It's Not Your Job To Love Your Job

Presented by Keziyah Lewis at You Got This Birmingham 2020

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I'm so happy to be here. Thank you all for being here. Thank you Kevin and Sunny for inviting me, and I'm really excited to be here. My name is Keziyah. And my talk is It's Not Your Job to Love Your Job.

A couple of years ago, I started my first developer job in the industry, and, one afternoon, I was sitting on my couch, my laptop on my lap, and my computer, and I was listening to our company's weekly all-hands call with the Remote First company, and I was working out of Florida at the time. It was a typical all-hands call. We talked about different things that the teams are doing, and announcements, and we were planning a trip to Ireland later on in the summer - like all-team meeting stuff.

Suddenly, I was listening to the call, I was zoning out, and I heard this phrase that I never expected my CEO to say "Two weeks of runway." This is not something you ever want to hear from anyone who works with you. The CEO was talking about how there were times within our company's history where we might have only about two weeks of money left to keep the company running, but somehow they always pulled through and raised enough money to keep going. Which is good, because, you know, I still have a job, obviously. But, it wasn't something I was expecting to hear.

I had no idea at the time that the company was in such bad shape. Hearing this phrase gave me a lot of anxiety. I started to doubt myself. I started to doubt whether or not I belonged in this position. I didn't want to believe that anything was wrong with the company that I was working at. Especially since, you know, I felt so lucky as a junior engineer to have a job in the first place. I had a remote job. I was able to travel - here's a picture of me in Colombia. I had a job, I was able to travel. I was doing exciting things. I was getting paid well. You know, I had my dream job, so, to hear suddenly we weren't in a financially good place, it was really scary for me.

I liked my job, and I felt very lucky especially as a junior engineer. So, even when red and yellow flags kept popping up throughout my time there, I just kind of ignored them and pushed them to the side. For example, there were were times when we - even when we had very little runway left, very little money in the bank, we kept hiring people. I realised that I wasn't really progressing in my career. I wasn't really going anywhere.

Later on, I realised that the job I had didn't really align with my values. We got paid late a couple of times which is extremely frustrating and definitely a red flag for any company. The company was taking really huge financial risks, starting new programmes, new initiatives that we couldn't really afford to do. There were some group-think going on. I felt it was really hard for us really to disagree with things that were going on with the company. I didn't have an important role at the company. The engineering team was just me and one other junior engineer so I felt the work I was doing wasn't really contributing to the rest of the company, and I felt I was given a lot of busywork.

I had a manager, but not the equivalent of what you expect an engineering manager to be. Because of the lack of management, I didn't have the career progression that I would expect. So, one day, about a year after that call, I ended up getting laid off, and I posted this tweet to Twitter, and I'm sure most of you, if you're on Twitter, you've seen a tweet like this, "Okay, I lost my job. This is what I do. Please help me find a new job." This was posted the very day that I found out I was getting laid off - March 4th of last year.

After it happened, I just kept thinking to myself, you know, what the hell happened? How was I in a situation where I was in a job I loved but ignored the red signs? How did I let my love of the job get in the way of basic common sense and looking after myself?

A little about me. I know Jess and Matt told you about me, but the slide is here. I'm a web developer, a front-end engineer, a digital nomad. I love to travel, and I love remote work. Jeff wanted me to mention some of the places I've been - Colombia, Mexico - where else have I been? When I used to teach, I taught in Saudi Arabia, Spain. I run a weekly round-up of career advice, junior jobs, and just a bunch of other things just for people like us who are just starting our careers in tech. And I'm on Twitter way too much. My user name - please don't follow me. You will be disappointed.

So this talk is "It's not your job to love your job" and some of you are thinking, "Duh, we don't like our jobs anyway." That's true to some extent. Only 34 per cent of workers in the US and 11 per cent of workers in the UK are engaged at work. So a lot of people don't really like their jobs, right? Even if you don't like your job, we kind of have a tendency to prioritise our job, and to commit to our jobs in a way that gets in the way of other things in our lives, right? For example, 38 per cent of workers in one survey missed a child's important event for work. 24 per cent of working parents have had kids who ask them to work less.

In the UK, you work 2.5 weeks more per year than other countries in the EU, than the average EU worker. Why is that? Only one third of you have found a good work-life balance. So, I was really kicking myself when I got laid off, trying to figure out what happened, how I got myself to that point.

