Silicon Valley's 'pressure cooker:' Thrive or get out

Silicon Valley's 'pressure cooker:'  Thrive or get out
Credit: Stockbyte

Spotlight may be on Amazon, but tech jobs are high profit and high stress


It's true. People working in Silicon Valley may cry at their desks, may be expected to respond to emails in the middle of the night, and may be in the office when they'd rather be sick in bed.

But that's the price employees pay to work for some of the most successful and innovative tech companies in the world, according to industry analysts.

"It's a pressure cooker for tech workers," said Bill Reynolds, research director for Foote Partners LLC, an IT workforce research firm. "But for every disgruntled employee, someone will tell you it's fine. This is the ticket to working in this area and they're willing to pay it."

The tech industry has been like this for years, he added.

Employees are either Type A personalities who thrive on the pressure, would rather focus on a project than get a full night's sleep and don't mind pushing or being pushed.

If that's not who they are, they should get another job and probably in another industry.

"A lot of tech companies failed, and the ones that made it, made it based on a driven culture. No one made it working 9 to 5," said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an executive outplacement firm. "Silicon Valley has been the vanguard of this type of work culture. It can get out of control. It can be too much and people can burn out. But it's who these companies are."

Work culture at tech companies, specifically at Amazon, hit the spotlight earlier this week when the New York Times ran a story on the online retailer and what it called its "bruising workplace."

The story talked about employees crying at their desks, working 80-plus-hour weeks and being expected to work when they're not well or after a family tragedy.

"At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another's ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are "unreasonably high," the article noted.

In response, CEO Jeff Bezos sent a memo to employees saying he didn't recognize the company described in the Times article.

"The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day," Bezos wrote. "More broadly, I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market."

Bezos hasn't been the only one at Amazon to respond. Nick Ciubotariu, head of Infrastructure development at, wrote a piece on LinkedIn, taking on the Times article.

"During my 18 months at Amazon, I've never worked a single weekend when I didn't want to. No one tells me to work nights," he wrote. "We work hard, and have fun. We have Nerf wars, almost daily, that often get a bit out of hand. We go out after work. We have 'Fun Fridays.' We banter, argue, play video games and Foosball. And we're vocal about our employee happiness."

Working for the big players

Amazon has high expectations of its workers because it's one of the largest and most successful companies in the world, according to industry analysts.

The company, which started as an online book store, now sells everything from cosmetics to bicycles and toasters. With a valuation of $250 billion, Amazon even surpassed mega retailer Walmart this summer as the biggest retailer in the U.S.

With that kind of success comes a lot of pressure to stay on top and to come up with new, innovative ways to keep customers happy.

That kind of challenge can lead to a stressful workplace where employees are called on to work long hours and to outwork competitors' own employees.

It's just the way of the beast, according to Victor Janulaitis, CEO of Janco Associates Inc., a management consulting firm.

"If you go to work for a high-powered company where you have a chance of being a millionaire in a few years, you are going to work 70 to 80 hours a week," he said. "You are going to have to be right all the time and you are going to be under a lot of stress. Your regular Joe is really going to struggle there."

This kind of work stress isn't relegated to Amazon alone. Far from it, Janulaitis said.

"I think it's fairly widespread in any tech company that is successful," he noted. "It's just a very stressful environment. You're dealing with a lot of money and a lot of Type A personalities who want to get things done. If you're not a certain type of person, you're not going to make it. It's much like the Wild West. They have their own rules."

Of course, tech companies, whether Amazon, Google, Apple or Facebook, are known to work people hard, going back to the days when IBM was launching its first PCs and Microsoft was making its Office software ubiquitous around the world.

However, tech companies also are known for giving their employees perks that people working in other industries only dream of.

Google, for instance, has world-class chefs cooking free food for its employees, while also setting up nap pods, meditation classes and sandy volleyball courts.

Netflix recently made global headlines for offering mothers and fathers unlimited time off for up to a year after the birth or adoption of a child.

It's the yin and yang of Silicon Valley, said Megan Slabinski, district president of Robert Half Technology, a human resources consulting firm.

"All those perks - the ping pong tables, the free snacks, the free day care -- that started in the tech industry come with the job because the job is so demanding," she said. "There's a level of demand in the tech industry that translates to the work environment."

When asked if Amazon is any harder on its employees than other major tech companies, Slabinski laughed.

"Amazon isn't different culturally from other IT companies," she said. "I've been doing this for 16 years. You see the good, the bad and the ugly. If you are working for tech companies, the expectation is you are going to work really hard. This is bleeding-edge technology, and the trade-off is there's less work-life balance. The people who thrive in this industry, thrive on being on the bleeding edge. If you can't take it, you go into another industry."

Janulaitis noted that top-tier employees are always chased by other companies, but middle-tier workers -- those who are doing a good job but might not be the brightest stars of the workforce -- are hunkering down and staying put.

Fears of a still jittery job market have convinced a lot of people to keep their heads down, put up with whatever their managers ask of them and continue to be able to pay their mortgages, especially if they live in pricey Silicon Valley.

That, said Janulaitis, makes companies more apt to ask even more from their employees, who know they're likely stuck where they are for now.

"Once the job market changes, turnover will increase significantly in the IT field," he said.

Like stock traders working under extreme pressure on Wall Street or medical interns working 36-hour shifts, the tech industry is a high-stress environment - one that's not suited to every worker.

"If you can't live with that pressure, you should go somewhere else," said Reynolds. "For people in Silicon Valley, it's who they are. It's the kind of person they are."

This story, "Silicon Valley's 'pressure cooker:' Thrive or get out" was originally published by Computerworld.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies