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Are Big Tech CEO Egos Destroying the American Workplace?

Everyone on the Apple development team knew that MobileMe wasn’t nearly ready for launch. MobileMe’s project managers and team leads begged Steve Jobs to delay the project launch deadline and told him that the application was riddled with bugs. Launched in 2008, MobileMe was designed to seamlessly integrate and sync over the air data stored on multiple platforms, such as calendar, mail, and address. By all accounts the launch was an utter disaster—users were thrown off sites, e-mails were lost forever, the service kept crashing, and data was not transferred.

Heads rolled. And not surprisingly, Steve Job’s head was not among them. Immediately after the failed launch, Jobs rounded up all of the MobileMe team members in Apple’s auditorium and castigated the terrified workers: “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation … You should hate each other for having let each other down.” He then replaced the leader of MobileMe publicly, right there at the meeting, putting all on notice that any failure at Apple would result in a figurative trip to the guillotine. His follow up letter to the team is laced with not well disguised anger and blame throwing. No mea culpa. No “the buck stops here.” Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

In fact, the failure of MobileMe was mostly attributed to Steve Job’s repeated dismissals of warnings from team members that the platform wasn’t ready for prime time. But Jobs was famous for imposing an “alternate reality” on his workers, believing that workers could do almost anything if they put their minds to the task. Sometimes that strategy worked-sometimes it didn’t. When it did, Steve took the credit, but when it didn’t, others took the fall. After MobileMe crashed and burned, rather than accepting responsibility for pushing his team too hard, he lambasted others and transferred the blame. Nice Guy!

By most accounts, Steve Jobs was something of a “genius asshole.” Yes, he was a visionary leader whose creativity, drive and ambition reshaped the way we live. But he was also really mean, selfish, egotistical and insensitive. He lied to Steve Wozniak, his best friend, about the amount of the payment he received from an early purchaser of Apple’s product to cut Wozniak out of his agreed upon split. He yelled at his subordinates, belittled them, and called them and their ideas “stupid.” He demanded that Apple workers work long hours, display unwavering loyalty to the Apple “Mission,” and derided anyone who got in his way, leaving one to question: Do tech entrepreneurs have to be jerks to achieve their visions?

Job’s abusive behavior is hardly uncommon in the tech sector. A common thread connecting many high-level technology leaders is their utter disdain and lack of appreciation for the hard-working employees who toil at great sacrifice to assist their employers in executing their visions. Elon Musk of Tesla is famously abusive to his workers. When Mr. Musk’s dedicated executive assistant of 12 years requested a pay raise, Musk told her to take a two-week vacation so he could think about it. When she returned, he told her the working relationship was over. Mr. Musk’s net worth was more than $12 Billion Dollars at the time. So much for appreciating good support.

Steve Bezos of Amazon is notorious for his rants. Some of his common antics include making disparaging comments about Amazon workers at group meetings. He routinely makes comments like: Are you lazy or just incompetent?” “Why are you wasting my life?” and “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” Bezos outburst are so frequent and predicable that Amazon workers have actually developed a term for them: “nutters.” Lead by Bezos, the corporate culture at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle has become so toxic, that many employees have left, complaining about a dystopian work environment where the credo is “Amazon: a place where over achievers come to feel bad about themselves.” The terribly abusive workplace environment at Amazon is profiled in a fascinating article by Jodi Kantor and David Strietfeld’s in the New York Times August 15, 2015 edition, entitled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” It’s very worthwhile reading and is the most commented upon story in New York Times history. And it’s really a sad story. But eye-opening.

These CEO rants have become legendary—and frequently admired. Legions of aspiring mostly young TechLords roam the San Francisco Bay Area, pumped up on Blue Bottle and Philz coffee with pipe dreams of being the next abusive technology wizard running around their overworked brains. Co-worker abuse gets tolerated under the guise of “challenging collaboration,” a concept adopted by Bezos and Jobs in which team members engaged in unrestrained verbal food fights in which they debate product and marketing strategies, problem solving for operational issues, stratagems, and other workplace issues. These are “no-holds barred” meetings in which employees feel free to use insulting language in challenging their co-workers ideas, work habits, and work execution. Is there any place for plain old-fashioned water cooler talk in the tech sector?

