The Myth of the Non-Technical Startup Employee

The indignities unwittingly foisted upon the early operations employee are many and varied.

by Zoelle Egner on March 14th, 2014

As the first non-technical hire at a startup, you wear many hats.

You answer support tickets, write newsletters, even order lunch: whatever needs to get done. When you’re lucky – and I was – that means days spent untangling complex problems and creating processes to keep the chaos at bay.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the tech industry at large, it can also mean a constant battle to justify your intelligence, your value, and your very existence. It can mean struggling against gendered expectations about your work product and complete ignorance of what your role entails. Worse, as the defacto keeper of the sacred Company Culture™, you run the risk of enabling and reinforcing a system of amenities and perks which aren’t actually meant for you.

Though the indignities unwittingly foisted upon the early operations employee are many and varied, at their core, most can be traced back to three core misconceptions that pervade the industry at large.

1. You only take a job in business operations if you aren’t smart enough to be an engineer (or designer, or product manager, or…)

Let’s be clear: in any other industry, this idea would be laughable. Making a business run, let alone successfully, is difficult, complicated work. With responsibilities ranging from human resources management and budgeting to facilities, events, and business analysis, business operations professionals not only need to be highly organized, analytical and good at juggling multiple completely disparate streams of work, but they also need to devote significant time to creating processes throughout the business that will make everyone’s jobs easier and more efficient. If the ops person messes up, the lights literally might go out. Yes, a lot of these tasks require following rules that can’t be broken without actual consequences (“laws”) and many are compulsory. That doesn’t make any of it easy.

Here’s the thing: not everyone wants to be an engineer. Just because you don’t understand my job or don’t find it appealing, doesn’t mean it isn’t real or valid. It doesn’t mean I’m not as smart, or geeky, or excited about technology. It just means we like to do different things. And that’s OK.

2. If your role isn’t technical, you don’t actually understand the product.

My team never talked down to me or made assumptions about my intelligence based on the role I played. Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t extend to others in the field. While I have literally lost count of the number of looks and comments and dismissals I’ve experienced from strangers upon introducing myself at parties and industry events, the worst by far happens at conferences. At PyCon last year, as I stood in our booth and answered questions, I was repeatedly asked if an engineer was around to explain the product before I had a chance to say more than hello.

For those of you wondering if perhaps I was mistaken for a booth babe, (1) my physical attractiveness (or lack thereof) has no bearing on my ability to discuss our product and (2) if you really must know, I deliberately pulled my hair back and wore glasses at these events so no one would get the wrong idea. Lot of good that did me: in the most extreme case, a visitor openly refused to believe I was capable of understanding our product and yelled at me for twenty minutes about how he had a serious technical question that I couldn’t possibly answer. When I finally threatened to show him my GitHub, he immediately told me I was “awesome” and that “more girls should be like [me].” Thanks, buddy.

A woman standing behind a conference booth at SXSW, talking to a man.

Creative Commons photo by chvad, cropped and filtered.

I’m not even going to address the blatant sexism inherent in assuming the woman in the booth couldn’t possibly be an engineer here. Instead, let’s focus on the other assumption: that because a person has a non-technical role, she is fundamentally incapable of assessing whether she is able to answer your question. It reinforces the idea that the non-technical employee is at such a remove from what matters in the company that she literally doesn’t understand what the company does.

This is not only incredibly condescending and problematic, but also fundamentally illogical. As a founder, it makes no sense to hire as one of your first employees a person who is incapable of discussing your product intelligently. Even – especially – if it’s something complex and technical. It’s part of every single person’s job. Period. Yet this is something that non-technical employees, especially women, face regularly.

While we’re at it, I’d like to dispel the notion that people in non-technical roles don’t have technical skills. From the VBScript and complex spreadsheet wrangling required to perform analysis of key organizational metrics to mastery of numerous different specialized softwares and systems in order to perform basic functions of the job ranging from accounting to people operations, non-technical employees must have a bevy of technical skills at the ready every single day. In fact, I had to code a sample app using the company’s API to get my job as an operations manager — and I committed code to the frontend of the marketing site regularly. I’m not the exception.

3. The ops person is here to be your mommy.

Let’s just clear up one thing right away: this isn’t about being above ordering lunch. I’ll take out the garbage if it needs to get done; hell, I lost count of the times I did. However, if my ordering lunch every day means that you forget how to order a sandwich independently, we’ve got a larger problem on our hands.

Silicon Valley isn’t exactly known for encouraging work-life balance. The combination of the average worker demographic (generally young, generally single people, often transplants from other states or countries without a strong local network outside the industry) and the pervasive belief in the power of ‘grinding’ enables a system in which employees are encouraged to sacrifice all time and energy to the singular purpose of serving the company. The company, in turn, provides replacements for many of the parts of an adult’s life: friends and social interaction are arranged and mediated by company-sponsored events, both formal and informal; continuing education, reading material, food, transportation, house cleaning and even laundry are subsidized, if not entirely covered by the company; even vacation, a time previously defined by the separation from and absence of work, may now be directly funded – if not mandated – by the employer. And let’s be clear: free dry cleaning isn’t being provided for the sake of the marketing assistant, or even the HR manager who stopped by your desk to pick up your dirty button-ups. Because of the pervasive belief that engineers are more valuable than other employees, perks are designed to recruit and retain the engineers, and ultimately, that’s how their effectiveness will be measured.

