Inside the hi-tech bubble

Though the industry is the golden boy of Israel's economy, many hi-tech workers feel they owe their soul to the company store.

By LARRY DERFNER
January 3, 2008 10:06
ordination 224 hi tech

ordination 224 hi tech . (photo credit: Courtesy photo / Isaac Harari)

 
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After taking a year off from the hi-tech world which left him with no time, no interests and basically no brain activity that wasn't connected to his job, "Kobi," a 34-year-old computer engineer, has gone back to the life - but with a difference. Since starting with a new hi-tech firm a few weeks ago, he says, "I don't go to sleep every night and wake up every morning thinking about work. I'm putting in a lot fewer hours, and I'm learning how to put the job behind me when I get home." Sitting with Kobi in his rented house in a quiet country village, drinking tea with mint he picked from his garden, I suggest that what's he's been going through is like recovering from an addiction. "That's exactly what it is," he nods firmly. "Tali," a computer programmer in her 30s, left the industry a year ago to stay home with her three children. "All the negative descriptions - a 'gilded cage,' '21st-century slavery' - they turned out to be true," she says. She tells of once driving her daughter to a ballet lesson, then getting a work call on her cellphone, parking the car, talking for more than a half-hour and only afterward realizing that her daughter was in the back seat, having missed the ballet lesson. "Now I can make sure my children have a hot, cooked lunch; I've gotten to know their teachers very well; and I get them to ballet lessons on time," Tali says, a sparkle coming to her eyes. Her husband, however, is still in hi-tech. "He works seven days a week," she says helplessly. "The first thing he does when he comes home is check his e-mail." Nir Barkin is a rabbi with the Reform movement in Modi'in and assistant to the dean of Hebrew Union College - a radical departure from the hi-tech workaholic he was in the 1990s. During those wild, money-mad days of the "bubble," Barkin, 41, worked at a large international company here - call it "Bluetech" - as "director of organizational communications," which meant conveying "what they called the 'Bluetech culture' to the employees." When he quit for a marketing job in another, smaller firm, he says, "I felt like I was leaving a totalitarian institution that informally owns you mentally and physically." By the time he left the smaller firm and abruptly shifted career paths, he had soured not only on the hi-tech way of life, but on high technology itself, or at least on its signature consumer products, which he says are steadily eating away at people's basic ability to be with, talk with and get to know other people. THE HI-TECH industry is seen as the youth, dynamism and promise of the world, particularly in Israel, where it accounts for a disproportionately large part of national income, and where it fits perfectly with the local reliance on foreign markets. The joke goes that God created hi-tech to make up to Israel for giving the Arab countries all the oil. The hi-tech sector, which employs only about 50,000 people, is the golden boy of the economy, the national hero. The industry's worldwide crash, which began in 2000, ended about three years ago, and hi-tech is once again the most glamorous, financially rewarding field for a college graduate to enter. Its image could not be shinier. But there is a tarnished side to working in hi-tech, one that is alluded to only vaguely by people in the industry willing to be quoted by name. To get the nitty-gritty of the work and life of a hi-tech slave, it's necessary to talk to people off-the-record, preferably to those who've left the field. Of the three hi-tech "veterans" interviewed for this article, only Barkin - alone among the three in having sworn off hi-tech employment forever - agreed to be identified. Dr. Michal Frenkel, a lecturer at the Hebrew University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology who researches work/family issues in the hi-tech world, explains that when the industry established itself in the late 1980s, company owners realized that a new style of labor-management relations had to be created. "They saw they couldn't get the most out of workers by making them put in more hours or produce more widgets - the worker's productivity was in his brain. You couldn't force more work out of him like you could on an assembly line. The owners had to figure out how to get employees to want to work very hard for very long hours, and they did it by creating what's known as a corporate 'culture,'" she says. To this day, companies typically stress the idea that they are a "family," and that the employees are family members. Workers are pampered with all sorts of perks and goodies - on-the-job gourmet meals, massages, laundry service and so forth. Their real-life families are brought into the "culture" for company outings, vacations and lavish banquets featuring big-name entertainers. Above all, the salary, bonuses and benefits in hi-tech, especially in start-ups, tend to be very lucrative. Young men and women still in their 20s often make more money than they know what to do with. In return, however, they are