The unfortunate truth is that the technology sector is heavily male-dominated at almost all levels, from programmers, to project managers, to CEOs and CTO’s. And they are mostly younger men, aging anywhere from 24-38. Frankly, many of these titans of the tech industry have the life experience, knowledge, and wisdom of coddled frat boys. And they have money and power. So brace yourself. Until the tech boom bursts (which it will), many are going to have a rough ride.

Many tech workers love working for companies with a demanding corporate ethos and for tech bosses who require nothing but the best efforts, and then some. Thus, many of the workers at Amazon recount glowing stories of how, motivated by Amazon’s high standards, reached goals they never thought were possible. They like the achievements. Some tell stories about how much they miss the intense working environment, even after the work demands caused them to burn out and quit their jobs. Many former Apple employees recount stories about how Jobs inspired them to do things they never thought possible. He was inspirational, spiritual, and dedicated. No one could ever say he didn’t passionately care about the quality of Apple’s products-he did fanatically and his dedication rubbed off on many at Apple. Hence the Ipod, Ipad, and IPhone were born. Thank you Steve. However, the plain sad truth is that, for all of his wonderful qualities, he didn’t really care very much about the quality of the lives of his employees—they were just cogs in his machine-tools he used to achieve his visions. The same is true of Bezos and Musk.

We’re all Against Child Labor, But We Sure Love Our IPhones

These technology leaders put many of us in a conundrum. While we abhor their mistreatment of workers, their egotistical and demeaning behaviors, and the fanatical commitment to a “go big or go home” credo, we love their products. Who doesn’t love a shiny sleek Tesla? Who is willing to throw their IPhone 6 into the San Francisco Bay, even though the phones are assembled
by mostly children working for peanuts in China? Who doesn’t love Amazon’s facile delivery of almost any product we can imagine right to our doorsteps? So what if the Amazon works are monitored to the extent that almost every move they make at work is analyzed and converted into data metrics to measure performance. So, we are willing to a degree of give the tech geniuses a “pass”, to intellectually sidestep their bad behavior in favor of convenience, and to let the Jobs, Bezos and Musks of the world just do their thing. After all, I’ll never suffer through one of their tirades, right?

Many of us certainly seem to worship at the alter of financial wealth. And the Tech Gods have generated that in droves at least for themselves. If money is a marker of success, these tech Gods are successful beyond measure. So what if they stepped on some toes on their patch to glorified riches, right? And so what if they all seem to have fairly miserable personal lives (Bill Gates excepted). Steve Jobs disavowed his daughter Lisa, and her mother, leaving them both penniless when his Apple stock was valued at $400,000,000.

Our culture seems obsessed with people who get their way. We seem to have a rather pathological obsession with individuals who can use their fame, wealth, power, or just sheer will to realize their dreams, build their companies, and make great products. We don’t always think so much about all the hard-working people who actually do much of the work, who support the Tech Gods, in ways large and small.

Well, think again. If you think that the “sicko” corporate culture on display at many tech companies will never affect you, and our culture at large, you are dreaming. Just when you thought that you would never be punished for the times you didn’t give the nerd sitting behind you in high school the proper respect he/she deserves, here they come, armed with CEO titles and big bank accounts. The plain fact of the matter is that usually socially awkward, intense, and intellectually gifted geniuses are shaping the soul of the American workplace in unexpected ways that are not only damaging to workers’ mental and physical health, but in many ways that are just plainly illegal. It’s Revenge of the Nerds on steroids.

Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s management styles, so admired by tech fans, almost singularly focus on demanding unrestricted production and dedication from their workers, with little respect or appreciation returned, something akin to a black hole. The black holes are proliferating. The plain fact is that there are very alarming short-term and long term consequences to all of us from of our culture’s deification and idolization of the abusive boss-The Jobs, the Bezos, and the Musks: many of them are manifesting in our workplaces already. Worker’s are being forced to work in circumstances that are not legal. Reasonable requests for time off for family issues or health are resulting in terminations. Women are being subjected to discrimination because of the “old boy network” that dominates the tech industry. Wage and hour laws are being flouted. Drivers are being misclassified as independent contractors.

How is this happening? What are the consequences? What are the solutions? Stay Tuned. I have some insights in articles to follow.

If you have been the victim of a gargantuan executive ego, please call my office. You may have a case.


Daniel Feder