The boss and the layoffs

Back in mid-2019, I had decided I was going to move to Boston and live with Sarah. Facebook didn’t like this idea. There was an office in Boston, but that wasn’t good enough. They said I couldn’t stay on the civic team, and had to shop around to the teams that were physically located in Boston. Also, all those teams were looking for criteria that I didn’t meet.

Long story short, I found a team that I liked and would take me. (Presto!) But I still was pretty upset. I loved my team at Civic. I didn’t want to leave. And I was being forced to, in essence, break up with a ton of work friends. Dozens of people that I liked, was already dreading moving physically away from — now I was being told that I wasn’t allowed to work on projects with them any more. Our friendships would be abruptly severed, or else badly wounded.

They threw me a going away party. That was sweet. I gave a little impromptu speech. I forgot everything I said there, but I do remember three points I made:

  • It is fundamentally unfair that the boss can decide that you’re not allowed to hang out with your friends any more.
  • The work we do is important, and could easily be bent towards evil ends. Be aware.
  • Take care of each other.

While I don’t really remember what I said, I do remember feeling fiery, and I do remember the look on people’s faces as I was giving that speech. I think it made an impression.

That brings me to the news of the last few weeks and months. Layoffs at Meta. Layoffs at Twitter. Layoffs everywhere. And now, layoffs at Google, the last bastion of old school big tech.

I wrote a little thing to our members about it. Here’s the link. I felt the old anger in me as I wrote it. Most layoffs are in fact unfair. (And it brought me to the lovely story of Saturo Iwata)

I’ve also pasted it below. Here it is:

Today was another bad day for the industry. There have a been more than a few bad days recently, huh? Layoffs and fear and uncertainty. All within companies that (with a few exceptions) remain profitable, well-resourced, and with a highly compensated executive suite.

To everyone who lost their job recently, fears for their continued employment, or is just plain sad or angry — this sucks, and I’m with you. It’s not fair that a boss can quickly sever your ties with your work friends, or put your livelihood in doubt, or just plain cause so much anxiety over a thing that wasn’t your fault. It’s not fair to move from arguing “let integrity workers like me do our jobs” to “let integrity workers like me be still employed”

If you’re an ex-Googler, ex-something-else or just generally want to talk; let me know. I imagine all of us on staff would be open to talking things out; I’ll just speak for myself and let them chime in in the comments.

If you’re still at a company, feeling perhaps shellshocked, overcommitted, survivor’s guilt, or anything else; we see you and we’re here for you too. This is a bad situation for everyone. Let us know how we can help.

Lastly, you might need time to process and aren’t ready to talk right now and that’s ok too. We’re here when you are ready — whether that’s next week, next month or anytime.

Knowing precisely what to say in moments like this is hard. We’re all scattered in different places, with different reactions to all this. But I hope this helps:

  • We are a community for the long haul. A community is a thing that you stay part of, even when your job changes. (If you leave a thing when you change jobs, it’s not a community, it’s an industry). Once a member, always a member.
  • We’re still encouraging people to swap job leads in #classifieds and are actively soliciting opportunities from partners, trying to set up paid fellowships for y’all in partnership with other organizations, and generally seeing what we can do. Thanks to the members who already have been proactively sharing leads.
  • A small thing that came across my desk today: Travis, the guy who runs Tech Congress, specifically wants to recruit you. They have fellowships for tech professionals (like us!) to embed as congressional staffers for a year. Different levels of fellowship for different amounts of experience. If you want to affect policy and understand how legislation works, this is a good option. (It’s paid, not amazingly) [link to more info in Slack’]
    • If you want a personal introduction to him, or are in any way interested, let me know.

Thanks for all that you do. And remember — we’re in this together.


You don’t need to quit your job to work for the movement. (But if you want to, you have options)

In response to the social upheaval and, frankly, news all around us, I’ve sensed a new spirit from my friends and acquaintances; a sense of renewed interest in Joining The Movement. Often, that translates into “I should I get a job doing Good”. I’m not so sure about that.

The latest edition of YENTA, my matchmaking newsletter, has just come out. The following is lightly adapted from a section of it.

