Enterprise AI: We're hiring!

March 16, 2019 (1118 words) :: San Francisco is filled with billboards advertising little more than the idea of working at a tech startup.
Tags: startups, working-in-tech

This post is day 75 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Take the 8th street exit off Highway 80 Southbound, and you’ll see the following billboard:

Billboard for c3.ai which just says: Enterprise AI / we're hiring In this photo, the logo for c3.ai is partially obscured by the roof of a now-defunct gas station.

This is a fairly typical SF billboard whose enigmatic brevity speaks volumes about the conventions of employment here, in this epicentre of tech startups. Enterprise AI to do what, exactly? What sort of enterprise, and what sort of AI? To a casual observer - unfamiliar with tech industry norms - this lack of clarity would be troubling.

But clarity isn’t the point, after all. Describing a startup’s function as “Enterprise AI” is a signifier, meant to convey a particular type of corporation and all the wealth trappings associated with it: VC funding, fast growth, catered lunch. You don’t have to worry your pretty little head about what the startup does, god no. Just take the stock options and health insurance and don’t ask too many questions.

Tech workers of the more conscientious variety are likely to have a tough time finding work that satisfies their personal ethical code. None of the big tech companies seem especially great at this point, having been rocked by scandals around paying off execs accused of sexual misconduct, horrible treatment of contractors, and collaborating with various repressive arms of the state, to mention only a few.

Smaller companies may seem a better option in this climate, but they have a much smaller number of jobs available, and they tend to pay less, too. Plus, most of them aren’t exactly forthright about what exactly they are prepared to do to make money, either, preferring instead to brandish meaningless slogans about innovation and efficiency.

The careers page for c3.ai, the “enterprise AI” startup from the billboard shown above, is a perfect case in point. Here’s what it says at the very top of the page:

Endless Inspiration. Hard Challenges. Big Impact.

C3 is a world-class company comprised of professionals who don’t rest on their accomplishments, but constantly strive to improve and innovate. Join us in meaningful work.

The whole page is really incredible, because nowhere on the page do they make even the slightest bit of effort to explain what the hell they actually do. “Improve and innovate” - on what? “Meaningful work” - doing what? In the core values section, it is stated that they “execute with precision”, full stop; what precisely it is that they execute is never explained. Presumably the reader is left to fill in the gap with a vague gesture at “enterprise AI”.

So if the careers page doesn’t illuminate what the company actually does, then what’s on it? Well, most of the page is devoted to explaining the numerous wonderful benefits of working at this company (all the things I mentioned above, plus more). They promise a life of financial security and even happiness, to be attained through games of ping-pong and weekly happy hours.

The point of this post isn’t really to shit on c3.ai, a company I know very little about except what I gleaned from their website just now. They’re probably not worse than your average tech company. The point is that their approach to hiring is emblematic of a broader problem with the contemporary economy, where workers as a class have very little power, and even those who we normally think of as having more power (software engineers, for example) have less power than they should.

This is something we mostly take for granted when it comes to low-wage work. We know that people who work in Amazon warehouses are not doing so because they’ve carefully considered all the possible companies in the world and have decided that Amazon, out of all of them, is the company whose values they most agree with; their reasons for working are overwhelmingly financial, the obvious result of being a worker with nothing to sell but labour-power. But when it comes to high-wage work - software engineering at Amazon, for example - the choices aren’t so great, either. Pretty much every major tech company has a sketchy contract of some sort, providing facial recognition for police departments, or assisting the US military in waging endless war, or helping ICE to deport people; and in recent months, workers have been resisting this through the #TechWontBuildIt movement.

In this context, it’s pretty baffling to come across a company that pushes this idea of “meaningful” work without ever once defining what that is. I guess potential applicants are just supposed to take for granted that “enterprise AI” is automatically going to be good for the world, and that meaning can be achieved by “enabling companies to leverage data to innovate and deliver the services their customers demand”. The moral underpinnings of capitalism don’t even have to be asserted, because they are simply assumed: consumer demand is good, markets are good, enterprise AI is good. Surely everyone recognises this, right?

Not quite. Enterprise AI can mean a lot of things, depending on what exactly it is doing - i.e., all the things your typical “Enterprise AI” company won’t tell you on their careers page.

There are some who characterise the desire to work somewhere ethical as misguided, naive, idealistic. As much as I support the idea of working at a company you don’t think is ethical for the purpose of organising to make it so, I recognise that’s not for everyone. Everybody should have the ability to work in a way that aligns with their values. That so many are unable despite having lots of structural power (especially marketplace bargaining power) tells us something about the constraints of the tech industry at large. As Jimmy Wu writes in this excellent piece for Commune, there are structural failings of the tech industry that prevent this from being so, as the projects most likely to get funded are those whose values are in line with capital’s. This isn’t the only way to run a tech industry: we should be pushing for an world where “only projects in direct or indirect service to people and planet will have any hope of being funded”.

Once we’ve achieved that, would there still be billboards that say nothing other than “c3.ai - Enterprise AI - We’re Hiring”? Maybe, actually - specialisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing itself. But at least then we’d know that working there would actually be good for the world.

If you want to see more photos SF billboards, check out this extensive tweet thread by Bay Area resident and writer Rick Paulas.

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