I’m reading Dan Lyons’ book DISRUPTED right now, and enjoying every page, simply because I’ve been through my own version of almost every situation that he depicts myself. It’s laugh-out-loud funny while also being highly disturbing. I already learned long ago that tech startups are the new sweatshops, but it’s nice to see a real journalist pointing that out in response to all the deceptive, “rah=rah” tech puff pieces that are out there in the mainstream media these days. In reality life imitates art—or vice-versa, depending on how you look at it. My experience working with multiple Silicon Valley-type companies over the years as both a staffer and a freelancer is a lot like the HBO series Silicon Valley, which Lyons has written for. It’s cultish and weird, with very little connection to how the world actually operates. Profits don’t matter, people “die” at 35 (or younger), and you learn to wear the colors and speak the language of your “cult,” (also known as your employer.)
The most frequent cult color of my past employers/clients are various shades of navy blue, most of them trademarked. Cult terminology ranged from the ubiquitous “synergy” to wackier terms like “I-trafficking” (sounds like an egotistical drug dealer) and “electronic wainscoting” (a fancy way of saying “background color” for websites). And let us not forget that old chestnut, “bandwidth.” (Meaning, “Do you have time to drop everything and work on this project for me?” rather than cable-transmission speed).
My first foray into the tech world was as a proposal writer at a dot-com PR “consulting” firm in the early 2000s. (Like many similar shops of that era, the company is long gone; for the purposes of this blog, I’ll call it “The Dead Agency”.) It was my third major job after getting out of grad school (I’d already spent time as a research publications editor at a major investment bank/corporate finance firm, and as a book trade/acquisitions manager at a huge university library system). I’d also written for newspapers and magazines on the side while holding these day jobs, and had built up a portfolio of some nice clips over the previous two years (some Chicago Reader and Chicago Tribune pieces, features in a couple of glossy, now-defunct niche magazines). I was hired largely due to my master’s degree from an elite university (University of Chicago) and because I knew a couple of people who already worked there. Oh, and because I was an actual published, professional writer.
It was 2000, and the economy was booming. But even in boom times, job prospects for writing/publications/types generally suck, with fifty people up for every job. (These days, it’s more like 150 people up for every job.) I’d retreated to my library job in academia (a full-time, grownup version of the work-study job I’d held part-time in graduate school) largely because the boiler-room environment of working on Chicago’s LaSalle Street (the Midwest’s answer to Wall Street) for a year or so left me on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The pay there sucked, but it was peaceful. Still, I hadn’t had to go looking for my job at The Dead Agency—it sought me out via my grad school’s alumni program. I had one total-BS interview, no reference check, and they offered me a job. $35,000 a year (a decent, but not great semi-entry-level sum in 2000, and a raise over what I was earning at the university), full benefits (including free health insurance) and a “fun” workplace culture that included hip offices, casual dress, foosball, free chair massages, and all the free beer I wanted every Friday. In return, I worked sixty to seventy hours a week and frequently slept under my desk. I got harassed by horny tech bros (this was in 2000, before they were actually called horny tech bros.) One of them even gave me a full-body pat-down one day as I was leaving the office, and didn’t understand why I reported him to HR.
Dead Agency supposedly existed to provide “expert IT brand consulting” to blue-chip clients—which was just a fancy way to say, “We build websites.” Our biggest client was British Airways, and we frequently used screenshots of the site the company built for them five years earlier in our RFP proposals. The odd thing was, we didn’t seem to have many clients other than British Airways, and that work had been done years before, sometime around 1996, when the Internet was a premature infant which relied on dial-up and mostly didn’t work. My job as a proposal writer was, in part, to help bid for new business. I worked on a team of six other writers in conjunction with a bunch of Type A salespeople who would get most of the financial return on the thick RFP proposals the writers toiled on. (We put in all the time, research, and creativity in exchange for a low salary and bennies; the salespeople got the byline, the glory, and a shit-ton of cash if the deal went through).
Except most of the deals didn’t go through. We had maybe a 5% success rate, which sucks even by boiler-room standards. After I was there a year or so I wondered how the company was making any money. There had been an IPO that brought in billions even though the company never earned a profit (and the stock options I’d been granted upon hire were worthless, since the stock had tanked below even the rock-bottom option strike price and never went up). At one point the office was so full of contract coders that many of them were sitting at folding tables, working on their own laptops, but it was never quite clear what client account they were building all that code for. (I asked a few times when waiting for project research to come in on a proposal, and was told that the project was “proprietary,” and summarily told to go play Foosball.)
Which is not to say that we didn’t bid on a lot of big clients. During my time there, I wrote RFPs for companies and organizations ranging from Mattel to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to Ford to Enron. (Yep, Enron. And my corporate overlords were really mad when we lost that contract to a competitor called Redfish, which unlike The Dead Agency at least managed to survive the aftermath.) We won maybe 5% of our bids, which is a crap ratio by any standard—-and it largely had to do with the company massively overpricing its services despite the fact that the IT staff mostly wasn’t up to speed on the latest tech.
When not spending 60-70-hour weeks writing losing RFP responses to loser companies like Enron, life at The Dead Agency had little to do with work. One day, my boss told me I needed to become the proposal team’s PowerPoint expert. (circa 2000-01, this was actually something you could put on your resume without being laughed at, so I bit.) He told me the team was going to be spending more time doing PowerPoint pitches to prospective clients, and he wanted our stuff to look good. He told me to spend a week learning as much as I could about “optimizing” PowerPoint for business pitches (the fact that PowerPoint was created for this express purpose notwithstanding), and to prepare a Lunch and Learn presentation on the topic. He also told me to make it “fun.” So I did.
I was one of very few women on our team, and most of my fratboy-type male colleagues spent most of their time streaming bootleg South Park and Simpsons clips on their PCs (this was before YouTube). So I developed a presentation on how to sell bootleg South Park and Simpsons clips to the executive suite, complete with embedded video (a hard thing to do in 2000), sound-enhanced slide transitions, custom animation, and enhanced templates. Oh, and writing to target the “South Park demographic.” I thought the whole assignment was kind of ridiculous, so like a mouthy seventeen-year-old kid with senioritis, I made the whole assignment into a joke, complete with sketchy interpretations of the federal “fair use” copyright statute. I fully expected to be laughed at, demoted, or even fired. (I was honestly hoping for the latter so I could get a severance package from my rapidly-tanking employer before it folded, but no such luck).
Instead, I got a promotion. I even got invited to give my assclown presentation to the company CEO, who was visiting from New York the following week. He loved it, and wanted it posted to the company intranet so all seventeen of The Dead Agency’s worldwide offices could view it. (The fact a nonprofitable company that thought assclown presentations were worth promoting worldwide had seventeen offices around the globe, including Hong Kong and Tel Aviv tells you something else, too. The Dead Agency was like the Theranos of IT brand consulting. All hype, no product).
The party didn’t last, however. Shortly after 9/11, the company was out of VC money, offices got shut down all over the place, and I was out of a job—no severance offered other than negative-value stock options for The Dead Agency’s soon-to-be-delisted stock. And that, as they say, was that.
Stay tuned for Part Two: My Time in the (Second) Tech Bubble: Boutique Edition.