Yesterday, I was told that I was incredibly selfish, naive, the owner of a hyper-inflated ego and self-worth, unprofessional, lacking in moral character, inconsiderate, arrogant, unworthy of respect, short-sighted, deluded by my parents’ praise and those of my peers, having communications skills worse than the person’s two year old, and too incredibly young to understand how things worked in the real world.
I suppose in their defense, it was a sudden thing to do, to ask to speak with them on Monday and tell them that I was going to quit at the end of the month which was essentially a week away. According to them, I was a breaker of my contract, a contract of at will employment which does include a clause of a request for four weeks notice and additional time if possible. According to them the at will portion of the contract only means that it is not a set time contract. According to what I have read about at will contracts, at will means either party can cease the terms of employment at any time for any cause. Linguistically, the clause about four weeks was a request and not a requirement. Though I have noticed that they are the sort to arrange contracts in their favor, after all, the source of my original disgruntlement was that we had a verbal agreement that I had flexible hours and could work from home. I had wanted the contract to be edited, but was brushed off with a “that is just a standard contract,” just for formalities’ sake. Uncomfortable with that brush off as I had been with the brush off when I had requested to know more about their business plan. I was told vague hopes and desires, but nothing concrete. Either there existed an actual plan which I was too unimportant to know or that was all there was.
To put things in perspective, this is/was a, including me, three person company, myself being the only code/electrical developer. I walked in to a device with essentially zero documentation and mangled code-base. I spent the first month just trying to wade through ~4-5 thousand lines of code, much of it not in use and create documentation from analyzing the only working device that I was not comfortable taking apart to figure out for fear of breaking the only semi-working model I had. The second month was caught up in the company moving to a new location, my contracting and recovering from strep throat, and strange issues that cropped up which could not be easily determined were physical or code-inspired. Finally this month, they were determined to be physical mechanical/electrical issues. This past month has been spent writing about 3,500 lines of new code using a completely different approach, focusing on timing and accuracy.
To entice me to join in the first place, I was offered 35k a year 1% equity, with health insurance half paid out of pocket, half by the company. No dental or eye coverage, no 401k, no travel stipend, etc. When I was concerned with the business model of simply “we hope to sell a device in a few months and if we can, maybe we can afford to pay people more in the future.” As well as a “well we don’t want someone who is in it for the money, we want someone who cares about the project.” While a true statement no doubt, it was uncomfortable to me that a valid concern about the financial stability of the company that could not afford to pay me market values or even at the market value for an engineering intern, was met with a question about if I cared too much about money. But being the naive almost-graduate I was who really wanted a project that could use all three of my triple major, the promise that I could, and the promise that we could all learn from one another, I accepted.
Two-three weeks ago, likely inspired by my week-long absence recovering from strep throat, my lack of communication during that week as I laid in bed unable to speak and barely able to stay awake for a few hours each day, and my showing up later than usual the week following as I purposefully made use of the flexible hours agreement to allow myself to sleep in as long as my body desired to, they told me they wanted to talk to me about communication. I agreed as I had been in the middle of drafting an email about how I was confused by what and how they wished me to communicate certain things. An email because during that month of moving, oftentimes there was only one or neither of them in the area I was throughout the day. I put off my email, returned to the work I had wanted to finish, and waited for the lab meeting the next day.
The next day, the two of them sat me down to tell me that they had been too lenient on me, that I was taking too many liberties and not meeting their expectations. When they said I needed to come in earlier and stay according to the normal 8 hour workday expectation, not to work from home. I nodded in agreement with the coming in earlier, I myself had been displeased with how late my addled body had made me wait to start each day, I wanted to say that coming in that late was not my intention and was only due to my being sick. That if I came in later, I stayed later that day or the day after. That it was true that right then, debugging the device itself, working from home was unreasonable and since I had started on that phase, I had not taken time to work from home. However opening my mouth I was told to stay quiet and wait until they were done.
If that, let’s call it a conversation, had continued my silence met with merely more requests, I would still have been annoyed that they approached what should have been a conversation as a confrontation, not allowing the addressed to respond to each individual item, but understanding that sometimes you have to say everything to not lose track of your thoughts. However, what followed were both additional requests and several choice statements that did infuriate me to the point where I knew I could not respond to any of the previous items with rationality. I was told that they wanted me to not bring my own computer to work, to use theirs, even though I had expressed that I worked faster, better on my own, in the programming environment I had built up over the years. Unhappy, I was not yet upset.
Next they told me that they understood, that I was so fresh out of college, so naive, that I did not understand how startups or companies work. How I thought that places like Google and others where computer scientists work as this ideal that is non-existent. But they could understand that I was new to this world, that I would understand in time how lenient they were being with me. That my requests to continue using my own computer in addition to theirs, to work on occasion from home, for flexible hours were idealistic desires that was uncommon even in the world of computer science and start-ups. That they were disappointed in my work, that I had misled them about how long things would take and that in the end this was their company. That they were uncomfortable that I had other side projects and would go to hackathons, that they wanted me to take up their project as my own. That I simply had to work harder and that they would be monitoring me more closely to give me a written three month review. That while I had opinions about how a start-up should be, they were the boss and being the ones paying me, this was how their company was to be.
