Poor in Tech

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because nobody else ate the Hot Cheetos that were stocked in our free snack kitchen. Seaweed snacks were always empty. Nobody had those telltale red stains on their fingers but me. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I made my breakfast and sometimes my lunch in that free snack kitchen, loading up on hummus and hard-boiled eggs and apples rather than spending $25 a day to grab something in the financial district in San Francisco. I made excuses about wanting to work through my break, wanting to impress my boss. My boss had her kale salad and vegan soup delivered. We did not talk while we ate. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because once I realized they would keep restocking the tampons in the ladies’ room, I stopped bringing any from home. I said as much in a fit of daring to a woman with whom I thought I would become friends. She admonished me for using bleached cotton products in my vagina. We are not friends. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I realized the same thing about Advil. The bottle was never empty and never replaced. I might have been the only one who knew, or needed it, or who still deigned to use OTC painkillers. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because people kept bragging their bodily purity based on what they would not eat or drink, and I could only feel pity for them. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I couldn’t restrain myself from eating and drinking myself into an absolute sickness anytime they threw a party and expressed no limits on our consumption. The jobs I had worked before that had put up signs in the break room warning us that stealing someone’s lunch was a termination-worthy offense. I had my lunch stolen more than once when I worked in those places. I never reported it. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because they always ordered extra catered lunches, and at the end of the week someone would just throw them away if I didn’t take them home.

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I thought my coworker was kidding when he said he was spending the three-day weekend in Greece. When I finished laughing, four people recommended hotels. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because one time everyone else in my department quit or was fired in the space of six months, leaving me and a Harvard guy. I asked Harvard if he was worried and he said no. He was thinking about taking a year off anyway, then maybe starting his own business. On my way home, I noticed Starbucks was hiring. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because when the billionaire CEO told us that he saw people taking free snacks from the kitchen to-go, I was the only one who looked ashamed and I had never dared to do it. Everybody else laughed it off and called him an asshole under their breath for being so petty. I avoided him in the kitchen and the elevator until I quit. When he offered me a glass of Dom at a benchmark party, I couldn’t look him in the eye. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I was the only person who would say hello to the cleaning lady as she meekly made her rounds around us when we worked late. Everyone else had a long habit of ignoring anyone like her. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because everyone’s hobby talk was incomprehensible to me. Sailing. Indoor rock climbing. Building robots. Golfing. Sourcing and collecting antiquities. Adult soccer leagues. All I heard was money. Money. Money. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I was afraid to seek mentorship from anyone above me, convinced that even asking would seem like bothersome begging. I watched the people around me network effortlessly, assured of favors and good words put in. I could only think in terms of what I could offer and how I could survive; they were thinking on the next level where they never had to wonder if they were good enough. They were to the business-class manner born, at least. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because when I talked about paying off my student loans, people expressed their utter shock that my parents hadn’t put me through Berkeley. Were Mom and Pop simply opposed to public school? Did they disagree with my choice of major? 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because they thought I was kidding when I said I had a GED. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because nobody ever wished me a happy payday. Payday was marked in all caps on my calendar, every biweekly occurrence, forever.

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because one of my teammates got an email one day from payroll informing him that his last three paychecks had bounced back to them, and had he maybe made a mistake on his direct deposit form? Three paychecks is a month and a half of income (rent and two car payments by my fevered calculations, which never stop). He did not notice at all, and people found the story funny rather than horrifying.

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I forgot my charger once and absolutely nobody had one old enough to be compatible with my phone.

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I was one of maybe three employees living in Oakland, despite the fact that I could get to work faster than anyone who lived in the Sunset or the Richmond districts. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I wouldn’t dream of Ubering in. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I made more there than I’d ever made before; a daring amount I had been afraid to ask for during the offer process. I discovered through misadventure that I still made less than any of the executive assistants, or the receptionist. I was, in fact, the lowest-paid person in the building including the interns. I hadn’t known what was possible, so I couldn’t even think to ask for what I was worth to them. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I had the only fat body in the building. Gym membership was included in my benefits. I went half a dozen times before it was made crystal clear to me that I did not belong. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I never got over not having to punch a clock.

