In a dead-end job that offers few opportunities, yesterday’s top talent are tomorrow’s optimizations and adjustments.
Photo from CFP
By XIAO Fang
People view their prospects more pessimistically in a bear market. But pessimism has somehow turned into a widespread “midlife crisis” among China’s tech workers. It is not just the layoffs and pay cuts; many feel there is little to look forward to, even if the market turns again. They regret not having transferable skills and shudder at the thought of competing with 25-olds when they are 40-somethings.
Most corporate jobs used to offer a clear path forward – or at least a few clear steps - workers accumulated experience and seniority and earned more money, power, and respect along the way. Big tech has smashed the traditional model without building a new one. And it’s the workers who are at a loss.
The unspoken truth is that in big tech, jumping from one job to another is the easiest and sometimes the only way to get promoted and paid more. Until two years ago, when things were still expanding, it was not uncommon for tech workers to switch jobs every 18 months and get a 30 percent raise each time. A former ByteDance analyst who joined in 2017 said he “felt an urgent need” to find a new job three years into his first job. Everyone else in his cohort had left. Some had even switched twice and doubled their salaries. “It was my own fault to have stayed,” he said.
Switching is both a means and the end itself. It doesn’t take long for starry-eyed analysts to realize that the key is to work at the right company rather than having the right skills. To become an e-commerce manager at Meituan, you better have Alibaba on your resume. Even to get promoted within the same company, it’s important to be on big, successful projects. Work has become a game of Pokemon – it’s about collecting “success” cards to power future jumps, instead of learning new skills.
On the other hand, skills are less transferable in today’s big tech where organizations are hierarchical and teams extremely specialized. Unlike in the start-up years when team leads took care of everything from product development to customer service, today’s managers are fixated on tiny functions in super apps and face no consequence whatsoever of losing sight of the big picture.
An Alibaba product manager said his former boss was very good at executing orders and meeting performance targets, but “had no idea what competitors do or how the industry works.” This makes him wonder to what extent his own knowledge and skills serve only one company or even one boss, and whether he has to relearn everything if he decides to take a different job.
None of this matters, as long as opportunities are plentiful and salaries only go up. But when high-paying jobs are hard to come by, as they are now, many tech workers just feel adrift. They have lost whatever purpose they ever had. The only company that seems to be growing and hiring is ByteDance, thus the joke that “the light at the end of the tunnel is ByteDance.” But its growth seems limited to Tiktok and no one knows how long this can last - one imagines “not very long.”
Tech companies take pride in their youth. The average ByteDance employee is just 27 years old. Alibaba employees, the “oldest” in big tech, are 31 years old on average. But when workers look around and see no role models – they see hardly anyone older than 40 – they can’t help but wonder, where am I going to be in ten years?
Theoretically, the question is redundant because the ethos of tech is “embrace change.” Ten years ago, WeChat had just been born, and there was no Didi or TikTok. No one knows what the next ten years have in store. To survive and thrive into your 40s, you only need to stay as hungry and foolish as a fresh graduate, in theory at least. But no one has ever actually trodden this path. To be in your 40s now means having started work before the 2008 Olympics, an epoch that feels as distant as the Ming Dynasty – an age before cars, computers and Honor of Kingd - when today’s delivery guys were assembling the world’s plastic knickknacks in cavernous factories.
One obvious problem is fresh graduates are much cheaper than 40-year-olds. A former tech worker said he doesn’t mind learning new things – he started as a clickbait writer and had been “constantly reinventing himself” as recommendation algorithms became mainstream – but fails to see how more experience translates to any job market advantage. He recently resigned without a new job lined up.
The industry used to pretend that age doesn’t matter. The mantra of the boom years was “Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE).” Armies of talented young people were lured into the industry and willingly endured excruciatingly long hours, in the hope of making enough money by the age of 40 to happily pursue whatever dreams they had left. But FIRE seems more far-fetched than ever. Big tech has offered next to nothing in terms of a long and fulfilling career.
Disillusioned and burned out, many have stayed, out of inertia, complacency or lack of imagination – most stay simply because there is nowhere else to go. Few other industries pay as much, but many pay for longer. There is little need for workers to seek problems or solutions within themselves since the external environment determines everything. Maybe things will be better with a different boss? Maybe I should focus on the next 30 percent raise? Maybe I should never have left my hometown?
There are plenty, however, who have let themselves think beyond big tech. Some have abandoned corporate jobs altogether and started their own businesses. Liu Fei, former product manager, now hosts an interview podcast called Insider Talk. She reflected on the amount of navel-gazing in big tech - when everyone thinks of everything in terms of market share, scaling up and valuation, it’s hard to see opportunities elsewhere. It’s called big tech, but really, it’s a very small world.
Many companies have established programs to cultivate young talent and retain it, in name at least. Most famously, the entire edifice of ByteDance is built on hiring more than needed, hoping that at least some of them will perform, and firing everyone when they are no longer of use. Others have similar eccentric “career paths” laid out for their new hires – perform or perish.