Blog Action Day (#BAD13): Workers Are Human, and We Have Rights

One morning this past summer seemed like most others: I left my house at 7 AM, to start my two-hour commute to my contract job in a Bay Area exurb.

The BART train arrived punctually. I was glad I had a reverse commute, which required a nearly hour-long ride across the drab, de-industrialized stretches of southeast Oakland; I nearly always had a seat going to work. The passengers headed the opposite direction to San Francisco, didn’t have this privilege, even at this early hour.

To while away the time, I reviewed the stream of tweets on my phone. There was quite a lot of indignation over the recent strike by BART workers, not much directed at BART management–the Twitterverse seemed appalled by the benefits and salary protections demanded by blue-collar transit employees. Meanwhile, the train dutifully stopped for the students, retail clerks, construction guys, and home health aides getting on the Fruitvale, Coliseum, San Leandro, and Bayfair stations. A few passengers dozed. Sometimes a young guy would enter the car, looking at us half-asleep drones with apparent distaste, and hastily exit, as if we threatened him with some contagious disease.

I checked the news from back home in Arizona. Fire season. A photo of the twenty Granite Mountain Hotshots posed in front of an ancient alligator juniper they’d protected from wildfire. Now the hometown news included the story of a Hotshot’s wife denied benefits because her husband wasn’t classified as a permanent, full-time employee. He was, however, permanently, full-time dead, killed on Yarnell Hill with eighteen others.

At Castro Valley station the train passengers started including more people carrying computer bags. By the end of the line–Dublin/Pleasanton–most of us leaving the train looked to be white-collar tech workers. We moved through the BART station in quiet, somnambulant order, every movement calculated to bring us to the next stage of our commutes to distant office parks–to the buses, the shuttles, the sidewalks and bike paths. All this uninspiring travel, just for our paychecks.

The organizers of Blog Action Day prompt me to write about “human rights.” There’s plenty of cause for outrage–the rights of women, of the non-heterosexual, of civilians, of people of color; all of these denied in some way, somewhere, every moment of every day. I’m confident a blogger will address them eloquently. What I’ll treat instead are the rights we seem to have forgotten in our grubby, half-awake, workaday lives. Those are workers’ rights.

Workers’ rights are human rights.

As workers, and as human beings, we have:

  • the right to complete compensation for our work, including pension and health insurance benefits;

  • the right to compensation for every minute we spend working;

  • the right to reliable transportation to our job sites, the costs sustained by taxes on the corporations which benefit from our labor;

  • the right to join other workers to bargain with management, and the right to strike;

  • the right to be hired and retained based on merit, not on racial, gender, or class identity;

  • the right to employer loyalty in exact proportion to the loyalty we show the employer. The right to protection from “rightsizing,” moves, and offshoring when we have kept up our side of the relationship;

  • the right to be paid and treated the same as our native-born colleagues, no matter which visa arrangement brought us to work in this country;

  • the right to compensation when our jobs have maimed or disabled us; the right of our survivors to compensation when our jobs have killed us;

And, to my mind, the most important:

the right to discuss these rights, in public, worldwide, without retribution.

Random stuff about the first Fluent JavaScript conference

I’m in the middle of changing jobs. To train my soon-to-be-former co-workers on how to get along without me, I spent three days this week at Fluent. What I garnered:

  • Watching my audio-engineer husband in action. An unusual perk of this conference was that, for the first time, the Binkster was doing sound for an event I attended. It was fun learning from him some of the backstage scuttlebutt. In turn, I enjoyed explaining the in-jokes about semicolons and Internet Explorer. Something that was really beneficial was finding out which presentations impressed him—he’s not a developer, but he’s seen more PowerPoint than any human not being punished should, so if you reached him, you must be very engaging.
  • Being reminded how unhealthy I feel sitting all day in a hotel ballroom. Spending all day inside usually makes me feel pretty bad, and so does sitting down a lot. Even worse is when the room is air-conditioned into that Atacama Desert level of humidity: we’re being mummified as we sit there enraptured by CoffeeScript. I swallowed zinc tablets and muscled through, but I skipped a few sessions because I just had to get outside and breathe real air. My admiration for my husband grew as I realized that he tolerates these conditions all the time for his job.
  • Tips about the new recruiting laundry list items. What many people talked about: JavaScript MVC frameworks, responsive (design|development), non-blocking script loading, knowing buck-naked JavaScript and not just jQuery.
  • Some great one-liners. There was frequent discussion about how JavaScript’s finally become accepted as a genuine programming language, worthy of study and standards. Along those lines were calls to take your JavaScript projects seriously:

