Sarah Rose Etter on Tech Companies, NDAs, and the Precarity of a Job
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: There is an expectation that anyone who would go out and work at a startup would end up sitting pretty. And the shame of realizing that that isn’t true in the face of the expectations of her family is so tough for Cassie [the narrator of Ripe].
Sarah Rose Etter: It’s even more crazy because the more you look into it… I definitely know some friend of a friend of a friend who worked at a big tech company that went public and he had a ton of stock, but if you do the wrong thing with your stock, you’re just more broke than you started out.
I think it’s actually been debunked that you go broke after you win the lottery. I don’t think that’s actually true. But there is something similar that happens where if you don’t understand the ins and outs of what stock is and how it works, you can very quickly end up with much less than you began with. And so I do think that it’s still a system where if you’re not from wealth already, there is no way you are gonna actually get anything out of those scenarios.
MK: And certainly not if you’re living in San Francisco in the 2020s and your rent, much like in New York City, has just increased so exponentially that very few people are entirely secure.
SRE: Yeah, I remember there was a documentary I was watching about the housing crisis in San Francisco and they were speaking to an unhoused man, and he kind of looks at the camera and is like, you’re just two paychecks away from where I am. So, don’t ever forget that. And at the time I was like, actually it’s one paycheck. But I never forgot that because it’s very easy when you see someone who’s unhoused to somehow distance yourself or think that you wouldn’t end up there. But the reality is, most of us at this point are in such a tenuous place. Even if you are making okay money or what looks like okay money on paper, I don’t know many people who are super secure.
MK: You show us areas of the company that Cassie works for, VOYAGER in all caps. I feel like I’ve seen some of this kind of parody before, but the real brokenness beneath the system really comes out here. Even the idea that employees are constantly talking about what the employee’s obligation is to the company rather than what a company’s obligation might be to its employees, which is like, a very weird stream of obligation.
SRE: Yeah. I think those expectations are what was going on and has been going on. I mean, VOYAGER is really a compilation of everything I’ve ever seen.It’s not just places I’ve ever worked. It’s everything, things I’ve heard, whatever. And it got be scarily easy to just start patching that into the worst company in the world to work for, or one of them. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of this book was my reality versus just trying to show the truth, and I think that company, unfortunately, is a big truth. I think we’re gonna see less of it. I think ever since the backlash against the bad boy CEO has started, I think we’ll see a lot less of that happening.
But, it’s definitely kind of crazy. It’s built on male toxicity and secrecy and silencing. Youknow, a lot of those companies when you leave, they have your last paycheck and your NDA, and you have to sign your NDA before you can get your last paycheck. For a lot of people, you need that money. It’s thousands of dollars. And so when you see all these stories come out about Uber and Lyft and whatever, it’s like everyone’s NDAs were up. Everybody just had to sign that piece of paper to get their money and they couldn’t talk. And so, you know, I think that’s another kind of way in which this was all allowed to continue, is that you can’t talk about it.
MK: I remember interviewing at a tech company in 2010, and I had to sign an NDA even to get upstairs.
SRE: Yeah, I mean I do think thanks to things like Glassdoor and even MeToo, I think there’s a lot more transparency and there’s a lot more people who will warn you, and there’s a lot more avenues in which to find out. Plus, you know, I still work full-time in tech. I work at a company that is super people first. I don’t think I could be a manager anywhere else, and I never wanted to be a manager, but I started working there and there’s empathy and care and, you know, I manage a team of diverse women writers who are kickass. But that’s the exception and I feel very lucky to have found it because what I saw for the 15 or 20 years I’ve been in tech it hasn’t been that.
MK: A thing that I love about VOYAGER is we’re treated to the mission statement a couple of times, and I still could not tell you even vaguely what the company does.
SRE: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And that’s the thing, it’s some job that’s opaque enough that you wouldn’t be able to figure out the ethics of it before you got in the door. And that’s what really needs to happen. I talk about this frequently when I talk about this book. When you interview for a job, you’re only there for eight hours at max, and so you’re making a decision about what they do, and sometimes you don’t know until you get in the door. These people are terrible. They’re doing unethical things. But I need to stay here now at least for some amount of time, so I can afford to leave or get enough experience to leave. So, yeah, I mean, there’s a way in which she handcuffs herself to a big problem.
MK: Absolutely. And I think another kind of universal thing about work that we are increasingly learning is that everyone is supposed to have thick skin all the time. For the most part, people in power are meant to just spread their genius all over the place and whoever gets hurt by that is a side problem.
SRE: Yeah. If you’re in the way of the company’s mission or if you’re not supporting it, then you’re gonna get run over. And/or be dismissed.
MK: She is incredibly expendable and she is reminded of that quite often.
SRE: Yeah. I mean, everyone is. Even now, the job market’s crazy. So I think she’s just kind of a way of underscoring the precarity of the whole thing. All she wants is security and stability, and unfortunately she’s just in something that is neither.
The Cleaner by Brandi Wells • Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi • The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen • The Changeling by Joy Williams • Death Valley by Melissa Broder • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Sarah Rose Etter is the author of the chapbook Tongue Party and The Book of X, winner of a Shirley Jackson Award for best novel. Her work has appeared in Time, Guernica, BOMB, the Bennington Review, The Cut, VICE, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residences at the Jack Kerouac House, the Disquiet International program in Portugal, and the Gullkistan in Iceland. She earned her BA in English from Pennsylvania State University and her MFA in fiction from Rosemont College. She lives in Los Angeles. For more info, visit SarahRoseEtter.com.