I don’t believe that your job determines your politics. You don’t need to have a job working for a certain special nonprofit organization to be part of a movement. A thing that determines membership due to employment isn’t a movement — it’s an industry.

We need passionate, capable people to be committed leaders of membership driven organizations. It’s important for all of us to show up, consistently, over time, with a local group building power. And the consistency is much more important than choosing the “right” one.

If “doing massive good for the world” only happened by people who were paid to do it, that means that we’d only win when, what? Over half the country worked for tax-deductible charity organizations? That’s unworkable.

How to rise to the moment (not via employment):

A little while ago, I asked on Facebook:

Let’s say a friend came up to you and said: “I’m fired up about the moment. I want to donate money. Where do I put it?”

What would you tell them? And why?

The responses were fascinating, and covered quite a range of ideas and organizations.

Here was my take:

  • *Where* you donate matters less than that you make it a recurring *monthly* donation.
  • Donations are nice. Dues-paying membership is better.
  • Join a group for which you can have an ongoing relationship. Donate monthly dues that you have some democratic control over where they are disbursed.
  • Show up monthly to a local organization. Again, *which* matters less than that you are consistently showing up.

This was about convincing people that there are other, arguably more effective models of making social change than targeted, large, one-off donations. The logic holds up, I think, when applied to advising someone thinking of making drastic career moves: both donations and membership are helpful too.

If you have the desire and capacity to switch jobs into The Movement, that’s great! I’m enthusiastic, supportive, and would love to help. But that’s not the only way to do big things.

Member-driven organizations that wield power locally are so important! And they’re often starving for driven, nice, non-flaky, members. And, often, money. Find them, be useful, be consistent. That, by itself, would be big.

If I were advising myself about groups to check out, I’d suggest a range of organizations that feel meaningful to me. But they’re tied to things like: being jewish, or being in boston, or knowing people who have run these organizations. So a thing that feels perfectly attractive to me, might be less attractive to others.

That said, here are picks that resonate for me:

  • Color of Change: They’re trying to become the new mainstream, and that’s great. Not trying to be the most radical, but if they successfully redefine “moderate” to be what they’re advocating for (what was perhaps considered radical 10 years ago), then the whole ecosystem takes a big step to the left.
  • Bail Funds: Especially as the police unjustly imprison people, this is a way to free them. And, on the appointed date, the money rolls over and can be used for another person! It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
  • Bend the Arc: As a jew, I believe in doing my organizing *jewishly*. And Bend the Arc is a great way to do good anti-white supremacy work while keeping it grounded and accountable to me and my community
  • Working Families Party: Long-term power building.
  • Ujima: Local, Boston, radical, but also thinking about money, power, and shifting resources
  • Movement Voter Project: Strategic! Timely! Power building. Electoral / advocacy / legislative.

But again, I think the *choice* is a bit of a red herring. Showing up, consistently, over time, with both effort and money, is much more important.

All that being said, I am aware of quite a few fascinating roles to work for social justice (or adjacent) causes directly. It turns out that, this time, quite a few of them are for people with tech skills. But not all of them!

Note also — for a few different reasons, I’m going to conflate “social justice” with “progressive” and even “aligned with Democrats”. I realize that those are different terms, etc. And in a time where we are fighting police brutality, in a moment kicked off by the killing of a black man, talking about jobs in, say, Democratic politics doesn’t quite line up. There’s a larger conversation to be had about that. For now, I can only give you suggestions and tips that are informed by my experiences and network. And they are with more of the broad spectrum of left organizations than the specific slice dealing with policing, prison abolition, racial justice police brutality, etc. I do believe that working for left-aligned organizations makes the world a better place, though some organizations have different theories of change than others.

How to find a job that matches your values

Let’s say that you decide you want to leave your corporate job and go Do Good Things With Your Time. Great! Our jobs are usually over 50% of our waking life — doing something you believe in can be really nice.

So, how do you go about that?

Here are some resources:

Conceptually, what you are trying to do here could be described as a career switch to a whole new industry. This industry has a lot of different subgroups: a local racial justice group might have little day-to-day similarity to or interaction with anonline-first campaigning organization, or to a massive name-brand NGO. That’s real. At the same time, these groups exist in an industry that’s different than “the corporate world”, or the “government world”. There is history, best practices, culture, etc, that might be new and different to you.