The last was a slap in the face, a now irrefutable recognition of what I suspected for awhile that less than a natural difficulty to treat a girl 10-20 years your junior with respect, much less as an equal, it was not even a consideration. That given their extenuating age, seniority, and previous investment in this company, they had the right to treat me however they wish. That because they paid me the pittance they had and that they had given me such a wonderful opportunity, I ought to be working as hard as I could to prove to them that I ought to stay. That despite that I was giving up on other opportunities and committing myself to a life of financial insecurity, I should both be devoted to their vision of the company and product and be thankful to simply be a part of these works. It being a laughable matter that I should desire to have say in both the product and company. That was the point at which I knew I could not stay. I did not take the time to address their list of demands, I knew that it was already taking a great deal to keep myself from shaking in anger. I simply said that I was extremely unhappy with how they had treated me, making this a confrontation instead of a conversation. That they could not have it both ways, could not ask me to treat their project and company as my own and find ownership, take stake in it, while asking me to play along as a hired hand.
However having voiced my displeasure, I continued work for two more weeks, trying this 8 hour work day thing. In my mind I thought, maybe I should give it a try. Who knows maybe they are right, maybe I just need to learn to get used to this. It is only an hour or so earlier than I would like to come in and the work from home is more something that I like knowing I have the flexibility of doing, not something I do on more than a once a week manner anyway. In those two weeks, I re-discovered why I really did not want to work for a traditional 9-5 company, why I sought out being a computer scientist in the first place. Becoming irritable and less productive, both at work and at home, at the same time being recruited by a classmate to co-found a startup and reminded regularly by my parents and former classmates that I was being mistreated, undervalued, taken advantage of. That I was the one defending their company and behavior, my mind changed. After all, accounting for tax and health care, they had valued an hour of my time around $15. I had made as much if not more being a lab assistant for EE40 last summer. Why was it then worth my life being unhappy, being forced into a workweek that I considered unproductive simply to make my bosses feel better about what they paid me? Unlike our original pre-employment discussions, I had learned nothing there from them. My attempts to explain programming design decisions and concepts were met with frequent interruptions and incorrect assumptions that I had to re-explain as calmly as I could. The importance of certain practices such as documentation and explanations of why unlike my original estimation of quick progress I had to take time to read/understand the uncommented, undocumented code and device, was met with disgruntled stares and the question of when would the device just look like it worked again.
Initially at the end of each day I would give them an update of what I had been doing, what the next step was. For the first month, when I thought I was going to be coming in later than usual or not coming in for the day, I would send an email. However after a month of essentially little or no email response and little other email communication, I stopped emailing or texting when I would happen to be in later. The second month, there were often days when I was the last one there, when they would leave without letting me know they had gone for the day, days when I would arrive alone and leave alone, I also stopped with the regular post-day reportings. The only thing holding me there for the last month was that there were bugs in my code and I wanted them fixed. The day I told them I was leaving was the day I thought I had caught all of the bugs and all that I had to do to prepare it for the next programmer was to document and comment everything. That in that meantime they had a machine that would work more consistently than the one which I had arrived to.
I felt that given past behavior, if I agreed to stay for a longer or indeterminable amount of time, they would attempt to squeeze from me as much as they possibly could without consideration for my health or life. That my remaining days would be filled with a lengthy list of demands and frequent guilt-tripping that I was wronging them. I knew how difficult it was for me to drop a project, to say no to a little bit more, a little bit longer, so I tried to make it a clean break. End of the month I said, end of the week they interpreted it. Two days later, I was told, while I was trying to explain the code design, that I could not possibly understand how irresponsible I was, that I was leaving them out to hang, how disappointed and hurt they were. How could I be ok with leaving the project unfinished, uncertain. Blinking in surprise, I responded, the reason I had stayed to this point was so that it was at a stage that with documentation any decent programmer should be able to pick up and continue. My comment ignored, continued were the comments that how could I be ok with myself, them having sank so much into this company, them having such high expectations of me, how much this would set them back. How they could not possibly absorb what I had done in the manner of a week. Though still having reservations, after all I was open to staying on a little longer if they were only amenable to discussing being open to changing the working conditions back to our original agreement and was honestly perturbed that they were taking the time to attack my character but not simply asking if I might be amenable to staying just a little longer to wrap things up, I told them I was amenable to staying on longer if working conditions could be re-adjusted back to the original agreements.
Uncomfortable with having to be the one to make the offer, the realization that in their mind, they had done no wrong, I told them the next day that I was leaving the bay area around mid-may. It was true, in the intervening hours I had worked out with my parents and boyfriend what I was going to do instead with my time for the next couple months. I was reminded of how much of a shock this came to them, of how horrible it was for me to leave them in such a lurch, how I could be ok with myself, how that reflected on my moral character to be so selfish. How unprofessional. How they have never seen such behavior in all their years in industry and elsewhere. How poor my communications skills were, worse than the two year-old daughter of one of the two.