While from a business perspective any move to ensure the absolute focus of the employee on their job (and not incidental matters like chores) may make sense, there is a fine, fine line between providing great benefits and infantilizing your employees. By removing responsibility for so many basic aspects of adulthood from young, predominantly male employees, and placing it in the hands of their predominantly female operational counterparts, we’re essentially making office managers into office moms. While it might sound extreme to say that this fundamentally affects the ability of these young men to care for themselves, I assure you, when you’ve walked into the office to discover a group of grown-ass adults demolishing the beef jerky because they couldn’t figure out how to order lunch for themselves, you’ll stop thinking this is absurd. And that’s just what it does to the dudes.

A quick note here: there are operations professionals that identify across the gender spectrum. Obviously gender has no bearing on a person’s ability to perform these duties. However, unlike nearly all other roles in the tech sector, early-stage startup operations professionals are disproportionately female-identified. Interestingly, in my experience, women in these roles are more likely to have titles such as “office manager” or “admin,” which imply a limited, administrative role, whereas men tend to have titles like “operations manager,” despite having identical responsibilities. It’s unclear what causes this discrepancy, and regardless of title or gender, operations employees tend to face many of the same misconceptions. Yet while male operators might have to order the same lunches and take out the same trash, they generally do so without the gendered expectation that this type of caretaking activity is somehow work they would just naturally do anyway as a result of their womanly nature. That expectation not only can undermine the value of the work that women contribute by positioning it as a natural extension of their gender – not a single, specific part of the job they are paid to do – but also may limit others’ perceptions of the types of work she is able and expected to do.

This contributes to a particularly disturbing aspect of the myth of the office mom. We’re not just asking the women to arrange their charges’ extracurricular activities and pick up their trash; we’re also telling them (explicitly or otherwise) that these perks are not for them- they’re just there to make sure they happen. This problem isn’t just confined to early-stage companies, either: it takes place throughout the tech industry.

According to Kim Rohrer, Head of People Operations at Disqus and co-founder of Organization Organizers, a popular group for operations professionals working in the tech industry, she came to startups with “a huge chip on [her] shoulder” after years of suffering through a lack of respect towards operational professionals at some of the largest, most prominent tech companies in the Bay Area. At one well-known software company, she used to go so far as to avoid changing her chat status to indicate she was attending company events during her lunch, for fear that other EAs would see she wasn’t at her desk and chastise her for participating. At another, her direct manager reprimanded her for attempting to take part in a continuing education program offered by the company that took place after work hours, despite it having no bearing whatsoever on her performance at work.

In both cases, her coworkers made no secret of the cultural expectation that amenities ostensibly intended for all employees were in fact not intended to be consumed by those in operational roles. To position an employee to maintain and support a culture in which they are neither encouraged nor even expected to participate in as an equal is to say that they provide value only insofar as they support the other, more valuable, class of employees at the company. And that – the idea that operations work has no inherent value – leads to what may be the most dangerous myth of all:

Operations is a necessary evil, and it doesn’t really matter.

That means the people who do it don’t really matter, either.

Choosing to work at an early-stage startup can mean choosing to sacrifice a lot: weekends, the opportunity to see friends for weeks on end, even basic knowledge of what’s going on in the outside world. Obviously, it’s also rewarding enough that we continue to make those sacrifices time and time again. Yet the myths we hold so dear — the noble engineer, sleeping under his desk to get the product out on time; the company that cares for its employees’ every need — exclude and marginalize an entire class of people whose contributions to these startups make their success possible. Perhaps that just comes with the territory of working in an operational role, but it also sends a clear message: this industry is supposedly changing the world, but only the contributions of a select few are worthy of celebration. The rest, well — someone had to keep the snacks filled.

Photo of club sandwiches, cut into tiny triangles.

But of course it’s not that simple. If you don’t file your taxes or pay vendors on time or hire the right people at the right speed or handle any of the other, myriad issues that operations folks handle each day, it doesn’t matter how great your product is: you’re going to run into serious problems. Technical infrastructure isn’t the only part of a startup that needs to scale seamlessly. This, ultimately, is why these myths about business operations are so painful and damaging, both to the professionals who suffer from them and the businesses that perpetuate them. You can have a great product and still fail because your business was broken. But it shouldn’t happen that way, and it doesn’t have to.

Yes, it means taking the time as a founder to understand what operations means, and finding the right person to help make it happen, regardless of their gender. It means trusting that whomever you hire will be just as invested in the success of the company and just as valuable as people with more widely understood responsibilities. But the result is worth it. Particularly when it comes to early stage startups, a good operations person who is engaged as a true partner in building the business can lengthen your runway and give you the chance you need to be successful and sustainable. That’s a prospect worth fighting for.