There are two types of software engineers: those who got into coding for passion and those who got into it for the money. Now, I don’t want to say that these two types are mutually exclusive or that you can’t be both, but usually one of these motivations is driving you more than the other. In my current situation, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t money. However, as much as I like money, I also like to have a work-life balance. I cherish my relationship with my husband and have hobbies I am passionate about such as drawing, writing, and photography. It’s also important for me to work somewhere that I feel valued rather than being a number on a screen. When I have access to higher members of an organisation I feel like there is more flexibility for change, which is far more difficult in big tech.
If I was purely pursuing programming for the money I would probably have moved to Silicon Valley years ago and started hopping between companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook as I continued to negotiate for the next biggest paycheck. Unfortunately, many companies believe that when they give you that big paycheck, they can expect you to sacrifice everything from your free time to your family connections all the way up to your mental and physical health for the sake of the company. Some companies like Netflix don’t even try to hide it; on their culture page, they literally state that they want you to seek what is best for the company rather than what is best for yourself. Ultimately, this stems from the capitalist status quo that motivates big tech.
What kind of developers do Big Tech companies look for?
Engineers who got into coding purely for the money, who don’t settle and continue to bargain for larger and larger paychecks, are often also the ones who are most hesitant to challenge the status quo. Even if they disagree with some of the things companies like Amazon and Google do, they typically believe that challenging the status quo could hurt their career. If they publicly call out their employer for unethical behavior it might hurt their chances of promotion, and that next pay hike might not come.
Here is the thing about those types of developers: unethical tech companies love them. It doesn’t matter that these giant companies have to pay them more, they have plenty of money to burn. Companies like Amazon also know that they are still underpaying the vast majority of developers. Consider the fact that if even a quarter of developers decided one day to quit because of the unethical practices at their company, that company would be extremely screwed. Bugs would go unfixed, a single server crash would be catastrophic, and code would start to go stale very quickly. It is almost impossible to understate the importance of developers to tech companies. They are the very lifeblood that makes these tech companies billions.
Of course, tech companies don’t want their developers to think this. They want to keep them scared because the more afraid developers are, the less likely it is that they will start working together to bring about change. They want developers to compete against each other for the bigger paycheck because as long as they are competing, the idea of cooperation won’t even come to mind.
Know your worth and fight for it
In addition to taking advantage of developers who are chasing the next paycheck, big tech and our capitalist society also has a way of convincing us that we should be grateful for what we already have. Compared to secretaries, or educators, or social workers, or a myriad of other jobs, programmers have it pretty great. I’m not denying that. We get paid more, we have better perks, and we have more upward mobility. However, if you take that perspective, you can always find people who are worse off and feel guilty for wanting more. Folks who benefit from this “be grateful” mentality are the ones who are making millions or even billions to our thousands.
Ultimately, the question isn’t whether we are paid enough, but whether we are paid in amounts that are equivalent to our actual worth.
This problem isn’t unique to programmers either, but to all blue-collar workers who get paid for their labor, intellectual or otherwise. The point is that wages have been going down for many years in the United States, and the proportion of wealth going to the top 1% continues to grow. That top 1% doesn’t care if their wealth is coming from developer salaries or warehouse workers. To them, we are all just different brands of worker bees.
There are more reasons to challenge big tech than just getting paid what you are worth. We have seen time and time again that the larger these companies get, the more harm they tend to cause. Facebook, Google, Amazon, IBM, almost any tech company that you’ve ever heard of has skeletons in the closet. Some companies have a lot more skeletons than others. To my knowledge, only Facebook has managed to give thousands of their contractors PTSD and actively contributed to a genocide. Truly horrific things that developers – as a community – can help put a stop to by choosing to take a stand, whether by protesting or walking out. I believe that the more developers take this stand, the more we will start to see a positive trend towards more ethical behavior. That is because, like I said earlier, these tech companies literally need developers to keep functioning.
Don’t be afraid to hold big tech accountable
It’s scary to confront the massive power and wealth of big tech, and perhaps even scarier to speak out against capitalist motives that are so imbued in our society. Not everyone will like what you have to say. Some might even attack you. On top of that, if you choose to walk out on your company, you might be worried about how it will impact your career. That is one area where I think developers are in a particularly unique situation. The demand for programming talent is so incredibly high that it’s almost impossible for me to imagine that someone who has done the job in the past would not be able to land a job elsewhere. Of course, there are exceptions to this, such as if you are on an H1-B visa, or this is your very first job and you’ve only been there for a month. In general, developers shouldn’t be afraid. Their next job might be less prestigious, and perhaps the pay might be a little less, but nothing that would be devastating to their career.
The final option is to unionise. It’s a lot harder than protesting or walking out but in the long run it would be a lot more effective. Like any other type of laborer, programmers have more negotiating power in numbers. If you’re interested in taking this path you have to be immensely careful, because most tech corporations will almost certainly fire you faster than you can open your mouth if they catch any whiff of unionising. Even though there are laws that supposedly protect people from being fired for unionising, at-will employment makes it pretty easy to circumvent these laws. Also, corporations know that by firing those who have any motives to unionise, they will scare the rest of the developers off from ever saying the dirty 'U-word' again.
Despite that, there are tech workers who have succeeded in unionising. The most well-known example is Kickstarter, where employees voted to form a union back in February. There were several months of conflict between the company and its workers before a resolution was reached, and two employees claimed to be fired because they were involved in forming the union. Game developers have also been pushing to unionise. They tend to have the worst pay with the worst work-life balance because working in games is considered such a privilege that employees are expected not to complain. However game developers have had enough, and organisations like Game Workers Unite have formed around the purpose of helping them unionise and fight back against exploitation by game companies.
Understand the power you hold
At the end of the day, it’s important to let go of the belief that there is nothing you can do as a developer to stand up to your corporation if it is engaging in unethical activities. Some actions you can take are riskier than others, but because your skills are valuable and in high demand, it is unlikely you will be unemployed for long. Several programmers quit Facebook in early June this year and posted on social media the exact unethical practices the company was taking part in that caused them to quit – one of the biggest being the refusal to flag bigoted messages posted by the president. I’m certain they are not the only example. The bottom line is: if you feel disillusioned with your work as a programmer in big tech, don’t be afraid to take a stand for your beliefs, don’t underestimate your power to enact change and remember, these companies need you more than you need them.