Lyons is a long-time tech journalist, with stops at PC Week, Forbes, and Newsweek. He is also the author of the Fake Steve Jobs blog, so you know he is an acerbic wit.
The book is a fun, quick read. You’ll gain insights into startup culture, and the open ageism that prevails in the tech industry.
However, there’s not enough material to fill a book, even a short one. Lyons fills pages by beating issues into the ground, and pausing to stitch together little essays on the state of the tech industry.
Things that bugged me
1) For sure, the industry is riddled with ageism. Lyons catalogs the attitudes, statements, and off-the-cuff remarks of his much younger colleagues. But… he really doesn’t help the cause.
- He mistakes his manager for an intern, and proudly explains that he barely paid attention to interns at Newsweek.
- He makes close to zero efforts to fit in. He won’t attend an evening hack-a-thon, or hang out at a cocktail mixer after a conference. He keeps telling everyone he has kids. As if that makes him a special entitled person who can opt out of all evening work. It’s not even that often. If he misses one evening a week, I don’t think that robs him or his children of fatherhood. And it wasn’t even that often.
- When it comes to jetting around the country to attend conferences or write for HBO, he stops having kids.
- He makes a special effort to befriend every other worker over the age of 35. Admittedly, a small group. But he fails to befriend anyone under 30, except for the receptionist.
At some point, you start to realize that the ageism river runs both ways with this guy. He is no more at ease with young people than they are with him.
Near the end of the book he starts referring to himself as an anthropologist, studying this cult of young startup workers. That book needs to be written. But not by Dan Lyons.
2) Possibly to fill pages, or possibly because he is just that spiteful, Lyons viciously attacks every little thing. He makes mountains of molehills. There is plenty of material worth mocking: the Newspeak, the brainwashing techniques, the actual ageism, the product itself. But he goes over the moon to attack little things like the company logo (not great, but no Airbnb), the company color (orange), Mollie the Teddy Bear, free candy, food and drinks, and parties.
3) Lyons is a bubbler. That is to say, he is convinced that there is a valuation bubble going on right now. Startups are over-valued, and surely a day of reckoning will come. But… so what? Points for being clever enough to spot it, but what can any one of us do about it? More to the point, should we do anything about it? Maybe exploit it, like he tried to do?
4) Lyons argues that Silicon Valley is inventing a new social contract with workers: work is a tour of duty – it is finite – when it ends, you go find a new gig.
Is this stressful for workers? Yes. Maybe. For some subset of people. And also, it’s not universally true.
First, the lifetime-employment-as-social-contract thing has been eroding rapidly for 30 years. Silicon Valley did not invent it. Perhaps they are embracing the end state, and talking about it openly. Honesty is not a bad thing.
Second, 20% of the workforce is employed by government agencies. These people mostly do have lifetime employment. If stability is important to you, perhaps you should seek a life of public service.
Third, gig-work is not aweful for at least some part of the workforce. For example, programmers are in chronic demand, command high salaries, and honestly find it advantageous to switch jobs every 2-3 years.
Fourth, Lyons at one point takes a lunch with a founder of another local startup. This founder is pursing a sort of anti-HubSpot strategy – grow organically, hire experienced pros, pay well. Seems to be working out for him. As Qui Gon said, “there’s always a bigger fish.”
But granted – marketers, writers, inside sales people on marginal salaries are not going to thrive in a “tour-of-duty” system.
5) Final dislike – Lyons is just completely disingenuous. He would have us believe that his motives were at all times pure. He is proud to be an experienced, cynical journalist. But he ignores every obvious sign that he is not a good fit at the company. He tells us that he was totally committed, but then catalogs all the lunches he had with outside sources he cultivated. He says the book is a light-hearted reflection on a fish-out-of-water experience, when it is clearly a frontal assault on HubSpot.
Things I liked
1) There is a brief, but complete catalog of ageist things his co-workers naively said to him. Silicon Valley dearly needs a modern version of The Jungle, exposing its cruel ageism. Sadly, Lyons is not our Upton Sinclair. But he shines more light on the subject than anyone else to date.
2) Lyons does a great job of exposing the secret of modern startups – cheap labor! Outside of programmers, there is a glut of under-employed recent college grads. For less than 2x minimum wage, you can hire these kids – and retain them with free candy, beer, and a playful-looking environment.
The kids will find better jobs in 2-3 years, and that’s okay!
Lyons thinks this is aweful. But really, what other options do all these kids have? Yes, the candy and the Newspeak and the parties brainwash the kids into a state of happiness, despite their below-living wage. Would it be better if they somehow worked in dreary offices with no perks and nothing to distract them from their low wages?
The startup jobs are not great. Later in life, they will ruefully admit it. But right now, they are out of their parents’ house in the daytime, gain experience, and fill up with self-esteem.
(Lyons rightly calls HubSpot out for lack of ethnic diversity. But I wonder now if that is really a side-effect of their overall system? Liberal-arts grads who live with their parents are the target market for inside sales and marketing jobs.)
3) The book is laugh-out-loud funny at times. Also, a page-turner. Lyons gets a bit neurotic, but you feed off that, and keep reading to see what happens next.
Lyons has a gift for acerbic comedy. That’s what made Fake Steve Jobs great. It’s why he is on the writing staff for HBO’s Silicon Valley. When he relates his inner monologue while dealing the millennial cultists, he’s brilliant. But when he is obsessing (over Mollie the Teddy Bear, for example) it’s forced.