Why I Didn’t Do It

Forgive me if I don’t find the best order to use in telling this story. Life is chaos; chronological order may dissatisfy. And, since this narrative continues into the future, I have no idea how it ends.

I left a high-paying job in finance, early in 2008, to work at a startup. I had, one could say, a naive, rosy view of technology and the nobility of its place in society. I believed that if I became a great programmer, I’d both have a positive effect on the world, and earn my own reward. I wrote code, I wrote words, I read a lot, and I worked my ass off. That hasn’t changed.

My first taste of what one could call “fame” came in March 2011. A now-deleted essay hit Reddit and got 30,000 views in two days. In July 2012, I wrote “Don’t waste your time in crappy startup jobs.” At the time, I wasn’t advising people to avoid startups– only to be selective about which ones to work for. That post received 135,000 views in one day, and about 250,000 over its entire life.

Through this, I made some enemies. Advising tech employees to negotiate with employers does not earn love from all corners.

I removed those “hit” essays in February 2016, after receiving a few not-credible but disturbing physical threats. I intended to restore them, but a technical mistake (partly mine) led to their permanent deletion.

If one wants to find them, the Internet Archive (“Wayback Machine”) is what I’d recommend. The problem with my earlier writing on technology is that it has diverged from my interests and, to a lesser extent, from my values. I spent years trying to inject efficiency and integrity into venture-funded, private-sector technology. I no longer have faith that I, or anyone, can improve it. My aim in 2012 was to save it; in 2017, my goal is to minimize harm (especially, to myself) from its inevitable Untergang.

I experienced an aggressive public attack, starting in the fall of 2015. I was “de-platformed.” To wit, I was banned from Hacker News and Quora on false, defamatory pretenses. Why was I banned? It had nothing to do with my conduct on either site. First, I suggested that, instead of enduring the creep of micromanagement and surveillance, software engineers might consider collective bargaining. Second, I wrote a blog post that Paul Graham thought was about him– it wasn’t. Third, Y Combinator abused its power as an investor in Quora to force a ban on my account. It would have shut the company down, costing 120 innocents their jobs, had it not complied.

It must seem bizarre that I’m still upset about website bans from two years ago. In fact, I’m glad those sites banned me; they were monstrous wastes of time. I’m disgusted by the defamatory pretenses they used to do so, and the public statements they made. Their goal wasn’t to get me off the sites (I was a top contributor) but to damage my reputation. In a normal industry, such things would have no effect. How many industries or careers are there where a website ban could be used as a reason not to offer someone a contract or job? I can’t think of any, but one: venture-funded technology– that is, startups and ex-startups like Google and Facebook.

Leaving finance for a startup, in 2008, was a failure of career planning. That’s on me, and me alone. By doing so, I locked myself for a time in an incestuous weird industry where petty gossip drives careers. It is also an industry whose values and mine have diverged.

In early 2016, I was informed that I had been turned down for a job because of these bans. The perception was that I’d been humiliated by Dan Gackle and Marc Bodnick and failed to strike back. This petty gangster shit ought to be beneath me.

I don’t want to “strike back”. I don’t want a damn thing to do with those sick fucks. Revenge keeps you involved. Life’s too short.

I spoke to a public relations specialist about that experience. She asked me what money I would have made if I had gotten the job. I told her. She laughed.

“As smart as you are, you’re concerned about a startup job making $XXX,000?”

It amused her that, the stakes being so low, I’d even care to consult a PR coach at all. Here’s what I had to explain to her: the rest of the economy doesn’t want people from the startup world. (There are good reasons for this; most of us are sociopaths.) Often, we get stuck in it. In the tech industry– startups and ex-startups– it’s usual that one has to change jobs every 18 months to have a career, because those companies don’t invest in their people or promote from within. In real careers, that’s a sociopath’s résumé.

There are many undisclosed dangers of private-sector technology. Yes, it pays well, relative to most other careers, in the first 5 years. Still, it maroons almost all of them by middle age– and “middle age” in tech means 30. The job-hopping résumé that’s necessary in private-sector technology looks terrible anywhere else. Silicon Valley may think that it’s the future, but the rest of the country looks at five jobs in 6 years and says, “Nope.” Those who enter the startup scene often ignore the high probability of being stuck there. They think they’re younger and more invincible than they really are.

I ought to admit that I’ve never been great at processing the bizarre adversity that started with my first attempts to improve the tech industry. I have nightmares and panic attacks. I Google phone numbers I don’t recognize. I watch my back, especially in large cities.

