Setting: Snack room in an anonymous pre-IPO start-up software firm. Boxes of candy bars and chips line a large, round table in the middle of the room. An industrial sized refrigerator with a glass door is off to one side, stocked with soda, water, and even beer. The walls are lined with posters for a random assortment of movies, games and technologies, none of which really signify the products that this particular company produces. Two doors allow entry into the room, one on the left and the one on the right of the stage. I bulletin board hangs on the back wall covered with a random set of announcements.
An engineer enters from the right door and stands by the table of snacks. He looks around at the selection, and attempts to choose something, but every time he reaches for one, he pulls back and thinks again. Another engineer enters from the left door walks up to the table and quickly selects the Beef Jerky and then takes a diet Coke from the refrigerator. He is is just about to leave, when the first engineer speaks.
Engineer #1: I just can’t decide what to eat. I’ve had each one of these things a million times before, and they all leave me feeling hungry.
Engineer #2 pops open his diet Coke, takes a drink, smiles, and then starts talking.
Engineer #2 :What do you mean? The selection is great! They didn’t have anything like this at my last company. They only gave us free coffee that tasted like the grounds had been recycled from World War II.
Engineer #1: Where have you worked? Every start-up company in the Bay Area does stuff like this. It gets old after a while.
Engineer #2 spit-takes diet Coke onto the glass door of the refrigerator. He pauses a moment to examine the selection of beer and cider bottles inside. He then wipes his mouth, and answers engineer #1.
Engineer #2: Old! How can that be? I’m new to the Bay Area. My last job was doing 3D modeling for a Fortune 500 Bio-Tech Firm in San Diego.
Engineer #1 rounds the table, still looking for the correct snack. He reaches for a bag of holiday themed Lays potato chips, , but decides against it.
Engineer #1: This is nothing. At my last company, they had a chef from a Michelin Star restaurant that personally cooked all of our meals. We even had beer on tap that was served to us by a revolving crew of German bar maids flown in daily by Lufthansa.
Engineer #2: Really? We used to walk to either the El Pollo Loco, or the Subway every day in San Diego. It cost me $50 a week for lunch.
Engineer #1: You paid for your own food? I haven’t bought a meal since I left high school. I came right of my college dorm, to work at start-up software company. I’ve been working at pre-IPO companies for the past 15 years.
Engineer #2 opens his bag of beef jerky and starts eating a piece. After he finishes chewing, he takes a drink of diet Coke. Engineer #1 moves from the table to refrigerator. He looks through the glass, but he chooses nothing.
Engineer #2: Wow, 15 years?
Engineer #1: Yup.
Engineer #2 starts to walk away, but pauses and turns back to engineer # 1
Engineer #2: Hey, what does pre-IPO mean?
Engineer #1: It means the company has not issued stock yet for investors to buy on the stock market. It means that the employees get stock options that could be worth hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars.
Engineer #2: Oh, is that what those stock things were on my job offer. I thought they were options to buy something that I’d never buy anyway.
Engineer #1 stops looking in the refrigerator, and goes back to the snack table. He picks up a package of M&Ms in one hand, and Reese’s Pieces in the other
Engineer #1: No, not at all. Those stock options are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They are the reason everyone works for this company.
Engineer #2: Not me, I came here because I was promised interesting work in a field that excited me.
Engineer #2 laughs, and puts down the snacks in each hand.
Engineer #1: Were you actually promised interesting work?
Engineer #2: Well, no, but it was implied.
Engineer #1: Let me ask you something, have you done anything interesting yet? Since you’ve been here? I mean really interesting work, the type of work you were ‘promised‘, or you ‘thought was promised‘ to you by your recruiter before you joined-up?
Engineer #2: Well, no, I’m still just fixing other people’s problems, but I’m sure it gets better from here.
Engineer #1: I can tell you, it doesn’t. That’s a promise you can rely on!
Engineer #2 sets down his diet Coke and the bag of beef Jerky. He walks over to engineer #1, and stands next to him, looking into his eyes and trying to figure out if he is lying or not.
Engineer #2: But there has to be more! What about all those new technologies the company is planning to use and all the cool applications the company is planning to make?
Engineer #1: Those are not for you. This company needs to show growth and potential before they have their IPO. That means they don’t need YOU to train and learn new technologies, they will just buy another company that already does it with new engineers who are already versed in the technology. You were hired for a particular job, and that is all you will ever do. It happens to almost everyone here, accept for the select chosen few.
Engineer #2: But, but, but, if that is the case, why do people stay here?
Engineer #1: Like I said, for the I.P.O. For the stock option. To cash-in.
Engineer #2 pauses. He gazes at the bulletin board. His eye fixate on a flyer that says “Free Class Wednesday! Learn to manage your IPO Riches!”
Engineer #2: That’s it?
Engineer #1: Look, I’ve worked at tons of pre-IPO companies, and it’s always the same. All the perks like free food, bar maids and massages are to get us to stay here all the time and work hard to make the company look good for the IPO. If you don’t like it, you leave, and they will find 100 other people to take your place.
Engineer #2: Wait, if you have worked at so many pre-IPO companies, how come you are still doing this? Aren’t you already rich from all those cashed-in stock options?
Engineer #1: Well, most of the IPOs never happened or if they did, the stock was not worth as much as we were led to believe. The founders were able to sell when the stock was high and get out, but employees were restricted from selling so they wouldn’t dilute the available shares. By the time they could sell, the price had fallen so far that we never made the money they “promised”.
Engineer #2: And you continue doing it?
Engineer #1: Do you know how much it costs to live up here? Yeah, I’m waiting for the lottery to strike for me. I’m waiting for my turn in the sun. I’m waiting for one good IPO, and then I can do what I really want to do.
Engineer #2: Which is what?
Engineer #1: To open my own restaurant.
Engineer #2: Really? Open a restaurant?
Engineer # 1: Yep. I’ve always wanted to open a small cafe on the coast, maybe up in Point Reyes.
Engineer #2: But what about technology? What about making cool stuff work? What about being immersed in the inventions, ideas, and history that have changed the world and every one in it?
Engineer #1: Ha! Who cares about that? Technology is just a means to an end, and that end is one good IPO that will get me the hell out of here and on my real future.
Engineer#2: Wow. This is all I ever wanted to do. I want to make good software with cool people who really enjoyed their work. I want to go home satisfied with a job well done, to spend time with my family, and then return to work, refreshed and ready to kick-ass on something really great the next day. I want to explore new technologies and learn new things on a regular basis. I want to use all my skills to make the best products I can make, and at the end of the day, I want to be proud of what I have created with the knowledge that not only have a I done an honest day’s work, I have made the world a slightly better place in the process. We didn’t have free food or massages in San Diego, but at least I could be proud of my work.
Engineer #1 opens the refrigerator, and takes out a bottle of beer. He pops to cap, drains the entire bottle down his throat, then takes another one and does the same. He turns back to Engineer #2.
Engineer #1: Well, then, you know what? I think you might be in the wrong business.
Both engineers turn silently, and exit the doors from which they entered.
-Steve Fulton (originally written Oct. 7, 2011)