In her memoir “Uncanny Valley”, Anna Wiener tells the story of how she went from a job in the NY publishing industry to work for Silicon Valley startups.
Wiener describes her years working in different startups and in doing so chronicles the vibe and the good and bad aspects of tech culture in San Francisco. She then quit her job and is now a writer for The New Yorker where she still covers the tech sector.
The last tech company Wiener worked for is a large company providing a site for collaborating on code. She doesn’t name it, but it is without doubt Github.
There, she learns about remote working culture. I read this book at the beginning of March this year, when Corona less acutely affected my life and work than it does now. Then I found the contrast between work life at Github and at what experienced at different companies very pronounced.
This is Wiener on Github’s remote working culture:
Everyone was encouraged to work how, where, and when they worked best—whether that meant three in the morning in the San Francisco office, referred to as HQ, or from inside a hammock on Oahu.
To ensure that all employees were on equal footing regardless of geography, the majority of business was conducted in text. This was primarily done using a private version of the open-source platform, as if the company itself were a codebase. People obsessively documented their work, meetings, and decision-making processes. All internal communications and projects were visible across the organization. Due to the nature of the product, every version of every file was preserved. The entire company could practically be reverse engineered.
Our remote coworkers had wants. They often spoke of feeling like second-class citizens. As the company became more corporate, the culture had gone from remote-first to remote-friendly.
As the Coronavirus forces me too to work from my home, some of those aspects start to feel familiar: I find chat programs more useful than before. For me they’re not about documenting my work, but about asking small questions that I would ask someone directly when I’m in a room with them, but that I might not call them for.
There are also differences: The tech sector is more laid back than other sectors and so far we haven’t started taking calls in our bed or a hammock, even for internal calls.