    “Your JavaScript is software. Let’s treat it like what it deserves to be.” —Davis Frank

  • No t-shirts. I guess I could’ve obtained one, but I don’t usually wear them, so didn’t bother. Conference swag I’d really wear: something like a high school varsity sports badge. Heck, I’d even sew it on my letter sweater, right next to my junior-year award for cross-country. You’re welcome, O’Reilly, for my excellent idea.
  • Appreciation for the kinds of people who use JavaScript. I didn’t see any of the chest-thumping geek jousting I’ve seen at other conferences; doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, of course. Saw instead a greater spectrum of ages, ethnicities, and gender identities than the usual Meetup or hackathon offers. There was even a line in the women’s restroom at one point!
  • Yearning to learn more CoffeeScript. But I wonder if this won’t become the future’s version of “learning jQuery, not JavaScript” debate. In the backlog for now.

Why You Can’t Hire a Front-end Developer

So much for that depressing unemployment rate, all those people supposedly looking for work–you might be muttering–why is it I can’t get someone to do that HTML/CSS/JavaScript project?

Why You Can’t Hire a Front-end Developer

  1. You want only full-time, salaried employees. I admit my bias as a freelancer on this one, and, frankly, I’m mystified why restricting your development team to only full-timers exerts such an attraction, especially for mid- to senior level roles. Why not use freelancers, part-time employees, job sharing teams, or a combination of all these? I welcome your discussion in the comments.
  2. Your requirements are out of whack. To be fair, I think this isn’t as pronounced a problem as it was a few years ago; maybe it’s the growing acceptance of MVC frameworks which has made it obvious just what a front-end dev does.

    But if you’re requiring someone “expert” in the full Web stack, interaction design, logo creation, QA, server administration, social media, copywriting, etc., then be prepared to talk to a lot of candidates who are either lying about their credentials, or with uselessly shallow capabilities in these vastly different skills.

  3. You’re only considering young, white guys to be suitable candidates. In the United States, it’s illegal to discriminate in hiring for these qualities, but hiring entities evade the law by masking their narrow preferences in phrases like “recent grad” and “good cultural fit.

    I admit confusion on why a recent grad is so desirable as a front-end developer, since university curricula are rarely as up-to-date as the knowledge an experienced Web dev would acquire from real-life projects; again, I welcome your explanations in the comments.

  4. It’s too obvious you’re a slave driver. The organizer at one of the tech Meetups here in the Bay Area takes a moment at the start of every meeting to read job postings employers send to him, hoping to interest the attendees in applying. One evening he read a post requesting a developer who would commit to working “60-70 hours a week.”

    We sat quietly for a moment. Then one attendee remarked,”Raise your hands if you’re interested in working ’60-70 hours a week’!”

    All of us laughed. Nobody raised hands. And, I suspect, nobody answered this job posting. That employer lost out on a room full of fifty or more potential hires.

    Not persuaded? Here’s something to consider: there’s a reason why a book titled The Four-Hour Workweek was a bestseller, and one titled The Sixty-Hour Workweek was not.

  5. You’re trying to cram a tech team into an entirely different kind of organization. A telling symptom of this kind of cultural disconnect is a policy requiring all employees, even tech workers, to use the same operating system, e-mail client, Web browser, and so on. A related problem is trying to graft a front-end specialty onto what had flourished, or at least endured, as a server-side team. The results in both cases include confusing job requirements, unsatisfying interview questions, irrelevant performance criteria, and low interest in your project from experienced front-end developers.
  6. You and your people don’t seem to get out much. Are you physically present at any local tech gatherings? Anybody on your team a participant in a Meetup, a BarCamp, a *DevHouse? Anyone there have an active GitHub account?

    When I don’t see much evidence of these extracurricular activities, I assume your team is exhausted from working too much. Who wants to join that?

  7. Your benefits aren’t, well, all that beneficial. If you really want to hire extra-special people, go beyond the clichés of foosball tables and Friday keg parties.Do you offer matching 401(k) funds? Cover your employees’ health insurance premiums? What kinds of paid leave do you offer both parents and the childfree?

    At the very least, re-examine your paid vacation leave policy. If it’s the dismal U.S. standard of “two weeks” (really just ten working days) a year, it’s not enticing anyone who has a choice of workplaces.

  8. You’re requiring onsite work, but your office environment is terrible. I remember my interview at a big, then-prestigious Web company a few years back. I don’t remember any of the interview questions, nor even my interviewers; all I remember about this company are the dispiriting rows of beige cubicles, the glaring fluorescent lighting, the looming, low drop ceiling, the smell of the microwaved burritos employees were eating at their desks, the complete absence of natural light and airflow, and my recurring thought: Man, oh man, I can’t wait to get out of this place.

