Erin McElroy runs the anti-eviction mapping project in San Francisco, and she has a problem.
McElroy would like to collaborate more with tech employees on issues like evictions, income inequality and the industry's lack of diversity. But she says tech workers are disconnected and hard to reach.
That's not so much because of the workers, she says, but their companies.
McElroy says tech firms have erected walls around their employees, both physically, with private shuttles and remote campuses, and logistically, with corporate policies that discourage communication with the press.
The situation reinforces the image of tech employees as disconnected and homogeneous, McElroy says. “It's really hard to disaggregate and even understand who works in tech when we can't hear from them.”
So, who are tech workers, and are their companies really that reluctant to let them talk?
I spoke with some software engineers, and they said any interviews had to go through their company's press office. This is pretty standard corporate policy. So, I started contacting big and well-known firms.
I asked to interview employees, particularly programmers. I said I wanted to hear their individual stories -- where they come from and why they got into tech. I also wanted to talk about issues like gentrification, the shuttle buses and the label of “tech worker.”
I reached out to 12 companies: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Dropbox, Uber, eBay, Square, Yahoo, Oracle, Cisco and Adobe. All but one declined or did not respond.
One company pressured an employee to recant an interview we had already done. The PR team told me that story could be “weaponized” against the company, which was “under a microscope.”
There has been a well-covered backlash against tech, particularly in regard to gentrification and the growing class divide. Tech workers are getting blamed as tensions intensify. Thus, software engineer Luca Pellicoro says, the mentality at large tech companies is to keep a tight lid on employees when it comes to the press.
Pellicoro worked at several big firms before switching to a small startup. Part of the reason was he wanted more freedom.
Tech workers do not live their lives as free and clear as one might assume, Pellicoro says. At larger companies, high wages and perks abound, but you also have long commutes, long hours and have to watch what you say.
Pellicoro says, “If you are younger and just starting out, you don't see those restrictions. Maybe you are more excited about the free food and the pingpong table.”
Pellicoro is originally from France and just became a U.S. citizen. Now he considers San Francisco his home.
Programming is his passion, but he doesn't like to be called a tech worker. He says it feels derogatory, like an accusation. In San Francisco's Mission neighborhood, where he lives, there are signs and graffiti targeting tech workers. So even though his company does not prevent him, he does not always volunteer his occupation.
“Depending on what social circle I am in, I will almost hide it and not be proud of it. I will just under my breath say what I do and feel ashamed.”
We do have statistics that paint a general picture of tech workers. In San Francisco, they earn on average a little over a hundred grand a year—which, by the way, is not considered enough to buy a median-priced house in the city.
Demographics released by companies show that programmers are mostly white males. But in terms of age, San Francisco Business Times found the average worker at the city’s biggest tech companies is about 31, not 20-something, as the stereotype might suggest.
Even with all these stats, you could miss a tech worker right in front of you, like programmer Dave Brown.
“It's not tattooed on my forehead or in any of my clothing that I am a techie or a programmer,” Brown says, “so it doesn't really come up in my daily interactions with the community.”
Brown works at Cisco. It's the only one of the 12 companies I contacted that allowed interviews.
Before we start talking, he forewarns me that his story is not that sensational. “I consider myself ordinary,” he says, “I might stop just short of boring.”
Brown says he is not one of the young startup entrepreneurs trying to make millions with the next big app. He consider himself a worker, albeit a relatively highly paid one.
Brown is 43 and came to San Francisco almost 20 years ago. He and his wife have two kids and plan to stay here.
“This is my home,” Brown says, “I intend to die here many decades from now.”
Brown is not ashamed of his career, even if it means being called a “tech worker.” He is happy to tell his story and give his opinions, as long as the bosses say it's OK.