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On September 4, 2018, I appeared as a guest on the Office Block podcast, with Paul Dillon of the Financial Services Union as the host. The episode was released on September 24. Below you can find the audio (embedded from SoundCloud) as well as an abridged transcript (just my part in the latter half, starting around 24 minutes in - the interview with Declan Peach of Game Workers Unite is the first half).

My background

I started coding when I was pretty young, and as a result, my transition into the tech industry proper just felt kind of natural. I started building websites when I was twelve; I started contributing to open source projects not long after; and it felt like a natural progression to keep writing code.

I did computer science in university. While I was there, I did a lot of part-time jobs and side projects where I was writing code, mostly web apps.

And then I got an internship offer from Google my third year of university, and I took that. And everyone had made it seem like working at Google was some master prize - the thing that you should be aiming for - and I was really looking forward to that. But I had a really awful experience, and it just seemed very mundane. It felt like any other corporate job.

I had believed all the hype around tech and software engineering as being something different, and so even though I got a return offer and was planning to go back to Google full-time, I ended up not doing that. Just to avoid what I saw as the corporate drudgery of working at Google full-time.

[Instead, I] started a tech company. That was about three and a half years ago; the tech company has since been sold, and I no longer intend to work in tech or start a company in tech ever again. So I had a bit of a journey, you could say.

Paul: Tell me about your journey from a tech worker to a tech startup founder, and then to a tech activist. What are the levers here? What’s driving this journey?

I had definitely a bit of an unusual journey, and the place that I am in now - I could never have imagined that I’d be here. I never even considered any sort of political activism or anything remotely resembling politics to be part of my potential career path.

When I first started doing the company, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was the sort of thing that I did because I just really did not want to go back to Google.

I think a lot of people in tech have this idea that they’re going to start a startup, and because it’s gonna be their own startup - because they get to do whatever they want -it’s gonna be so much more fulfilling than working at a big company.

And in some ways, it is; it is really nice to have freedom. It is nice to work on a small team with people that you like. But at the same time, the big problem for us was that we had this product that we didn’t really care about. Essentially what we were building is, we were selling consumer data to people.

And it’s just the marketing technology space - we weren’t really sure we were doing; we kept pivoting until we had some sort of product that we could sell. But it essentially involved taking data from social media sites and transforming that into actionable insights that we could sell to corporations to help them develop a better marketing strategy.

And that’s something that none of us really cared about on a personal level. It wasn’t some sort of problem that kept us up at night; we did it because that technology (at least for me) was fun to build, and it was a really cool technical challenge. But also, because we didn’t really know what we were supposed to do.

There is this idea in the startup world that you’re supposed to solve problems based on trying things. If you’re a smart young person, all you have to do is assemble a good team, get some money, and then just keep trying to build products that people will buy.

And there’s very little about building something that’s actually socially useful. A lot of the message that venture capitalists and prominent founders like to peddle is that it’s all about solving for the customer. You build something that people will use, and that’s all that matters. All you have to care about is user growth. Without thinking, am I building something that’s actually useful for the world in the first place?

That’s definitely something that myself and my co-founders bought into. We didn’t really care what we were building; we just saw the startup as some sort of jumping-off point for whatever we would do next. There was always this idea that, if we have a great startup now - if we managed to sell for a lot of money - then we can go on and do what we actually want to do.

But none of us knew what we wanted to do. It was always this thing that we kept in our minds to try to justify ourselves to ourselves so we could sleep better at night, even though we knew what we were doing was unethical in terms of violating user privacy. And also ultimately meaningless - not something that the world actually needed. For one, because we had so many competitors who were doing essentially the same thing we did, with technology that wasn’t that different from ours. What were we actually innovating on? Not very much.

And so, as a result of spending several years doing that, and being submerged in this marketing/advertising technology world, I got really disillusioned. I started, thinking why am I doing this? Is there a good reason that I’m spending 70-80 hours a week working on this technology that I fundamentally don’t believe in?

And I started rethinking all the assumptions that had got me to that point. I started thinking about all the startup blogs I used to read, all the people I would follow on Twitter, and wonder, is the message that they’re selling - is this something that’s actually good for me? Or good for the world? Or is it just good for themselves, and is it just good for this very particular model of technological development, that is ultimately about keeping wealth in the hands of a very few people, as opposed to actually making the world a better place (which is what the tech industry loves to pretend it’s doing).

So I started reading books, I started branching out in terms of where I was getting information, following different people on Twitter, finding more critical voices around tech.

In the process, I kind of discovered politics. I especially I discovered left politics. Because before that, I was really only familiar with the mainstream political scene. I thought there was only liberalism and conservatism, and those were the only options. No one told me that there was a left beyond liberalism that involved, say, unions - I didn’t know anything about unions.

On Tech Workers Coalition

Paul: Tell us about the Tech Workers Coalition, and other efforts to organise tech workers. What’s working out there?

So the Tech Workers Coalition is still pretty new. It’s just a few years old, and it’s a very amorphous group - unlike game workers unite, there’s a much less formal structure, and there’s no plans to affiliate with a union any time soon. It’s really just a group of like-minded people who are interested in what it means to build worker power in the tech industry.

