Silicon Valley debates tech workers doing ‘fake work’

  • Silicon Valley founders and investors discuss what constitutes real work in the technology industry.
  • And this in the midst of the largest job cuts in the history of the industry.
  • Investor Keith Rabois said this week firms have overstaffed engineers doing “dummy work”.

When you’re not building or programming, what do you do?

That’s the question being asked by some members of Silicon Valley’s elite, who attribute layoffs to a boom-time phenomenon: overemployment and “bogus work.”

A tirade about counterfeit labor came this week from PayPal mafia member and tech investor Keith Rabois.

Speaking at an event hosted by Miami-based bank Evercore, Rabois said big tech companies hired too many people to track the “vanity metric” of headcount. They brought in mediocre, spoiled workers to look taller than their competitors and to prevent those workers from achieving anything useful with a competitor.

“All these people were strangers,” Rabois said. That has been the case for a long time. The vanity metric in hiring people was that false god in a way.”

He charged that thousands of employees at Google and Meta were basically being held around doing nothing.

“These people have nothing to do – they are real – it’s all make-believe work,” he said. “Now it’s revealed what these people actually do, they go to meetings.”

The view has caught on among wealthy investors and founders.

And they see mass layoffs as an opportunity to reset tech exceptionalism and get back to the grind.

A Special Look at “Work”

This concept of bogus work is rooted, at least in part, in political disagreements.

Some of the tech figures pushing these ideas are lean Republicans, in contrast to the left-leaning tech workers who berate them.

They seem to extol the worker ethic, which is sometimes politically portrayed as the only “real” kind of work. They idolize weirdos who get things done who have hard programming, science or math skills but may lack soft skills. They show distaste for tech unions – a product, they say, of activist employees with too much free time.

They also basically see marketing, design, HR, politics, ethics or other more creative roles as a waste of space.

They don’t necessarily say this stuff explicitly.

Rabois says bogus work is meetings. For Elon Musk, it’s not in the office or don’t do things. For investor Marc Andreessen, it’s everything the “laptop class” does, including seemingly socially conformist opinions. But statements like Andreessen Horowitz’s much-ridiculed “It’s time to build” manifesto, or Musk’s 1:30 a.m. code reviews for engineers after they take over Twitter, are pretty telling of where they think the true value of the employee lies.

And they have ammo. Tech companies have historically been so desperate to keep their employees from going to competitors that the perks have become legendary for ridicule.

Tagged “day in the life” from TikTok videos of 20-year-olds with high-paying tech jobs bragging about getting face masks in the office and having a “self-care moment.”

Investor David Sacks – a friend of Musk and also a member of the PayPal mafia – commented in disbelief on such a video last August: “Anyone else working?”. Musk responded with a crying emoji.

There’s also the phenomenon of the rest-and-vest employees — rich workers who have been inducted into a larger organization who, well, do nothing while waiting for their shares to transfer so they can leave.

Musk was the most outspoken and ruthless CEO when it came to hacking workers he viewed as surplus, demanding early in his Twitter acquisition that workers commit to being “extremely hardcore” and prioritize engineers over workers in areas such as politics, marketing and law.

He and others promoting a grind culture are motivated, tech staff noted in a comment on workplace app Blind.

“Probably a greedy VC looking to suppress wages,” said a Rabois user whose tag indicated he currently works at Square. “I have worked at several supposedly good wlb [work-life balance] company and everyone had a lot of work to do.”

And bogus work just isn’t possible at most startups, an investor told Insider.

“It’s easy to get lost in a big company, but there’s no way for a startup to get away with bogus work,” said Eugene Malobrodsky, a partner at early-stage investor One Way Ventures, which backed the fintech Brex. “I think it’s a false narrative to say that many people do bogus work, especially when companies are already using workplace monitoring tools.”

But while they don’t openly agree with Musk, Andreessen, Rabois, and Sacks, it’s clear other tech CEOs are following Musk’s example.

Meta, which laid off more than 11,000 employees in November, saw around 70% of the layoffs in departments like recruiting, product, marketing, operations, according to MetaMate’s Talent Directory, a tally compiled by Meta employees to keep track , design and sales of downsizing. Only around 22% of the layoffs came from the engineering team.

The good life for tech workers is finally over.

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