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The glamorous lives of TechTok
The glamorous lives of TechTok

Tech around the world

The glamorous lives of TechTok

Jobs in tech do have major perks. But TechTok’s glossy videos rarely tell the full story.

Written by Fadeke Adegbuyi

Illustrations by Twisha Patni

In March 2020, Amanda Gordon, a recent NYU film studies graduate and YouTube creator, came across a video featuring Bukola Ayodele, a 25-year old Black woman earning over $210K per year as a software engineer after breaking into tech. The video showcased Ayodele’s life in New York City, along with how she allocates her monthly, post-tax budget of $11,483.

Gordon sent the video to a friend and joked about being in the wrong field — her goal had always been to work in the entertainment industry. Soon, the joke evolved into something more. She found herself weighing her student loan debt against how much she might make in film and television. And then she started looking for non-technical internships in tech.

“That was the first time I ever saw anything like that,” says Gordon, referring to the video. “I thought, ‘Oh, that's possible [for] someone who kind of looks like me.’” Last summer, she landed an internship at TikTok, and this year, she’ll be returning to tech full-time.

Gordon is part of a growing trend of people influenced by “working in tech” videos, a genre of content that’s been blooming across social media, including YouTube and Instagram. More recently, these videos have exploded on TikTok — videos that fall under the category of “TechTok” have garnered nearly 14B views.

TechTokers often boil their journeys down to 5-point checklists and 90-second videos filled with tips that “anyone” can follow. Some viewers successfully follow the advice and land their dream tech jobs. And some of those viewers, like Jenny Wong who was inspired by TechTok to leave her job in healthcare, pick up their own phones and post on TechTok, helping others break in as well.

But depictions of the “working” part of “working in tech” are limited. Creators mention their work only in passing and videos might show a glimpse of a silver MacBook or a wall of faces during a Zoom meeting. The videos are often about the lifestyle — so much so that some don’t believe it’s real. “The offices are very fun and colorful, they literally look like an Instagram museum,” says Gordon.

“I can’t tell if working in tech is actually a real thing,” reads the top comment under a day in the life video. But data supports the claims of these “day in the tech life” or “how to make six figures in tech” videos: the tech sector in the U.S. has grown rapidly over the past few years, outpacing other sectors. According to the Brookings Institution, the industry grew at a compound annual growth rate of 4.4% in the 2010s, a rate nearly triple that of the country’s economy as a whole. Tech salaries, perks, and fancy offices have proliferated alongside this growth.

Like many narratives of tech, whether they come from shows about megalomaniacal leaders like WeCrashed, SuperPumped, and The Dropout or glossy TechTok videos of big tech offices, it’s not that the videos that go viral on TechTok are untrue — they’re just incomplete.

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Tech content created by those who work in tech doesn’t just live on TechTok. Marc Andreessen’s treatise “to build” went viral on Tech Twitter in 2020 and has continued to be a reference point. Founders share Paul Graham essays and discuss their lessons on Hacker News.

But this content often targets founders or those looking to join early-stage startups. And while videos for aspirational builders exist on TikTok, they often feature early-stage companies that don’t yet have lucrative perks or even their own offices.

The most-viewed videos on TechTok are not exactly those of two desks in a coworking space. More often, they’re videos of big tech companies with titles like “a day in the life working @ Google” or “a day in the life of a twitch intern.”

A TechTok creator might share how they take a mid-day break at the full-fledged gym at Uber in Chicago or make work calls at the treehouse conference room at Microsoft in Seattle. Somehow, they’re always snacking on a constant array of free food. And they often return to homes in the big city — well-furnished apartments equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows and stainless steel appliances, afforded by six-figure tech salaries.

Tech isn’t the only industry represented on TikTok. Plastic surgeons show off before-and-afters of the clients whose noses they’ve turned into “ski slopes”; dermatologists recommend beauty elixirs; lawyers sometimes even provide students with LSAT advice.

But becoming a well-paid medical professional is not seven easy steps away, it’s seven years away. There’s no shortcut to studying law; you’ll have to wade through constitutional law and torts before taking lots of exams.

Part of the allure of these “working in tech” videos seems to be the promise that these jobs require little-to-no experience, no special skills, and no advanced degrees. And in return, workers get a cheat code to quickly break into a different social class and tax bracket.

