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The Technology Ouroboros: Did We Build It Too Well?

A day of introspection from your local Site Reliability Engineer

By Ashley McGeePublished about a year ago 9 min read
The Technology Ouroboros: Did We Build It Too Well?
Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

The day before yesterday, and throughout the majority of this week, the tech industry has been seized by a malignant force, a terror the likes of which many of us feel immune to. We, so high up in our bedroom offices at our reasonably-acquired standing desks, are typically untouched by such plebian concerns as lay-offs, market crashes, housing bubble bursts. We attend our meetings as usual. The world around us burns while we take our computers home to work on our high-speed internet. Crises are reserved for the lower class (to whom I belong). Usually, when markets go belly up, they don't drag the tech industry with them. We weather storms that destroy other industries. Hurricanes, floods, fires, pandemics, it's the tech industry that maintains it's weird autonomy in the face of wide-spread collapse. It is the Cult Of The Machine (as we say in Warhammer 40k) that maintains the status quo. We need computers to live now. The programmers will never stop being important. As long as we have the programmers, we'll be fine. So the Cult Of The Machine looks on in amusement. We are untouchable.

Tuesday, I found out just how wrong that mentality is. The modern Cult Mechanicus, the every-day Cult of The Machine is in crisis.

Your author plugging away at endless tasks.

Eating My Words While We Chase Our Tails

We woke up Tuesday and found that huge players in the tech industry have been discussing, probably since December, that there is no money left.

The company I work for is no stranger to hard times. We've suffered greatly in the last 3 years, but we were largely untouched by the market forces that swept the country in the storm surge of the pandemic. In fact, we profited. Yes, we lost some folks when we went to work from home. Some people decided they didn't have to really work if they were at home. Yall, the Metrics govern our existence whether we like it or not. The Metrics keep us on the floor when it's time to cull (and cullings do happen). It was not the time to rest on laurels, yet many did to their detriment.

Many of my teammates and I all sat back and laughed at Twitter in November. We ate up stories of employees working a couple hours a day, of the keggers and top-floor parties. And indeed I was laughing along with them. I've been to top-tier Fortune 500 tech companies and seen the "working conditions". When I stood around--my badge of honor dangling off my belt loop declaring to the world that I, too, am one of the chosen--my eyes caught the drink fridges, the snack bars (the self-serve salmon bar--you think I'm joking but I assure you I'm not), the game consoles, and listened to my friend describe his work day. I often wondered who was doing the work that paid for all of the perks. Oh, work is done of course; the right programmers in the right seats make mince meat out of productivity. They grind up work tickets and spit out the 'done' status faster than anyone on my team cares to think about.

I've been watching the reports roll in from friends I made at work. I'm seeing 16 year+ veterans at ground-breakingly, staggeringly huge companies declare they have been laid off. How dare I laugh when people largely considered useless were laid off at Twitter when Elon made his cuts? How many people were actually useless? I'm looking at my workload, the workload of other teams as we've been downsized by a third at least (I have no details, and I want none). What was the matter with us in November?

The tech industry is an Ouroboros. My job title is Site Reliability Engineer. Our purpose is to automate ourselves out of a job. We design end-to-end monitoring to watch for problems and then design the protocols that handle those problems without human intervention. Our entire job is to make it to where as few human hands as possible touch problems to ensure maximum uptime and availability at all hours, including at night and weekends. We're creating stable, robust systems so the manual labor of maintaining them is cut out. Our job is intended to remove the human element from the machine. We are the tech priests of the Cult Mechanicus (I even changed my Mac's background to that of a tech priest from Warhammer 40k). We didn't need a God Emperor. We had the guidance of some semi-cool dudes with some sweet ideas. They brought the money. We designed the Machine Spirit ourselves. Now we do not guide it towards the future. It is guiding us.

Ourselves, the data engineers, architects, and developers on teams across the globe have for the last 20 years been designing the systems and devices you require to perform your daily tasks. We are the magicians you don't see except at family gatherings when Aunt Bee asks what we do for a living, and you might quietly sit back and whisper "nerd" into a red plastic cup. Once we have created the thing, our usefulness extends only to how far people want to improve it, stabilize it, and maintain it. After that, we could potentially serve no purpose. If there are no new features to add, no bugs to work out (none that anyone notices anyway), and no improvements to make, developers are not needed.

