Review: Lab Rats

Dan Lyons’ book Lab Rats (2018) takes on the work culture that he says predominates in Silicon Valley and is spreading from there to elsewhere. The title alludes to companies imposing management fads on their employees in a kind of uncontrolled experiment but the book is more about the attitudes that many darlings of Silicon Valley take towards their employees (or, if they can get away with it, “independent contractors”). As Lyons tells it, Silicon Valley and its imitators are full of companies driving their employees to despair with impossible demands, low job security, and uncaring management, while venture capitalists make off with both the bulk of both the money and the glory.

Like many books written by journalists, Lab Rats is long on stories and short on analysis, so it’s hard to say exactly how prevalent these attitudes and work practices might be. But it’s hard to deny that they exist in at least some places, as attested to by quotes collected by Lyons, to which one might add widely-reported comments from Jack Ma last year. On the other hand, Lyons does devote the last part of the book to companies that offer better conditions to their employees.

One of the themes of Lyons’ criticism is that practices espoused by the villains of his stories frequently don’t succeed on their own terms: many of the darlings of Silicon Valley—including Uber, Twitter and Tesla—don’t actually make any money despite huge market valuations and enormous popularity with the public. The strategy for such start-ups seems to be to find investors to pour money into an idea, grow the company as quickly as possible (putting enormous strain on the company’s staff to do so), then sell out to a larger company or public offering (“IPO”).

One of Lyons’ happy stories contrasts this strategy with the one taken by a different kind of software company, called Basecamp. Basecamp’s employees, says Lyons, enjoy benefits like remote working and good pay, while he calculates that the company has nonetheless been making a healthy profit for a decade or more. Basecamp doesn’t show anything like the growth of Twitter or Uber yet its owners say that they are quite satisfied with what they get out of the business. If they really are bringing in the millions of dollars that Lyons calculates, why listen to those darlings losing billions?

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