Steve Blank wrote a brilliant essay way back in 2009 about the metamorphoses that companies undergo as they grow. I’m not sure if it’s entirely attributable to this article, but the idea of free food has completely ingrained itself in our cultural zeitgeist to the point where every job ad for every aspiring scale-up boasts about how they spend their VC money on keeping the fridges well-stocked with artisanal blueberries.

For fuck sakes. Do you not understand the idea of a metaphor?

Paying for soft drinks is not the reason why people leave a job. I know that it’s convenient to pretend that software engineers are just a bunch of childlike savants, but we’re not completely stupid. We are, in fact, able to perform the long division required to calculate how many cold drinks you can buy for a million rand, or whatever the median software engineering salary is these days.

The real reason why people leave jobs is because the change in the cold drink situation is a bellwether for a more general enshittification that sometimes sets in as a company grows.

This change is a hydra: Instruments become institutions. Politics1 becomes a reality of everyday life. Organisational sclerosis sets in, precipitated by a cambrian explosion of process and procedure. Meetings multiply without bounds. Slowly and then suddenly, you’re working in an immoral maze.

a toxic organisation which puts tremendous pressure on you to prioritize getting ahead in the organization over everything else

The consensus seems to be that this is the inevitable consequence of growing an organisation, that every successful business will gravitate to this unhappiness as it falls victim to its own success.

This is generally true, but not necessarily. And whether it happens is entirely dependent on the morality of the individuals in your team.

Moloch always and everywhere offers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I can grant you power.

Although everyone finds Moloch’s deal tempting, some people will resist it while others will grab at it with both hands. And that latter group is not only going to be extremely attracted to the immoral maze, they will very actively work to deepen it.

It is exactly these people who trigger the rapid collapse of the kind of environment where the elves want to work.

Consequently these people have a useful function in the world: they act as signals for toxic culture. Never mind looking at org structure, incentives, skin or soul in the game or other signs of a toxic organisation. Just look for this kind of person.

Handily, they have a few common traits that make them easy to spot:

  1. Referring to humans as “resources” - these people appear to have a Dunbar’s number of approximately 0, so everyone around them is just something to be manipulated to maximise personal gains
  2. Bragging about the number of their reports Using an internally focused yardstick of success rather than value created.
  3. Name-dropping about who they report to or how the CxO knows who they are - because they are focused on an internal zero sum game, their currency is internal recognition.
  4. Insisting on being invited to meetings where they have nothing to contribute while humble-bragging about how many meetings they need to attend. Every meeting is an opportunity to display their influence, even if only by sitting in it with their camera off.
  5. Empire building - they look for any excuse to increase the head-count they have under them, or entrench their unit or department into seemingly unrelated functions. Efficient solutions to business problems are shunned because these detract from the opportunity to hire more “resources”.
  6. Avoiding creative work - creative work generally implies the possibility of failure. These people will avoid getting into those situations at all costs, so the way that they phrase their output is necessarily going to revolve around completion of tasks, attendance of meetings or busywork (Jira subtasks for the win).
  7. Almost inevitably, they gravitate to middle-management positions, where they are comfortably insulated against the intolerable hardships of either having skin in the game or dealing with object-level reality.

Avoiding the maze is as simple as detecting and avoiding or removing these people. If you are in a position to fire them, do it before they entrench themselves. If you meet them when you’re interviewing at a company, bolt. If you interview them, submit a hard no. If they start multiplying in your company like maggots, and you’re not in a position to clean them out, update your resume.

  1. The most apt definition I have heard for politics is “Saying something because of how you think people will react, rather than based on what you believe to be true”. I wish I could remember where I heard this.