A few months ago I wrote a post about Uber where I explored what it’s like to work for an algorithm (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/ubers-brave-new-world-what-happens-when-your-manager-carlos-alvarenga/edit). From the early indications, the view of this new world is not very positive. However, while Uber gets a lot of press, it’s important to note that it is not alone in this evolution to a new kind of work model. This weekend I came across an article in the NY Times by Dan Lyons about his time at HubSpot that really highlights some of the other aspects of this new work model.
In his piece, Lyons describes working at HubSpot as a kind of digital sweatshop, where workers were driven hard and then tossed out when someone better came along:
At HubSpot, the software company where I worked for almost two years, when you got fired, it was called “graduation.” We all would get a cheery email from the boss saying, “Team, just letting you know that X has graduated and we’re all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure.” One day this happened to a friend of mine. She was 35, had been with the company for four years, and was told without explanation by her 28-year-old manager that she had two weeks to get out. On her last day, that manager organized a farewell party for her.
Now, HubSpot is not the first company to use an euphemism for firing, but it is the first one that I know of that has used a celebratory term. Instead of the usual “rightsized” or “optimized,” HubSpot described the firing of Lyon’s co-worker as a reward: a thanks for a job well done and a public recognition that HubSpot was not longer the right place for her. She had “graduated” to employment elsewhere and was ready to find her new challenge. Lyons notes that the reaction from the HubSpot workforce was a kind of resigned acceptance:
It was surreal, and cruel, but everyone at HubSpot acted as if this were perfectly normal. We were told we were “rock stars” who were “inspiring people” and “changing the world,” but in truth we were disposable.
Later in the article, Lyons mentions Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and the author of a book called The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. In his book, Hoffman lays out his vision of a world in which employers and employees give and take with no illusions about human connections or value beyond the moment. “Your company is not your family,” is a key quote from Mr. Hoffman’s book, and Lyons links Hoffman’s argument back to another famous startup:
His [Hoffman’s] ideas trace back to a “culture code” that Netflix published in 2009, declaring, “We’re a team, not a family.” Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position.” In this new model of work, employees are expected to feel complete devotion and loyalty to their companies, even while the boss feels no such obligation in return.
As Lyons notes, HubSpot built its management model on this code, especially Hoffman’s idea that “a business is far more like a sports team than a family.” In fact, in keeping with this management model, HubSpot gives each employee something called a VORP score, which stands for “Value Over Replacement Player.” In other words, your VORP score is what worth you have, if any, over someone who could take over for you tomorrow. As Lyons notes:
This brutal idea comes from the world of baseball, where it is used to set prices on players. At HubSpot we got a VORP score in our annual reviews. It was supposed to feel scientific, part of being a “data-driven organization,” as management called it.
VORP is really quite a startling (but I have to say long-time coming) innovation in the American world of work. Rather than talk about what you are worth to the company, the company tells you how how hard/easy it would be to replace you at any given moment. Anyone who has seen “Hard Knocks,” the show on HBO about NFL training camp will instantly recognize VORP, which is a fact of life for anyone in big-time professional sports, especially in the NFL where people have to be replaced on a constant basis.
In this new work world we are building as a society, a model is emerging where ordinary employees are more like professional athletes and every company is like a sports team: assembling the best collection of workers “to take the field on that day” and that day only. What happened last season (or work year) is irrelevant, other than in setting your market price for the following year. Indeed, returning to Hoffman’s book, it’s clear he understands the implications of this evolution:
The most entrepreneurial employees want to establish “personal brands” that stand apart from their employers’. It’s a rational, necessary response to the end of lifetime employment.
He’s right — it is both rational and necessary, and his words highlight something I have been saying to my MBA students for a long time, namely, that there are two kinds of job security: institutional (which is pretty much irrelevant in business everywhere) and individual (which is critical to anyone starting a career). In the U.S., you must be ready to be fired at any moment, and the analytics revolution will only intensify this reality. The irony is that people used to agree with this claim when referring to blue collar workers and outsourcing, but now it applies to pretty much everyone — especially in startup world.
Thinking about Lyon’s use of the term “sweatshop,” and the dozens of conversations I have had with Uber drivers (with whom I always talk since my dad was a cab driver in NYC for most of his working life), I am reminded of Upton Sinclair’s great novel, The Jungle. Though it was written over a century ago, its depiction of the inhumanity of work in the industrial age seems to resonate at a distance in this new world of “knowledge workers.” After all, how much different is Sinclair’s description of a 19th Century factory worker from someone who spends his life in a cube, staring at a screen, working (often night and weekend) hours to make sure his VORP score stays high enough to keep him employed:
All day long this man would toil thus, his whole being centered upon the purpose of making twenty-three instead of twenty-two and a half cents an hour; and then his product would be reckoned up by the census taker, and jubilant captains of industry would boast of it in their banquet halls, telling how our workers are nearly twice as efficient as those of any other country. If we are the greatest nation the sun ever shone upon, it would seem to be mainly because we have been able to goad our wage-earners to this pitch of frenzy.
No doubt Sinclair’s big bosses would have loved VORP scores, productivity analytics, and “graduating” someone who could not keep up with the speed of the meat processing lines.
I am a libertarian, which may seem like a strange thing to read after my comments above, and I completely agree with the view that everyone who accepts the jobs I am writing about has the right to do so and the freedom to walk away. Furthermore, coding in a software startup is nothing like working in the (physical) misery Sinclair describes. My only point is that we should be honest about what we ask from and give to workers. The language of our lives matters. Firing is not “graduation.” People are not Uber’s “greatest asset.” Most knowledge workers don’t have “superpowers.” Let’s be honest: analytical technologies are making many a modern workplace a kind of white-collar NFL training camp, where every employee/competitor knows that being on the wrong end of a curve means getting cut at the end of a shift, week, month or year.
This is the dark side of Silicon Valley and the work place the technology revolution is creating. For many talented and fortunate people, that revolution has brought an unprecedented freedom to be, like the best athletes of our time, masters of their own destinies, free to make princely incomes in a world where the only thing that matters is how richer you can make other rich people. I applaud the winners of this new society, for I believe most of then have earned their rewards through daring, talent and effort. That said, I also mourn those left outside this shiny new world, for they are prisoners of a different kind: trapped in jobs overseen by algorithms that never take a break, that never say “it’s OK” after a mistake, and that are always ready to bring in a replacement if the VORP numbers say it’s time to do so.
“There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars,” wrote Sinclair so long ago, “and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.” For those on the outside of the future, as Lyons found out, graduation is just another way of saying your time is up.