Unlike the ancient Mechanicum, the tech industry built our own Machine God. We feed it, it feeds us.

When I said in November that it requires very few people to maintain a stable version of a software, I meant to impart that we are expendable. I meant to remind everyone that devs are not needed when a software is stable because nothing new is being added to it. It was meant to quiet the mouths of journalists claiming that Twitter was about to die a grinding death without the devs. I was right. Twitter has survived on very small staffing.

But what I didn't know at the time was that we as a technological collective weren't actually untouchable. Now that so many softwares can in fact run themselves, including Google, at least for a while, it has become painfully obvious that a few tweaks here, a few downsizes there, will mean the difference between people's badges working one day and not the next without warning. It has become justifiable for tech managers to downsize entire teams down to just a few people to pick away at goals while the business focuses on the foundational portions that keep the entire thing going. Meanwhile, they keep the humans that work on the system to keep it from falling to pieces--and they don't need very many of them either.

In many ways, we built this problem ourselves. The Cult Mechanicus gave the guys with the money too much power. We let them co-op our lives in exchange for the almighty dollar. And when the chips were down, it wasn't the people they were thinking about--for the most part. Our products have built a reliance on technology that we now cannot escape without serious loss of lifestyle. Even the kids on YouTube building a container house on 21 acres of woods in Missouri need their phones, a laptop, a camera, a washing machine and electricity. Their entire income is driven by social media products, products like YouTube, managed by Google, who just had a massive round of lay-offs. We built the pieces of our lives we can't live without, and now that those pieces do just fine without our intervention, what do we have left if they get rid of us?

What Is Next For The Tech Priests--I Mean Tech Industry?

So what do we do now?

Getting past the drama, for a moment, here in the ATX, it's not terribly difficult to find a new job. I was very lucky this week. Our team consumes a lot of resources, so we're lucky only one of us was let go. At the business I work at, we intend to rebuild so that we don't have to stand in that all hands we just attended again and ask ourselves how they justified keeping me, but not my cube-mate.

To continue to the Warhammer 40k metaphor, it's time to rebuild the defenses. The keep is not enclosed, as it were. We've got to be ready for the next phase. In our case, that's going to be bringing the infrastructure up to date, bringing home a lot of services we outsource, and monetizing what we have. This is not unlike what you would do in your own house. When things get shaky and the money runs out, you start cutting. Then once the pair down is finished you stand back, look at what you're able to feasibly do, and get started rebuilding. For most able-bodied individuals, this is enough. For the tech companies still standing after this week, it will have to be enough.

Incident Management: Lessons Learned

But something is making people's hair stand on end. Electrons of anger charge the air this week. It's visible in the tense exchanges between my remaining co-workers. It's the impending sense of doom we can't shake. Many of my fellow tech-industry comrades are asking what it is we're working so hard for. When we're asked to work nights and weekends, only to be shuffled out of the building by security the next day, what the hell is it that we're working so hard for? If we're being asked to give our all, how can we not expect the same courtesy in return? Admittedly, if there's no money, there's no money. You're better off going somewhere else. But at the end of the quarter, when our executives count the profit dollars, we are the ones holding the money bag up.

I charge my fellow tech priests to fear not! They do need us, and they will need us again eventually. But we won't be so much malleable putty in their hands. We are not likely to be taken advantage of. Update your LinkedIn and your resume; work your shift; do your assigned tickets; handle the incident if it comes up; but you don't do any more than that. Work your hours, make your pay, and don't let them demand your life and health from you in exchange for money. Companies come and go. We only owe the Spirit in the Machine our loyalty. We built it. If they want to keep using it, they are going to have to play fair.

(I'm a site reliability engineer in the ecommerce space. I don't have any details about my business' current situation, and I don't claim to have any insight or details about any other companies. If you're interested in what has been taking place, I encourage you to do your own research and judge the outcome of these layoffs and what this means for the tech industry for yourself.)

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About the Creator

Ashley McGee

Austin, TX | GrimDark, Fantasy, Horror, Western, and nonfiction | Amazon affiliate and Vocal Ambassador | Tips and hearts appreciated! | Want to see more from me? Consider dropping me a pledge! | RIP Jason David Frank!

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