The anonymous threats, the unjustifiable closing of doors, the necessary vigilance… that took a toll on me in 2015 and ’16. For an example of what I was going through, a homeless person in San Francisco chased me, brandishing a stick. He told me not to “fuck with” certain people, whom he named.

I hit rock bottom around March of that year. It wasn’t that I gave credibility to the death threats. Those came from high-placed people in Silicon Valley who had too much to lose, and I lived in Chicago, so I perceived myself as out of their way. Looking back on it, their objective wasn’t physical harm. Their work was incompetent and that was intentional. Rather, they wanted me to speak up. They knew I would, and I played into it. Why? Because it sounds utterly fucking nuts. If I stand up and say that, one time in San Francisco, a person associated with Y Combinator sent a homeless man to harass me, I sound insane. It seems bizarre and unreasonable, because it is. However, it happened. I wish I were making it all up.

Even I have trouble integrating these experiences, years later. I’ll confess to this: the other-than-real aura of certain events in the 2010s has led me to seek professional assistance in their processing. The normal reaction to abnormal occurrences, sometimes, requires that.

At that rock-bottom point in March, I was considering my own exit. Why? When I wrote about open allocation, or organizational dynamics, or programming languages, I held a certain opinion. Namely, that private-sector technology was a well-intended but wayward industry. There were bad guys, sure, but good guys as well, and the good guys could win.

Quora seemed to be the good guys. (Ha!) Even Y Combinator seemed, at one time, to operate with moral decency. I had this sense of computer programming as this noble activity; we were automating away worlds’ worth of undesirable work. I learned, abruptly, that I was wrong about almost everything. I realized that I’d invested in almost 10 years in an immoral career.

Our other favored debates seem so small, in comparison. One can argue about the merits of Haskell versus Python, or Bayesian models versus maximum likelihood, but to what point? These technical matters are hills of sand compared to the shit mountain that is our industry’s ethical failure.

I had a hard time accepting the role I had played. Yes, I experienced death threats and attempted blacklisting. From an objective external perspective, I’m not a sympathetic party. First, I chose to work in the tech industry. Second, by revealing unethical and illegal activities to the public, press, and authorities, I “bit the hand”. Third, my experiences raise questions but don’t answer them. I’ve proven corruption in Silicon Valley; do I have a fix for it? I don’t. Fourth, I must confess to my immaturity while the worst fights (2011 to ’15) were going down. In one case, my revelations of illegal practices led to numerous successful lawsuits against the company. Am I a hero? Nah; I did it to settle a grudge. I did a good thing, but my intentions were pedestrian. If I represent my story with honesty, I must admit this.

So, there I was, in March 2016, doubting whether I wanted to consider existing. Harassment and defamation from people who are powerful in one’s industry has that effect. Believing you’ll never get a decent job again (false, proved later) because a Quora ban (tech is petty; it’s plausible) has that effect. Spoiler alert: I’m still alive. As a general rule, I’m not suicidal, for two reasons.

First, while I don’t ascribe to literal religion, I find it plausible-to-likely that (A) there’s more to consciousness than we see on the surface, and (B) that my conduct in this life matters. So, I see no upside in self-violence, even when it tempts. There’s no guarantee, in any event, that it provides the cessation of existence that, in darker moments, I might desire. Whereas there’s a certainty of emotional harm to people who remain.

Second, when I get to that point, I often pretend I am dead or dying, just for the exercise. “I’m dead already; what do I do now?” We’re all terminally ill, after all; we just don’t know the timeframe.

Usually, I can come up with something worth doing. Perhaps it’s as pedestrian as cleaning the cat’s litter box. I ask myself how much life, in the current state, I can tolerate… and then figure out what I can do in that amount of time. Let’s say I decide that I can tolerate 6 more months. If I rushed and left editing to posterity– I have too much pride to do that, unless necessary; but it’s what I’d do if diagnosed with a terminal illness– I could finish my novel, Farisa’s Crossing, in half that time. That’d give me a valid reason to kick around for a few months, right? I find that, once I get to work on something I care about, that wish for a long sleep (which may or may not be what death is) dissipates.

It was at this bottom of night that I started writing Farisa’s Crossing. I figured it’d be a 60,000-word book. After several rounds of revision, and several to go, I’m on target for 175,000. That’s only the first book. I expected the amount of work involved in writing a significant (as opposed to merely publishable) novel to be high. It’s much more than I expected, but it’s fun work. As Camus said of Sisyphus, “One must imagine [him] happy”.

I found that I enjoy fiction more than I enjoyed tech writing. I’ll be publishing it in a year or so. There’s a lot to figure out, on that front. We live in a time where some of the best work is self-published and where any celebrity could get a prestigious house to print garbage. So, I view the process as unpredictable. My job, though, is to write significant work– and maybe, for once, give some value to what I’ve experienced.

