I’m finishing Lab Rats by Dan Lyons and feeling thoroughly depressed but laughing about it. The feeling is like a go-to-bed-pull-the-shades-suck-my-thumb level of depressed while watching the Three Stooges. I was laughing before I finished the foreword.
Lab Rats follows Lyons’ 2017 best-selling Disrupted, and as a bit of a sequel, it takes a horrifying look at the peculiar culture of contemporary companies which he experienced first hand at Hubspot, a successful Cambridge, MA marketing software company. Disrupted landed with a bang in 2017, largely because a few executives got fired or censured by Hubspot’s board of directors for some weirdness involving the FBI and an investigation by the company’s law firm amidst rumors of extortion against the publisher, Harper-Collins.* It also is a very accurate and very funny account of what it feels like to be a fifty-something disrupted by transformation and reduced to going to work at a modern company that fires people and says they were “graduated,” invites a teddy bear to attend meetings to represent the customer, and substitutes wages for benefits such as a beer garden, candy wall, ping pong tables and bean bag chairs.
Dan, who was a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley for two seasons following his misadventure at Hubspot, is a great humorist, but also a great reporter, and his experience at Hubspot hit a chord with readers who flooded his inbox with confessions of their own workplace despair inflicted on them by incompetent managers, unscrupulous venture capitalists, and bullshit management theories that combines to make their office feel more like the Stanford prison experiment and less like the world-changing adventures the corporate mission statements, principles, values, DNA wall plaques and culture codes proclaimed they were.
Soin the aftermath of Disrupted Dan went on the road and headed back to Silicon Valley, which he’s covered since the early 80s for PC Week, Forbes, Newsweek, the New York Times, Wired and GQ (and lampooned for two gloriously funny years when he anonymously gave the world The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.)
He opens with a lunch meeting somewhere in Menlo Park. He’s seated with a woman who uses Legos to train employees to reveal their secrets and fears and gel together as a “team.” After trying to hypnotize him, the Lego Lady asks him to make a duck out of the pieces. He hands her a single piece and declares that’s his duck.
From the sweatshop conditions imposed by power-crazed venture capitalists who commit smash-and-grab public offerings by taking unprofitable startups public on the strength of a business model that essentially comes down to selling dollar bills for $0.75 cents, to Orwellian companies that plant moles amongst their employees and encourage snitching while reading those employees emails and instant messages, Lab Rats is about the perversion of modern work into a series of two-year tours of duty where the rank and file are subjected to a barrage of bizarre management theories ranging from Agile and Lean Startup, to Legos and the Holacracy.
Having ended my own 3.5 year tour of duty in a software startup last March, I guess the book is picking off some scabs that I had left unscratched for the past few months while I recovered from the trauma of the open office, buzzword bingo, constant Slack interruptions, fights with the CEO over “purpose statements” and bullshit marketinglessness words like “Digital Experience.” The insanity of the modern startup, with its founders’ lemming-like drive to hustle their way to riches like their heroes Gary V., Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Eric Ries, the infliction of new “productivity apps” that aren’t productive at all, the constant surveys from the HR department to gauge morale, the team-building exercises, the meetings about meetings …..Dan writes in a target-rich environment tailor made for his are-you-shitting-me sense of humor.
Goodbye to all that. All I can say in my old age is thank God I’m not 23 and saddled with a lot of college loans and dragging my butt into an office that looks like a day care center where nothing gets accomplished and the only certainty is getting fired.
I now work at a place with no instant messaging, no interruptions, private offices, no quarterly morale surveys, no ping pong, no bullshit and I’ve never been happier. There are no meetings to plan meetings, no cheery emails declaring some co-worker is a “Super Star,” no reboots of the corporate strategy every quarter when the next management fad comes along to hypnotize the boss.
I’ve never been happier, but I’ll also never forget the utter despair of modern digital marketing in an industry where “culture” comes down to reducing people to disposable beings who are measured, monitored, and berated into suicidal despair.
Dan doesn’t dwell on the outrageous excesses of corporate culture emanating from the Valley. He shows some companies that actually subscribe to the old theory that “contented cows give more milk” and that employee happiness — starting with their compensation — actually makes for a better company, a true culture, and ultimately better products.
* All’s well that ends well for those Hubspot execs — the stock went public at $30 and now trades around $130 — and one wound up as CEO of another hot company.
**Dan and I were colleagues at publications ranging from our high school newspaper through The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, PC Week, and Forbes.