Getting free of toxic tech culture

This post was co-authored by Valerie Aurora and Susan Wu, and cross-posted on both our blogs.

Marginalized people leave tech jobs in droves, yet we rarely write or talk publicly about the emotional and mental process of deciding to leave tech. It feels almost traitorous to publicly discuss leaving tech when you’re a member of a marginalized group – much less actually go through with it.

There are many reasons we feel this way, but a major reason is that the “diversity problem in tech” is often framed as being caused by marginalized people not “wanting” to be in tech enough: not taking the right classes as teenagers, not working hard enough in university, not “leaning in” hard enough at our tech jobs. In this model, it is the moral responsibility of marginalized people to tolerate unfair pay, underpromotion, harassment, and assault in order to serve as role models and mentors to the next generation of marginalized people entering tech. With this framing, if marginalized people end up leaving tech to protect ourselves, it’s our duty to at least keep quiet about it, and not scare off other marginalized people by sharing our bad experiences.

A green plant growing out of a printer
A printer converted to a planter
CC BY-SA Ben Stanfield https://flic.kr/p/2CjHL

Under that model, this post is doubly taboo: it’s a description of how we (Susan and Valerie) went through the process of leaving toxic tech culture, as a guide to other marginalized people looking for a way out. We say “toxic tech culture” because we want to distinguish between leaving tech entirely, and leaving areas of tech which are abusive and harmful. Toxic tech culture comes in many forms: the part of Silicon Valley VC hypergrowth culture that deifies founders as “white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford,” the open source software ecosystem that so often exploits and drives away its best contributors, and the scam-riddled cryptocurrency community, to name just three.

What is toxic tech culture? Toxic tech cultures are those that demean and devalue you as holistic, multifaceted human beings. Toxic tech cultures are those that prioritize profits and growth over human and societal well being. Toxic tech cultures are those that treat you as replaceable cogs within a system of constant churn and burnout.

But within tech there are exceptions to the rule: technology teams, organizations, and communities where marginalized people can feel a degree of safety, belonging, and purpose. You may be thinking about leaving all of tech, or leaving a particular toxic tech culture for a different, better tech culture; either way, we hope this post will be useful to you.

A little about us: Valerie spent more than ten years working as a software engineer, specializing in file systems, Linux, and operating systems. Susan grew up on the Internet, and spent 25 years as a software developer, a community builder, an investor, and a VC-backed Silicon Valley founder. We were both overachievers who advanced quickly in our fields – until we could not longer tolerate the way we were treated, or be complicit in a system that did not match our values. Valerie quit her job as a programmer to co-found a tech-related non-profit for women, and now teaches ally skills to tech workers. Susan relocated to France and Australia, co-founded Project Include, a nonprofit dedicated to improving diversity and inclusion in tech, and is now launching a new education system. We are both still involved in tech to various degrees, but on our own terms, and we are much happier now.

We disagree that marginalized people should stay silent about how and why they left toxic tech culture. When, for example, more than 50% of women in tech leave after 12 years, there is an undeniable need for sharing experience and hard-learned lessons. Staying silent about the unfairness that causes 37% of underrepresented people of color to leave tech 37% of people of color cite as a reason they left helps no one.

We reject the idea that it is the “responsibility” of marginalized people to stay in toxic tech culture despite abuse and discrimination, solely to improve the diversity of tech. Marginalized people have already had to overcompensate for systemic sexist, ableist, and racist biases in order to earn their roles in tech. We believe people with power and privilege are responsible for changing toxic tech culture to be more inclusive and fair to marginalized people. If you want more diversity in tech, don’t ask marginalized people to be silent, to endure often grievous discrimination, or to take on additional unpaid, unrecognized labor – ask the privileged to take action.

For many marginalized people, our experience of being in tech includes traumatic experience(s) which we may not have not yet fully come to terms with and that influenced our decisions to leave. Sometimes we don’t make a direct connection between the traumatic experiences and our decision to leave. We just find that we are “bored” and are no longer excited about our work, or start avoiding situations that used to be rewarding, like conferences, speaking, and social events. Often we don’t realize traumatic events are even traumatic until months or years later. If you’ve experienced trauma, processing the trauma is necessary, whether or not you decide to leave toxic tech culture.

This post doesn’t assume that you are sure that you want to leave your current area of tech, or tech as a whole. We ourselves aren’t “sure” we want to permanently leave the toxic tech cultures we were part of even now – maybe things will get better enough that we will be willing to return. You can take the steps described in this post and stay in your current area of tech for as long as you want – you’ll just be more centered, grounded, and happy.

The steps we took are described in roughly the order we took them, but they all overlapped and intermixed with each other. Don’t feel like you need to do things in a particular order or way; this is just to give you some ideas on what you could do to work through your feelings about leaving tech and any related trauma.

Step 1: Deprogram yourself from the cult of tech

The first step is to start deprogramming yourself from the cult of tech. Being part of toxic tech culture has a lot in common with being part of a cult. How often have you heard a Silicon Valley CEO talk about how his (it’s almost always a he) startup is going to change the world? The refrain of how a startup CEO is going to save humanity is so common that it’s actually uncommon for a CEO to not use saviour language when describing their startup. Cult leaders do the same thing: they create a unique philosophy, imbued with some sort of special message that they alone can see or hear, convince people that only they have the answers for what ails humanity, and use that influence to control the people around them.

Consider this list of how to identify a cult, and how closely this list mirrors patterns we can observe in Silicon Valley tech:

  • “Be wary of any leader who proclaims him or herself as having special powers or special insight.” How often have you heard a Silicon Valley founder or CEO proclaimed as some sort of genius, and they alone can figure out how to invent XYZ? Nearly every day, there’s some deific tribute to Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg in the media.
  • “The group is closed, so in other words, although there may be outside followers, there’s usually an inner circle that follows the leader without question, and that maintains a tremendous amount of secrecy.” The Information just published a database summarizing how secretive, how protective, how insular the boards are for the top 30 private companies in tech. Here’s what they report: “Despite their enormous size and influence, the biggest privately held technology companies eschew some basic corporate governance standards, blocking outside voices, limiting decision making to small groups of mostly white men and holding back on public disclosures, an in-depth analysis by The Information shows.”
  • “A very important aspect of cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you.” There’s an insidious reason why your unicorn startup provides you with a free cafeteria, gym, yoga rooms, and all night snack bars: they never want you to leave. And if you do leave the building, you can stay engaged with Slack, IM, SMS, and every other possible communications tool so that you can never disconnect. They then layer over this with purported positive cultural messaging around how lucky, how fortunate you are to have landed this job — you were the special one selected out of thousands of candidates. Nobody else has it as good as we do here. Nobody else is as smart, as capable, as special as our team. Nobody else is building the best, most impactful solutions to solve humanity’s problems. If you fall off this treadmill, you will become irrelevant, you’ll be an outsider, a consumer instead of a builder, you’ll never be first on the list for the Singularity, when it happens. You’ll be at the shit end of the income inequality distribution funnel.

Given how similar toxic tech culture (and especially Silicon Valley tech culture) is to cult culture, leaving tech often requires something like cult-deprogramming techniques. We found the following steps especially useful for deprogramming ourselves from the cult of tech: recognizing our unconscious beliefs, experimenting with our identity, avoiding people who don’t support us, and making friendships that aren’t dependent on tech.

Recognize your unconscious beliefs

One cult-like aspect of toxic tech culture is a strong moral us-vs-them dichotomy: either you’re “in tech,” and you’re important and smart and hardworking and valuable, or you are not “in tech” because you are ignorant and untalented and lazy and irrelevant. (What are the boundaries of “in tech?” Well, the more privileged you are, the more likely people will define you as “in tech” – so be generous to yourself if you are part of a marginalized group. Or read more about the fractal nature of the gender binary and how it shows up in tech.)

We didn’t realize how strongly we’d unconsciously adopted this belief that people in tech were better than those who weren’t until we started to imagine ourselves leaving tech and felt a wave of self-judgment and fear. Early on, Valerie realized that she unconsciously thought of literally every single job other than software engineer as “for people who weren’t good enough to be a software engineer” – and that she thought this because other software engineers had been telling her that for her entire career. Even now, as Susan is launching a new education startup in Australia, she’s trying to be careful to not assume that just because people are doing things in a “non Silicon Valley, lean startup, agile way,” that it’s not automatically wrong. In reality, the best way in which to do things is probably not based on any particular dogma, but one that reflects a healthy balance of diverse perspectives and styles.

