If a return to hustle culture is bubbling up from this week’s bloodbath of layoffs, Esther Crawford may be that movement’s poster child. A photo of Crawford — a director of product management at Twitter — sleeping on the floor of the office went viral on Twitter last week as Elon Musk prepared to lay off half the company. Evan Jones, a product manager who reports to Crawford, captioned it “when you need something from your boss at Elon Twitter.”
The photo sparked a debate around just how devoted you should be to your job, with some replies labeling office all-nighters as would-be “labor violations” and fodder for “trauma bonding” while others commended Crawford for her dedication.
Large tech companies have been on a hiring spree for years. Compared with startups, Big Tech has long offered employees a better work-life balance and — thanks to the talent shortage — less aggressive performance management, leading to the “rest and vest” stereotype immortalized in “Silicon Valley”’s portrayal of Big Head drinking Double Gulps on the roof at Hooli. But with seemingly endless growth no longer in the cards, that may be about to change.
The brutal layoffs at Twitter, Meta, and Salesforce, following other large cuts at Stripe and Lyft, could mean Big Tech jobs are about to get a whole lot less cushy. Already, Salesforce has updated its policies to make it easier to fire people, and Musk has told employees that remote work is no longer allowed at Twitter.
Crawford sleeping at the office seemed to exemplify this shift, and among those who expressed support were similarly minded tech leaders. Former GitHub CEO Nat Friedman was one such founder who cheered Crawford on.
“This is how great new things are built, more often than anyone has been willing to say during the last decade’s cultural revolution in Silicon Valley,” Friedman tweeted on Saturday.
Not all founders think this way. Miguel de Icaza, who co-founded developer tool maker Xamarin with Friedman, disagreed with that assessment, tweeting that he had left Xamarin at 5 p.m. each day to prioritize a “healthy work/life balance.”
“I think that asking people to work extra hours just [gives] you low quality output,” he wrote. “And in the context of these layoffs is crass.”
And Crawford herself addressed the furor over the viral tweet.
“Doing hard things requires sacrifice (time, energy, etc.),” Crawford tweeted. “We are less than one week into a massive business and cultural transition. People are giving it their all across all functions: product, design, eng, legal, finance, marketing, etc.”
The tight labor market put more power in the hands of workers, which — at least in Big Tech — has led to a shift away from hustle culture and toward work-life balance and self-care. Nolan Church, the co-founder and CEO of the people-leader talent marketplace Continuum, said hard work had become “demonized” over the last decade.
“It hasn’t been trendy to talk about hard work,” he said. “People call it hustle porn. It has been bad-mouthed for the last five, 10 years.”
Tech perks on TikTok
Celebrating Big Tech employment for the perks, not the hustle, has become a trend among some tech workers on TikTok and YouTube.
“Day in the life” TikTok videos earnestly highlighting companies’ iced matcha and office rooftop views have led some to post sneering comments about Big Tech’s lavish perks and overstaffing, dismissing project and product manager roles as “largely fabricated, redundant jobs” and calling on tech companies to fire “70% of non engineers.” The criticism is similar to that lobbed at the two product managers who described their jobs in a TikTok shot in a pool while on a work trip earlier this year.
In early August, the Twitter account @VCBrags (which uses the screen name “VCs Congratulating Themselves”) roasted “TikTok tech influencers” with a starter pack meme highlighting supposed traits like “earning six figures with no experience” at jobs that “[consist] of sending emails.”
Two weeks later, Craft Ventures general partner (now a “helpful at the margins” unofficial Twitter adviser) David Sacks criticized a “day in the life” video, tweeting “Does anyone still work?”
These videos clearly struck a nerve on social media: Tech workers celebrating their companies’ perks — mostly the free food — with little footage of them at their desks became scapegoats for their employers’ cratering stock performance.
But to Big Tech content creators themselves, there are obvious reasons for the videos’ focus on perks, rather than work: engagement and company privacy.
“If I created a real video of a day in the life of a product manager at a tech company, my video would be filled with me in a meeting room almost all day,” said Diego Granados, a senior PM at LinkedIn whose “day in the life” video has been played on YouTube over 42,000 times. “If you try to make it entertaining, then we need to show the fun parts that have nothing to do with proprietary information.”
Despite all the layoffs, Granados said he’s not noticing a drastic shift toward a more cutthroat work culture. He objected to the idea that Big Tech is overstaffed, and said that LinkedIn’s “great” work-life balance doesn’t mean he never works weekends to ship a new feature. LinkedIn’s parent company, Microsoft, cut fewer than 1,000 jobs last month, according to Axios, following an August restructuring at LinkedIn that reportedly affected its global events marketing team.
