or how I learned to stop worrying and love the corporation

I enjoy my new job.

I thought I wouldn’t. The past few years were spent at dot coms, which present themselves as an employee paradise. Casual dress, flexible hours, innovation, a fun atmosphere, perks, and the lure of possible big money cashouts: everyone wants it! The software tools are sexy and easy open source projects. It’s all very cool. And if you screw up, everyone understands and it’s all play money anyhow.

Now I’m at a large company. I work a fixed schedule and I wear Office Casual Clothing. There are policies and procedures for everything. Rank is important. Everyone is in a cube, some of us two to a cube. The software we manage is almost all proprietary and runs on proprietary operating systems. The work itself is locked into very specific tasks with step by step instructions. And if I blow it, I’m fired. Large sums of money rest on the competence of the staff.

It’s way better.

The dot coms I have known were all doomed. Almost all of them were the classic two-founder startups going after a niche in the market. All of them needed outside money to achieve their goals, and in every case the outside money wrecked the company. Uncontrolled hiring wiped out the competence and the culture of these places within months. Executives who came in with the outside money were out of their depth and resorted to arbitrary decision-making and tyranny, and sometimes deliberately failed at their fiduciary responsibilities.

Here are some examples of things I saw at dot coms: People hired to do nothing to make a company look bigger; openly racist senior executives allowed to carry out their prejudices; nonexistent products fraudulently sold by salesmen who then left with their money; stolen patents; illegal or impossible business plans designed to fail just after an executive had left for a better job; and indecision actually written into the procedures of the company to resolve differences between founders.

These things happen at bigger and better-organized companies, but it’s possible for all of them to occur at once at a startup dot com without any consequences for anyone involved. Too many of those places were all the boys playing the treehouse, complete with NO GIRLS sign, with the difference that being pushed out meant real broken bones down below.

In particular, the “two cofounders” startups were disasters. I’ll make an exception for the last one I worked at, where both of them were smart nice guys who knew what they were doing and cooperated. Everywhere else it was a disaster: Beavis & Butthead meet Leopold & Loeb. They were all white college grad males. Almost always one was technical and the other was business. They were inevitably rivals and often boyhood friends. Neither one could be completely in charge, and neither one could be seen defeated. I’ve seen situations where the two actually alternated between winning and losing the argument, so that the company sailed along zig zag for months.

I won’t ever work for a two cofounders startup again, unless it’s the last two. The rest is just the whole company as fifth wheel in the meltdown of a friendship.

So why do I love my current corporate job? Because it’s just plain old capitalism. Real money is being made and lost, and if enough is lost bad things will happen. Policies and procedures are in place that have been tested, and if they fail they are revised. Quality assurance is done by professionals with reliable tests. Software doesn’t go into production unless several groups agree that it works. Pay arrives on time each time. Insanity in the office is punished. A real HR department deals with out of control coworkers, even executives.

There’s nobody handing out beanie hats or taking us all to Dave & Busters, we have to wear normal clothing and show up on time, working from home is discouraged, the software and tools are totally uncool and often annoying, and there’s absolutely no chance of the company being bought or taken public to make us all millionaires. I love it. It’s just plain old employment at a regular profit-making company, making rich guys richer and slogging along. And the punchline? I’m making more money now.

With great respect to personal friends who are running their own startups well, the rest of you can keep your dot-coms. I’ll stick with the totally uncool skyscraper job working for the Man. He treats us all way better.

35 thoughts on “or how I learned to stop worrying and love the corporation

  1. Do you find it easier to avoid emotional/personal investment in such a job? A lot of my friends and I talk about the mythical “just a job” job as a way to be able to pursue outside Interests (like sleep) instead of struggling with being assimilated by a Very Friendly Startup. I half-tried it once, but I didn’t have anything to take the place of my emotional/personal investment, and the company in question had a monstrous work environment (really openly-hostile; people didn’t throw chairs in meetings anymore, but the people who used to throw chairs in meetings were still around and everybody knew it and “what am I going to say to X?” was used as a way of intimidating one by proxy) so I found myself a corporate nihilist with no work ethic or fear of being unemployed or whatever to drive my participation — in short, I just didn’t put up with the shit and left. Which was admittedly a big improvement over how I would deal with abusive environments at companies that I wanted to be my friend, but made me take a few steps back from the “just a job” job. I currently enjoy consulting with small companies that aren’t quite startups; I have some distance (physical and professional and emotional) and that allows for me to actually enjoy the people involved without it having anything at all to do with my work.

