Big (tech) company bullshit

When I worked for Microsoft, I regularly talked directly to users and customers of the software I worked on. Because nobody tells you each time their code compiles successfully, I’d usually hear from them when things were broken or unsatisfying. Most of these problems would be straightforward - we messed up and regressed something, there was a latent bug in the system someone found, we hadn’t implemented a feature that someone thinks is really important, and so on. But other times there was no easily-explained reasons for something being dissatisfying. I like to consider these reasons as specific examples of what I like to call “big company bullshit”.

You can actually do a lot of good work

Before I get into things are are kinda negative, I want to underscore that big company bullshit isn’t the whole picture when working for a big tech company. There are amazing people there, people who are literally at the top of their field, and fine-tuned sociotechnical systems that can produce amazing software and make shitloads of money by doing it. I learned a lot spending 6 years at Microsoft, and I’d heartily recommend it to someone, especially if they’re early in their career. It’s also a fantastic place for people later in their careers to spend time, narrowing their focus on something specialized, and just being badass world-class experts at that thing indefinitely. I imagine there are similar paths at other big tech companies too.

Big companies are really big

I know it sounds silly to say it, but big companies are really really big. Microsoft is literally the size of a small city with over 180k employees. Google is over 100k employees. Amazon is of a similar size (just on the software side alone - factoring in all of retail operations and they’re mind-bogglingly huge). I cannot even visualize that many people existing, let alone working for a single company to further its business interests.

What some people fail to realize is that it takes a monumental effort for leaders at these massive companies to keep everything from just falling apart. Imagine literally thousands of smart, opinionated people who all have different philosophies on how to do things at the most fundamental levels. Just keeping that all in check without causing everyone to quit in anger is an incredible balancing act that takes up a lot of time and energy.

Consider the following scenario. I might want a particular component installed by default in the software we build. But for anyone who never uses (and will never use) that component, I’m complicating their setup, increasing the impact to their storage, and adding one more thing that could go wrong for them in the future despite them never using it. Whose preferences and needs win? What if this vague thing we like to call “business impact” seems about equal for either side? Will two PMs who represent these different slices of users stand their ground and refuse to budge? Does picking one set of users to “win” set a cultural precedent on the team and in the product that people don’t actually want?

These scenarios are a lot easier to manage when the group of people is small. And indeed, that’s why teams exist and generally have aligned interests. But a lot of stuff done at big companies crosses org boundaries, and it’s very rarely the case that interests are aligned there. I don’t envy people whose job is to manage that.

Important things often devolve into politics

When a product or circumstance isn’t worth the attention of someone who has a fancy title at a big tech company, things are usually all good. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is small or doesn’t have a lot of users. It could be big, with lots of users! But if things are stable, predictable, and anything new that comes up doesn’t impact fancy title-level priorities, people at big tech companies are largely free to just execute and do the right things.

But when things matter - when the eye of sauron is on you, so to speak - the lizard brain kicks in. People stop focusing on things that matter to their customers, but rather “because so-and-so said this was important”, where “so-and-so” usually has a fancy title and enormous power and authority within the company. Let’s say some folks partner up to solve a really difficult problem for their product, and that problem is one that people with fancy titles are paying a lot of attention to. The big question is no longer if it’s the right solution for users, or if it’s technically feasible; but rather if it’s something that people with fancy titles will agree is the right call. It’s turtles all the way down, except the turtles are just appeals to authority. I’ve always believed that most of the time, most of the people who have the fancy titles don’t want this to happen at all, and actually do just want things to stay rooted in customer experiences. But that’s not always the case, and it kind of doesn’t matter what they want anyways, people human beings have lizard brains and a lot of them will just do whatever they think people with fancy titles will think is great work.