expected to basically give their lives over to the company, Frenkel says - to work all hours, to fit the rest of their lives, including their families, around the company's endless demands. In this country, this syndrome is especially entrenched. "A lot of the early hi-tech companies here grew out of the IDF," she says. "The mentality of the elite units is prevalent, the idea that nothing is impossible. You hear people use terms like 'white nights' - working until the morning - that come from the IDF." In general, the hi-tech life is much more demanding here than it is in the US. "Israelis who work for large companies say that being relocated to America is an opportunity for relaxation," Frenkel notes. The industry changed in 2000 with the crash, the bursting of the bubble. Mad money for start-ups vanished and countless youthful, carefree, spoiled-rotten little companies disappeared. Large international firms fired employees by the hundreds and thousands. "Suddenly people realized that their companies were never their families, because families don't fire their sons and daughters when times get rough," says Frenkel. With money tight and survival in doubt, companies put even more pressure on their employees to show immediate profits or be gone. The depression lifted in 2004-2005, however, and the days of "money appearing out of nowhere, like magic dust," she says, have returned. THE HI-TECH life may be no more intense, work-oriented and company-centered than high finance or business law - two other fields where 25-year-olds can become multimillionaires, and which symbolize the current global, gilded age. But unlike hedge fund management firms and Wall Street law offices, the image of hi-tech companies isn't just of wealth and power - it's also of idealism, creativity, progress, saving the planet and such. As in Hollywood, in the world of hi-tech you never flaunt your wealth. You either dress down or way down. In polite company, at least, greed is not good. Kobi tells of attending a conference about hi-tech venture capital in which "only one of the five or six speakers actually talked explicitly about finance, about money. He seemed really out of place." But while the style in hi-tech is vastly different than in high finance, the hi-tech industry's essence is the same: extraordinary amounts of money at stake, ferocious competition, a constant, manic race against the clock. The field is inherently unstable, has no place for average people, retains only the highly driven and proficient and will hire almost no one older than 45. Obviously, all these downsides to a hi-tech career aren't stopping many people from aspiring to one or causing too many careerists in the field to give it up. But according to Kobi, Tali and Barkin, this downside, the personal toll of the work "culture," didn't become fully clear to them until some time after they quit their jobs. The hi-tech way of life, as Kobi puts it, can be an addiction, and many people in the life are too high, in a sense, to realize the damage it's causing them. Kobi, an extremely self-aware, articulate man who seems to have mellowed out during his year off work, decided about a decade ago to study computer science at Bar-Ilan University, not for the glamour of hi-tech, but simply because he'd always been good at computers and math. He became known as one of the hotshots in the department, and in his third year a former classmate asked if he wanted to join the company where she was working. "My friends were driving bigger, nicer cars than their parents did, the company offered me a salary twice as high as my [engineering professor] father's, so quitting college and taking the job was a no-brainer," he says. "The job was incredibly fascinating, exhilarating." The company - "Redtech" - developed computerized equipment for large-scale, advanced communication networks. It was run by "some of the best people in the field," Kobi says, including one who'd received the Israel Defense Prize. "For weeks at a time I would work in the lab until one in the morning, go home, sleep, get up whenever, shower, put on my clothes and go back to the lab - and be completely happy about it. I felt privileged. Often I'd start work at seven or seven-thirty in the morning - not because I had to, but because I wanted to." There was a foosball game on the premises. No one ever wore a suit or tie, and some employees walked around barefoot wearing T-shirts with coffee stains. Some higher-ups drove beat-up cars even though they were rich. Taking a break for an hour to surf the Internet was perfectly acceptable. "They'd order in croissants, pizza. For years my fridge at home was empty. I never had to cook," he says. On Redtech's staff of about 100, Kobi was once named employee of the year. "I could have been the hi-tech poster boy, and I was only doing what I wanted to do." His life away from the job, however, diminished to the point of utter superficiality: going out for drinks, having the most fleeting, hollow relationships with women. "I'd ask myself, 'Why is every woman I go out with so boring?'" When a rival firm offered him a job at twice his salary, Redtech upped his pay to about NIS 20,000 a month and gave him a big promotion, taking him out of the deskbound development end of the business and giving him a key job in the technical