Over 2016, for reasons mixing protest and privacy, I accelerated my own de-platforming. It was bad for my reputation to be banned from Hacker News and Quora on the defamatory pretenses that were chosen, but it was good to be banned from them.

What I realized, that year, was that the addiction to internet microapprovals had damaged my focus. It became hard to read, much less write, significant work. Ten thousand words became “too long” to read. In online magazines, even for excellent, enjoyable articles, I’d find myself checking that side cursor for total length. “Are we there yet?” “Are we there yet?” Social media feeds the monkey mind. It leads to a loss of discipline.

I quit Twitter in November 2016. Like I said, there was an element of protest, and this may have been rash. When you’re publishing a book, you need “platform”. I burned mine down. I had 2,600 followers. If I joined again, I’d start at zero.

Now, I am facing the question of whether and how to “re-platform”, as I want Farisa’s Crossing to succeed. Should I rejoin the world of 140-character insights and @-mentions? Should I start batting out 750-word blog posts that say the same thing as one from three years ago, but might “go viral” this time?

I know I can “re-platform”. I could get 10 times the attention I had at my peak. But at what cost? When I used social media, I developed unhealthy obsessions: famous followers, page view counts, blue fucking checkmarks. Do I want that in my life again? My sense is that I don’t.

It might be my age, but I enjoy books more than websites these days. Some promises of technology have been fulfilled. Most have not. The industry sucks, and it’s not getting better.

What ought to have been the first sign of broad-based moral corruption was this: in 2011, I remember someone saying she wanted to “demolish” a competitor. Not “we’d like to build a better product” but “we want to end them.” (They’re still around.) See, it’s valid and usually moral in business to compete. If another firm suffers because one offers a superior product, that’s not something to be ashamed of. However, taking job in the other’s destruction– or, in today’s language, “disruption”– seems perverse. Why wish for another’s failure, as opposed to pursuing one’s own excellence?

It’s a sad fact, but most of what we do in technology is destructive. Very few of us make new things under the sun. Most of us make business processes cheaper. There’s nothing wrong with that; we might think, naively, that the value we create would be invested into research and development. That’s not what happens. Businessmen lay people off to pay their own bonuses. We’re the ones who make that possible. Society gets worse with each iteration, and it’s our fault.

Then, is it a surprise that we fail to arouse public sympathy when we can’t afford houses in the Bay Area? Or when we suffer age discrimination at 30?

I don’t know what life’s ultimate purposes is. Though I don’t ascribe to literal religion, I tend toward anti-nihilism, like Farisa. There must be a purpose, I can’t help but feel. What is it? It’s not to destroy.

Life’s purpose is not to code people out of jobs. It’s not to wreck the reputations of innocents on social media. It’s not to get people addicted to meaningless social microapprovals. Whatever imperative I can find, in the moments when the darkness goes away, points in the opposite direction.


28 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Do It

  1. Good stuff Michael, been following this ordeal from the beginning and I think it will make you stronger. You got this. God bless you.

  2. Pro: Twitter has an additional 140 chars/tweet since you last used it.
    Con: There’s a shit ton more Nazis than there used to be.

    You may be doing the right thing by staying away.

  3. Thanks so much for what you have done. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Remember there are people standing behind you, you are not alone.

    I believe the human race must make progress and that is the purpose of life collectively. There will always be leaders, followers and blockers. Try to be a leader, or at least a follower – that was my understanding of the meaning of life.

  4. It might give you peace of mind to remind yourself how huge and old the world actually is. You have done a great job of mapping your corner of it. What about all the other corners? Or do you think you are the only smart person to have liven under the sun?

    • I’m more focused on fiction at this point: learning how to tell stories, to write clearly, to evoke the right emotions. (My 2012-era blog writing was competent, but not artful.) The tougher game has forced me to improve my writing, and the stakes are higher.

      • Of course, it is the natural progression. You tried to change a social system, it turned ugly, so you are now looking for refuge in myth. It is akin to trying to build a framework for a language, getting frustrated, and then studying programming language design and compiler optimization.

        May I suggest a book? Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson. It might help you to evoke the right emotions.

        Regardless, I am forever thankful for your brave kind thoughts.

        • Sorry, but no. Not “looking for refuge in myth” by taking more interest in fiction.

          I’ve always wanted to write a novel. It wasn’t until 34 that I had the work ethic and clarity of vision to do it (and I’m speaking as if I’m finished, which is premature.)