I wanted really to analyse just what happened, like, how did I get myself to a point where I was so attached to a job that I couldn't really see it for what it was? I wanted to figure out three things: why did I stay at this job? How did they keep me at this job? And what would I do now if I could go back time and tell past Keziyah and give her advice. That's what we are going to talk about today. Why did I stay at the job? What is the psychology behind staying at a job that you know is not good for you? What is going on in our mind when we try to push away the red flags and ignore them? What are strategies for employers knowingly or not to keep workers around? What advice would I give to you or my past self to prevent this from happening again?

So, let's talk about why I stayed at this job. I can hear some of you laughing. I'm sure you've seen this comic. In the first part of the comic, a dog sitting at a coffee table while the building is burning down. In the second part, they're saying, "This is fine."

Apparently, being in a burning building and having coffee is fine. So, this dog kind of reminds me of myself. If you can think of the burning building as, like, my old job. I can see the flames around me, I'm inhaling the smoke, I could feel the heat, but I'm still sitting there in my job saying, "Everything's fine. We got paid late, whatever. It's fine." I wanted to do more research into the psychology of that.

We create illusions to deal with the difficulty of reality, so there are times when we do have a psychological need to believe that everything is fine, even when it is not. Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown identified a cognitive bias, called the "positive illusion". It's basically a cognitive bias, where you think positively about yourself and about your situations, and your surroundings, and you do that in order to maintain your mental health. It's kind of like if you were to face the reality, your mental health would suffer. So, in order to avoid that, you try to create a positive illusion about what you're experiencing.

They identified that positive illusions have three characteristics: the first is unrealistically positive self-evaluation s. So people tend to think highly of themselves compared to others. When we think of ourselves, we exaggerate our positive traits, and we ignore our negative traits. Exaggerated perceptions of control: so, we think of situations that are completely out of control, or that are completely up to chance, and we exaggerate our effect on those situations.

So, for example, I think there was some study where they had two people working as a team to try to, I guess, roll a dice or flip a coin to get a result to win the game. People found - the psychologists found that people preferred to roll the dice themselves instead of letting their partner roll the dice because they decided that they had a greater effect on the outcome of the game, even though it was totally up to chance.

And the third characteristic is unrealistic optimism, which is basically the idea that we are un realistically optimistic - we have unrealistic optimism about our futures. We generally think that more good things than bad things will happen to us in the future. So positive illusion is what makes us think everything is fine, even when it's not, and, again, these are illusions we create in order to maintain our mental health.

So, when we look back at this comic, we can kind of understand why this dog thinks that everything is fine, even though, you know, they're literally going to die if they stay in that burning building. If they were to face the reality of, "I'm in a burning building, I need to get out," they would probably freak out. It would cause harm to their mental health, so it is easier for them to think that everything is fine. I thought about myself and my previous job, and I realised that I think it's why I stuck with this job, even though I knew deep down it wasn't good for me.

So even though I saw all these red flags, I was optimistic. I still really thought that everything was going to be okay. Think about the last time you were in a situation, a bad situation, a relationship, a job, whatever it was, where you knew things weren't going well, but you still held on for some reason. You still thought to yourself, "Everything's going to be okay. Things will turn around, et cetera." This is how the comic ends. We don't often see this when it is used as a meme on social media. The dog continues to drink the coffee. Saying things will be okay. In the last panel, they're face is getting melted off. So, remember that positive illusions basically shape our mental health.

Admitting the reality of what was going on at my job probably would have been detrimental to my mental health. In fact, there were times when I did admit to myself what was going on, and I couldn't sleep, my anxiety went up. It was just really difficult for me, and then a little bit of time passed, and things got better. Like, okay, you know, I'm not going to lose my job, we are going to Ireland next month, everything's fine. And, you know, it was easier for me to believe that everything was just going to be okay. So now I understand a little bit about why I stayed at this job that I really should not have stayed at

I want to talk about what strategies employers might use knowingly or not to keep workers sticking around. I think that it involves three things: you've to get your employees to believe in the company; you have to get them to care about the company and to believe the company cares about them as well; and get them to sacrifice and fight for the company.

Getting them to believe in the company is something called a "hero story." A start-up hero story is a positive uplifting narrative about the origins, the founders, and the company, and their operations. This is something you will see on, like, a website's about page, or any kind of media, in a blog post, in, you know, any kind of marketing - that sort of thing.

I think that start-up here stories have three characteristics: humble origins, and exaggerated impact on the world, and a minimisation of harm done to society. Let's look at some examples...

