that process was interrupted in the middle, but I am so overwhelmingly grateful to the people I worked alongside at the Forge that helped that happen. It was a culture that delighted in being eccentric and that spirit made us powerful and because of it we did awesome work. Pillar showed me that I could be seen as more than just a human resource or a code monkey, that I could be valued as a fully three-dimensional human being with all my flaws and foibles and ambitions and silly jokes and wild ideas and nerdy interests.
A week ago Friday though, Accenture told me something very different. Even after all the apparently sincere and ground-breaking diversity and inclusion rhetoric I’d heard, and what I took to be so many refreshingly bullshit-free statements from CEO Julie Sweet, ultimately the message Accenture gave me was that I was expendable: that literally some opaque process running in some cloud, triggered by a fluctuation in a stock price or some such thing, could go and query an employee database according to some algorithm, based off data like how many of my work hours were directly billable to an already-won client, and by those results could decide my professional fate, and that that was just totally normal and the way things are done. Because that is evidently the world we are in now.
And this may be what sucks the most now, is that, after Pillar, I don’t think I can bring myself to settle for anything less… but what more, really, is out there?
Last Fall, I had the great honor, made possible by Accenture even, to be paid a normal work day’s salary to be a guest lecturer for Hour Of Code, which is to say that I along with several of my Forge co-workers spent a day helping to guide public-school classrooms full of middle-school kids through some fun coding exercises, where they could learn a little about what I do for a living. One of the biggest things I was struck by and took away from that day was how much more diverse those classrooms were from the rooms I typically spent a workday in. To be slightly flippant about it, there were actually Black kids there. And Hispanic kids. There was a Muslim girl (I’m assuming a little bit here – she was brown-skinned and had a hijab on) who was joyously competing with her Black friend next to her for who could complete the exercises quicker. I remember thinking that if I’m in a position to influence hiring decisions in ten years or so I sure hope these kids apply. And there were also kids that were totally not into it, who thought all this techie stuff was bullshit, like the Black girl who aspired to be a journalist, and I saw her point of view as no less valid, because kids like her are used to seeing white dudes with glasses like me doing this stuff, not people like them, and also because journalism is totally important and we need it, and yet, we’re talking about language here, which is all code really is, and even if you don’t make software your career, understanding how it works is only going to be more crucial to your success in this society going forward. I didn’t quite have the guts to say what I really wanted to say, because I wasn’t the real teacher and it wasn’t my class. But that was the beginnings of some notions in my head that I have higher purposes to serve than just building another accounts-payable system.
I don’t know what my future holds but I don’t think I’m likely to just take another plain old tech job. The kind of thing I really want to do involves sharing the joy of creativity that comes with my profession and helping young people find their way into it that might otherwise give it up before they get the chance; because I nearly did too, and that’s a whole other story. Pillar was the first place I worked that tried to truly treat that kind of ambition as part of the job, and whatever your company is, if you can’t get down with that, I don’t think I can fuck with you anymore.
Fortunately, I have maybe a couple months worth of financial cushion in which to try to sort this all out. That’s not a privilege I ever had before.
Like I said at the top of this rant, these are weird times. Hunter S. Thompson is famously credited with saying, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I’ve been weird my whole life and this is my time to shine.