Toxic and Woke Engineering Orgs

Marianne Bellotti
11 min readDec 15, 2020

Why are organizations committed to positive ideals so often shitty to their employees?

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I have a checklist of things I talk to new hires joining my team about during our first 1:1. Top of that list is the word boundaries double underlined. By the end of that first conversation I want to have covered the importance of three different categories of boundaries I consider absolutely essential to doing any kind of social impact based work.

Internal boundaries: How you treat yourself. Getting enough sleep, eating right, getting regular exercise, etc. Everybody’s different here and what I want from my employees is not that they fit a certain mold but that they give me a general idea of what these boundaries look like for them so that I can flag when their patterns have changed. Some software engineers legitimately prefer to work at 3am. I don’t have a problem with that, but I have a problem with an engineer working both days and nights.

External boundaries: What parts of your life are work zones, and what parts are personal zones. This is something we set together because part of my job (as I see it) is holding the organization accountable to these standards. External boundaries include traditional “work-life balance” issues like work hours, norms around overtime and the conditions in which it’s considered okay to violate those norms and infringe on non-work space. Some examples include: on call rotations may trigger pages during what would normally be non-work hours, travel days might be on weekends, people might work longer hours leading up to a deadline (although here the key thing to define is how often that can happen before it’s a problem. Once or twice a year might be okay, once a month definitely is not).

Interpersonal boundaries: The relationships you have with coworkers. When working on something with a social good in mind, people tend to underestimate how stressful the experience is. I mean they really do. And when the stress catches people by surprise, their coping mechanisms can dump that stress on to others without them meaning to. This is particularly important when the work requires a security clearance. The best way to protect yourself is to set boundaries with each relationship. Are you friends? Is it okay to confide in you? Lean on you for support? What topics are off limits? As a…

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Marianne Bellotti

Author of Kill It with Fire Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones)