The Eternal and Toxic Optimism of Startup Advice

by Shanley Kane on April 14th, 2015

Most startup advice has a base archetype: the idealized employee. Books, blog posts and conferences are conjured to train the masses on the capture, care and feeding of these prized assets. From this model emerges the 10x engineer, the “wolf,” the T-shaped professional. Just this week Chris Messina has blessed us with the full-stack employee, the generalist rebranded, romanticized, rendered “in conjunction with Canon”:

“the full-stack employee has a powerful combination of skills that make them incredibly valuable. They are adept at navigating the rapidly evolving and shifting technological landscape. They make intuitive decisions amidst information-abundance, where sparse facts mingle loosely with data-drenched opinions. Full stack employees are capable of speaking design lingo, know that using Comic Sans is criminal, and are adept at making mocks in Keynote, Sketch, or Skitch (if it comes to that).”

Hiring advice conceives of a world where such perfect talent waits to be mined from the firmament of the job market. It presents a mesh of technical interviews, logic puzzles and culture fit checkpoints (a.k.a. discriminatory gatekeeping strategies) to wring from the unfit masses the elusive and transformative 10xer, as if we were netting fish. Management advice falls in line, focused largely on removing any impediments to the employee’s ascension to their “full potential.” It prescribes remote work, an open floor plan, 20% time; or perhaps an assortment of perks to glue the poor fucker to their desk for the foreseeable eternity. Advice for company leadership similarly envisions the founder or CEO figure (always a white man) as some sort of celestial hybrid of myriad talents, a hero myth so elemental, so captivating that it can collapse even the grossest and most abysmal of failures into a growth and redemption narrative, after which he will receive more funding. The Maslow-esque vessel for these superheros of capitalism, the company itself, is imagined as a glorious machine of product-market fit, exponential growth, group prosperity and actualization: a utopian landscape (slash hamster cage) where people “build amazing things,” enjoy a “work-life balance” and “change the world.”

It is this simplistic, cloying optimism — this lying, farcical fantasy machine — that is the fatal underlying toxin of management advice; the saccharine handwave over the bitter and oft-wrenching reality of people and systems. Beneath the rose-stained spectacle, the most “successful” tech companies of our time are wastelands of toxicity. Apple, the first $700-billion dollar company: led for years by an abusive megalomaniac, built on oppressive and exploitative foreign labor, engaged in illegal conspiracies to fix the hiring market, with one of the most homogenous technical and leadership teams in the Valley, perpetually ensnared in controversies for its imperialistic, monopolizing, censoring and corrupt machinations. Even on the minor scale of the many startups who rise and fall like tides, long-beloved “epitomies” of startup culture like GitHub are revealed as glamorized frat houses, led by abusive white men, full of gendered harassment, alcohol abuse, profound cultural dysfunction and bizarre fedora rituals. Such startups bastion “innovative” new management models such as hey guys what if we just like, don’t have any managers, asinine and hubristic schemes rapidly discarded, quietly abandoned, yet never quite retracted, so the toxicity continues to waft through startup culture like a bad smell long after the original management team has been booted to the next stage of their upward fall. Meanwhile, the glorified “10x engineer” mythology falls apart by the day; he is nothing less than the entitled, white male asshole in his natural habitat, plunged into the annals of “10x”-dom by privilege alone, hastening the company to a damnation littered with abandoned prototypes.

Yet business advice continues to entirely ignore the reality of the human condition and relationships, of systems and structures, of culture, even as its edicts fail us. It trades treatment of complex, nuanced, challenging and ever-changing factors for pithy advice based on imaginary categories, opts to ingratiate the audience with comforting beliefs in impossible states, sell a dream of unattainable norms, rather than confront the messy, sloppy, deep and dark truth of companies, their leaders and employees. It imagines employee and management conditions like “10x,” and even their negative converses, as either inherent to individuals and systems or as perpetual states. In the world of startup advice, it is as if we are building a permanent monument from an army of heroic human-gods, instead of trying desperately to hold together a live and thrashing company, a frantic, frail and falling-apart visage, breaking in a thousand ways at any given time, subject to fracturing at any moment, bursting with imperfect people and the rifts that form between them, practically blooming with dysfunction.

In this world there exists no interpersonal friction that tears teams apart; no rage and anger, aggression, depression, disenfranchisement, bullying. No trauma, no festering conflicts, no bitterness and no retaliation. No *feelings* but shipping. There exists none of the realities of human health, life and existence: addiction, illness, death, birth, sudden tragedy, profound emergency, burnout, romance. No enemies and no friends. There exists no power dynamics that inexorably shape products, markets and teams: no racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, classism and other systems of oppression; no inherent tension between employees and management; no struggles to attain wealth, employment security, credit and acceptance from a limited pool of each.

Startup advice is magical world where people aren’t broken, relationships are simple, and bad things never happen.

No wonder that horrific underlying dysfunction is the norm in our industry — never stated, not even whispered, unchecked in the hidden bowels of companies, only culminating in failed products, bubbles bursting, bankruptcy, lay-offs, class-action lawsuits, personnel implosion… a thousand impossible and entrenched fissures. And even then, to make history accord with the preferred world, the case studies rewritten or brushed under a rug.

If there are eight words that encapsulate what a new order of startup advice and analysis must contain, it is perhaps these:

“People are broken, and people work at companies.”

You’ll never believe what happens next.

For more of Shanley’s work, buy her essay collection: Your Startup Is Broken.