side of international sales. "I spent the next two years flying around the world - to Europe, the Far East, South America, the US. I'd fly off at a moment's notice, work like hell for five days, come home to write my reports, go the gym in the middle of the day for two or three hours - I was in great shape - eat lunch, sleep. Then after two or three days, I'd fly off someplace else. I was doing this basically every week, or no less than every two weeks." Those were an extremely heady couple of years. "It was challenging, interesting, you had the freedom and responsibility to do things the way you thought they should be done. And here I was - I had no college degree and I was flying business class all over the world, having business lunches, business dinners." Nevertheless, he remained unfulfilled, fundamentally unhappy. "But I didn't know why," he recalls. "It never occurred to me that there could be more to life than what I had." Then Redtech gave him another promotion, which he considers a "prime example of taking a good engineer and turning him into a bad manager." He says he had neither the personal aptitude nor the professional skills to manage people well. "Basically I was a machine, and I was managing people like they were machines." He blames his performance both on the "one-dimensional life" he was living and on the company's laissez-faire policy on teaching employees new skills. "I got no management training, which is typical in hi-tech. They throw you in the water and if you swim, great, and if you drown, well, that's too bad. God forbid they should give you swimming lessons." He was actually working shorter hours than before, but they felt longer, and after two years in management he quit the company. "I wasn't sorry to go, and I don't think the company was sorry to see me go," Kobi says. I ask if he would have still quit if his management job had worked out better. "No, I don't think I would have," he replies. "Getting that promotion was unlucky for my career, but it was good for my life. In a very real sense, I'm happy it didn't work out." Over the next year he moved to the country, read a lot, played sports and rediscovered the human race - reconnecting with his friends and "having some relationships with women that were more meaningful to me than any I had in the seven years I worked for the company." After a year off, though, he reached the point where the warning light began blinking on his savings, and he'd had "enough of all this self-reflection. The usefulness of it is limited if you don't leave your room. You have to experience the real world, but in a balanced way." In his search for work-life balance on a new hi-tech job, he believes he's off to a good start. "When I find myself slipping back to the old habits, I tell myself, 'Stop.'" Kobi has experienced hi-tech in its most concentrated form - as a single man working in a start-up. Large companies with relatively steady sources of income, thousands of employees and branches across the world are different: At the low- and middle-level positions, the hours tend to be shorter and job security much greater than at start-ups. Thus, for the majority of employees at big firms, the job doesn't pose such a threat to swallow up their lives. They can have relatively "normal" careers. Another dividing line in the hi-tech industry is between single people and parents, especially mothers. A survey of 1,000 female hi-tech employees that Frenkel and the late Bar-Ilan University sociology Prof. Dafna Izraeli conducted in 2001-2002 found that women with children were working an average of 48 hours a week, while women without children worked an average of 51. And that was hi-tech women; hi-tech men, on the whole, put in substantially longer hours. Tali, an animated, cheerful woman after a year at home with her kids, knows the hi-tech life from several key perspectives: as a single woman, as a mother; in a large company, in a start-up; before the crash, after the crash. She was studying math and computers at Ben-Gurion University in the mid-'90s when she went to a job fair and got signed as a computer programmer by a major company - "Greentech." "In those days my friends were getting raises or promotions or new jobs or new titles - titles are a big thing - every six months. I understood from the beginning that if you're good, you advance, and if you don't advance, it's a signal that you're not good enough. I bought into this mentality of always having to advance," she says, sitting in the kitchen of the spacious, newly-remodeled suburban home her family just moved into. "I was a college student and they gave me a NIS 10,000 signing bonus, provided I stayed for a year. They get you while you're young," she continues. "When I first started at Greentech, I was amazed by everything. They give you sandwiches in the morning - wow! You take vacation a few months after you start working - wow! They brought in a masseuse in the afternoon, they ordered in food from fancy restaurants for everyone. They threw lavish banquets for thousands of employees; I remember once they had Rita performing. You'd go on these company vacations to Eilat or the Dead Sea and they'd take you on a jeep trek, they'd leave chocolates in your room. They made you feel like a queen. It's all part of the glamour of hi-tech. And