Humble origins basically, started from the bottom, now we are here. You hear of a lot of start-ups that start in someone's garage, or deform room, or started by a person when they were homeless, et cetera. Rags-to-riches stories are rare, and we are attracted to that exceptionalism. Hero stories promote the idea they have an exaggerated impact on the world. I'm sure you've heard of a lot of start-ups that kind of promote this idea that they're going to revolution lies that, or - revolution ise that, disrupt that, or change something.

For example, this is a coding bootcamp that I do not like. [Laughter]. They claim to be pioneering a new model of higher education. Let's look at another example. Elizabeth Holmes once said to her staff, "You're all part of something a revolution. What higher purpose is there?" I can think of 30 other purposes of making a machine that's definitely going to work - I don't know!

The final characteristic of a hero story is the minimisation of harm to society. So, hero stories are kind of - they want us to think that the company existing is a net good in the world. They're usually not, right?

This is from Away, the luggage company. It says on their About page they partnered with a non-profit that does peace building. That sounds nice, I guess. This is Facebook. This is a blog written by Mark Zuckerberg in which he said it's not enough simply to connect the world, we must also bring the world closer together. It sounds wonderful. You know, he's trying to make it like Facebook is a net good in the world, and we know that it is not, right? So these are the three characteristics that make up the hero story: humble origins, impact on the world, minimisation of harm to society.

These stories are important because they attract - well, it's marketing, basically. It's good PR. They attract investors, and they attract talent as well, right? Now, ten people are - nine out of ten people are willing to earn less money to do meaningful work,. So, we like hero stories because we want to be a part of our story. And companies may or may not know this - maybe they do - but having a really good hero story is a good way to get to attract talent and get them to stay, even when they shouldn't.

Hero stories aren't necessarily bad. But I want us all to be careful about not drinking the Kool-Aid. That's exactly what I did at my last job. This is cringeworthy! I believed in the executive at this company before I even met them. I knew about their story. I followed them on Twitter. I was really inspired by what they were doing.

So, on the very first day of my job, they flew me out to California for some all-team meeting. There was a reporter there who was doing a report on our company for a podcast. She asked something like about whether or not we are worried about how things are going with the company, and I chimed in on my very first day and said, "I trust founder name and founder two's name."

It's cringeworthy for me to think about that because I literally did not know these people, but I felt like I could trust them because of this story that I had been told about them. So the next time you come across a company's hero story, I want you to practise being more critical and not taking everything at face value.

I'm sure there are companies out there that you admire that you want to work for, maybe follow the CEO on Twitter, maybe the CEO makes really good dad jokes on Twitter, or something. But I want you just to be critical of companies, and remember that hero stories is marketing, basically. After you get employees to believe in your company, you have to get them to care about the company, and to believe that the company cares about them as people.

This is why I'm calling in false familiarity. It's the idea that, when companies - Oh! When companies promote the idea that everyone at the company cares for one another, and that the company actually cares about the employees. And that they have the employees' best interests in mind. It's okay to care about your boss, or your co-workers, or whatever - totally natural.

More than 50 per cent of tech workers have a work BFF, and you're 1.4 times more likely to receive praise if you have a work BFF. Also, 70 per cent of workers say having a friend at work is crucial to happy, healthy work life. Here are some examples that enforce familiarity. Describing colleagues as "family", which I really hate. Talking about self-care and work life balance. Encouraging bringing your whole self to work. Claiming to care about diversity and inclusion, caring about transparency and openness, and having company values like compassion, empathy, kindness. Most are good. Don't ever do the first one! The rest of them are really good. I don't mind it, and I like seeing this on companies' About pages. They may not reflect the reality of how companies are actually run.

This is from NPM's About page. They have a couple of paragraphs about what they believe in, or whatever. I want to highlight the parts that talk about this enforced familiarity that I'm talking about. Not a typical work-hard play-hard start-up. Taking care of ourselves, our families, and one another. Sustainable approach to work and life. Compassion is our strategy. That all sounds great. We know that's not true if you follow the NPM lay-off story from last year. This is an article from the Register. Lay-offs always suck, right? But a lot of people who formerly used to work at NPM had a problem with how the lay-offs were done.

One developer-advocate, former developer-advocate said that he thought there was a disconnect between the company's values and its behaviour. Another source told the Register that head an all-hands meeting and encouraged people to speak up and ask honest questions, and the following week, they were fired. It's not a very compassionate way to treat your employees. You shouldn't fire people for asking questions at an all-hands meeting.

