In defense of "the corporate job"

Do you know what I did at work yesterday? I wrote some code, I sent a couple emails, I drank five free Vitamin Waters and three free coffees. For this I was paid more than I am worth and was given steeply discounted health insurance. I left promptly at 5pm.

Today on the Internet there is an enormous fetishism of the lifestyle of the Technical Independent and of the non-corporate nouveau tech faux hippie workplace. This backlash against technical work done in traditional office settings began during the tech bubble and gained widespread acceptance following the release of Office Space.

If you boil down most of the arguments out there, the prime objection to cube life is that it is an environment without much personality where you go to fight someone else's cause (to paraphrase Aesop Rock). The most recent incarnation of American entitlism is the attitude that the only job worth having is one that requires no changes to your personality, habits, or clothing and that involves working exclusively on tasks about which you are insanely passionate and devoted.

But the fact is that work, by definition, is in service of somebody else. You make or provide a good or service for which someone else compensates you. So all companies, big and small, are in the same boat in terms of the process and the end result. Except that some companies are big enough to allow their people to have fun along the way.

Big, ugly corporations can afford to have a greater share of its employees having fun at any given time. If one assumes that the company is organized intelligently (and most companies are; don't believe everything you read in Dilbert), responsibilities tend to be spread out thinly amongst the staff. This is ostensibly to allow bandwidth for corporate metawork such as meetings and status updates and documentation, internally directed tasks whose purpose is the perpetuation of the team.

But the tools used to manage metawork (not necessarily software; I'm thinking about tools like GTD) have evolved faster that the American corporation's opinion of them, and the quantity of responsibility per person has not grown in proportion. The bandwidth left over can then be dedicated completely to fun, which for a geek like me means learning and programming.

So since our "fun" usually ends up benefitting the enterprise anyway, there is very little incentive for corporations to heap on less interesting work. And in addition, big companies need to at least appear to compete with the perceived perks offered by modern hippie tech companies like Github, and of course the original hybrid-hippie, Google.

I'm quite sure that one of the hidden costs of working in one of those uber-relaxed, dress-down, foosball tech shops is a culture of fluid work-life boundaries and unstated pieces-of-flair-style personal responsibility: e.g., there may be no written start and end times to the work day, but leaving after only eight hours of work must mean you're not passionate about the work.

As I said, I think that the draw of the start-up atmosphere is the draw of the "passion project", and I think that modern alleged-hip companies prey (perhaps unconsciously) on this mentality. In a start-up, you often sit literally next to the person whose dream you are pursuing, and it is easy to think some of that passionate intelligence might rub off on you, in a way that would be impossible in a large corporation whose founders are long dead.

Since it is so important to a start-up's brand to be a "fun" place to work, "fun" becomes part of the organization's identity and anyone who doesn't seem to be having "fun", i.e. people who seem to be "at work", somehow seem fundamentally out of step with the stated purpose of the company.

But in a big company, where fun happens accidentally and everyone has already agreed that the "work" is what we're focusing on, all the cards are on the table. Yes, big companies mean big staffs which can lead to office politics, which is simply a shitty thing. But nowadays, workers are willing and empowered to publicly decry the toxic effects of politics on the work that they get paid to do and that the organization needs to get done.

A career in large corporations does not deserve the stigma that it has, which is based on old-fashioned cultural ideals and outdated management techniques. Corporate America is where the money is, and if you can find a way to get some of that money, you can buy the life that you want. The job is just a job.

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