I quit my job towards the end of last month.
When I started this blog, I told myself, “Don’t talk about work.” Since my employment is in the rear view mirror, I’m going to bend that rule for once. And most likely, only this one time.
Why? Since I wrote a whole series about how to get into tech for as close to $0 as possible without prior experience, I feel that omitting my feelings would be, on some level, dishonest.
I had been hired in 2019 for the cryptography team at a large tech company. I was hired as a 100% remote employee, with the understanding that I would work from my home in Florida.
Then a pandemic started to happen (which continues to be a mass-disabling event despite what many politicians proclaim).
The COVID-19 pandemic forced a lot of people who preferred to work in an office setting to sink-or-swim in a remote work environment.
In early 2020, you could be forgiven for imagining that this new arrangement was a temporary safety measure that we would adopt for a time, and then one day return to normal. By mid 2022, only people that cannot let go of their habits and traditions continued to believe that we’d ever return to the “normal” they knew in 2019.
As someone who had been working remote since 2014, as soon as the shift happened, many of my peers reached out to me for advice on how to be productive at home. This was an uncomfortable experience for many of them, and as someone who was comfortable in a fully virtual environment, I was happy to help.
By early 2021, I was considered to not only be a top performer, but also a critical expert for the cryptography organization. My time ended up split across three different teams, and I was still knocking my projects out of the park. But more importantly, junior employees felt comfortable approaching me with questions and our most distinguished engineers sought my insight on security and cryptography topics.
It became an inside joke of the cryptography organization, not to let me ever look at someone else’s source code on a Friday, because I would inevitably find at least one security issue, which would inevitably ruin someone’s weekend. I suppose the reasoning was that, if the source code in question belonged to a foundational software package, it carried the risk of paging the entire company as we tried to figure out how to mitigate the issue and upstream the fix.
(I never once got earnestly reprimanded for finding security bugs, of course.)
I can’t really go into detail about the sort of work I did. I don’t really want to name names, either. But I will say that I woke up every day excited and motivated. The problems were interesting, the people were wonderful, and there was an atmosphere of respect and collaboration.
Despite the sudden change in working environment for most of the cryptography organization in response to COVID-19, we were doing great work and cultivating the same healthy and productive work environment that everyone fondly remembered pre-pandemic.
And then the company’s CEO decided to make an unceremonious, unilateral, top-down decision (based entirely on vibes from talking to other CEOs, rather than anything resembling facts, data, or logic):
Everyone must return to the office, and virtual employees must relocate. Exceptions would be few, far between, and required a C-level to sign off on it. Good luck getting an exception before your relocation decision deadline.
Hey, tech workers, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
To the credit of my former managers, they sprung this dilemma on me literally the day before I went to a hacker conference–a venue full of hiring managers and technical founders.
If I had to give only one bit of advice to anyone ever faced with an ultimatum from someone with power over them (be it an employer or abusive romantic partner), it would be:
Ultimately, never choose the one giving you an ultimatum.
If your employer tells you, “Move to an expensive city or resign,” your best move will be, in the end, to quit. Notice that I said, in the end.
It’s perfectly okay to pretend to comply to buy time while you line up a new gig somewhere else.
That’s what I did. Just don’t start selling your family home or looking at real estate listings, and definitely don’t accept any relocation assistance (since you’ll have to return it when you split).
Conversely, if you let these assholes exert their power over you, you dehumanize yourself in submission.
(Yes, you did just read those words on a blog written by a furry.)
If you take nothing else away from this post, always keep this in mind.
Nothing happens in a vacuum.
When more tech workers opted to earn their tech company salaries while living in cheaper cost-of-living houses, less tech worker money circulated to big city businesses.
This outflow of money does hurt the local economies of said cities, including the ones that big tech companies are headquartered in. In some cases, this pain has jeopardized a lot of the tax incentives that said companies enjoy.
That’s why we keep hearing about politicians praising the draconian way that the return-to-office policies are being enforced.
