Take this tech job and shove it

Sure, there are plenty of opportunities out there -- if you have 10 years of experience and are willing to work for free.

Published March 13, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Last summer, Tanya Bershadsky, a Web designer in her 20s who has worked in the up-and-down tech industry since the mid-1990s, was laid off from a big-name dot-com that unsurprisingly went belly up. Like a couple million others in her situation, Bershadsky quickly started looking for a new job and, like everyone else's, her search didn't go well.

Bershadsky discovered that it was possible to find dozens of job listings for the sort of work she was looking for. The trouble was, most of the advertised positions required prospective employees to have a skill set that rivaled Superman's -- you not only needed expertise in Flash and Java, but your new bosses also preferred that you'd graduated first in your class from MIT, knew how to shoot and edit and encode video, were "glamorous," typed 70 words per minute, took dictation and would perhaps wash the executive's car and feed his dog once in a while. Many times, the ads asked for intimate knowledge of the inner workings of some specialized world -- the cosmetic industry, say, or the French Foreign Ministry.

The worst part, Bershadsky found, was that several postings warned that employees should not only be qualified to do a job, but that they be "excited" and "passionate" about it -- a requirement that Bershadsky found difficult to fulfill because "80 percent of the jobs I was seeing posted, with these outrageous requirements, were unpaid internships," she says. "These were internships that required you to have three or four years of experience. What kind of shit is that?"

After a couple months of this, Bershadsky had had enough; she wanted to do something about the jobs she was seeing. So she went to a domain-name registration service and bought a URL for a new site she thought would, if not exactly make a difference in the world, at least make her feel better. The URL Bershadsky registered was fuckthatjob.com. "It was exactly what I was feeling," she says. "It felt right. I couldn't think of anything else to call it."

Bershadsky had a simple idea for the new site. She asked her close friends, many of whom were also looking for jobs, to send her the most outrageous postings they spotted; she would put up the listings and add snarky comments about the employers behind them.

She was quickly inundated with examples of over-the-top job requirements. There was, for instance, the film editor who wanted an assistant to help him finish a project -- the assistant would get no pay, and would need to provide his own editing equipment. Or there was a marketing firm in need of a "team player" to work as a copywriter. The applicant, who would be an unpaid intern, had to know HTML, Photoshop, Fireworks, Dreamweaver, PHP, JavaScript and "search engine optimization." The company wanted this person to have four years of marketing experience, and work for about 20 hours a week. The position was perfect, the ad said, for people who had "a desire to keep their skills polished during a lapse in employment. In other words, if you haven't been able to find a job and want to stay 'in the marketing loop', this is a great way to do so."

Fuckthatjob.com, currently making the rounds of the unemployed, provides a good window onto the dismal reality of the current tech job market. If one needed any proof, the jobs on the site -- as well as interviews with several people now looking for work -- indicate that we're now in an employer-dominated labor market. Employers will ask for the world from their employees, and often they'll come close to getting it, and for very little money.

It's a sad time to be looking for tech work. Three years have passed since the Nasdaq stock index closed at 5,048.62 -- which turned out to be its apex, the high-water mark of the late-1990s economic boom. Nothing has picked up for tech workers in that time, and many of them seem gloomier than ever about their prospects. "It seems like everybody I used to know in this industry has got some unbelievable story that isn't getting told," says Bill Lessard, the founder of Netslaves, a site that chronicled, through the good times and bad, worker exploitation in the tech economy.

Lessard is now halfheartedly looking for a job himself, but he's all but given up hope of finding something in technology. "I think that these job postings are indicative of just how truly crazy things have gotten. And the fact is that none of this is funny anymore; this is not just a fad story anymore. The fact of the matter is that the economy is awful -- there's no other way to put it."

Since the economy hit its peak employment rate about two years ago, more than 2 million people have lost their jobs, and there's no sign, yet, of a reversal. According to the Labor Department's latest numbers, about 300,000 jobs were cut in February alone. Tech workers across many industries have been among the hardest hit by the economic slump, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there's a specific kind of tech worker -- what some people call the "tech generalist," people who are pretty good at lots of different kinds of technologies, who consider themselves quick learners and can easily fit into new jobs -- who is having the most difficult time these days.

"I think I can do many different kinds of things, but it's like in the current marketplace I'm worthless," says Bill Lessard. The jobs on fuckthatjob.com bear this out, as do many of the listings on most online job boards, he adds. "They say you have to be able to do five things within a specified industry. You can do databases and graphics. You can do marketing and network administration. And whatever you do you have to have three to five years of experience working with cosmetics for elderly women."

Teresa Guerriero, who has worked as a director of application development for firms in several different industries, and considers herself flexible enough to learn new businesses, expressed a similar frustration. "They say they want you to have all these skills, plus you have to have experience in merchandising or retail or the pharmaceutical industry," she says.

Guerriero, who was laid off seven months ago, is not the sort of dot-com youngster who made millions in the last boom. She has a daughter in high school and a mortgage to worry about. But that background hasn't helped her much in the job market. She's been granted only three interviews since she began her search, a number that disappoints her greatly.

"I'm panicked now," she said, when asked about her state of mind. "I'm through my severance, and I'm slowly making my way through my savings. I thought it would take me six or seven months to find a job, and that's where I am now. But in order to feel some hope I would have had to have had a number of interviews by now, and I haven't. Although I send out a lot of résumés and I'll answer many ads, you're discouraged from sending your résumé in if you don't have 14 of the 15 things they want. If you were responsible for application development in the past, they now want you to be responsible for application development and networking and a dozen other things."

"I don't think anybody's afraid of working hard," she added, "but I was very surprised at the expectations they had."

Although technologists have had a hard time in this slump, their plight has been the least pitied. Much of the coverage of the new economy's souring has had the flavor of a morality play. Dot-com workers are portrayed as victims of their own outsized ambitions, greedy kids who lucked into a pot of gold they hadn't really earned. They flew too close to the sun, and got what was coming to them.

"You go from one exaggerated position to another exaggerated position. It used to be you go to cocktail parties and if they found out you worked in technology they'd say you must be rich, must be a genius," Lessard says. "Now it's like, 'You poor slob, you fool.' Everybody's waiting for you to jump out the window."

Tanya Bershadsky says, "It's kind of embarrassing to tell people you worked on the Web. It's got this weird stigma attached to it now -- when you say what you do, people know you're unemployed. It's like when you meet someone in New York and they say they're an actor, you know they're not working on anything."

Justin Market, a 25-year-old programmer in San Francisco, embodies the shopworn stereotype of the dot-com youngster who seemed to get everything too easily. (The name is a pseudonym; he didn't want his real name published, for fear that prospective employers might question his love of the software industry, which he is thinking about leaving entirely.) Six years ago, Market dropped out of college -- school was no match for the fortunes being minted in the Internet industry. It turned out to be a pretty good decision. Market founded a company that was eventually purchased by WebMD, and, when that company went public, he became an instant millionaire.

When he was 22, Market sold some of his stock to buy an $800,000 house in the city. "I listened to everyone but my accountant," he says now, "and I didn't put enough away for taxes." He has been out of work since early last year, and has about $300 in his bank account. He's trying to sell his house, which he thinks is worth a bit more than $1 million; most of the money he gets from that will go to pay the IRS. He owes "piles and piles" in taxes, he says.

Market's job search, so far, has been less successful than he'd hoped. "It used to be that if you were a smart programmer and could pick things up easily, they wanted to hire you," he says. "Now they want you to have done exactly what the last person in that job has done." The average salary on offer is smaller as well. At his last job, Market was making about $125,000 a year -- which he concedes is large sum for someone his age. These days, "the jobs I'm looking at are $80,000 or $90,000 for full-time," he says. "These are for actual development jobs, which I have a lot of experience in. I've written two books on Java."

Since the start of this year, there has been a slight increase in the number of viable postings available, Market says. He has sent in his résumé to dozens of firms, and has had "a handful" of interviews. But he hasn't received any offers yet.

Market is only looking for a temporary job, one he plans to keep for a year or so, just until he gets himself settled financially. During his last few months of unemployment, he discovered, he says, a new way to live -- a life of meditation and reflection, less troubled by the need to make money and spend it. Market teaches yoga now, and he thinks it's what he wants to do permanently. He's also taken up cooking; he finds that he can make better food than most of the expensive restaurants he used to frequent.

"I see myself being happier now," he says. "It's hard being financially pretty strapped, but I don't have the same stresses that I used to, I don't have the same constant push to acquire shit that I did. Before, I needed more and more stuff, like buying this house, and I've bought all sorts of expensive artwork. You know, I just had this money! You go from having $1,000 in your bank account to having a portfolio worth more than $1 million -- it was just there, and I spent it. But I learned a lot from it, and it was a lesson I had to learn. Things came so easy for me before."

Many other tech workers said they planned to get out of the technology field as well. Tanya Bershadsky now wants to work as a publicist. "When the Web economy collapsed, I felt that I had to reinvent myself," she says. Now she's doing some part-time P.R. work, but permanent work in that industry isn't easy to come by, either. There are several entertainment-industry job boards that allow workers to pay to get early access to new listings, and Bershadsky has willingly done so. It might seem exploitative, she agrees, but in a tight job market, any small edge can help.

Bill Lessard has been writing a book about the technology boom, "Netslaves 2.0: Tales of Surviving the Great Tech Gold Rush," which will be released later this month. But for much of the time he's been unemployed he's worked part-time at a catering company. "I think a lot of people are underemployed like that, and are really in a bizarre situation," he says.

"I remember one time they sent me out before New Year's Eve to place flyers under people's windshield wipers, and this seagull took a crap on me. And I'm like, here's symbolism for you. But you laugh, man, you have to laugh. I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I'm proud of what I've done with my life. I was part of the construction of the Internet, which is the greatest thing since the light bulb as far as I'm concerned."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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