    1. Yes, I think so. It’s still a technology job, so the urge to do things right causes some attachment and frustration issues. And there are social problems at any job. More than anything I get invested in my own personal success there and whether I am appreciated, but that would happen at a Kwik-e-Mart.
      This is more of a normal job in that we all give a damn while we’re there or on call, and we do our best for each other as well, but no one is going to flip out and leave in an ambulance because of the job.
      My own experience is that the treehouse atmosphere of a dot com causes a lot more emotional stress, perhaps because of the infamous “because the stakes are so low” rule of life.

  2. Working with sane, sensible adults makes a huge difference, doesn’t it?
    My first job out of school was at a startup. It took a long time to get over the year I spent there. For a number of years I’ve done contract work for large corporations – many of the perks, but little involvement in the drama. Little personal satisfaction, but I’m treated very decently and really have nothing to complain about, especially in this economy.

  3. mod this up!
    As an increasingly old fart, I’m also drawn to the BS corp jobs rather than hip startups. I just want cash and I don’t want to sleep at my desk. That’s really not asking a lot.
    I don’t want to deal with coworks parking their motorcycles in my cube.
    I want perks and I’m willing to sell my soul for them (if the price is right).

  4. I love it when you write, even if you are working for the Man. You know how I feel about the Man.
    More importantly, I love it when your life is going well. It makes me all kinds of glad to read about what you enjoy.

  5. I read this and at the end said to Gordon across the room, “I like .
    I really enjoy reading your writing. I’ve been reading Joan Didion all day, too. You are just as easy to read, in that good, trustworthy driver-writer way.

  6. Oddly enough I started straight out of college in one of the biggest, most enterprisey companies you can name. And yeah, it was about like you describe, and free of the kind of bullshit I have heard from the startup culture. Of course it did have its own special sort of bullshit and eventually (>13 years!) I found that I had grown tired of it. Tired enough to move on.
    My new job *feels* like a startup – to me – it was, once, and there are weird manchildren who are too important to adjust their ways to the changing environment, there are people who flip out and put on mildly disturbing displays of .. well. belonging.. to the family of great apes. There are also some really smart people the likes of which I haven’t seen in a while.
    The new company is about 2% the size of my old company, and yet it’s -still- a fortune 500. There’s a sense of relative scale there, I guess. There are processes and a good solid engineering ethos, etc. There’s real HR, and an end-to-end commitment to basically moral and competent people management, and for the most part everyone knows what they’re doing.
    This kind of makes me terrified about what’s below this layer.. I think if it was any *more* startuppy I wouldn’t know how to deal.

  7. I would have to agree with you. I’ve been at a “real” company for 12 years now. Prior to that was s dot-com-ish place. The peaks at $bigco aren’t as high maybe as a startup, but then again the valleys aren’t as low. Stability is good. I can do my job, get paid fairly for it, and not worry too much about coming in one day to find that the next round of funding didn’t work out and I need to find a way to pay my mortgage with office furniture and servers.
    Excellent piece of writing!

  8. Oh, the manchildren-companies. I’ve worked for one full-time, and done a lot of freelance work for a few others. I don’t miss them at all. The NO GIRLS sign is especially onerous when you happen to be a girl.
    I like academia because it’s a good mix of freedom and rules. Eccentricity is accepted, but seriously destructive viciousness isn’t. There’s enough structure to keep everything running smoothly (if a bit too much bureaucracy here at Saltmine U.).

  9. I worked for a two cofounders startup in the Days Before The Internet. Despite them both being slightly arseholish, it worked well and became fairly successful, mainly because they both had technical and business skills, and a similar idea of how the company should work.
    The idea behind the company was actually about how it operated rather than having an original product as such – having seen how other consultancies worked, they spotted there was an opportunity to compete by being much leaner and more technically-savvy than the big boys.
    They ran the company without debt and in the early days only recruited by word of mouth. The result for the first 8 years or so was constant growth and a fairly contented workforce with relatively little churn. Things got a bit messier later, but failing to manage growth beyond a certain point is par for the course. They got out with a load of cash and long term employees like myself got a few bob, too.