As a result, it draws a pretty diverse crowd. You have people who are already very politically active - maybe they organise with a socialist group or a union or something - and then you have people who have never done anything political in their lives, but they’ve heard about what Tech Workers Coalition does, or they just like the idea of workers having more power, and they just want to know more. There’s a lot of room for trying to figure out what this is.

The problem with the tech industry is that it’s a bit of a greenfield industry, in that there haven’t been a lot of successful organizing efforts that people can draw on. There have been things around adjacent industries, or particular sectors of the tech industry, that have had successes.

But as a whole, if you think about what it means to organize highly-paid software engineers working at Google or whatever, it’s a bit of an open question. There are so many things to be resolved, including the fact that a lot of these people have a lot of stock in the company. And so that’s that’s not something that you could really see in previous industries in the same way.

These people have a lot of stock; they have great benefits, great working conditions most of the time; and they’re exposed to this very different narrative: this idea that it’s a meritocracy. They got to where they are because they’re the best, and because they’re the best, they deserve more than some of their peers, and the people who aren’t in the tech industry.

And so you have a lot of challenges that that any efforts to build worker power will have to come up.

Tech workers compared to games workers

Paul: tell me about your impression of our interview with Declan Peach of Game Workers Unite. You’re the expert in the area; are the issues facing game workers distinct from other workers in tech? And what are the likelihood of a successful drive in game workers and tech at this moment in time?

So I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in this area - a lot of this is very new to me as well; I only just discovered the whole concept of worker power a few months ago, and I’ve been trying to read up and learn whatever I can from people who’ve been involved. I’m still trying to figure this out.

In terms of the difference between the games industry: a few months ago I chaired an event which included someone from Game Workers Unite. Some of the discussion was really illuminating, and Declan talked about it a bit as well: the games industry is halfway between Hollywood and the rest of the tech industry (Google or Facebook or startups). So it’s a little bit different, because it’s this industry driven by these hits. Where you have projects that go on for a while, but then they’re done.

And it’s less stable, and there are more peaks and troughs. Whereas in the traditional tech industry - if a company fails, or goes through a layoff, that’s a failure. That’s not a good thing; that’s less common. But in games, it’s more the base case - that’s to be expected. You have a big studio that snaps up this game that they’re gonna be building, and then when that game’s done, they lay off all their stuff. And this is closer to the entertainment industry (like Hollywood).

So it’s a bit of a different model. And there’s there’s less of an expectation that you’re going to be working on a company full-time. And as a result, the work is inherently just a little more precarious. But because of that - what we’ve seen in Hollywood is that because the work has been more precarious, you have had unions popping up more, because people need them. It’s more necessary.

The traditional tech industry is a bit different, because you don’t have the same sort of precarity. People do expect to be able to work somewhere for a long time, and they have a higher expectation of being able to switch companies if they want.

And so I think, because of that, it’s gonna be harder. You’re gonna see the games industry build worker power a lot more quickly than Silicon Valley proper.

At the same time, there are definitely lessons that can be learned from what’s happening in the games industry, because they’re very similar. Similar technical skills, but also similar ideology.

One of the big things with the games industry is that a lot of exploitation happens under cover of passion. Passion as a shield deflecting from the exploitation actually happening. Where the bosses are like, it’s okay that you don’t get paid overtime - you should overlook the fact that you’re not getting paid overtime, or that your wages are so low, or that your hours are so long - because you love what you’re doing. Surely only here because you love what you’re doing. As a result, you almost don’t deserve better conditions, because you’re lucky enough to have a job that you enjoy.

In tech, it’s kind of similar, except I would say the conditions are usually somewhat better, and the wages are often quite good. But there’s definitely this idea of passion, and that people who are driven, people who are good workers, are the ones who are staying late and working really hard and doing work after hours. Constantly going to conferences, investing in themselves, and doing everything they can to make sure they do a really good job as workers.

This is something that’s starting to creep into other industries as well. It’s important to remember that this is good for the employer; this is not good for the workers themselves. Workers should not have to constantly check their phone all the time; constantly be investing in their technical education just so that they can stay on top of their job. The expectation is just a way of increasing exploitation - for the company to extract more and more value out of the worker, while not having to pay them as much as they’re getting.

Exploiting passion

Paul: I’m just intrigued by that, because it seems that one of the issues that we’re encountering here is the fact that a lot of people are highly motivated, highly skilled, and highly engaged, and that can be exploited by employers.

Definitely, and this is something that I personally really believed in, and it’s only the last couple years that I startede to realize how that kind of worldview was not really good for me, but definitely very good for capital.

When I first started programming and I did a lot of open source stuff, I was driven to do it not because I was making money - because I wasn’t making money - but because I loved it. Because I really liked contributing to projects like that; I loved the technical challenges. And that’s an amazing thing, and it’s wonderful that people can do that, but the thing is, corporations are exploiting that. They’re taking advantage of that. They’re taking advantage of it in a way that is good for them but not necessarily as good for the workers as it should be.