How though they were not the vindictive sort, they too knew people in Google, Yahoo, in the start-up world, and if my name were to somehow come up in conversation, how they could not find it in themselves to not warn them of what sort of employee I was. How I thought this might not affect me in the future, but that people talk.
The assertiveness and conviction in my manner, I am told is a sign of arrogance, of conceit. Of inflated ego and of self-worth. Indications to my current and future employers that I think too highly of myself. That with time, I will know the error of my ways and realize just how naive I was. How rude, how insensitive, how selfish.
Apparently also making it difficult for them is my supposed poker-face. The face carefully cultivated from so many years of public speaking that makes it difficult to others to know if I am upset, disinterested, or simply concentrating very hard. The face and tone that I have cultivated through the years of debate and in leadership to hide my inner turmoil and try to deal with whatever situation I am faced with as much calm and sense as may be possible. The state of debate that I resort to such that even in anger I will not be pushed to attack another directly, instead of on reason. That when I am dealing with laggardly folks on my own staff, that I try to reason with them to an agreement without their tempers flaring to a perceived slight. In short, to avoid attacks ad hominem. That even when faced with adults, though I suppose I am one now too, who attack me based on real or perceived slight, I can remain calm and retell the series of events when necessary and make rational decisions. I suppose they expected me to attack them more, that the most they could use against me was that I had said I was unhappy. That I was unproductive there and at home. That I did not feel that the company they wanted and the one I wished to work in were able to co-exist. For I do not engage in ad hominem attacks and I deplore myself when I slip up.
As near as I can tell, it is impossible to engage in ad hominem without both the public condemnation of all those who enjoy rhetoric and the person you are engaging with to become un-amenable to further conciliation. I have to admit that I am writing this while still feeling the infuriating edge of being wronged. The indignity that my opinion is so disregarded, my respect unnecessary due to my age and perceived immaturity. That though I was hired to be an expert in my field, a field that I have spent over three years going through a full design and build process and putting our creation to the test, though I was valued at a quarter of what I would be getting for market salary, I was treated as a hired hand. That I was forcing myself, at my family’s displeasure, to continue living like a penny-pinching student, but without full health care and without anything but hand-wavy gestures of possible future returns and no one to learn from. That I had little to say in the company I was supposed to devote my time to and little say in how I was to be treated. That my judgement and my work were decidedly disappointing when those making the judgement were so little acquainted with the current state of my work that more than a week must be necessary to understand what I had been working on.
Honestly though the kicker of it all is that in response to the displeasure and decision to leave of their sole employee and only developer, the question never arose of why are you leaving, of what could we have done perhaps not for you but to prevent our future developer from leaving, but the first response and those that followed were the very sort of thing that I have learned and trained others to never engage with. Attacks that even in extreme frustration, I know create nothing but more problems. Suffice it to say, however big or small I do not want to work with, much less work for people whose default reaction to that which displease them are ad hominem attacks.
Whomever does happen to read this, I know that I am writing this while still frustrated. Despite all of the personal attacks, some of it is very true for me. I hate leaving projects not completely done, however I wanted to make a clean break because I felt and still feel like they are taking advantage of that trait of mine. That they sought to use me as long as they could on as little as they could, simply because I like projects and I don’t like abandoning them. Thus despite the personal attacks, I have consented to stay for one more week with flexible hours to try to finish things up, re-evaluating if more time is needed at the end of that week. It is true that I could have perhaps handled it a little better, but I admit I respond poorly when I am condescended to and when my character is attacked and I am not allowed to defend myself. I know that they think they were being overly generous and lenient and that my behavior was taking advantage of their leniency. I dislike that they are masking their threats and remarks on my characters from the framepoint of we are your seniors who care about your future and do not want you leaving thinking that you had the right of things. For any reading this, I have tried to tell the story as accurately as possible. My own failing, though I admit it was because I wanted to avoid weeks of their attacks and because I was uncomfortable saying I was leaving until I had reached a bug-free enough state, was not informing them early enough. Which is why I have acquiesced to the additional week. I realize that they believe I have broken their contract. A contract which they hand-waved initially as just a formal agreement when I had wanted it changed to include flexible hours and work from home explicitly. A contract which conflicts with itself and technically speaking does not say I am required to give them four weeks notice, thus I do not believe I have broken their contract. A contract which I did make a point to have included the at will agreement, which they agreed to.
They say I am being extremely selfish, short-sighted, and unprofessional. That I will learn one day that the real world does not work the way I think it does. That I am naive about start-ups and companies and the world of computer science work. My family says they are taking advantage of me. My friends say I deserve better and that they are the ones being horribly unprofessional. My peers say my talents are being wasted there and I should never have agreed to the offer in the first place. I still want to ask the question:
Am I wrong?