  10. Having bounced between the two, your story reminds me somewhat of the difference between for-profit and non-profit gigs. It’s a relief to get away from people who expect there to be no job/life distinction and fall into a world of transactional relationships.
    Also — to throw more fuel on the fire, my brother worked in Silicon Alley back in the 90s boom, and his boss was a con artist with a phony resume who sexually harassed him in her spare time. Looking at Google, it seems like it took the company 11 months to go from getting a $17 million investment (on top of god knows how much else) to being sold for $4 million.

  11. Love the corporation
    > Now I’m at a large company.
    Well, maybe the large company gives you the structure you need. Dot coms gave you freedom, but you need direction…like a lemming.
    > Uncontrolled hiring
    That’s what Paul Graham has warned us about. Please read his pieces.
    > in every case the outside money wrecked the company
    Notwithstanding, don’t blame the companies.
    > Executives who came in
    Again, that’s what Paul Graham warned us about…please pay attention.
    > the “two cofounders” startups were disasters
    Microsoft, Sun, Yahoo, Google…go to bed, buddy…you need sleep.
    > With great respect to personal friends who are running their own startups well,
    Oh, so where is your head? I think you don’t know…drop your drawers and find out.

    1. Re: Love the corporation
      I’m not sure what you mean by “please pay attention.” I didn’t own or manage any of these companies, so there wasn’t an opportunity for me to apply any of Mr. Graham’s ideas. Nor do I understand why it’s assumed that I read Graham at all. Perhaps this comment was intended for another site?
      Why does a lemming need direction? Lemmings are very successful animals. They’re inaccurately used as a metaphor for people engaged in self-destructive activity because of mindless imitation, but I’m not sure why that applies to someone who works well in a structured environment.
      I’m interested in your ideas, but I’m not sure how it’s helpful to imply that I have my head up my ass. Also, were I to have my head up my ass I couldn’t be wearing any drawers, so your metaphor failed.

      1. Re: Love the corporation
        > I’m not sure what you mean by “please pay attention.”
        I agree; If you haven’t read Graham’s writings, you wouldn’t know to what I refer, and so I apologize.
        > Why does a lemming need direction?
        Lemmings don’t need direction; rather, they just blindly follow others (which I guess is sort of a direction).
        > works well in a structured environment
        “imitation,” that’s the key word. Lemmings just follow and imitate, with no intrinsic direction. Blazing your own path, that’s what’s impressive.

      2. Re: Love the corporation
        You’re right that “blazing your own path” is impressive and one of life’s great goals. For me that didn’t mix well with making a living. I’m sure it’s different if you’re the owner or founder of one of these companies, too. As an employee I prefer to be on a train and not trapped in a clown car.
        I understand that if you want your job and your self-actualization in one place, working for HugeCo is not going to satisfy. I get further up the Maslow scale doing things I can’t get paid for, so I might as well just make money the “lemming” way.

      3. Re: Love the corporation
        “As an employee I prefer to be on a train and not trapped in a clown car”
        This statement makes my day.

      4. Re: Love the corporation
        your lack of education is showing. lemmings do not “blindly follow” as the myth goes. they are all driven by strong biological urges towards a mass migration for breeding and the raising of the young. each lemming is empowered individually with this urge to migrate and thus will continue to attempt to crawl, run, or swim across any obstacle until this urge is satisfied.
        so to conclude, in your attempts to be condescending, superior, and intellectually dominating, you instead highlighted your lack of education and subscription to popular and easily debunked misconceptions. plz try again.

    2. Re: Love the corporation
      > Microsoft, Sun, Yahoo, Google…go to bed, buddy…you need sleep.
      Well done for quoting the 0.0001% that actually succeeded *roll*

  12. what?
    Ok, so working for a company is better than working for a doomed startup, full of racists and incompetents. Really? That certainly is good advice, I am just not sure that anyone else needs that to be explicitlt pointed out. I can’t wait for your next article, eating a donut is better than being punching in the face.