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I asked HR before my first vacation what paperwork I would need to do in order to receive vacation pay. HR blinked at me slowly and told me there was no paperwork necessary; I would just get paid like I normally did. It was obvious no one had ever asked before. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I freaked out and cheered over a bonus only to watch the rest of my team quietly put their checks in their wallets and say nothing. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because everyone else had good teeth. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I had gotten married younger than any of my coworkers. 

 

I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because on the day I left they told me to put my equipment on someone’s desk on my way out the door. I packed everything up carefully, wiping it all down and trying to make it look as good as new. The guy I was meant to leave my Macbook ($1200) and my headphones ($350) with wasn’t even there. There was no security, no oversight, no locker and no inventory list. Nobody had walked me away from my desk to keep me from stealing pens or staples or secrets. Nobody watched me at all, or asked to check my bag on my way out the door. Because they have never been poor, they had no idea what I might do. Why would I steal, when everyone clearly has enough? What even is scarcity? Why drink yourself to death tonight when there’s another sponsored event a week from now? Why eat like there will never be enough, when there has always been more than enough? 

 

I gave back the Macbook. I kept the headphones. 

With thanks to John Scalzi’s “Being Poor.”

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57 thoughts on “Poor in Tech

  1. oh holy cow is this relatable! thank you for posting— makes me feel less like an alien trying so hard to convince everyone else i’m just like them.

      1. Fuck Meg! This is a brilliant piece of writing 👏 I think I’ve been the poorest person every place I’ve worked and…its such an unspoken about and wild experience. My first week at Lululemon, I was homeless and hungry but they didn’t know, stealing broccoli and ramen from grocery stores to eat, even though I was slinging thousands of $$ a day in yoga pants. One of my new managers walks up to me ,looks down at my dirty sneakers and says “you should get some new kick bro, those look busted.” Disregarding the fact that I’m a lgbtqia+ woman and not a bro… I didn’t have money for a home, or even protein at that time.. I didn’t show it but I was fully crushed by the comment and cried in the bathroom for a long time about the state of my life.
        I was 25, 26 maybe, and shit WAS hard then. I’m 31 now and things already different, now I have employees. But I’ll never forget how those innocuous words crushed my spirit that day, and I take GOOD care to chose the words I say carefully bc you do NOT know when a careless thing you say may push someone over the edge.
        Thank you so much for writing this, I would love to share it on my LinkedIn with permission, if that sort of thing Is allowed. I know this piece would touch alot of Bipoc entrepreneurs like me, make us all feel less alone.
        Congratulations on this piece 🥳

  2. This piece is beautifully written. I have lived this life in differing form. I believe many are unable to understand it beyond its prose; although I hope. This is why currently wealth is measured monetarily and transposed into the fallacy of self worth. True wealth has no such restrictions and you my dear are truly wealthy.
    Best, C

  3. Oh, Meg. Yes. For me, it was pr and not tech, but industries aside, identical. Thank you for this, searing and true as always.

  4. Wow this was so wonderful to read. It brings me so much comfort to know how common this “out of place” feeling is. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  5. I knew I was a poor person in tech when I complained about how much living in the city was costing me just for a shit-smelling apartment, and my coworker was just like “why don’t you just buy an apartment?”

    I knew I was a poor person in tech when I dipped deep into savings to replace my old gaming computer with a laptop to make a move easier, and the coworker who bought the old machine dropped 4 digits cash on it said it was “just for the kids to play around on”. I’d had to take out a loan just to buy that computer.

  6. I was always the poorest one, until we had a temp on the team who was eating the free ice cubes because she didn’t have money for enough food, and crunching ice tricked her body for a little while into thinking she had eaten. Whenever we had office meetings with lunches catered, I made sure I ordered something for her, even if she wasn’t part of the meeting. I started stocking my own snack drawer so I had things to share with her.

  7. Daaaamn. This uncomfortably accurate. I’m from Central Europe and am sad to confirm that the type and amount of privileged people in tech looks exactly as you described here.
    I once had a coworker (same position as me and two other guys) that changed banks and forgot to tell HR. His salary was bounced for half a year. He never noticed. Only the blue collar guys downstairs were horrified to the bones how something like this can happen. The tech people upstairs were laughing it off.
    This was a decade ago. It got much much worse. The inequality tech vs rest widens by the day.

  8. I am unsettled by how closely this fits to my experience. You’ve put into words something not often spoken out loud in tech.

  9. So true. I used to live the same in my webdesign job (in western europe though) before joining a self-organized union. Now work is still shitty but i’ve learnt to be proud of my background and of who i am. We’re together and we’re strong, and we’re not lowering our heads. Sooner or later, we’ll have guillotined anyone who’s a billionaire, abolished private property and everybody will be able to live and eat as they please without having to worry. That noone has to live through the hardships we endured will be our greatest revenge.

  10. I grew up in Mexican rural area afterwards I had the opportunity to learn some English, to learn how to use a computer and to work in Boston area. Same story. We are becoming the next Japan, I see loneliness and suicides coming. I knew I was poor when every body was drinking “Vitamin Water” instead of just regular water.

  11. > I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup […]. I had my lunch stolen more than once when I worked in those places. I never reported it.
    So maybe you were not the only one after all?

  12. Meg, thank you for this piece. I grew up in South Carolina, also hold a GED, and worked at gas stations and other menial jobs most of my formative adult years and I feel all of this very deeply. It’s very hard to relate some days to my own colleagues, and I still have entire weeks where I am just overwhelmed with the sheer privileges I have managed to stumble into merely because I happened to be good with computers and technology at an opportune time.

  13. Wow, thanks so much for sharing, I have felt and done exactly all of those things! Well, except the tampons I guess, but my wife did take a few when she visited once so maybe that counts.

    I’m not poor in tech anymore, I moved back to rural Ky and took my tech job and salary with me, so now I’m the one who earns more than any of my close friends. I just don’t tell them, although the new tractor might betray me a little.

    Thanks again, I’m so happy to here someone else say those things!

  14. Wow this resonates with my early career. Thank goodness I had a cohort of other new graduates to help me navigate the world of business dinners and travel. I still have unnecessary guilt and shame about salary, bonuses and expense reports 15 years into my career.

  15. Came here from Hacker News. Lots of interesting comments on your post. I feel you. Not anywhere near SV, but I have been around people who just reek of money. They breathe a different air. I always know exactly how much money I don’t have in the bank haha. I had a bad stretch in life where I didn’t know if I would get my next meal. Things are much better now, but past poverty is a demon I will never shake.

    Keep writing. Good stuff.

  16. This is a really interesting/important piece of writing.
    Where I work, a healthy majority of my coworkers come from countries with very different standards of living, which changes this dynamic a lot. I know some of them constitute their countries’ elite, and some of them have truly stunning stories of advancing past social obstacles far more entrenched than any I face. They seem more aware of the fact that the Americans they work with are predominantly from a very small bubble, and when I indicate I’m not, they treat it with the same kind of vague pleasantness with which I treat expressed distinctions in their backgrounds that I know I’m not qualified to speak on. I’m not saying that everybody’s more enlightened about class or whatever, but there isn’t that same presumption of “we’re all normal here, right? right??” that I’m reading in your experience.

