Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Tech Bust Of The Future

The mid-90's was a crazy time to be...well, to be anyone in the tech field. You younguns might not remember, but back then the Internet was more of a wild west than even today--no one knew what the rules were. Could you make an Internet site that sold pet food profitable? A nationwide grocery and CD-delivery service? How about creating your own currency? (It's different this time, we swear!) Everyone was giddy with the prospects of what the internet could provide, but too many bright-eyed entrepreneurs with more venture capital than business sense moved too quickly, and an alarming number of them became incredibly expensive busts.

One of the hallmarks of these crazy days was the young, vibrant, anti-corporate culture. Sure, these were kids in their 20s and 30s who took millions of dollars off of merely an idea, hired some code writers to mock something up, created a buzz-worthy marketing campaign to pimp it out, and then, after all that, maybe they would figure out if they could make a profit or not. This story repeated itself over and over again, and as more good ideas with bad business fundamentals went belly-up, it made the ones with slightly more stable foundations become even more rickety.

Well, as it turns out, some things never change.

The article above--detailing a fairly obnoxious party definitely not a party held to bring a bunch of tech companies together--is a little bit too darkly sarcastic to be taken seriously, but no doubt most of it's true. It's like a testament to every nightmare everyone has about the Millennials--the narcissistic quotes, the all-play-no-work vibe, the idealistic, unattainable overview with no one around to do the dirty work.When organizer Andrew Vecchio says:
“This is our fifth mixer. People are like, ‘Andrew, what could be next?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh. Done.’ We have a mechanical bull. Game-changer. Innovate.”
the staccato emptiness of his new-economy platitudes makes him come off less as an innovator and more of a tool, the sort of person who thinks they know everything because they read that one article on the Huffington Post last night. It's the sort of thing you envision a Saturday Night Live parody to be all about--a vapid, slick-dressed character, who, pressed for substance, tries to find random adjectives and nouns that sound trendy to cover the fact that the entire operation has less working parts than Rock Ridge.*

Now, this article notes something that was specifically designed to be a party definitely not a party, not the workplace, but let's not kid ourselves. The former Dallas office of once-hot Zynga was recently sold off after they laid everyone off, and the evidence of the excesses of that endeavor were found draped sadly over each primary-colored room.

Many of the people defending that slideshow say things like "Having video games and kegs and air hockey and massage tables are the only way to retain talent!" just strikes a lot of people as...horrifying. Oh, don't get me wrong--having luxuries is always a good thing, and it's not necessarily a bad concept. And yet for a lot of these places, it's not seen as a perk as much as it is a fundamental part of the compensation package. It shouldn't take a rocket scientist (or, say, a game developer) to realize that having robot battles on company time sounds great when you are 23, but when you're 35 and have a mortgage and two kids and suddenly the market is on a downturn you'll realize that it's all just show.

To be fair, times do change. No doubt the Mad Men set would be horrified that office staffers dress more or less causal now, and things once reserved for C-level employees are much more commonplace amongst lower management and the rank-and-file. And there's nothing fundamentally wrong with makings things generally more pleasant for the workplace. But as the article above shows, the sense of entitlement over "fun" is like a headlong crash into bankruptcy. It's a fine line between having fun and realizing that your two-year-old company is about to get demolished in the workplace so maybe having a vodka at 10am while playing Call of Duty should take priority over getting shit done. 

Maybe some companies can handle it; Google certainly seems to have been able to strike a decent work/play atmosphere at work. But most startups don't have the chops to weather the bad times. Sometimes, it seems like history is destined to repeat itself.

*I suppose nothing contrasts my own creaky worldview with that of the Millennials as much as using a Blazing Saddles reference.

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