Late last week Julie Ann Horvath announced she no longer worked for GitHub. Speaking to TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm and Alexia Tsotsis over the weekend, Horvath explained a prolonged campaign of intimidation and intensifying hostility during her two years with the company, driven in large part by co-founder Tom Preston-Werner’s wife Theresa, who wasn’t a company employee.
Horvath’s allegations include persistent rumor mongering, having her work space repeatedly intruded on, while other workers systematically removed Horvath’s work from the company’s various projects. Horvath also described an office culture of pervasive sexism, which finally prompted her to resign after a small crowd of men gathered to watch two co-workers using hula hoops. Responding to Horvath’s allegations, GitHub CEO and co-founder Chris Wanstrath announced Preston-Werner had been put on leave, as had an engineer who had asked Horvath out and allegedly began harassing her thereafter, while Theresa would “no longer be permitted in the office.”
Horvath’s story is extreme, but similarly abusive and factional work environments have become common in the tech world, with the flood of eager investment dollars helping to inflate the self-importance and exceptionalism of bosses, managers, and startup visionaries. This has created a bizarrely evangelical culture, from Peter Thiel’s floating community of entrepreneurs to Tim Draper’s support for making Silicon Valley its its own state. Indeed, the title of evangelist has become a literal job title for everyone from Tumblr to Microsoft. These misleading ideas are usually expressed on such a large scale it can be difficult to imagine how they would translate into a person-to-person experience in a break room or cubicle. But it always does.
Horvath’s story is extreme, but similarly abusive and factional work environments have become common in the tech world, with the flood of eager investment dollars helping to inflate the self-importance and exceptionalism of bosses, managers, and startup visionaries.
Every generation has its own variation on the myth of genius, and ours is bound to the computer coder and the modernizations he suffers to bring us through the inscrutable alchemy of the command line. The non-productivity of most tech companies is easily hidden behind the struggle to translate a simple idea into a functioning bundle of code, and the structural distinction between engineers capable of doing the work and those who support them ensures a permanent imbalance in the work place.
The entitled self-characterization that accompanies most tech entrepreneurialism masks the underlying fact that most startups are predestined to be failures. In 2012, a researcher from Harvard Business School found that roughly three-quarters of startups backed either fail or are unable to repay the sum of the original investment. In spite of this fact, the culture of tech entrepreneurialism strives toward a vision of importance for its own essential genius, imbuing the people managing these perpetually failing operations in an aura of blessed other-ness.
Improbably, these failing structures still encourage a culture of righteous obsession with work and brand, creating the expectation that a person’s life goals should gradually be overwritten by the company's. Founding a startup implicitly becomes a mechanism that allows one group of people to dictate to another how they should prioritize their lives. One must be an obsessive enthusiast to win the privilege of working for a visionary, whose output won’t be limited by life outside the company.
One worker at Riot Games, developer of the phenomenon League of Legends, recently admitted to working during almost every single weekend he’d been with the company, and doing it by choice. “Personally, I turned down a 9-5 job which paid 25 percent more to be here,” he wrote. “Why? Well, because that was a ‘job.’ Riot has a mission that I believe in.” The pervasiveness of this belief that one should live one’s career role at all times feeds into the delusory self-importance that their managers begin to have, controlling an undertaking so important it can make others happily subjugate their outside lives to it.
“The Valley’s fetishization of the power of the young, male hacker does not necessarily free him to act out his desires,” Kate Losse writes, describing the chauvinist exceptionalism that has come to nest in the iconic figure of the hoody-wearing engineer, “instead it opens a way for the startup to claim his desires as something to be optimized and managed, much as all other aspects of the startup employee's life, from food to transportation, become something to be managed and satisfied by the Silicon Valley company. That is, if the programmer’s energy is imagined as synonymous with the company’s potency, it also becomes a kind of company asset that must be managed like any other in order to maximize company growth and minimize distraction.”
This is just the sort of culture that encourages infantile obsession with controlling other people and who constantly need reaffirmation from them. GitHub appears to be an especially degraded example of how easily a person can be unhinged by access to structural roles they begin to take too seriously. And the final irony how these destabilizing structures are only mirrored in the storm of moral consternation that follows, inducing a wider audience to gather around someone else’s conflict. It creates a righteous but structurally separate role for the commenter to play out their own presumptive authority, with a local conflict used as pretext to claim the privilege of presiding over lives the person otherwise has no commitment to.
In this way, the culture of the tech startups is intractably bound to replicate its own worst qualities by creating a culture where importance is measured by the reach of one’s authority rather than the quality of durability of one’s relationships, which guarantees that none who enter can leave with their dignity in tact.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.