The first step to ridding yourself of the harmful belief that only people who are “in tech” or doing things in a “startup style” are good or smart or valuable is surfacing the unconscious belief to the conscious level, so you can respond to it. Recognize and name that belief when it comes up: when you think about leaving your job and feel fear, when you meet a new person and immediately lose interest when you learn their job is not “technical,” when you notice yourself trying to decide if someone is “technical enough.” Say to yourself, “I am experiencing the belief that only people I consider technical are valuable. This isn’t true. I believe everyone is valuable regardless of their job or level of technical knowledge.”

Experiment with your self-identity

The next step is to experiment with your own self-identity. Begin thinking of yourself as having different non-tech jobs or self-descriptions, and see what thoughts come up. React to those thoughts as though you were reacting to a friend you care about who was saying those things about them. Try to find positive things to think and say about your theoretical new job and new life. Think about people you know with that job and ask yourself if you would say negative things about their job to them. Some painful thoughts and experiences will come up during this time; aim to recognize them consciously and process them, rather than trying to stuff them down or make them go away.

When you live in Silicon Valley, it’s easy for your work life to consume 95% of your waking hours — this is how startups are designed, after all, with their endless perks and pressures to socialize within the tribe. Often times, promotions go hand in hand with socializing successfully within the startup scene. What can you do to carve out several hours a week just for yourself, and an alternate identity that isn’t defined by success within toxic tech culture? How do you make space for self care? For example, Susan began to take online writing courses, and found that the outlet of interacting with poets and fiction writers helped ground her.

If necessary, change the branding of your personal life. Stop wearing tech t-shirts and get shirts that reflect some other part of your self. Get a different print for your office wall. Move the tech books into one out-of-the-way shelf and donate any you don’t use right now (especially the ones that you have been planning to read but never got around to). Donate most of your conference schwag and stop accepting new schwag. Pack away the shelf of tech-themed tchotchkes or even (gasp) throw them away. Valerie went to a “burn party” on Ocean Beach, where everyone brought symbols of old jobs that they were happy to be free of and symbolically burned them in a beach bonfire. You might consider a similar ritual.

De-emphasize tech in your self-presentation. Change any usernames that reference your tech interests. Rewrite any online bios or descriptions to emphasize non-tech parts of your life. Start introducing yourself by talking about your non-tech hobbies and interests rather than your job. You might even try introducing yourself to new people as someone whose primary job isn’t tech. Valerie, who had been writing professionally for several years, started introducing herself as a writer at tech events in San Francisco. People who would have talked to her had she introduced herself as a Linux kernel developer would immediately turn away without a second word. Counterintuitively, this made her more determined to leave her job, when she saw how inconsiderate her colleagues were when she did not make use of her technical privilege.

Avoid unsupportive people

Identify any people in your life who are consistently unsupportive of you, or only supportive when you perform to their satisfaction, and reduce your emotional and financial dependence on them. If you have friends or idols who are unhelpfully critical or judgemental, take steps to see or hear from them less often. Don’t seek out their opinion and don’t stoke your admiration for them. This will be difficult the closer and more dependent you are on the person; if your spouse or manager is one of these people, you have our sympathy. For more on this dynamic and how to end it, see this series of posts about narcissism, co-narcissism, and tech.

Depressingly often, we especially seek the approval of people who give approval sparingly (think about the popularity of Dr. House, who is a total jerk). If you find yourself yearning for the approval of someone in tech who has been described as an “asshole,” this is a great time to stop. Some helpful tips to stop seeking the approval of an asshole: make a list of cruel things they’ve done, make a list of times they were wrong, stop reading their writing or listening to their talks, filter them out of your daily reading, talk to people who don’t know who that person is or care what they think, listen to people who have been hurt by them, and spend more time with people who are kind and nurturing.

At the same time, seek out and spend more time with people who are generally supportive of you, especially people who encourage experimentation and personal change. You may already have many of these people in your life, but don’t spend much time thinking about them because you can depend on their friendship and support. Reach out to them and renew your relationship.

