I came across a blog post by Michael Halligan on Hacker News last week entitled “Benefits matter, or why I won’t work for your YCombinator start-up.” As a fledging entrepreneur trying to attract senior engineering talent to my startup, his post bothered me immensely. I spent about a week mulling it over before I decided to write this.
Michael’s attitude in the post is abrasive, needlessly cynical, and mercenary, but well-argued on its pure economic merits. He describes himself on his own blog thusly:
I'm just this guy who used to enjoy tech, now I would rather build bicycles. I still work in the tech industry, for the money, but I no longer call myself a "technologist".
And he ends his blog post with this call to action for other senior technologists like himself:
To all of my colleagues with whom I have been in the trenches, please repeat after me, "Fuck you, pay me."
This paints a picture of someone who’s been burned before by startup flameouts; who’s put in 100 hour weeks without seeing any life-changing financial benefit; who has real financial obligations like children to put through school; and lastly, a little burned out with his career.
It wouldn’t have bothered me so much were it not for the boorish cheerleading from scores of Hacker News commenters, which indicated to me that this attitude may be more widely held than I would have believed (more on that in a second.)
I really appreciate Michael being so honest about it, because I suspect that this is an attitude that neither he nor any of the supportive Hacker News commenters have ever had the balls to actually express in a verbal salary negotiation with a flesh-and-blood human being like me sitting across the table.
What bothers me about Michael’s post and the Hacker News comments is the cynical view of founders and employers; it dehumanizes them to self-interested profiteers who don’t give a shit about the people who work for them. And the attitude I grok from Michael’s post is “developers: don’t give a shit about [your employer / the founders] either – tell them ‘fuck you, pay me.’”
Let me show you why this bothers me. Here is my honest to God list of things I care about with respect to MarkedUp in order of importance:
1. My personal integrity – because startups are not things of life or death themselves, but integrity is one of the few character traits that outlives the man or woman.
2. The financial health of the company – because a failing company isn’t in a position to serve anyone well, whether they be founders, customers, employees, or investors.
3. The well-being of MarkedUp’s employees – because they are present and future of the business, and I’m going to spend more time with them than my own family.
4. The experience of our customers – because our customers trust us with important information they need to run their own businesses, and we are our own customer.
5. My personal well-being – because I have I dreams of my own but I know that getting items 1-4 right on this list leads to the realization of #5.
I’m sure that if Michael or any of the Hacker News commenters read this list they’d scream “bullshit!”
I treat the growth and well-being of my employees as a non-negotiable requirement for my own happiness and satisfaction, but that conflicts with the Hacker News worldview of the VC-land profiteering dipshit douchebag 27 year old founder (I am, in fact, 27.)
I hire people whom I want to invest in – sure, like any startup we have short-term needs that have to be filled. But the long term health of any business that’s being built to last depends on a high trust culture – where employers and employees interdepend on each other.
I’d crawl over glass for the full time people on my team who take work off of my plate and enable the business to grow – I need them. They support me, so I’d better damn well support them when they need it. I’m making sure they get important benefits like healthcare and the best compensation that I can afford – everything within the bounds of what’s economically feasible for an early stage company of our size and funding level.
I’m invested in MarkedUp’s employees – and when we’re not able to support an employee’s needs I feel like I’ve personally failed as a manager and employer.
So this brings me back to “Fuck you, pay me.” I would never hire anyone who doesn’t want to invest in our product, the other people on the team, and in the company as a whole – because I can’t depend on them to be there for me and everyone else when things aren’t going perfectly. They’d be the first to bounce and the first ones to put the screws on me and their teammates in a bind. I’d never be able to make a person with this attitude happy, so I’d never try.
“Fuck you, pay me” is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will doom you to work for exactly the sort of employers this attitude is supposed to save you from – the kind who won’t invest in you and don’t care about you. When you open the conversation with an employer with “fuck you, pay me” you’re telling them that you don’t give a shit about the product or people, so why should they care about your well being again?
You’ll be passed over for every promotion, every project of any import, any conference or occasional perk, and your opinion will not be solicited or valued on anything that doesn’t pertain strictly to your role. Your teammates will resent you for being unavailable and disinterested. Your managers and executives will treat you with all of the mercenary courtesy and cynicism with which you’ve treated them.
A job is a lot more than a salary and benefits – it’s about enabling people to be happy, employers and employees both. Anyone who comes to work with the attitude of “fuck you, pay me” is miserable by default, an assertion you can validate with a single read over the front page of Michael’s blog. There is little I can do as an employer for someone who is innately miserable. And that makes me sad and frustrated.
Throughout the course of your career you will inevitably deal with shithead employers who don’t appreciate you – quit and move on. Don’t make the situation worse by deciding not to appreciate all employers regardless of who they are – you’ll just alienate the ones who actually want to help you even if they can’t match another employment offer you have on the table.
If money and benefits are literally the only thing that matters to an employee, then they’re worse than the self-interested greedy founder stereotype described earlier. At least the greedy self-interested founders had the balls to take some risks.
So look at your employment opportunities this way – there’s a lot more to working somewhere than just the tangibles. That’s why developers, sales people, and marketers regularly take below market salaries to work at startups – because they get the rare chance to shape the work environment into one that will make them happy.
Happiness is what matters, and benefits + salary shouldn’t be the only factor at the expense of culture, colleagues, creativity, and self-ownership.