Too close to home? Dan Lyons and the evisceration of Hubspot

This past week I read the new book by Dan Lyons (former Newsweek technology editor and, more famously, Fake Steve Jobs) entitled Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble. I’ve been looking forward to reading the book ever since I got a first look at the promo copy last summer. This was the publisher’s pitch:

“For twenty-five years Dan Lyons was a magazine writer at the top of his profession — until one Friday morning when he received a phone call: Poof. His job no longer existed. Fifty years old and with a wife and two young kids, Dan was, in a word, screwed. Then an idea hit. Dan had long reported on Silicon Valley and the tech explosion. Why not join it? HubSpot, a Boston start-up, was flush with $100 million in venture capital. They offered Dan a pile of stock options for the vague role of “marketing fellow.” What could go wrong?

HubSpotters were true believers: They were making the world a better place … by selling email spam. The office vibe was frat house meets cult compound: The party began at four thirty on Friday and lasted well into the night; “shower pods” became hook-up dens. In the middle of all this was Dan, exactly twice the age of the average HubSpot employee, and literally old enough to be the father of most of his co-workers, sitting at his desk on his bouncy-ball ‘chair.’”

Sounds juicy, huh?

Lyons has also been a writer on the HBO show Silicon Valley for the past few years. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the show is a blistering look at the culture of the technology industry, where I’ve made my living for the past 20 years. I would say my typical experience watching Silicon Valley looks something like this:

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hashut up…

…when it hits too close to home, which is often.

WHITE BOOKI spent a decade helping build the brand and culture of Red Hat, so I’m very familiar with tech culture. In the last 6+ years since I left Red Hat, our branding agency, New Kind, has helped build brand and culture for many more tech startups as well.

So I was very curious about this book. Would it be a pure vendetta hit piece, intended by Lyons as a way to get back at a company that he felt had treated him badly? Certainly if you read the reports from last summer, when the Hubspot Chief Marketing Officer was fired for allegedly trying to steal a copy of the manuscript, you’d think so.

Or instead, would it be a thoughtful, humorous look at technology company culture from the point of view of an outsider?

The answer? Yes, and yes.

V for vendetta

The book is definitely a hit piece. Lyons pulls zero punches. At times, it is petty, vicious, and littered with name-calling. Lyons gives the real people depicted in the book pseudonyms…not to protect them, mind you, but instead to turn them into caricatures. The PR leader is called “Spinner,” the Chief Marketing Officer’s second in command is called “Wingman,” and Lyon’s direct boss is called — brutally — “Trotsky.” Ouch.

These personal takedowns are uncomfortably mean, personal and, in some cases, quite funny. But it is a bit hard to laugh too hard knowing that these are real , probably well intentioned , people he is shredding. People who, in many cases, were trying to help him succeed and who actually have to work for a living.

Lyons is totally caught up in his own victim story. He paints himself as an innocent surrounded by villains and idiots with zero culpability in his own failings. Yet there are unintentional hints throughout that Lyons may not actually be so innocent in his own demise.

From the very beginning, he relishes the role of cynic. He pops the enthusiastic balloon of employees trying to acknowledge each others’ work over email by sending clearly sarcastic congratulatory messages. He regularly undermines and belittles his co-workers while assuming they are too young, naïve, or dumb to notice.

He is a less than dedicated worker with numerous examples of blowing off work in the middle of the afternoon. He regularly “works from home” — clearly not in the actual working sense — for days or even weeks at a time.

In other words, he sounds kind of like a lazy !@#$%.

Clearly, the world of Hubspot as Lyons describes it is flawed. But our narrator is also flawed. By the end, I actually felt sorry for many of his co-workers, especially those who tried to help him.

Why the tech industry should pay attention to Lyons

This book also raises some very important questions about the culture of technology companies. Some are things I’ve questioned myself over the years. Others I hadn’t spent much time considering but probably deserve a closer look.

The thin veneer of purpose

Lyons relentless mocks Hubspot CTO Dhramesh Shah, creator of the Hubspot Culture Code. Lyons sees the Culture Code as propaganda foisted on young, gullible employees to make them believe they are changing the world, while — in Lyons’ view — it is actually just helping Shah and other Hubspot investors line their pockets.

I read the Hubspot Culture Code. Yes, it’s cheesy in parts, but it’s also very similar to many tech company culture guides I’ve seen or worked on over the years. It’s actually not bad, as these things go, and I can see why it works for Hubspot. People want to do meaningful work, and this guide helps them find that meaning.