Make friendships that don’t depend on tech

If your current social circle consists entirely of people who are fully bought into toxic tech culture, you may not have anyone in your life willing to support a career change. To help solve this, make friendships that aren’t dependent on your identity as a person in tech. The goal is to have a lot of friendships that aren’t dependent on your being in tech, so that if you decide to leave, you won’t lose all your friends at the same time as your job. Being friends with people who aren’t in tech will help you get an outside perspective on the kind of tech culture you are part of. It also helps you envision a future for yourself that doesn’t depend on being in toxic tech culture. You can still have lots of friends in tech, you are just aiming for diversity in your friendships.

One way to make this easier is to focus on your existing friendships that are “near tech,” such as people working in adjacent fields that sometimes attend tech conferences, but aren’t “in tech” themselves. Try also getting a new hobby, being more open to invitations to social events, and contacting old friends you’ve fallen out of touch with. Spend less time attending tech-related events, especially if you currently travel to a lot of tech conferences. It’s hard to start and maintain new local friendships when you’re constantly out of town or working overtime to prepare a talk for a conference. If you have a set of conferences you attend every year, it will feel scary the first time you miss one of them, but you’ll notice how much more time you have to spend with your local social circle.

Making friends outside of your familiar context (tech co-workers, tech conferences, online tech forums) is challenging for most people. If you learned how to socialize entire in tech culture, you may also need to learn new norms and conventions (such as how to have a conversation that isn’t about competing to show who knows more about a subject). Both Valerie and Susan experienced this when we started trying to make friends outside of toxic tech culture: all we knew how to talk about was startups, technology, video games, science fiction, scientific research, and (ugh) libertarian economic philosophy. We discovered people outside toxic tech culture wanted to talk about a wider range of topics, and often in a less confrontational way. And after a lifetime of socialization to distrust and discount everyone who wasn’t a man, we learned to seek out and value friendships with women and non-binary people.

If making new friends sounds intimidating, we recommend checking out Captain Awkward’s practical advice on making friends. Making new friends takes work and willingness to be rejected, but you’ll thank yourself for it later on.

Step 2: Make room for a career change

If you are already in a place where you have the freedom to make a big career change, congratulations! But if changing careers seems impossibly hard right now, that’s okay too. You can make room for a career change while still working in tech. Even if you end up deciding to stay in your current job, you will likely appreciate the freedom and flexibility that you’ve opened up for yourself.

Find a career counselor

The most useful action you can take is to find a career counselor who is right for you, and be honest with them about your fears, goals, and desires. Finding a career counselor is a lot like finding a dentist or a therapist: ask your friends for recommendations, read online reviews, look for directories or lists, and make an appointment for a free first meeting. If your first meeting doesn’t click, go ahead and try another career counselor until you find someone you can work with. A good career counselor will get a comprehensive view of your entire life (including family and friends) and your goals (not just job-related goals), and give you concrete steps to take to bring you closer to your goals.

Sometimes a career counselor’s job is explaining to you how the job you want but thought was impossible to get is actually possible. Valerie started seeing a career counselor about two years before she quit her last job as a software engineer and co-founded a non-profit. It took her about five years to get everything she listed as part of what she thought was an unattainable dream job (except for the “view of the water from her office,” which she is still working on). All the rest of this section is a high-level generic version of the advice a good career counselor will give you.

Improve your financial situation

Many tech jobs pay relatively well, but many people in tech would still have a hard time switching careers tomorrow because they don’t have enough money saved or couldn’t take a pay cut (hello, overheated rental markets and supporting your extended family). Don’t assume you’ll have to take a pay cut if you leave tech or your particular part of toxic tech culture, but it gives you more flexibility if you don’t have to immediately start making the same amount of money in a different job.

Look for ways to change your lifestyle or your expectations in ways that let you save money or lower your bills. Status symbols and class markers will probably loom large here and it’s worth thinking about which things are most valuable to you and which ones you can let go. You might find it is a relief to no longer have an expensive car with all its attendant maintenance and worries and fear, but that you really value the weekly exercise class that makes you feel happier and more energetic the rest of the week. Making these changes will often be painful in the short term but pay off in the long term. Valerie ended up temporarily moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area to a cheaper area near her family, which let her save up money and spend less while she was planning a career change. She moved back to the Bay Area when she was established in her new career, into a smaller, cheaper apartment she could afford on her new salary. Today she is making more money than she ever did as a programmer.