Albert Yang, a software engineering manager at Amazon Web Services who has made three “day in the life” videos this year (including a “realistic” remote work version), also said his company — now in a hiring freeze — is not overstaffed. If anything, AWS could use more head count, he said.
In Yang’s experience, Big Tech software engineers do about five hours of heads-down work per day, plus around two hours of meetings.
“A very focused five hours a day is pretty productive,” Yang said. “Obviously, there are days that will require you to work more.”
And Yang is feeling some pressure to work harder, both from all the layoff news and from his own desire to further his career. “This layoff situation definitely puts just a little bit more pressure on top of that,” he said, “but as long as I’m doing my job and performing well, exceeding expectations, I think I’ll be OK.”
‘Hiring people willy-nilly’
When Apoorva Govind joined Uber as a software engineer in 2017, she found herself on a team that, in her view, had no real purpose.
“Within one month, I was, like, ‘Oh, fuck. I need to get out of this team ASAP,’” said Govind. “I’m adding zero value and I know long term — six months, eight months, whenever they’re trying to do some kind of restructure — you know who’s going to get the axe.”
She changed teams within four months.
For Govind, who left Uber and founded a startup last year, the initial team she worked on formed because of a permissive culture around hiring, and motivation for managers to grow their teams as much as possible in order to boost their own careers and climb the corporate ladder.
“In most big companies, for the mid-level managers, they incentivize the number of people they manage,” Govind said. “That, in the end, leads into the situation that we’re in right now, which is hiring people willy-nilly, and now the people who suffer in the end are the workers.”
Climbing the corporate ladder is “easy” when you can justify it with, “My org is 60 people and now I’m ready for director,’” Church said.
“And employment/legal is not going to let you fire someone,” he added. “What’s been happening is that the underperformers on those teams end up transferring within the company, and then that manager gets completely abdicated from any responsibility.”
Church said this was a “dirty secret” at Google, where he worked as a recruiter until 2015, to be careful about taking an internal transfer who might just be a problem another manager is trying to get rid of.
When Big Tech overhires, it leads to more pointless meetings and busy work, said Flo Crivello, who spent 4.5 years at Uber before founding the remote office startup Teamflow.
“When you hire 10 people to do the job of one, it’s not like they’re going to work Monday and then go home the rest of the week,” Crivello said. “What that’s going to mean is a lot of useless work and lots of useless meetings and lots of useless conversations. Basically, the whole incentive is rotten from top to bottom.”
Tech companies didn’t just massively grow their head counts in the last couple of years. During the pandemic, many companies across sectors were so “panic-stricken” about the talent shortage that they held on to underperforming employees, PwC partner Julia Lamm said on a call with reporters last week. Now, four out of five HR chiefs say they’re reducing head count.
Talent shortage aside, performance management tends to be more lax at larger companies. As companies get bigger, they become less incentivized to weed out low performers: The risk of wrongful termination litigation increases, and managers are rewarded for growing larger teams, not culling them.
Govind recalled one former big-company colleague who didn’t write any code for two or three months, she said. But rather than being fired, he found a higher-paying job for a competitor.
Another colleague would flat-out ignore alerts that a system had gone down when he was working on-call. Govind said she complained about him repeatedly because his irresponsibility was causing trouble for others on the team, but he wasn’t let go until more than a year later.
“There’s this whole thing where people say ‘It’s so easy to fire people in the U.S.,’” Govind said. “Ask any manager in tech: They will tell you it takes them at least six months to one year before they can actually fire the low-performing people.”
Is this the end?
Silicon Valley will likely see a culture shift after all the carnage at Twitter, Meta, and elsewhere, but it won’t be a long-term switch, according to Church and Crivello.
Although the pendulum has swung back toward employers, it hasn’t swung that far, Church said.
“I actually think it’s still going to be on the employee's side for the foreseeable future,” Church said. “But I do think it has swung back slightly, in the sense that now, CEOs can be a little bit more realistic with how businesses are run. They need to drive profits, and money is no longer free, and sometimes we need to work on weekends.”
Crivello predicted that engineers’ lives would become 20% more intense for a year or so before going back to normal. It’s “just economics,” he said.
“Historically, there has been infinite demand for engineers and very little supply,” Crivello said. “These companies have very little leverage.”