At the end of the day, incentives rule everything around us.
Companies have to kowtow to the government in order to reduce their tax bill (and continue pocketing record profits–which drive inflation–while their workers’ wages stagnate).
This outcome was incredibly obvious to everyone that was paying attention; it was just a matter of when, not if.
Do you know who was really paying attention? The top talent at most tech companies.
After I turned in my resignation, I received a much larger outpour of support from other very senior tech workers than I ever imagined.
Many of them admitted that they were actively looking for new roles; some of them for the first time in over a decade.
Many of them already have new gigs lined up, and were preparing to resign too. Some of those already have.
Others are preparing to refuse to comply with either demand, countering the companies’ ultimatums with one of their own: Shut up or fire me.
What I took from these messages is this: What tech companies are doing is complete bullshit, and everyone knows it, and nobody is happy about it.
With all this in mind, I’d like to issue a prediction for how this return-to-office with forced relocation will play out, should companies’ leaders double down on their draconian nature.
Every company that issued forced relocation ultimatums to their pre-pandemic remote workers will not only lose most (if not all) their top talent in the next year, but they will struggle to hire for at least the coming decade.
The bridge has been burnt, and the well has been poisoned.
Trust arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback.Dutch proverb
The companies that issued these ultimatums are not stupid. They had to know that some percentage of their core staff would leave over their forced relocation mandates. Many described it as a “soft layoff” tactic.
But I don’t think they appreciate the breadth or depth of the burn they’ve inflicted. Even if they can keep their ships from sinking, the wound will fester and their culture will not easily recover. This will lead to even more brain drain.
Who could blame anyone for leaving when that happens?
Unfortunately, there is a class of people that work in tech that will bear the brunt of the ensuing corporate abuse: H-1B visa employees, whose immigration status is predicated on their ongoing employment. Their ability to hop from abusive companies onto lifeboats is, on the best of days, limited.
And that? Well, that’s going to get ugly.
There’s still time for these companies to slam the brakes on their unmitigated disaster of failed leadership before it collapses the whole enterprise.
If I were a betting dhole, I wouldn’t bet money on most of them doing that.
Their incentives aren’t aligned that way yet, and when they finally are, it will be far too late.
As for me, I’m enjoying some well-earned downtime before I start my new remote job.
I wasn’t foolish enough to uproot my life and everyone I love at some distant corporate asshole’s whims, but I also wasn’t impulsive enough to jump ship without a plan.
That’s as much as I feel comfortable saying about myself on here.
If you’re facing a similar dilemma, just know that you’re not alone. Savvy companies will be taking advantage of your current employer’s weakness to pan for gold, so to speak.
You are not trapped. Your life is your own to live. Choose wisely.
After I posted this, it made the front page of Hacker News and was subsequently posted in quite a few places. After reading some of the comments, I realize a few subtleties in my word choice didn’t come across, so I’d like to clarify them.
When I say “RTO is bullshit”, I don’t mean “office work is bullshit” or anything negative about people that prefer in-person office work. I mean “the forced relocation implementation of transitioning a whole company to never-remote (a.k.a. RTO) is bullshit”.
If working in an office is better for you, rock on. I don’t have any issue with that. The bullshit is the actions taken by company’s leadership teams in absence of (or often in spite of) hard data on remote work versus in-person work. The bullshit is changing remote worker’s employment agreements without their consent and threatening “voluntary resignation” as the only alternative (even though that’s pretty obviously constructive dismissal).
When I discussed ultimatums above, I’m specifically referring to actual ultimatums, not colloquial understandings of the word. If you can talk with the person and negotiate with them, it’s not a goddamn ultimatum. What I was faced with was an actual ultimatum: Comply or suffer. I chose freedom.
Hope that helps.
Regarding some of the other comments, I come from the “I work to live” mindset, not the “I live to work” mindset. My opinions won’t resonate with everyone. That’s okay!