  17. I knew I had social anxiety when I felt ashamed for what, when, and how much I eat at work.
    I knew I had social anxiety when I felt ashamed for being unable to network or ask for mentorship
    I knew I had social anxiety when I felt ashamed for being underpaid because I am too afraid to ask for more
    I knew I had social anxiety when I felt ashamed for being overweight despite the free gym membership
    I knew I had social anxiety when I felt ashamed for taking the paid vacation that everyone else did
    I knew I had social anxiety when I felt ashamed for leaving and they didn’t treat me like a criminal
    I am dangerous and powerful
    I am a survivor on the cutting edge
    I am poor

  18. Quit trying to fit in. In tech being an integrated non-conformer is something you can leverage in a powerful way. I’m speaking as someone who was an extremely broke as a young adult, a high school dropout, a weirdo…. that has done well in the tech industry on my own terms. Ignore others BS and focus on being as best as you can be at what you do well.

  19. I fled Oklahoma and wound up in the Bay Area. This hurt to read. Part of me winces in sympathy with that feeling of alienness, of imposing the context of a less privileged life onto the company of the comfortably affluent. But you know what? Fuck that part of me, and fuck them. Good on you for eliminating waste, for taking full advantage when you could, even when (especially when!) they were underpaying you.

    Hold on, let me get my soap box. Y’all can skip the rest of this, I’m just going to state the obvious for a little while for my own benefit.

    It’s morally abhorrent to throw out food in a world with starvation. Proximity to suffering is something that should be shared, not hidden, because it enables conscientiousness. We should (we must) celebrate, of course, but remain mindful of the fact that every non-charitable expense comes at a cost to human life. A $1200 plane ticket to Greece is $1200 fewer mosquito nets and water wells in the world. A confession of indulgence is either a confession of ignorance or of actively malicious disregard. Ostentatious frivolity should be shamed. Bless those who do more with less, and be thankful for every can of cheap beer and every dollar store birthday party. The world needs harmless joy.

  20. Thanks for sharing. There definitely is a caste system within an office amongst co-workers. Your comment about the cleaning person not getting acknowledged always bothered me in the workplace. I worked as an Admin Assistant for years and was treated like the cleaning staff. Dishes left me to clean up like a mother, trash thrown on the floor after a company party and others telling each other is was ok to leave it on the floor, when they couldn’t walk 5 feet to the trash can… I remember racing to calculate equations faster than my boss to prove I wasn’t an idiot in real time. Anyways, your post is very insightful and relatable.

  21. Wow. This felt like looking in a mirror. Not every single point, obviously, but plenty of them. Thank you for being aware enough to share this.

  22. Both my husband and I grew up in severe poverty––no food, no electricity, no running water kind of poverty. Our lives now exist in a completely different income bracket because we both work in Tech (he at Google and me as an IT Director for a school District). Even when you leave poverty, poverty NEVER leaves you. We feel shame, fear and guilt just to spend money or even to save money. We have the means and access to some of the best organic foods–so much of it we know nothing about, because when you grow up poor, your knowledge if vegetables and fruit is extremely limited. The big tech holiday parties are stress inducing and anxiety-ridden….we just have nothing to talk about with this peer group that grew up with access to some of the best education and connections. Our entire language is vastly different.

  23. I went from academic publishing to fintech and I have never related to anything more in my life. My parents were school teachers, we went to Disney once and Canada a few times but most of our vacations were the beach or camping trips in our own state. I didn’t go to Europe until I was 39 and work paid for it. I lived on my own from 24-33 and lived paycheck to paycheck the entire time, paid a trillion dollars in overdraft fees (you know, when you’re too poor for a credit card and you have 7 bucks in your debit so you buy toilet paper and toothpaste for $6 and then get a notification about a $37 overdraft fee because you forgot you spent $3 putting just enough gas in your car to get to and from work for another 2 days…). I make more money now but I’ll never shake that feeling when the coworkers are talking about where they summered as kids and their long weekend trips to Europe and basically EVERY OTHER THING you listed above.

  24. This is eye-opening. Thank you.

    I was never in this position, but I paid back all my student loans, and I certainly was aware of paydays, etc. You really made me think about the different bubbles we live in.

