workaholics

The kegerator has spread from the frats of America to the hottest Silicon Valley startups, becoming the status symbol of the twenty-teens. No longer satisfied with partying like it’s 1999, tech companies have moved beyond the free coffee, dry-cleaning, and massages of the DotCom Bubble. At the office of tomorrow, craft beer is always on tap.

Is bro-grammer culture now also brew-grammer culture? I’m writing this essay to explain that the beer light, like Ziggy said, is guiding us into a better future where employees are recognized and compensated for their true value.

Over-the-top perks like the kegerator seem twisted, when millions of Americans have been looking for a job since the Great Recession. Not only that, but employees are working harder than ever, as skeleton crews crank out soaring corporate profits, on median salaries that haven’t gone up since 1980.

But in contrast, software developers are the Kobe beef bulls of industry–coddled with luxurious working conditions, massaged regularly, and fattened up on microbrew beer. (Hopefully, they don’t end up like the bulls.) But why do these aristocrats of modern labor need cold brews on the job?

The kegerator marks a strange oasis in the wasteland of the US economy, and here’s why: In Marc Andreeson’s famous words, software is eating the world–and software developers are feasting high on the hog (washing it down with a brewski).

The world is trending towards even greater economic inequality: Software will take all the decent jobs, except that people who create that software will have even better jobs than today. (See Tyler Cowen’s recent book, Average is Over.)

Unlike pretty much everyone else, software engineers have no trouble getting a job. Employers are even hunting them down, either spamming them with job offers or grabbing them off “poach-me” sites, and as a result developers are hopping jobs at will. (Disclosure: my kegerator.fiveyearitch.com is one of these.)

A kegerator is not what free-software pioneer Richard Stallman meant when he said “Free as in speech, not free as in beer.” The developers are certainly not coding for the brews. Many of them write free software in their spare time. The beer is just one of those things that employers do to keep them happy.

Even as a perk, beer doesn’t make sense. Perks are meant to increase employee productivity. Massages help them concentrate and free dry-cleaning keeps them from wandering out. Caffeine is the raw material from which code is made–so it makes sense to keep the developers well-supplied with drinkable coffee. But beer goggles don’t make for better code.

So, why is the Anchor Steam spilling into all those ergonomic keyboards?

Kegerators exist precisely because it’s crazy to give out free beer. Companies crack the keg to signal — to declare, loud and clear, that they’ll do whatever it takes to please their workers. So, showing they’re crazy can be a very sane move.

Employers could just as well give out the money and let employees decide whether the brew’s worth the price. If it isn’t, then money’s going down the drain, followed closely by those hand-crafted artisanal suds.

But the beer is a signal, and salaries and stock options won’t do: They’re not wasteful. They represent a straightforward business deal, not an over-the-top indicator of employee-loving madness.

Not only that, salaries are invisible. Perks can be seen.

Imagine a perk-less workplace. It sends just the opposite message from the kegerator. Yes, such a company could be channeling every penny into top salaries rather than the bennies. But more likely, if it’s pinching pennies on perks, it’s pinching pennies on everything else, too. So, free coffee and lunch make a statement. But beer takes that an extra step. It lets employers show, unmistakably and clearly, that they’ll go to ridiculous lengths… and beyond… to get the best employees.

It’s just as bad as a diamond engagement ring. Nothing says “I love you” so much emptying your bankroll on a high-priced decoration which is indistinguishable, even to an expert, from cubic zirconium. Yet few men would dare say: “No need for the overpriced ice, darling. Let’s just save it for our future joint bank account.”

Employers are forced to show off the most precisely in the industry where employees to show off the least. Lawyers wear suits to remind you how impressive they are; developers make do with T-shirts and flip-flops, since they have nothing to prove. Software development is an industry driven by obvious merit. Doctors display their impressive diplomas, but developers can get started without any degree. Just demonstrate that you can put together a solid Ruby on Rails webapp, and overnight you can rocket into the top 10% of income. (Albeit, not the fabled top 1%, but … think about it … a kegerator!)

Unlike marketeers, managers, and other suits, software developers aren’t climbing any greased career ladder: If you’re good, you’re good. Employers need to jump hoops to recruit and retain you with goodies now, not with vague hopes of promotion.

Instead of working years at one job towards dreams of a corner office, developers just keep on moving. In any case, ever-changing technology doesn’t allow them to stay in any one project for too long, and companies can’t switch to the newest and latest as fast as developers would like. Lucky for them, there’s no shame attached to job-hopping in the software industry. They get contacted by recruiters or through reverse-job-boards (like my kegerator.fiveyearitch.com), and a variety of perky new job opportunities open before them.

Even if you can’t stand the taste of beer, the suds are the ultimate sign that life is good for those with the right skills. Top salaries and comfortable working conditions  are standard. So is job security which based on skills rather than a boss’s mercy. To stand out, employers have to go to extremes to say “we care” — and they say it with that sudsy marvel, the office kegerator.

Image via Wikimedia.