    If memory serves, I think I actually ended the interview early–there was no way I was going to be interested in working for this company. Rule of thumb: if you’re requiring people to work in what looks like a set for The Office or a Dilbert cartoon, please call in a design consultant for a revision.

How did you hire a front-end developer?

A Timeline for Treating Burnout

You’ve reached a state of burnout when:

  • you can’t socialize after work, or on weekends, because the only thing you’re prepared to do in your state of numbness is to get drunk alone;
  • you hear about layoffs at your workplace…and are bitterly disappointed you weren’t among the people let go;
  • you’re riding your bicycle to work, all the while wishing a car would hit you, because then you wouldn’t have to go to work that day.

A Timeline for Treating Burnout

0-3 months:

  • Don’t feel ashamed.

    Burnout is common in the tech industry, yet still regarded as some kind of shameful personal weakness rather than a normal human response to irrational working conditions.

    Fortunately, some courageous people are starting to discuss burnout openly.

  • Say “no.”

    Stop “learning to say no.” Just do it. Do NOT say “maybe.” People think “maybe” means “yes,” especially when women say it.

  • Stop volunteering for now.

    Yes, there are worthy causes all over relying on volunteer efforts. But when you are in burnout, you are in crisis mode. You might have arrived here by giving away your time and expertise. While it’s certainly flattering to be told a project will fail without your unique, uncompensated work on it, remember that anything depending on a single person is unsustainable.

4-6 months:

  • Step away from the screens.

    I know I’ll sound like a crank, but I really do believe there’s something physiologically harmful about lengthy exposure to computer monitors, and we burn out more readily when working with them. It’s been established that light shining in our faces affects our circadian rhythms, which is probably why, after hours, days, weeks, of this treatment, you feel as jumbled as you would from the jetlag of a nonstop flight from LAX to Heathrow.

    Get away from the TV, the laptop, the iPad, and so on to reset your clock.

  • Get your house in order.

    I’m not using a metaphor–I mean your actual, physical dwelling place. A dirty, cluttered living environment is both a symptom of burnout (you’re too weary to wash the dishes or hang up your clothing) and a contributor to it (your place isn’t relaxing or pleasant to be in). Counter your packrat or slovenly tendencies with some re-education and a fresh, wetted sponge.

7-9 months:

  • Simplify, simplify.

    When a painter reaches an unsatisfying point in her work, she might recharge her enthusiasm by painting with a reduced palette. Removing the burden of choice frees you from yet one more thing to do–and exposes how many of the options posed to us make no difference in how our days proceed. Stop dithering over things which don’t really matter.

    You don’t have paint en grisaille, but you must set yourself more confining limits than usual to realize the benefits of this practice. Type “voluntary simplicity” or “minimalist living” into a Web search engine to receive much more information than you really need to start living with less.

  • Risk being called “unsupportive.”

    Many of us, especially women, reached our limits by taking on the burdens of others. We’ve been the caretakers and companions of people who dumped on us…because we let them. For some reason we fear being called “unsupportive” for not concerning ourselves with these people’s endless problems. I’m not talking about being unsympathetic to genuine tragedy, but rather about defending yourself from these vampires.

    You know how the flight attendants on commercial flights instruct parents to put on their own oxygen masks before attending to their children’s?

    Consider your recovery from burnout just like this scenario–you’re of no help to anyone else until you have your own air supply secured.

10-12 months:

  • Take on one well-defined project.

    By “well-defined,” I mean a project with a start date, a definite list of tasks, and (this is important) an end date. Just as you recover from a physical injury by assuming only gradually heavier duties, you recover from burnout by taking on shorter projects with less complexity, then gradually moving into either longer or more complex projects–so long as you still feel enthusiastic about the work.

    Do not join a vaguely defined project. What you need at this stage in your recovery from burnout is reassurance that, however stressful a particular moment can be, that moment passes. Open-ended projects can persuade us that nothing changes, time has stopped, this reality is the only one, and the stressful moments are endless–sending us right back into burnout.

  • Schedule a regular digital sabbatical.

    Get away from the Web, IM, e-mail, RSS, blog, podcasts–all of them. To update Timothy Leary’s slogan, turn off, tune out, and drop in. If you’re so addicted to constant electronic distractions you can’t envision an entire weekend without them, then begin with shorter absences–thirty minutes, an hour, two hours or even twelve.

How have you recovered from burnout?