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- Silicon Valley founders and investors are debating what constitutes real work in tech.
- That’s amid the biggest shedding of jobs in the industry’s history.
- Investor Keith Rabois this week said firms had over-hired engineers who do “fake work.”
If you’re not building or coding what, exactly, are you doing?
That’s the question posed by a certain members of the Silicon Valley elite who are attributing layoffs to a boom-time phenomenon: over-hiring and “fake” work.
A tirade on fake work came this week from Keith Rabois, the PayPal Mafia member and technology investor.
Speaking from Miami at an event hosted by banking firm Evercore, Rabois said big tech firms had hired too many people in pursuit of the “vanity metric” of headcount. They brought on so-so, spoiled workers in order to look bigger than rivals, and to stop those workers from achieving anything useful at a competitor.
“All these people were extraneous,” Rabois said. This has been true for a long time. The vanity metric of hiring employees was this false god in some ways.”
He charged that thousands of employees at Google and Meta were essentially kept around to do nothing.
“There’s nothing for these people to do — they’re really — it’s all fake work,” he said. “Now that’s being exposed, what do these people actually do, they go to meetings.”
The view has gained hold among rich investors and founders.
And they see mass layoffs as a chance to reset tech exceptionalism and return to the grind.
A particular view of ‘work’
This concept of fake work is rooted, at least partly, in political disagreement.
Several of the tech figures pushing these ideas lean Republican, in contrast to the left-leaning tech workers they’re lambasting.
They appear to vaunt the blue-collar work ethic, sometimes presented politically as the only “real” kind of work. They lionize weirdos who get things done, who have hard coding, science, or math capabilities but may lack soft skills. They show antipathy towards tech unions — a product, they say, of activist employees with too much spare time.
They also see marketing, design, HR, policy, ethics or other more creative roles as, basically, a waste of space.
They don’t necessarily say this stuff explicitly.
Rabois says fake work is meetings. For Elon Musk, it’s not being in the office or not making stuff. For investor Marc Andreessen, it’s whatever the “laptop class” does including, seemingly, holding socially conformist opinions. But statements like Andreessen Horowitz’s much-mocked “it’s time to build” manifesto or Musk springing 1:30 a.m. code reviews on engineers after taking ownership of Twitter are pretty indicative of where they think real worker value lies.
And they have ammo. Tech firms in the past were so desperate to stop staff from going to competitors that the perks became legendarily ridiculous.
Cue “day in the life of” TikTok videos, where 20-somethings with highly paid tech jobs showed off about getting face masks in the office and having a “self-care moment.”
Investor David Sacks — a friend of Musk’s and another of the PayPal Mafia — commented last August incredulously on one such video: “Does anyone still work?”. Musk replied with a cry-laugh emoji.
—David Sacks (@DavidSacks) August 20, 2022
There’s also the phenomenon of rest-and-vest employees — rich workers acquired into a larger organization who do, well, nothing while waiting for their shares to vest so they can leave.
Musk has been the most outspoken and ruthless CEO when it comes to chopping workers he sees as surplus, demanding early in his Twitter takeover that workers commit to being “extremely hardcore” and prioritizing engineers over workers in areas like policy, marketing, and legal.
He and others pushing a grind culture are motivated, as tech employees commenting on the workplace app Blind noted.
“Probably some greedy VC looking to suppress wages,” said one user of Rabois, whose tag indicated they currently work at Square. “I worked at several supposedly good wlb [work-life balance] companies and everyone had tons of work to do.”
And fake work just isn’t possible at most startups, one investor told Insider.
“It’s easy to get lost in a large company, but for a startup there’s no way to get away with fake work,” said Eugene Malobrodsky, partner at early-stage investor One Way Ventures, which backed fintech Brex. “I think it’s a false narrative to say many people do fake work, especially when companies already deploy workplace monitoring tools.”
But, while they aren’t openly agreeing 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 people in November, saw roughly 70% of its layoffs hit departments such as recruiting, product, marketing, operations, design and sales, according to MetaMates Talent Directory, a tally created by Meta employees to keep track of cut jobs. Only around 22% of layoffs came from the engineering team.
The good life for tech workers is well and truly over.