As much as there’s this idea that people working these coveted software development jobs are making a lot of money - they’re making a lot, but the company is making so much more. There was this study that looked at how much Apple was making (in terms of profit) and how much employees could be making if it was, say, a worker-owned co-op. It came out to something like $400,000 per employee, and that’s including all employees.

It’s really important to keep in mind the high salaries in tech relative to the actual profits of tech. Most of the profits in tech - they’re not going to workers. They’re going to capital: they’re going to shareholders, they’re going to stock grants for management.

Paul: I think something that should be borne in mind in this conversation is the whole issue of working time. You mentioned it there yourself in terms of hours worked - that’s become a huge issue in Ireland. We’ve a tech and information sector of about 92,000. Now, trade unionization of the sector is relatively low. But a huge issue that we see in the financial services union is this whole area of stress caused by out-of-hours work. Is that something that you’ve seen, in your experience?

Yeah, definitely. I think it depends on the company, and it depends on the role. I remember when I was interning at Google, I personally was not super enthused, so I didn’t work on it a lot after-hours, but I had some friends who did, and they were really keen to impress their manager or maybe they really liked what they were working on, or maybe they were afraid that they wouldn’t get a return offer, or they just had to prove themselves in some way. And so they would take their work home, they would stay at work really late, they’d be working on the weekends.

And they did this for a bunch of reasons, but ultimately, is this good for the worker themselves? No, because then they’re making their lives around work. They don’t have the time to pursue other things that they might care about. This is definitely something that these companies like to encourage.

Especially startups - I would say it’s worse at a lot of startups. Especially if you’re an early employee at a start-up, there’s this expectation that the startup is your life. It’s your baby. You have to constantly be thinking about it. I’ve seen investors and founders write blog posts insulting anyone who dares work a 40-hour workweek in Silicon Valley. As if having a life and having a family are things that should be discouraged because you have to give it all to your startup.

If you think about it: who is that narrative benefiting? That’s benefiting the people who are gonna make money off of this - investors and founders - at the expense of people having actual lives where they get to do what they want. It’s making work into this really central part of existence, when it really shouldn’t.

My vision for the sector

Paul: Tell me just a little bit about what your vision for work in the sector would be. What would it look like?

That’s abig question! I guess I can only think in terms of concrete, small steps right now. The way I see it: the way technology is developed, it’s just so fundamentally flawed. Partly because of the way Silicon Valley works, where you have all this wealth and power concentrated within a very small geographic area, and it’s this very imperialist, American way of developing technology. That’s a huge problem. The way exploitation works the industry, that’s also a huge problem.

And so, grappling with an issue of this magnitude is really tricky. But there are some steps that could make things better.

One proposal I’ve seen being floated is the idea of electing workers to boards. This is something that Elizabeth Warren, the US Senator, has proposed. I don’t think this is perfect - for one, this is something that is already being done in various European countries, and it has stemmed inequality increased somewhat, but it’s not a silver bullet or anything. But that could be a first step.

At a lot of tech companies, it’s this very top-down driven model, where it’s the founder or the executives making all the decisions. Workers themselves - the ones who are actually building the technology that these companies profit from - they have so little say in what actually happens. They might be able to decide how to implement something - they might have some say in terms of technical decisions - but in terms of actually setting the metrics that guide larger product decisions, they don’t really have any say, nor any expectation of a say.

I think that is a huge problem. One way you counter that is by having worker representation on boards. And this could start small, but it should increase over time.

That could also be linked to this idea of increasing employee ownership of companies. And this is something that was proposed in Sweden in I think the 70s or 80s, called the Meidner plan. There’s the version that was implemented, and there’s a more radical version that would have eventually seen almost every company in Sweden being owned by employees (with a majority share).

I think there’s something to be learned from there - that didn’t go through at the time for a bunch of contingent reasons, but the the whole idea is to ensure that shareholders are reduced in privacy. Trying to get rid of the power that shareholders have, because we’re starting to realize that shareholders aren’t really adding value, and that this shareholder-driven model of running corporations is actually causing a lot of problems, especially in the tech industry. I think the way to push back against that is to give employees more ownership over their companies.

Ultimately, there’s a larger goal. It’s not about just giving employees more of a say over their companies, and ending there. The whole point is to shift the balance of power between capital and labour, in favor of labour.

From there, you open up the possibilities of more radical policy proposals happening. Right now, we’re in a situation where (especially in the US and the UK, but really across the board) union density is declining. The power of organised labour has been dropping across the board.

That itself will shift the terrain in terms of political possibilities. And so, if you have unions or some form of organized worker power within the tech industry - this extremely valorised and glamorised sector, one that the media is constantly talking about, that’s being looked at as this way of saving capitalism (because this is where innovation is happening, this is where growth is happening) … a lot of policymakers are trying to build their own version of Silicon Valley in their own country. If you have an industry like that, where workers are standing up and saying: we don’t like the status quo, we demand more power, more of a say in how things are run, we want more collective power; that could actually shift the balance of class forces throughout everywhere in the global economy.

Once you shift the balance of class forces, you open up the door to a very different world. Much more radical political possibilities.