          I thought I’d go into trading/tech for 10 years, then be able to retire and “become a writer”. I’m having to reorder some of those operations. I’m 10 years in; I’m not rich at all, but I am more aware of my own mortality.

  5. So, after years of troublemaking (for which I commend you, don’t get me wrong), do you find that it’s hard or easy to switch from pure tech to something tech-related like finance? I’d imagine the trouble-making part would be a hinderance, given how secretive finance is reputed to be, even though tech is ethically much worse. After all, finance deals with real money, and tech deals with pretend money, pretend intelligence, pretend users, pretend growth. I’d imagine finance pays you some respect if you have math chops – being good at math in tech is like wearing a target on your forehead, since one of the superpowers that math (and logic) gives you is X-ray vision through other people’s bullshit.

    • The “too ethical” factor is definitely an obstacle I end up having to overcome, but a significant number of finance people are stuck-up cunnies about “too many jobs”/”job hopper” stigma. A typical startup CV, by age 30 or so, makes you unemployable in traditional finance.

    • Bbbbadger, sorry to break your bubble but field reality in finance is even dirtier than the average software job. Because of the massive supply compared to the demand, you’re treated like dirt. “being good at math” is entirely irrelevant in HFT, just like knowing 37 programming languages and functional programming. Essentially you have to be at the level of a Linux kernel main contributor in order to stand a chance for a job if you don’t have ties with the industry (i.e. someone you know introduces you, bypassing the recruiters & hiring managers firewall). “being good at math is relevant if you’re a quant but then again unless you got medals in international math olympics and a physics PhD at some really really good university, again you don’t stand a chance.

      Again the culprit is supply vs demand. There is a massive, massive oversupply of qualified guys who *can* do the job. But finance also has the terms “buy side” vs “sell side”. Sell side are the guys with impressive qualifications trying to sell their advice on how to pick winner trades. As you may guess, if they were actually knowing how to select those trades, they would pick those trades themselves. Thus, sell side is 100% bullshit and snake oil. And forms like 99.98% of the industry. If you apply as a quant, you’re 99.98% sell side, meaning you are irrelevant and expect to be treat3ed like dirt. The only way to be really successful is to be “buy side” which means have your actual winning strategies and your own portfolio of consistent profits over the years. In this case you don’t *need* those finance jobs anyways and the investment banks are battling to eat out of your hands.

      • This is a good assessment.

        “being good at math is relevant if you’re a quant but then again unless you got medals in international math olympics and a physics PhD at some really really good university”

        Also, *young*. I’m 34, which is middle age as far as the corporate world sees it. I still read math and CS papers, but that puts me in the minority. The presumption in the corporate world is that people peak in all non-managerial skills five minutes after graduating from school. And that applies to most people, because corporate life makes you stupid if you take it seriously. I don’t take it seriously enough to turn into a moron, which is why I’m still intelligent in middle age… but as a consequence of this, I’m not as successful as I could be.

        All of this was different before 2008, in the bubble years. People like me could make it into trading. Being reasonably intelligent and interesting could get you in; funds looked for bridge players, writers, molecular biologists, and other high-IQ weirdos who wouldn’t fit normal corporate environments. After 2008, that all changed and it’s much more competitive.

        On HFT, people keep saying that the good times are over, that it’ll be regulated out of existence, and that it’s therefore not worth getting into if you’re fresh now. I don’t know if that’s true, though. People have been saying that for 5 years. Every bubble is “about to pop”, but doesn’t, for a long time… then it does. No one can time such things.

        “The only way to be really successful is to be ‘buy side’ which means have your actual winning strategies and your own portfolio of consistent profits over the years.”

        Right. If you want to be someone in venture capital/startups, it’s all about networking and sycophancy. But if you want to be someone in trading, you need to come up with a strategy. Finding a mentor is still important, because you won’t be able to come up with a strategy for 2018 unless you know what people are doing today, in 2017. However, in order to advance, you still need enough originality to put together a trading strategy that will work.

        • >> Also, *young*. I’m 34, which is middle age as far as the corporate world sees it.

          Speak about it. I’m 40 and have seen this aplenty.

          >> Finding a mentor is still important

          I’ve heard guys saying they had mentors but they tended to be in their 50s-60s so this must have happened at the end of 70s, start of 80s.
          Right now I don’t know anyone who has a winning strategy and lets someone else even take a peek at it, so you’re pretty much on your own.
          The good thing is that you don’t necessarily have to be a math wiz to be successful. I know successful traders who don’t know how to program at all and their math skills don’t exceed some light college courses. But they are generally smart individuals and deduced their strategies trough observation and experimentation. And I repeat, not only they don’t know 42 programming languages and the latest 17 trendy Javascript frameworks on Hacker News, they don’t know programming at all and have their systems implemented by actual programmers. One such guy told me he employs 3 different guys / teams and assembles the result himself, so noone has a complete view on what he does. Also has strict NDAs and spent millions suing the asses of those who didn’t take it seriously.