The absolute worst situation is when an initiative will very clearly benefit your product and, by extension, the organization you’re in, but it runs the risk of diluting the value of another product and organization. When this happened to me and I realized what was going on, I eventually just threw my hands in the air and disassociated from that project entirely. I had much more fulfilling and clear-cut things on my plate that I could do, so I just did those things instead. Things like “data” or “what a customer says” are immaterial when something gets to this stage. It’s one fancy title’s ego and FUD vs. another fancy title’s ego and FUD. Everyone else is just along for the ride. Do you want off Mr. Corporate Ego’s Wild Ride? Pick a different project.

The money exists but it just isn’t for you

Since I’ve been working at a startup for the past 7 months, I’ve come to appreciate that there are very real constraints in this world. When your customers want something important, and you do not have the budget, people, and time to accomplish it, it hurts. It also forces you to be really careful about how you prioritize things!

In big companies worth billions or trillions of dollars, the constraints just feel artificial. Seemingly of nowhere, a big tech company can announce that will buy another company for more money than the GDP of several countries combined. And yet that same tech company will then have employees tell someone that there “aren’t enough resources” to fix a bug or implement a critical feature. It’s not convincing to users, and it never felt convincing when I had to give that same vague message to users and customer myself.

Having seen a little bit into what goes on from a budget standpoint (on the order of tens of millions/year), I can safely say it’s complicated. Having a very fancy title doesn’t automatically give someone superpowers. They may have a seat at a table to argue for a bigger slice of the pie, but they can’t wave a wand and fund their favorite team just because they’ve got a very fancy title. I think there are some titles out there that are sufficiently fancy enough to let someone fund what they want. But I’m also less convinced that people with these titles are in control of things to the degree that we like to think they are.

Suffice to say, yes, the money exists. It’s there and it’s real. There is the ability to fund a product or team to a ridiculous degree in big tech companies. But it’s practically unreachable for people even with very fancy titles, let alone people who just write code or call themselves a product manager. I can think of some justifications for why, but I won’t bother trying to justify why. It just is. I’ve only interacted with one person who had the ability to make big financial moves on the order of tens of millions per year happen. My contribution to that discussion was to smile, nod, and be present should a more technical question come up. Maybe this is what it’s like to work in a US Government agency?

People with fancy titles prioritize control, of which they have surprisingly little

There’s got to be some law out there that says something like, “the higher up a corporate ladder you climb, the more you care about controlling things” because it sure does feel that way. Just because a product is a raging success to the world doesn’t mean it’s seen that way internally. A product could be spiraling out of control, but its direction is up up up! Incredible adoption, but from a network effect that nobody controls or can predict, and shutting down that network would spell disaster. I’ve learned that this is a nightmare scenario for people with sufficiently fancy titles. They nominally own something that they can’t control. You could argue they don’t really own it if that’s the case, right?

A part of this naturally comes from scale. If you’re in charge of hundreds or more people, you cannot possibly understand what’s going on in day-to-day operations. And when you do, you run a serious risk of being out of your depth and alienating people whose boots are on the ground, grinding out product changes that solve real problems for people. I believe that if you have principles that most people agree with, then the human structure underneath you will largely do predictable things and a product will evolve predictably. But if you don’t have good principles, or if you make the grave error of having confusing or conflicting ones, then nothing will be good for anyone. People will be scared to do what they believe is right, especially if they have some data to suggest it is, which means they could make the person with the fancy title look bad, which turns on that lizard brain again and people go full-on fearful. Or they just won’t care what happens and will do it anyways, get scolded, and cause someone else a bunch of stress.

Once I learned that controlling things (narrative, product trajectory, whatever) is a top priority for people with fancy titles at big tech companies, I became a lot less frustrated with why things were the way they were. I’d still have some frustrations about things, but I’d at least understand why, and when I understand why something is the way it is, it gives me boundaries for decision-making that I can find a way to work with. Or ignore entirely, and work on something that they don’t have the time or energy to care about.

I can’t realistically imagine a better way

I’m not terribly creative, so I can’t imagine things working differently, and that’s all I have to say about that.