  25. Fuck yeah. Wow. Maybe the best thing I’ve read on the internet. I was actually choked up by it. I get it. I totally get it.

  26. Yes, yes, yes to all this. Like reading the experience of a sibling. A life of watching how the wealthier half live, learning how to pass, heaven forbid we slip and make anyone UnCoMF0rTaBLe.

  27. Fucking bizarre how dead-on this is. All of the points are so true and applicable to every tech job I’ve had. Everybody gets really quiet when I tell them I just turned 40 and my major life goal is to pay off my mortgage in the next 6-8 years (with genuine pride in my demeanor). *Real* quiet. You start to notice these quiet moments, and looks on people’s faces when you say certain things, and then you realize why the looks – most of these tech people have never had the worries that I have, and cannot at all relate to my life and current mindset.

  28. As a teacher, I can relate to nearly all of your points– especially all the food ones. Teachers bring their lunch to school, sit at their desk, with students in the room and eat quickly. $25 lunches? Who’s paying for that? If there is any food in the staff room, it’s likely stale or moldy. Why? Because no one goes to the staff room ever. Toiletries are for students — so sometimes we use the student restroom where it’s stocked. Three day weekend trips to Greece — uhm not likely as we have grading to do. I could go on. And it makes me sad because my students aspire to work “in tech” and become these people. I wonder if they will stop to say hello to the custodians. When I leave school, late in the afternoon, after all the students leave and the night crew arrives, I say hello to Kevin and thank him for keeping my classroom clean.

    1. Not all tech companies are full of horrible people. At one place I worked, the custodial staff was supplied by the landlords. During the holidays we had an employee led effort to “tip” our cleaning staff. That tip was $1000 funded by a good proportion of employees. It wasn’t one lump some from one person. There were several other “fundraising” occasions for the custodial staff at that company. It had a good culture.

  29. All things considered I’m extremely privileged but this article struck a chord with me and it feels like something not very often talked about in tech.

  30. Thank you very much for sharing this. It takes both awareness and courage to write something like this, and more courage to post it.

  31. I couldn’t stop reading – thanks for sharing.

    I may not have hit the depth of poverty that you did, but I definitely felt like the poorest person in many rooms for a long time. I too, was the one who took home all the catered lunch leftovers, stayed in campgrounds or hostels (if I traveled at all), made the free snack meals, knew the vendors who ran our building services, and – one that you didn’t mention – took home all those partial rolls of toilet paper that the cleaning person would be hesitant to throw out. I found out I was making far less than everyone else around me by accident as well – and I too had been so happy to have been offered that much, the most I had ever made in my life.

    Yet, thanks to the generosity of friends and a great network, I often lived like a rich person. I was invited to race sailboats, stay with people on their trips, eat free meals at nice restaurants. Looks can be deceiving. It’s only within the last 1.5 years that I finally made it to a level of true financial stability.

  32. You eat Cheetos!? How can you put that poison into your body? I am so done and disgusted with you poor people.

    JK of course. Reading this article is such so familiar and I thank you so very much for sharing. It made me feel not so aline in the world and helped me remember that there are some people who get it.

    I did such a bad job here in the Seattle scene of hiding my poorness that I am now blackballed in the tech community and have to work as a bus driver. Best of luck to you and keep up the good fight!

  33. Yep. I knew I was the poor person in my start-up job when coworkers preemptively call me a ride or pay for my food knowing I can’t afford the occasion.

    I knew I was the poor person when my coworkers said it would be fun to make a spreadsheet of all the different countries they’d been to, and have everyone contribute. Mine had 2, the country I live in and the country my family is from.

  34. I was a poor person in my first part-time tech job: £6p/h in 2006. Had to accept what ever I was offered to get into IT . Went on to a full time salary of £18K – mate who cleaned drains was on £25K at the time

    I now charge £40+ per hour as a freelancer (since 2008). I had seen a niche that looked relatively simple and wanted to earn a decent wage soon 🙂

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