Problematic employers in tech

Once upon a time, a company that many – especially those who worked there – felt to be nice, good, and generally on the right side of tech history was acquired by a company that many – including some who worked there – felt to be evil, rapacious, soulless, and in other ways reflective of its founder. 

Yes, I’m talking about the acquisition of Sun Microsystems by Oracle.

Many stories could be told about this acquisition, but for the purposes of this piece I will focus on the schism between those who left Oracle immediately, and those who did not.

A bunch of us – including one Very Opinionated Engineer (we’ll call him VOE) – left Oracle with varying degrees of haste, and ended up working together at a small cloud company. VOE was a wellspring of vituperative reminiscences about the good old days at Sun, and particularly the people he had despised there. The cadre of people he despised quickly grew to include anyone who remained at Oracle.

VOE would expound at length about how the remainers were cowards happy to suck the Oracle teat, or were too incompetent to get jobs elsewhere, or or or… They were certainly lesser people than he was, in his opinion. He was happy to share those thoughts in public, and frequently did.

I was aware of the human factors behind some folks’ remaining at Oracle. Some had green card applications in flight, involving both themselves and their families. Getting a green card in the US is notoriously a very long process. For most types of green card, if you change employer, you have to start all over again, often after a one-year waiting period at your new company – they want to be sure you’ll stick before they make that investment of attention and money. It’s usually better to grit your teeth and stay with an employer you don’t like, however long it takes, until the green card is issued.

Some people had health situations. Until the ACA was passed in March 2010 (a bit after the Oracle acquisition was formally completed), it was possible for a health insurer to turn you down for a pre-existing health condition. If you suffered from a complicated medical issue, it had long been very risky to change jobs. I don’t remember now how long it took for the “no more exclusions for pre-existing conditions” clause of the ACA to take effect, but, had I been in that situation at the time, I would have been very cautious about a job change.

Many people stayed at Oracle out of dedication to and entrenchment in the technologies they had been working on for years at Sun. Some outside of Oracle were equally dedicated to Solaris: we were trying to keep it alive and available via an open source fork called illumos. (This effort was perhaps doomed from the start, but at least it gave me a good case study in what not to do in open source.)

There were undoubtedly other personal situations I wasn’t aware of that kept some ex-Sun folks at Oracle, and some actually liked Oracle well enough to stay, even for years. Bad companies are not uniformly bad – you may find yourself in a relatively healthy pocket of an otherwise toxic company. (The reverse can also be true.)

VOE was correct that some people remained because they weren’t likely to get a better offer elsewhere. As a young, straight, white, cis male, it was easy for him to assume that those folks were incompetent: he had never been handicapped by the sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination that were and still are endemic in tech. 

Whatever employment choices people make are personal, and I don’t question them. For example, I do not question my friends who work for Facebook/Meta or other “problematic” companies. After all, I worked for Amazon, a company that many are coming to abhor (even as many still love it). I had many reasons for taking that job and staying in it, but the biggest was sheer survival – like many underrepresented folks in tech, I have not had a wide choice in the jobs I took to provide for myself and my family.

I tell you all this to make a point, in my own long-winded way: people choose to work for companies for many reasons, reasons that an outside observer may not be aware of (nor is it any of their damned business anyway). Piling on anyone, particularly a non-young-CIS-straight-white-male person, about their choice of employer is… not helpful. Not everyone has the same scope of choices that you do, and even when they do, they may make different choices than you would.

When you attack an individual for taking a job, you may be punching down at some of the most vulnerable people in tech, who don’t necessarily have the luxury of choice that you do. You are only demonstrating your own privilege to those who do not share it.

Instead, address your concerns to the companies and the leadership that made those companies problematic in the first place. That might make tech a healthier place for all, where none of us have to make invidious choices just to stay employed.

5 comments

  1. We are skilled workers, high up in the economy of an incredibly wealthy country. While I understand that there are many, many ways to be absolutely compelled to stay at a bad employer, I don’t think that means that everyone gets a free pass. Everyone works because they are forced to, but the choices we make in where we work matter, and the things we do in exchange for the money we need matter. Tech workers can inflict some truly impressive suffering across wide swathes of people, and I think that we are responsible for that. Working to enable Amazon’s continued immiseration of its workers is unconscionable. How many people are you willing to step on for your own good? I personally have arrived at the answer of “some”, and I think it’s reasonable and good to ask hard questions of those who have arrived at the answer of “as many as I need to”.

  2. As a straight white male (without CIS degree), with the aforementioned proclivity for assuming the world has shared my privilege – you make an excellent point. Additionally, and as a parent, I have come to realize that the job of management is hard, and that fostering dialogue and empowering the less privileged, provides the only path toward equality and equity within a system.

  3. I agree that that is a very reasonable question to ask. There were many other points I could have made in this piece, including cases where one person getting a FAANG job leads to a whole extended family finding a path out of poverty. Not many of us are willing to pass up that opportunity, even when we know it will cause suffering elsewhere.

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