    1. Re: what?
      If the blow to the face is not too severe this may not be true. Facial tissue heals rapidly. A donut, however, has significant glycemic impact and may permanently damage your insulin response slightly. Combined with the sodium and saturated fat, it probably poses a worse long-term health risk than a moderate face-punch.

      1. Re: what?
        I think I was unemployed and checking out pretty girls over coffee at my local cafe that year. Sorry!

  13. my favorite part of this post was the post. (a+ writing). but my second favorite part of this post is how several people took it super personally and came over here to white knight for startups out of a misplaced sense of low self-esteem. a++ entertainment.

  14. I gotta say “hear, hear” to pretty much all of what you’ve said here, having been through several less extreme but equally dysfunctional (and disheartening) startup experiences over the last 10+ years. And I think there’s an important side point that you’re grazing but not fully illuminating–one that the startup defenders here miss, and one that I missed, too, until I found myself at a big company and had a similar experience to what you’re describing: throughout the coming-of-age of this whole Internet thing, startups have had all the attention. A culture glorifying startupness (beanie hats, insane hours, etc.) has grown up with the Internet that basically equates the startup life/workstyle with coolness, and bigcorp culture with pure, stultifyingly boring evil. Now, I’m never satisfied with black-and-white perspectives on this kind of dichotomy; of course there are some perfectly sane startups and of course there are some totally awful huge corporations to work for. But it has felt to me like we’ve all been so busy being hip, young and startuppy (and reading about hip, young startuppy software developers, and how to be more like them) that we’ve missed what might not be so bad — or might even be great — about working in a bigger organization. I, for one, have found myself gravitating more and more toward the sort of deployment/automation work for which being in a huge organization, where all the infrastructure fights have already been fought (and won), is way more effective — and therefore more fun — than being in a startup environment, where I was so busy fighting to get the basics set up that I couldn’t actually do the automation job very well. Being able to do your job well, supported by a team of mentors and colleagues is tremendously more satisfying than having to spend all your time fighting with people just to get them to believe that the problems you’re describing exist and are important.
    Thanks for writing this; I think it’s clear there are a lot of people for whom having these points made will be (and already has been) beneficial.

  15. Never work for a startup unless you own it
    First of all thanks for this great post.
    This sounds just like my last start-up. It went to hell. We had a perfectly great (SaaS) product and a great team (5 employees – 1 founder, 1 programmer & myself, 1 salesperson/marketing, 1 human resources/finance.).
    Things were great until after the second round of funding: The board basically took over:
    – They forced us to increase to about 20 employees (within a few months).
    – We hired former “big time” CEO/Presidents/Vice Presidents as our EVP’s to help us grow fast.
    – We were basically working 12 – 16 hours a day. I slept many times at work during data migration (which took for ever)
    – We were taking more customers than we could handle which resulted in lawsuits because we could not deliver on time (even after postponement).
    Finally (after 2 years) the board fired the founder, brought in a new CEO from “big time” company.
    Needless to say employee moral died and I and the original employees were forced to resign (I was personally already on my way out).
    Two months later at the collapse of the financial system, unable to get more funding, they filled for chapter 11 . Everybody got fired and also lost their shares, health insurance etc.
    I now run my personal consulting firm and I am loving it. I actually get to see my son everyday.

    1. Re: Never work for a startup unless you own it
      I’m glad you liked my little essay-ette.
      Your story is all too familiar. One missing piece of the puzzle for me is why the VCs and their investors constantly make this mistake. You’d think that they lose enough money to rethink the approach.

  16. Oh Those Two!
    Ohyeah, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned: <a href=
    >Bobodyne was a two-man startup.

  17. Speaking of startups…and they tend to make me cringe… What would you think of a brand spanking new startup with Big Plans For Good Things (and an awful lot of VPs on the org chart) that is being run and funded (largely, but I suspect not exclusively) by a multi-millionaire who is very smart, very tempermental, and very connected?

      1. I thought so too. Lots of cash (and promises of lots more cash) floating around, but not enough to justify the risk…and and nothing in writing. Smells iffy to the no-so-easily-dazzled.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.