I want to say things about the enforced familiarity. More familiarity often means fewer boundaries. We have fewer boundaries for people we're more familiar with or closer to. Fewer boundaries often means exploitation. The second thing is that caring about your colleagues and your managers, and your CEO, is fine, but you can't ignore the power dynamic. Finally, your employer can't, your bosses as people, can care about you, but your employer, the company as an entity, can't care about you, because the company itself is not a person. The only thing the company cares about is the bottom line, right?

So let's talk about the final thing. Once you have people believe in your company, once you kind of make it seem like you care about them, you can get them to sacrifice for you. I'm calling this "noble sacrifice". This is one employer's - this is when employers pressure workers into sacrificing for the greater good of the company - things like working long hours with no extra pay, doing extra work, getting paid less, et cetera.

This is an article in Slate about kick-starters investing. It says employees joining Kickstarter join a salary at lower rate because they believe in the mission and want to lend their labour for a meaningful cause. They're sacrificing pay for this company. I would never do that, but kudos to them. This is the Away piece that was published in the Verge last month. If you haven't read it, you should read it. In this piece, they talked about how the customer support reps for Away were demeaned and berated by the CEO, emotionally abused, denied time off - all kinds of things. One of the support reps said that she was overworked and underpaid but something in her wanted to keep going. "I wanted to move closer to work because I wanted to work more but I couldn't afford it." She believed in the company so much that, even though she was over worked and underpaid, we wanted to sacrifice more of herself for this company.

Sometimes, we are asked to sacrifice our right to raise a family. This is a headline about one person who was discriminated against for getting pregnant while working at WeWork. Sometimes, we sacrifice our own mental health. This is a story about an engineer who committed suicide after complaining about job stress. Sometimes, we sacrifice our safety.

This is Susan Fowler's blog post from a couple of years ago about her experiences at Uber with sexism and sexual harassment. Sometimes, we sacrifice our values. You may have heard recently that several GitHub employees resigned after GitHub signed a contract with ICE - immigration and customs enforcement at the US - which is keeping kids in cages at the US-Mexico border.

Sometimes, we sacrifice our ability to be ourselves and exist in the world of tech without being discriminated against. This is a Medium blog post published in November in which Facebook employees talk about racism against employees of colour at Facebook. So, is it worth it if all this sacrifice for - is all this sacrifice for your job worth it? I'm going to say, yes, actually. It's worth it for the boss, the CEO, the shareholders. It's never worth it for you, never worth it for us, right? That is how they kept me around.

I want quickly to talk about what I would do if I could go back in time and talk to myself and give myself some advice. I made this presentation for you all for the public, but I mostly made it for myself as a way of kind of thinking about what happened and trying to, I guess, learn from it. So what would I do now? Four simple things: the first is be a little cynical. Don't drink the Kool-Aid. Don't drink your company's Kool-Aid. It's very high in sugar and bad for you!

Also, be a little cynical. You don't have to believe everything your company says. You can believe in their mission, and you can believe in their story but always keep a side eye on them, you know? Prepare for the worst. You never know what is going to happen. I had no idea I was going to get laid off. I figured it had the possibility of happening, but, when it happened, I had no idea what to do, and I was freaking out.

So, if you have a job, or when you get a job, prepare for the worst. You never know what is going to happen. Your colleagues are your community. Watch ear other's backs. Your colleagues would be your people on your team, people at work, people on Twitter, people at your local meet-up. Lean on each other, and help each other out.

Finally, put yourself first. Love yourself more than your job. Because your number-one job is to take care of yourself. Your other jobs are to go to work, get paid, and be the best junior developer that your company has ever seen, and take care of your family, and have a good work-life balance, and make some money and spend it on whatever you want to spend it on. I spend it ice cream and music festivals! It's not your job to be a cheerleader for your company.

It's not your job to work yourself to death. It's not your job to sacrifice yourself for your company. And it's not your job to love your job. Thank you so much. [Cheering and applause].

About the talk

Loving or appreciating your job isn’t a problem on its own. But you’re not obligated to do it. In fact, I’d argue that the pressure to love your job can be dangerous. Using examples from my personal experience and from the tech industry as a whole, I’ll talk about how unconditional job love is used to exploit or mistreat tech workers.

About Keziyah Lewis

Keziyah Lewis is a Black and queer web developer, designer, and digital nomad. She curates Juniors in Tech, a newsletter for early career technologists. Keziyah is passionate about eliminating barriers to entering tech, making the industry more diverse and just, and making tech companies better places to work.

Photo of Keziyah Lewis

Keziyah Lewis


You Got This is a network of community conferences focused on core, non-technical skills coordinated by Kevin Lewis.