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After graduating from college in 2019 and moving back home to San Francisco, Katherine Berry pivoted her YouTube channel to cover her experience as a tech salesperson in Silicon Valley, in-line with the tech aesthetic format, replete with free food, on-site gym, and perks.

Since then, Berry has left her job and tech in general, citing disillusionment with the industry. She says that while TechTok videos provide accurate glimpses of the material benefits of a high-paying job, they fail to share the downsides.

“I can’t tell if working in tech is actually a real thing,” reads the top comment under a day in the life video.

“In tech, there is this expectation that they’re paying you a shit ton of money, and you're going to be available all the time, and you're going to respond to emails all the time, and it's your personal onus to resist,” says Berry. “They'll give you a mental health webinar over your lunch break but they're never going to actually structurally make it conducive to a healthy work-life balance.”

Before making the decision to leave tech entirely, Berry continued to vlog about her job, but attempted to add more of her day-to-day reality into her videos — the 16-hour days, constantly feeling like she was on-call, and the “Sunday scaries” that ensued before the start of each work week.

On TikTok, in videos like “the big tech vortex” and “the problem with techtok,” she describes how the platform is filled with “unfettered praise” for tech jobs and a lack of critique from creators who showcase their roles on the app. She’s turned that same critique on herself and her past videos, calling them “propaganda.”

“I don't want people to get a job in tech without considering that these videos aren't comprehensive and that there is a direct incentive for creators to not to cast any sort of negative light or doubt on these employers,” says Berry. “People are worried about the status of their employment; they'll never tell you the whole truth.”

Much of her criticism has been ignored, overshadowed by the allure of TechTok. Berry says viewers continue to ask her how to break into tech and she still sees the people around her moving from industries like education and healthcare, into tech. Oftentimes, they cite the “working in tech” videos they saw online, including hers.

“It’s addictive or something,” she says. “It just feels so magnetizing. There's something so just gripping about [these videos] — I have heard that a million times over.”

But others see value in TechTok’s depictions. Jerry Lee, a creator with nearly half a million followers on TikTok, believes that TechTok videos are important parts of making the tech industry more accessible. His content on TikTok includes advice on finding work from home jobs, the right resume format to break into tech, and tips on transitioning to tech from another industry.

“Because these companies are heavily dominated by people who come from the Harvards, it can seem like [tech] is only meant for those people,” says Lee. “But no — you can come from a first generation, low-income background or a school or company that no one has heard of.”

Lee, who used to work at Google and is now the co-founder and COO of Wonsulting (a company that helps people find their dream jobs, including in tech), started making TechToks because of his own experience feeling like “an outsider” when it came to career connections. College was the first time he heard the term “internship” and the first time he learned how to get a job.

But Lee also admits that TechTok is not perfect. “If there's one message that I wish I could share with people, who maybe have not had the privilege to experience what it's like to work at Google or Facebook, at the core essence of it is still a job.”

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Gordon, too, has her criticisms of TechTok despite her own future in the industry. She’s shared some of her thoughts in a commentary video on her YouTube channel. “The work itself, the day-to-day and the hard parts of working in tech, aren't shown enough…” she says in the video. “I think a lot of creators who make this ‘break into tech’ content are aware of this issue but they've realized videos talking about the downsides of tech don't get nearly as many views as videos talking about how you can make six figures with no coding experience.”

Before deciding on a career in tech, Gordon worked for a week as a production assistant (PA) on the set of Apple TV’s WeCrashed. She describes the experience as the “hardest week of work in her life,” not just because of the 12-hour days but also because of the required level of performance.

“Especially for PAs, they want you to always look busy, even if you're not busy,” Gordon says. “You just have to look like you're doing something. And I would argue that that is more draining than actually having work.”

Viewers tuning into TechTok express similar sentiments about their own jobs in other industries. Under a TechTok video, a comment with over 19K likes reads: “Ummmm I’m about to riot. Why am I paid $13/hr and I literally can’t get to the bathroom without my manager getting annoyed.”

“Working in tech” videos, despite their criticisms, are appealing beyond just their aesthetic value; for many, they're a promise of jobs that seem markedly better than their alternatives, glimpses into a different reality.

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