you get used to those kinds of perks." At Greentech, she worked 10 or 11 hours a day, five days a week, which is considerably less than the standard workweek at a start-up. Still, she says she felt like a slave to the rat race. "In hi-tech, everybody wants everything yesterday - bosses, customers, everybody's working at hyperspeed. I never felt I had the time to do the job as well as I wanted - I was always up against a new crisis. "And you would get graded by the company just like you were in the first grade. They'd call you in and ask what grade you thought you deserved, then they'd tell you the grade they gave you. It was so infantile. And all the time they're telling us that we, the employees, are the company's most valuable asset." After 2000, the firings began. "Greentech even fired managers who'd been with them since the beginning, and not because they weren't doing a good job anymore, but because maybe their last year hadn't been quite up to their previous level." An undercurrent of cynicism and discontent moved through the rank and file. "We'd say to each other that the bosses are making millions, but it's not enough - if they make a little less profit in the third quarter than they made in the second, they'll fire more people. We'd go to these huge company banquets and someone would say that the money it cost Greentech for the balloon drop could have paid for the raise we weren't getting." The crunch came in the early 2000s, when Greentech fired masses of employees, including several hundred in one day. "That was a chilling experience," remembers Tali. "They brought in security guards in case some people got out of control. They called people in to the boss's office, and it was obvious they were going to be fired, and when they came out, their computers had already been disconnected." Tali survived, though, and later was sent abroad with a promotion - to be leader of a team of programmers. During her time overseas, though, Greentech abolished the position of team leader, meaning that Tali went back to being "another programmer in the pool" with little if any chance for advancement. And the firings continued. "The bosses stopped telling us how valuable we were, and instead started telling us, 'The customer is the bottom line.' They demanded loyalty from the employees but didn't give loyalty in return. That's the way it is with all the companies, though." Soon after returning to Israel she quit and went looking for a new job, landing one as a project manager - a coveted position in hi-tech - with a start-up. She thought a small company wouldn't be so impersonal. After a year at a start-up, though, she'd had enough. "I worked harder at that job than I ever did at Greentech. The job got into every corner of my life. I felt I was working all the time, that when I was home I was still at work. My children were being raised by babysitters." Now, with Tali taking care of the kids full-time, her husband is the sole hi-tech slave in the household. FROM THESE interviews, the impression I got of the hi-tech industry was fairly sinister. People come to work in these nice, well-appointed offices that are sometimes not even called offices, or plants, but "campuses." They get pampered outrageously; they get paid very, very well; everyone smiles at them encouragingly; and all the while they're being brainwashed. "No one ever abused me on the job. That's the thing - these places are nice," says Kobi. Unlike Tali and Barkin, he doesn't blame his former employer for turning him into a machine with no life away from work - he blames himself for allowing it to happen. But Frenkel says it's not really a matter of individual choice - the nature of the hi-tech "culture" naturally creates a feeling inside employees that they have to work constantly harder. She gives the example of a top American executive who once visited his "campus" on a Sunday and found the front gate locked; the company was closed. So he sent out a message to his employees that went something like: "A family keeps the doors of its house open on weekends, and since we're a family, the doors of our house are going to stay open on weekends, too." Says Frenkel: "The employee says to himself, 'Okay, I don't have to go in on weekends, but what's expected of me?' The feeling comes from inside, the company's expectations make him want to work around the clock. He sees it as a challenge." Not only does the company's "culture" encourage him to become a drone, so does the larger society. "These hi-tech millionaires became culture heroes - young, self-made, self-reliant," notes Frenkel. "There's so much glamour attached to the industry. It's a field with a lot of action." Nir Barkin's job at "Bluetech" was to help transmit the international company's "culture" to its thousands of Israeli employees. "Bluetech is a world unto itself," he says, sitting in the Modi'in office of the Reform movement. "The idea is that once an employee steps into a fab [short for fabrication, meaning a Bluetech company plant], no matter where he is in the world, he and the other employees speak the same language, they respond to the same range of behavioral expectations." After getting a degree in Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University, Barkin took a job at a manpower company where he placed hundreds of