And, crucially, “the progressive industry”, while intertwined with social movement organizations, is its own thing. There are office politics, and bad bosses. There are weird (un)ethical practices, and culture that might confuse or alarm you. Your personal poltiical activity will always be fair game to link to your employer, which can constrain your freedom of action. It’s not a utopia, by any means.

The progressive industry is also a place to do big, meaningful work, in a decisive and strategic way. There is professionalism, and coworkers that won’t flake in the way that a neighbor-volunteer will. Working for a mission-aligned organization can be really healthy and good for the soul. It’s different and refreshing.

So! What does this mean for you?

  • While there are exceptions, don’t think you can jump in and immediately apply your prior experience to this new role. Be a bit humble.
  • You *might* have to take a more entry-level position than you wanted. Sometimes, but not always, that’s for good reason.
  • Don’t be afraid to treat job conversations as negotiations. You still will have a boss. You still likely need to put boundaries on your work and stand up for yourself.
  • Once you get in, don’t be afraid to unionize!
  • Treat this with the professionalism, and care, (informational interviews, network-building, etc) that you’d make for other big job switches.

I hope I didn’t scare you off! Working in mission-driven organizations can be wonderful, and good for the soul. And all the above, of course, is just one man’s opinion.


On “founders”.

I’ve co-founded two startups. One in mobile apps for social organizing, the other in fintech.

^ That’s technically true, but actually kind of misleading.

Actually, the work I’ve done in other jobs is arguably much more important and interesting. Those startups I mentioned didn’t become wildly successful. But it sounds much cooler to “found” a thing than to “join as an employee”.

There was a time when I knew a lot of people who founded their own nonprofits. When I dug in deeper, though, I realized that they were the only employees of those nonprofits, and all their income came from one source — a larger nonprofit. So what exactly distinguished them from an employee, only paid in prestige instead of healthcare?

At this point, when I meet someone in SF with the title of “founder and CEO”, I immediately translate that into “sole employee, good chance they have no customers, I bet their startup dies in a months.”

That’s often not fair to them — but it feels more accurate than “oh my gosh, founder and CEO! So fancy! Swoon”

Now there’s a paper out about that phenomenon: Towards an Untrepreneurial Economy? The Entrepreneurship Industry and the Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur. It even cites my favorite economic philosopher, Thornstein Veblen. Can’t wait to read it.

Until then, here’s a small piece of career advice I’ve given people for the last 10 years — if you can, don’t be afraid to found companies. Expect you’ll fail. Failure is often desirable — it means you don’t have to commit years of your life to this thing any more. But our culture weirdly values being a “founder” of a thing that barely existed, even over being an amazing worker that saved a company from destruction.

Given that, are we so surprised that people take that advice?


Find me on the What Origin Podcast

I’m very pleased to share that I was recently interviewed on the What Origin podcast. What Origin is a podcast about creativity (in the sense of creation). It was so fun! I think I did a great job.

We talked about stuff like:

  • Creating communities vs projects vs clubs
  • How does community get built? How can you structure it?
  • How do companies build community?
  • What is a company? What does working for one feel like?
  • What happens when they lie to you?
  • Don’t fall in love with a company — they can’t love you back.
  • Do people need a boss? Do they need structure?
  • The process of deprogramming yourself / leaving workism.
  • Grief.
  • The boss. Thinking a lot about making the boss happy is bad for the soul.
  • How do you learn to be free? (Spoiler: the humanities!)

Can’t wait for you all to hear it.

Based on this experience, I’m open to being a guest on more podcasts! Tell your friends!

The process of doing it was really fun, too. Getting a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes of how audio editing works, etc.

Thanks so much to Gavin Knight for having me on and showing me the ropes. You can check out other interviews he did, like with Mek about the Open Library or about the invention of the slinky. A gracious person and a pleasure to get to know him.

Anyway, it turned out really well. If you like what I tend to talk about, I bet you’ll get a kick out of it. Let me know what you think. Listen here.