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What Carolyn Chen doesn't get about Silicon Valley

First things first: Carolyn Chen’s book “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley” is an insightful analysis of what happens when corporations encroach into the spiritual space of their employees, a phenomenon any tech worker will be familiar with. It’s a good book, it draws many good analogies between religion and work and it

There’s been many essays, op-eds and books written about how Silicon Valley companies fulfill roles where local or state government fails, e.g., by providing free shuttle buses or nurseries. Chen’s book provides insight into the world of corporate mindfulness retreats and apps, washed-down Buddhism stripped of any religiousness, and is yet another analysis of wealth disparity in the Bay Area. It’s a good book, even though it’s repetitive at times, and even though it sometimes reads like a collection of loosely coupled essays or papers.

I think perhaps the only thing this book gets wrong (and this it shares with every other op-ed or book I have read on the topic) is why it’s so easy to keep engineers at work all the time. Chen writes that tech workers are socially passive, that they don’t care about their communities, they don’t vote and they don’t go to the park. She concludes it’s because they work long hours, and that their work simply consumes them, and becomes their life and their religion. That’s true, but what the author seems to fail to understand is just why software engineers are the way they are.

Software engineers are much like academics. Majority of them are introverts that like math. They wear hoodies, they play Dungeons & Dragons, they subscribe to Scientific American and Nature, and they love solving riddles. This species of a human being has existed since forever, of course, mechanical or structural engineers, or scientists, were the most common professions a software engineer type would have to choose in the past. Silicon Valley changed two things: it gave software engineers lots of money and it told them they don’t have to comply with societal norms. The type of intellect or mentality that is widely represented amongst software engineers was always skeptical towards religion, loved science and evidence-based arguments. But in the past they were a middle class employee, a drone at the mercy of their managers, being paid mediocre salaries and subjected to processes and regulations (which is still the case in many traditional engineering fields like civil engineering), or convoluted rituals and job insecurity (which is still the case in academia). Suddenly, a new field of work emerged—software engineering—which allowed for short feedback loops and carried low risk of failure; and even in case of failure, software is considerably cheaper to fix in comparison to other fields of engineering. On top of all that, it suddenly turned out that you can make billions running a tech company, and managers realized you will attract the best talent if you pay engineers finance/legal-sector money and then some, and suddenly the whole conformity wasn’t needed anymore. Majority of software engineers, I’d wager, love coding. Even if they don’t necessarily love their jobs, they love the work, because it’s often their hobby, something they enjoy doing in their free time.

If that’s all the case, why would they ever leave work?