But I do agree with Lyons that we should probably question how purposeful some supposedly purposeful tech companies actually are. We in the tech industry often turn our noses up at other industries where companies are unapologetically in business to make money. We think — and have a whole generation of employees convinced — that our tech companies are making the world a better place with a hard sell on the idea that the companies are about much, much more than simply making money.

Many tech companies have an inflated sense of purpose, and this scene from the show Silicon Valley skewers them for it.

Lyons is right . There is definitely some intellectual dishonesty going on here. In some cases, these technology companies live up to the billing of doing truly meaningful work. In others, not so much.

While at Red Hat, I personally, along with others around me, spent years demonizing Microsoft as a villain of the technology industry. And philosophically, Red Hat and the open source movement have been able to accomplish many great things over the last 15 years that made us feel like we were working toward a greater purpose of making the world more open and collaborative. We felt we were doing something important.

Even though Microsoft was much more clearly and transparently profit motivated during that time, the reality is that a lot of good has come from those profits. For example, Bill Gates has given over 41% of his net worth (over $31.5 billion) to charity. If I worked at Microsoft and I knew that my work had helped enable that, should it be OK for me to be proud too, to feel like my work has meaning?

Or what if I work for one of the many companies that Warren Buffett owns through Berkshire Hathaway? Warren Buffett has given away 37% of his net worth (over $22.7 billion) and has plans to give away 99% of his wealth before he dies. Say I work for Acme Brick Company, a Berkshire Hathaway company, and I know that my company exists for the purpose of maximizing profits for our investors. Can I not feel good knowing that some of those profits might actually change the world in meaningful ways through Warren Buffett’s work?

Perhaps it is time for the tech industry to soften the rhetoric and get a bit less judge-y about what does and does not constitute meaningful work.

It is wonderful for work to have a greater purpose. But making a sustainable, profitable business can also be meaningful. It creates jobs that support families and delivers profits that can support philanthropy.

And just because a tech company has a grandiose-sounding purpose and a solemn culture code doesn’t mean that its profits aren’t buying fancy sports cars and beach houses on Cape Cod for rich investors.

The ageism of tech

Another issue Lyons faces head on is the prospect that the startup technology world may discriminate against old people (and when I say old here, I mean over 40). He certainly paints a strong picture of this at Hubspot, where the average age is 26 and Lyons is one of the only employees in his 50s.

Lyons shares stories of folks who are “graduated” (Hubspeak for fired) when they start having children and other commitments that come with age. Some examples are pretty clearly out of bounds, but there are also softer ways that Hubspot is less inclusive for people over 40. Heavy-drinking after-work parties (or at work, for that matter), youth oriented activities like paintball, Nerf gun wars, foosball, etc. may also make some people over 40 feel like they don’t belong. I’ve seen this too and never viewed it as an issue…until I hit 40. Now, I totally get why older people would start to feel left out in some tech cultures.

This is a complex issue and one that I’m not sure how the industry should tackle. There are economics at play as well, where people who are just out of college tend to be able to work for a lot less money than those with a lot of experience and families to support.

What it comes down to is that the tech startup industry often doesn’t value experience and isn’t willing to pay for it. So the startup world is dominated by young, inexpensive talent.

Is this true? Absolutely. Is it right and does it have to be this way? I don’t know, but it is worth considering whether there is a better way to make startup cultures more inclusive of people at different stages in their lives.

The eroding social contract between employer and employee

The third key issue Lyons tackles is what he sees as an unfair arrangement between worker and company in the startup technology world. He describes a place where young people work for low pay, candy, and beer, while getting screwed out of making money on stock options by greedy investor accounting games.

There is definitely some truth in this, and Hubspot clearly is not the only startup where this is happening. But I’m not so sure it is such a clear-cut case of the old way he remembers (where companies were supposedly more loyal to employees) being so much better as simply different.

The truth is that the failings in this new employer-employee social contract cut both ways. Companies may be less loyal to workers, but workers are also less loyal to companies. Where Lyons paints the young, gullible tech company employees as victims, I don’t see it so clearly.

Companies that don’t treat good employees well will lose them. Period. Companies that treat good employees well MAY keep them…that is, until someone makes an offer to treat them better or pay them more.

The employees have power too . They can always move on if they feel like they are getting a raw deal or could get a better one—and often do.

So rather than seeing this as victim-villain, it may be simply be that the social contract has fundamentally changed. The risks are higher for both sides but so are the potential rewards.

Final thoughts

This is a good book, but it could have been a great book. It is held back by Lyons himself, an untrustworthy narrator who takes no personal accountability for the tornados he spins.

Still, Disrupted is a must-read for anyone interested in the culture of the technology industry. It raises poignant questions, and challenges sacred tech religion. Check it out and let me know if you agree.

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