Take stock of your transferrable skills

Figure out what you actually like to do and how much of that is transferrable to other fields or jobs. One way to do this is to look back at, say, the top seven projects you most enjoyed doing in your life, either for your job or as a volunteer. What skills were useful to you in getting those projects done? What parts of doing that project did you enjoy the most? For example, being able to quickly read and understand a lot of information is a transferrable skill that many people enjoy using. The ability to persuade people is another such skill, useful for selling gym memberships, convincing people to recycle more, teaching, getting funding, and many other jobs. Once you have an idea of what it is that you enjoy doing and that is transferrable to other jobs, you can figure out what jobs you might enjoy and would be reasonably good at from the beginning.

Think carefully before signing up for new education

This is not necessarily the time to start taking career-related classes or going back to university in a serious way! If you start taking classes without first figuring out what you enjoy, what your skills are, and what your goals are, you are likely to be wasting your time and money and making it more difficult to find your new career. We highly recommend working with a career counselor before spending serious money or time on new training or classes. However, it makes sense to take low-cost, low-time commitment classes to explore what you enjoy doing, open your mind to new possibilities, or meet new people. This might look like a pottery class at the local community college, learning to 3D print objects at the local hackerspace, or taking an online course in African history.

Recognise there are many different paths in tech

The good news about software finally eating the world is that there are now many ways in which you can work in and around technology, without having to be part of toxic tech culture. Every industry needs tech expertise, and nearly every country around the world is trying to cultivate its own startup ecosystem. Many of these are much saner, kinder places to work than the toxic tech culture you may currently be part of, and a few of these involve industries that are more inclusive and welcoming of marginalized groups. Some of our friends have left the tech industry to work in innovation or technology related jobs in government, education, advocacy, policy, and arts. Though there are no great industries, and no ideal safe places for marginalized groups nearly anywhere in the world, there are varying degrees of toxicity and you can seek out areas with less toxicity. Try not to be swayed by the narrative that the only tech worth doing is the tech that’s written about in the media or receiving significant VC funding.

Step 3: Take care of yourself

Since being part of toxic tech culture is harmful to you as a person, simply focusing on taking care of yourself will help you put tech culture in its proper perspective, leaving you the freedom to be part of tech or not as you choose.

Prioritize self-care

Self-care means doing things that are kind or nurturing for yourself, whatever that looks like for you. Being in toxic tech culture means that many things take priority over self-care: fixing that last bug instead of taking a walk, going to an evening work-related meetup instead of staying home and getting to sleep on time, flying to yet another tech conference instead of spending time with family and friends. For Susan, prioritizing self-care looked like taking a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway for the weekend instead of going to an industry fundraiser, or eating lunch by herself with a book instead of meeting up with another VC. One of the few constants in life is that you will always be stuck with your own self – so take care of it!

Learn to say no and enforce boundaries

We found that we were saying yes to too many things. The tech industry depends on extracting free or low-cost labor from many people in different ways: everything from salaried employees working 60-hour weeks to writing and giving talks in your “free time” – all of which are considered required for your career to advance. Marginalized people in tech are often expected to work an additional second (third?) shift of diversity-related work for free: giving recruiting advice, mentoring other marginalized people, or providing free counseling to more privileged people.

FOMO (fear of missing out) plays an important role too. It’s hard to cut down on free work when you are wondering, what if this is the conference where you’ll meet the person who will get you that venture capital job you’ve always wanted? What if serving on this conference program committee will get you that promotion? What if going to lunch with this powerful person so they can “pick your brain” for free will get you a new job? Early in your tech career, these kinds of investments often pay off but later on they have diminishing returns. The first time you attend a conference in your field, you will probably meet dozens of people who are helpful to your career. The twentieth conference – not so much.

For Valerie, switching from a salaried job to hourly consulting taught her the value of her time and just how many hours she was spending on unpaid work for the Linux and file systems communities. She taped a note reading “JUST SAY NO” to the wall behind her computer, and then sent a bunch of emails quitting various unpaid responsibilities she had accumulated. A few months later, she found she had made too many commitments again, and had to send another round of emails backing out of commitments. It was painful and embarrassing, but not being constantly frazzled and stressed out was worth it.

When you start saying no to unpaid work, some people will be upset and push back. After all, they are used to getting free work from you which gives them some personal advantage, and many people won’t be happy with this. They may try to make you feel guilty, shame you, or threaten you. Learning to enforce boundaries in the face of opposition is an important part of this step. If this is hard for you, try reading books, practicing with a friend, or working with a therapist. If you are worried about making mistakes when going against external pressure, keep in mind that simply exercising some control over your life choices and career path will often increase your personal happiness, regardless of the outcome.

Care for your mental health

Let’s be brutally honest: toxic tech culture is highly abusive, and there’s an excellent chance you are suffering from depression, trauma, chronic stress, or other serious psychological difficulties. The solution that works for many people is to work with a good therapist or counselor. A good licensed therapist is literally an expert in helping people work through these problems. Even if you don’t think your issues reach the level of seriousness that requires a therapist, a good therapist can help you with processing guilt, fear, anxiety, or other emotions that come up around the idea of leaving toxic tech culture.

Whether or not you work with a therapist, you can make use of many other forms of mental health care: meditation, support groups, mindfulness apps, walking, self-help books, spending time in nature, various spiritual practices, doing exercises in workbooks, doing something creative, getting alone time, and many more. Try a bunch of different things and pick what works for you – everyone is different. For Susan, practicing yoga four times a week, meditating, and working in her vegetable garden instead of reading Hacker News gave her much needed perspective and space.

Finding a therapist can be intimidating for many people, which is why Valerie wrote “HOWTO therapy: what psychotherapy is, how to find a therapist, and when to fire your therapist.” It has some tips on getting low-cost or free therapy if that’s what you need. You can also read Tiffany Howard‘s list of free and low-cost mental health resources which covers a wide range of different options, including apps, peer support groups, and low-cost therapy.

Process your grief

Even if you are certain you want to leave toxic tech culture, actually leaving is a loss – if nothing else, a loss of what you thought your career and future would look like. Grief is an appropriate response to any major life change, even if it is for the better. Give yourself permission to grieve and be sad, for whatever it is that you are sad about. A few of the things we grieved for: the meritocracy we thought we were participating in, our vision for where our careers would be in five years, the good times we had with friends at conferences, a sense of being part of something excited and world-changing, all the good people who left before us, our relationships with people we thought would support us but didn’t, and the people we were leaving behind to suffer without us.

Step 4: Give yourself time

If you do decide to leave toxic tech culture, give yourself a few years to do it, and many more years to process your feelings about it. Valerie decided to stop being a programmer two years before she actually quit her programming job, and then she worked as a file systems consultant on and off for five years after that. Seven years later, she finally feels mostly at peace about being driven out of her chosen career (though she still occasionally has nightmares about being at a Linux conference). Susan’s process of extricating herself from the most toxic parts of tech culture and reinvesting in her own identity and well being has taken many years as well. Her partner (who knows nothing about technology) and her two kids help her feel much more balanced. Because Susan grew up on the Internet and has been building in tech for 25 years, she feels like she’ll probably always be doing something in tech, or tech-related, but wants to use her knowledge and skills to do this on her own terms, and to use her hard won know-how to benefit other marginalized folks to successfully reshape the industry.

An invitation to share your story

We hope this post was helpful to other people thinking about leaving toxic tech culture. There is so much more to say on this topic, and so many more points of view we want to hear about. If you feel safe doing so, we would love to read your story of leaving toxic tech culture. And wherever you are in your journey, we see you and support you, even if you don’t feel safe sharing your story or thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Getting free of toxic tech culture”

  1. I found myself marginalized in tech with an essential job to getting things done for my company that they never really appreciated. Your tech startup needs a sysadmin, period, as an essential enabler of business. I continually was marginalized, with no vision from the 5 bosses I had in 2 years. I got put on a PIP (from my new manager) for reasons way outside my job description, and frankly, 12 hour workdays apparently were not enough. I made it out of the PIP process, which is rare in any case, but the damage was done… I had spent the PIP timeline actively looking for work and found another job.

    The ideas presented here are useful for any stage of the dissatisfaction of the “tech” industry. I am still in “tech” albeit in a different role. I don’t think I could LEAVE tech as a whole, but if we only look at “tech” through the lens of fickle startups and empty promises then the entire industry is doomed.

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