hi-tech professionals at Bluetech, and in 1995 the company offered him a job in human resources. "In those years the hi-tech boom was something everyone wanted to get in on, and Bluetech was at the cutting edge of world technology and business. It was a natural path for me." His unit's job was to develop and organize the sort of extracurricular activities the company offered its workers so they wouldn't burn out, so that "people would come back to work recharged." Every few months they put on a surprise "Morning with a Smile," when employees would be given a Purim grogger or Hanukka dreidel or something when they walked into the "fab." There were periodic "Bonding Days," in which the workers in the various units and departments would go rafting or rappelling together. "They'd leave early in the morning, be served a superb breakfast, then they'd be taken to some wilderness area and be given their group mission." When I compare Bonding Day at Bluetech to the TV show Survivor, Barkin, a soft-spoken, contemplative man with a shaved head, corrects me. "It was the opposite of Survivor. On Survivor everyone competes against everyone else; in Bonding Days the idea is to survive as a group, to create team spirit in the company." Yet it wasn't enough to bond the employee to Bluetech, Barkin says - the employee's family had to be bonded to Bluetech as well. "There were free after-school classes in the fab for the children of employees; there were various enrichment classes offered to the families as a courtesy." And, of course, there were the spectacular banquets for the thousands of families in the greater Bluetech family. But bonding the employee to the company through his family still wasn't enough - he had to be bonded to the company through his community, too. "Co-workers in different departments would go paint old people's homes in their neighborhoods, things like that," Barkin notes. He rode the company bus to work at 7:15 a.m. and rode it home at 8 p.m. Before going into the house after a day's work, he would first stand outside the front door and tell himself to put the job out of his mind and give his attention to his wife and kids. It was futile, though. Like all Israelis who work with colleagues in the US, Barkin not only had to work according to local time, he had to work according to American time, too. "After I got home I spent a lot of time on the phone and sending e-mails back and forth with colleagues in America." His bosses never told him he had to work such hours. "But that's the subtext," he explains. "No one tells you to stay at the office until eight at night, every night, but if you go home at five more than once or twice, it shows up in your year-end review." After a couple of years, Barkin climbed the ladder again, taking a job in international marketing with one of Bluetech's contractors. After a couple of years, he found himself utterly burned out, empty. "I was paid very well, I was good at what I was doing. But ultimately, the purpose of all the hours I spent at all of my jobs in hi-tech was to bring larger profits to the company and larger benefits to the stockholders, and this was not what I wanted to spend my life doing. It took me eight or nine years in hi-tech to realize that I was betraying something in myself." Quitting the marketing job, he took a few months off to decompress, then went looking for work in education, eventually becoming the Jewish Agency's emissary in Milwaukee for four years before returning here to become a rabbi. "My years in hi-tech left me with the conviction that I'll never find fulfillment in work, that all it can ever be for me is a means to a livelihood," he says. "It was only afterward that I regained my belief that work can be more than that." There is a movement in hi-tech now for "work-life balance" - to bring some sanity to the hours and personal commitment put in by employees. The new trend is seen more at large companies than at start-ups, which tend to attract younger people without families or personal qualms about working nonstop for the chance to strike it rich. The demand for reasonable careers is coming more from people in their 30s, especially women, who now have children and, after experiencing the crash, have learned to put their jobs in perspective. Says Frenkel: "A human resources manager at a large hi-tech company told me that many people coming in for job interviews these days are asking him what sort of hours the company expects them to work. He says that three or four years ago, nobody asked." From the companies' point of view, work-life balance may be a matter of enlightened self-interest - a way to keep their workforce from breaking down under the strain. "A lot of talented people ended up being hospitalized," Frenkel notes. It's difficult, though, to know how much the companies' talk of work-life balance is real and how much is hype, she says, adding, "Let's be clear - we're still not talking about a regular 40-hour workweek." Even as the industry is riding high again, she divides hi-tech professionals into three categories: "those who want to become carpenters, those who want to become chefs and those who want to become interior designers." Working inside a bubble may be glamorous, but a person also needs to breathe.

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