Write What You Know: The Tech Industry

Even the dogs get swag out here.  Photo by Norah Woodsey

Even the dogs get swag out here. Photo by Norah Woodsey

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our ninth year living, breathing, and occasionally suffering the tech industry. Before that, I did various odd jobs on computers and helped teams who did software development for my employer, but really nine years ago is when we got started. Though this industry is incredibly powerful, there aren't many people who have had the privilege to see it from the inside. While writing books and short stories, I get to tap into events that pass for real life out here. 

To give a brief example, let's start at a wedding. We were guests at a friend's fancy wedding celebration a few years ago when a VERY IMPORTANT man who shall remain nameless showed up.  I can say with full confidence that if the HBO show Silicon Valley hasn’t made a character based on him yet, it's an intentional oversight. 

I mention this guy because he showed up in gym clothes. And sandals. Late. To a wedding.

I doubt the groom was offended or even noticed. I thought the bride looked confused. I know from a liquor-fueled rage whisper that at least one parent of the couple was annoyed. However, most of the attendees loved the mystique of this individual to such an extent that if they did notice the comically, probably intentionally lazy appearance, they simply added it to their gospel of tech.

This very specific type of intentional laziness is the sort of feature that can't be overlooked when writing about this industry. If you aren’t familiar, diving into these waters teaches you that the appearance of disregard is crucial. Sure, a CEO will wear an expensive blazer, but only with a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Yes, a startup will subject a candidate to 18 separate interviews before they make a decision, but the manager offered beer from the office kegerator, so it’s 'laid back'. An engineer gets a laptop that costs more than the monthly take-home pay of the average American, and promptly covers it in ugly swag stickers.

There are great things about the tech industry. The intellect of tech's brightest can't be overstated. These people are the bedrock of the entire industry -- they are inventing new ways of solving problems, bringing in unique perspectives, and no bullshit changing the world. Personally, I have found working at the right startup to be superior to any other collaborative work environment. 

Those people, while more common than I've found elsewhere, are still a small fraction of what you'll find out here. You can’t survive in this industry without developing “a lively, playful disposition that delights in anything ridiculous”. Take it from Jane Austen; the only way to not throw your hands up and move to a fly-over state to start an ostrich farm is to let yourself laugh at the other people in tech.

Who are these "other people", you ask? Support personnel who refuse to wear shoes. Programmers who insist on the company supplying them with expensive stand-up desks but work from home 90% of the time. HR reps who earn the company's only HR complaint. CEOs who are obliviously outright sexist and racist during presentations. I'm often baffled by complete idiots who have jobs in this industry who shouldn’t be gainfully employed anywhere, let alone in positions of authority at multi-million (even billion!) dollar companies.

This is the gold that a fiction writer needs to seek out. You can read about the ping pong table bubble, that gym laundry service even exists, the serious diversity issues that somehow are only getting worse. But these are just the mildly interesting summaries of things that happen in tech for an 'outsider' audience.

Think about your own industry, and how popular media represents the conflicts, events, or products that you are familiar with. Make notes about these kinds of observations in a document on your smartphone or, if you are super old school, a tiny spiral notepad. Refer to it later when you invent characters and settings.