          Since as you have experienced it too, noone gives a spit on you while you’re down, it makes perfect sense to fiercely defend what you got, once you got it. If you lose it, all those palm-eating investors will disappear faster than the speed of those cartoon characters who still leave a momentarily trace of their former shape.

          It’s essentially gambling. You’re not saving the world, just stealing from the “casino” (the big banks who do the market making and won’t hire you anyways). I like it because it’s a situation where I don’t depend on anyone else. I’m not at the mercy of an employer to hire me. I’m not at the whim of the consumers to buy my shit. It’s just me, I just have to stay profitable.

          • The mentoring culture got killed when the sociopaths who run Corporate America fired all the 50+ workers who’d plateaued as individual achievers and wanted to pay forward the next generation.

            As a result, the young feel no sense of loyalty to their employers, since companies no longer invest in their people, and will (metaphorically) take anything that isn’t stapled to a wall.

  6. If you are struggling to find meaning and to avoid nihilism, I cannot recommend Jordan Peterson to you highly enough. Check out a few clips. Maybe his famous “Pinocchio rant” from the Rubin Report.

    I’d also like to consider how game theory may explain the corrupt nature of VC tech. When businesses are required to have long term interactions, they do not survive unless they are ethical. There is an “instructable” out there which demonstrates this. Other industries are often much more ethical than what you’ve described, and it may be a peculiar condition of your corner of the economy.

    Resentment, bitterness, and despair are pathways to hell. Seriously. Find a way out.

  7. Pingback: 2017 Nov 23 ~ Dec 05 | Lines

  8. I have tips on improving focus.

    I use uMatrix to block various elements of a web page. If I find myself visiting a certain website frequently, I block more elements on that website. Those obstacles prevent me from accidentally being sucked into distractions. Each day, I set aside a time block for checking notifications and emails. I temporarily allow blocked elements to check them.

    “Deep Work” written by Cal Newport helped me focus on my work. It is an easy read. You might be able to finish it within 3 days without your fast reading skills.

    After numerous practices in focus, I studied for 7 hours today.

      • “Without your fast reading skills” is more accurate. Writers are slow readers. It’s our embarrassing secret, along with alcoholism (which I’ve skipped over by just not drinking) and depression (not as lucky).

        My comprehension is near-100% at 175 WPM. Faster than that, it goes off a cliff.

        Most adults can read/skim at 300-500 WPM. That’s fine for corporate dreck or dry reference books, but if you’re looking to build a style, you need to slow down and see how the words fit together. Writers can read at such speed, but it makes us cranky… and cranky by writer standards is what most people call “insufferable”.

      • You can also check uMatrix and uBlock Origin. I use uMatrix to block access to a website and its HTML elements. uBlock Origin can apply aesthetic filters to hide certain HTML elements.

        When I find certain sections of a website distracting, I just use uBlock Origin’s aesthetic filter to hide it. When I find myself frequenting a website that I shouldn’t visit more than once a day, I block the website and its HTML elements with uMatrix.

        This is a good combination of technologies that will improve your focus on web browser.

  9. “One can argue about the merits of Haskell versus Python, or Bayesian models versus maximum likelihood, but to what point?”

    For what it is worth, your writing on functional programming and Haskell inspired me to take it up, and that renewed my interest in programming in general. Granted this is anecdotal but your technical writing does have a positive impact. Not everybody reads your blog or social media posts to just hear an angry cynical engineer take it to the man.

    I do relate to your level of thinking. I am also a 34 year old white software engineer with a cynical outlook on the tech industry and our dystopian American economy. I just want to thank you for doing what you do.

  10. > Silicon Valley may think that it’s the future, but the rest of the country looks at five jobs in 6 years and says, “Nope.”

    10 jobs (none of them over 2 years) in 15 years here, and corporate places (banks etc.) go into bidding contests to hire me. Granted, it’s in Europe, so maybe the US culture is different.

    • I’ve worked in startups for a long time and seem to be stuck there. Real companies look at someone who changes jobs every 6 months and think you’re unstable, even when the reality is that 95% of tech startups are garbage.

      • Maybe you’re aiming for the more interesting (for exaplem with a math element) jobs? I’m often doing the most mundate shit possible (recently – building pipelines for ingesting data from mainframes into Hadoop), where there’s endless demand for competent people.

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