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How to Survive Your First Tech Job

Tech companies make my blood boil. I live in San Francisco, where I'm surrounded by them. What's worse, I'm surrounded by their employees—by droves of social-media strategists and integrated-marketing specialists, by dev-ops leads and database engineers, by bro-grammers. So, so many bro-grammers. This phylum congregates in what used to be my city's perfectly run-down neighborhoods, on streets where the Mexican bakeries have given way to artisanal coffee shops, the community gardens to beer gardens. None of this is exclusive to SF, of course. Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, Boulder: The tech companies are everywhere now.

I've worked in a newsroom, and I've worked at a tech company, and while the latter paid three times more than the former, we didn't need free bagels or gym memberships or monthly masseuse visits or the constant recitation of our company's "values" to motivate us. That's one of the many problems with tech companies: They treat their employees like children, distracting them with goodies and indoctrinating them with corporate jingoism. If you stay too long, you turn into one of the donkeys on Pinocchio's Pleasure Island. I know, because it happened to me. After seven years at my tech gig, I was a data-driven, jargon-spitting, deck-wielding captain of industry. Man, you should have seen my decks: big decks! Huge decks! One time I even presented two decks at once.


Anyway. The reality of our economy is that even those of you who've yet to work at a tech company will be doing so soon enough. From small start-ups to huge corporations, these places are defined by the fact that they generally make products for a virtual world—namely software, aka apps, aka shit you can't touch. I don't know what it is about making shit you can't touch, but for some reason, the companies who make it think they are changing the course of human history overwhelmingly for the better, a mindset that's sadly affirmed by the amount of money these companies have been known to rake in. This is the fundamental problem: These places confuse financial success for making the world a better place. Don't fall for it.

Herewith is some advice for how to survive your first tech job.

Brush up on basic math. I know most of you majored in 18th-century Russian poetry specifically to avoid ever having to use math again in your life, but it turns out that math's a lot easier when you're an adult. Remember when you'd complain to your sixth-grade algebra teacher about not being able to use a calculator on the test, because in real life, you can use a calculator whenever you want? Well, you were right, and she was wrong. (Also, she smelled weird.) In fact, spreadsheets have calculators inside them. So up yours, Mrs. Fisk (RIP).

Yes, spreadsheets! They're not nearly as hard to manage as you think. One of the first things to be sent to your new email address at your new tech job will be one of several big honking reports that tracks some facet of the business you're all paid to care about, even if no one actually does. So at least pretend to care. Open the report. Slap an Autofilter on the top. Mess with the data. Just compare how many X per some number of Y. Next time you're in the elevator with your boss, casually say, "Did you know that for every X, there's [some number of] Y?" He won't know what you're talking about, but it'll sound impressive. Which brings us to …

Manage up. You hear this term all the time—like a lot of axioms in tech, it's a thinly veiled euphemism for terms like "manipulate," "exploit," "confuse," and "hornswoggle." (Other such euphemisms include "leveraging human capital" and "do more with less.") When you manage up, it means you're telling your boss what he or she should think/do. Bosses love this. At a tech company, people care way more about appearing smart than they do about actually being smart (more on that in a second). Being smart requires making decisions, which in general, across all walks of life, people avoid as much as possible. Managing up means making your boss feel smart, and helping him or her to avoid making decisions. And this, in turn, will help you ...


Master performance reviews. These are no joke. The more sophisticated the company, the more ridiculous the performance review. At Google, for example, everyone's constantly reviewing everyone else. Your boss, peers, subordinates, and even people who've merely worked with you on other teams are going to be assessing your performance. Countless prejudices, small vendettas, unreturned favors, and so on are in play. It's a nightmare, and the worst part is that performance reviews are what determine the size of your raise; they're the rare thing at your tech job that translates into actual money you can spend. You will be much better served doing a good job on your performance review than actually doing a good job, so spend your energy accordingly: Butter up your coworkers, suck up to your boss, frequently tell everyone around you they are geniuses, etc. Don't worry if you look like a chode. Once it's in the performance review, it's written in stone and can never be undone.

Go your own way. The irony of working at your average tech company is that for as much they prize innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, practically everyone there is a clone of everyone else. Everyone dresses the same, smells the same, small-talks the same small talk. Everyone does yoga, has tried fasting, enjoys hiking. In these soul-sucking monocultures, carving out your own identity will have your coworkers mistaking you for George Fucking Clooney. Now, this doesn't mean "act weird," which is what all those yahoos who wear Hawaiian shirts and ride Razor Scooters to work are doing. It means actually thinking for yourself. There's so much groupthink at these places that it becomes pretty easy to develop contrary opinions. Next time your HR team asks if the Christmas party should be held at a Museum of Luxury Cars or the California Academy of Sciences (real locations of tech-company Xmas parties, btw), suggest that perhaps the company's resources would be better spent helping the newly displaced residents of [insert your city's "revitalized" downtown] feed and shelter themselves. Who knows, maybe you'll wind up in Ocean's 14.


Get smart. Tech culture is like gym culture, but instead of muscles, it's brains. People are ridiculously insecure about their intelligence relative to that of their coworkers, and these insecurities are highly exploitable. The goal is to be the smartest person in the room, but choose your smart-person persona carefully. The "data-driven genius who can do complex equations in his head and always has the facts of a given situation memorized" model is dicey, because it's an arms race: What if the person next to you can do the same equations and has the same facts? It's for this reason that I advise the "aloof flake" persona. The aloof flake shuns data, hates facts, and says things like, "I don't go in for all that book learning," preferably with a mangled Texas accent. Think Val Kilmer in Real Genius, which, like, hence the name of the movie.


Clothes make the man (or woman). Tech's biggest contribution to society isn't driverless cars or Instagram—it's making it acceptable to wear shorts and a T-shirt to work. Most of us don't remember this, but once upon a time, people actually wore suits to work, every day. You had to own, like, more than one suit. Thanks to tech culture, we can all dress like Billy Madison now, even the girls. The downside here is that just as high fashion can be competitive, so can low-fashion. I've had colleagues who I'm pretty sure were trying to out-do one another's impersonation of Nick Nolte in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. I recommend a middle ground. Buy the T-shirts of every band on the Garden State soundtrack and just keep those in heavy rotation. Don't let them get too wrinkled.

Keep a journal. You'll want to write down all the ridiculous shit that's going to come out of your coworkers' mouths—phrases like "tip of the spear," "third leg of the stool," and "sounds like yak-shaving to me," which is something I've actually heard! In addition to simply having a collection of these phrases, the journal will be useful for when you start using them yourself, which will occur roughly a year or so into your stint. Marvel at your transformation. Stare into the rearview mirror as your hopes and dreams recede off into the distance. Check your bank balance. Ah, that feels better, doesn't it?


Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter.

Image by Tara Jacoby.

Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.

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