I just finished reading the Dan Lyons book “Disrupted: My Misadventures In The Start-Up Bubble”. In a nutshell, Lyons is a former journalist who lost his job at 51-years-old and needed a job fast to provide for his family. So, like many former scribes, he jumped on the bandwagon and got into the tech community as a ‘content marketer’ with a company called HubSpot — a company I had heard of but admittedly knew very little about before reading the book. What ensued can politely described as a marriage made in Hell — and a colossal clash of cultures.
I really couldn’t avoid reading the book, to be honest. At least six people in two weeks recommended it to me — saying things like: “He’s a former journalist who went into the tech world just like you did — you guys have so much in common — reading his words, I could hear you saying the same stuff. It’s hilarious and insightful.” I also learned he was a co-writer on the HBO show ‘Silicon Valley’ — and I’m a huge fan.
So, I ripped through the book. And, he certainly doesn’t waste any time in issuing his thesis that HubSpot is, in his opinion, a disaster of a company — and the tech startup community is essentially a modern day version of Lord of the Flies.
The book was entertaining (at the expense of the company in question). Lyons is an effective and persuasive writer. His sense of satire is viciously effective. I could, in fact, hear myself using a lot of the same biting language and judgmental observation.
You see, newsrooms are not a place for the weak-minded nor the politically correct. The humour is dark. Very dark. Troubling sometimes. The pace is frenetic. The language is salty and efficient. There’s no time to beat around the bush. The people are mostly loud and aggressive. They have to be. I love these people. They tell it like it is, call out bullshit — and absolutely love arguing and debating. Lyons says pretty well the same.
So reading his words honestly felt like I was reading an email or text from a journalist buddy of mine. He’s the kind of guy I’d hang out with. But, again, I lived in that world for two decades and most of my best friends are still in the media. It’s not for everyone.
However, when I was done the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said.
For days, my mind kept wandering back to it. Something wasn’t sitting right with me. I left the media in 2009 — and have done a lot of work in the tech sector. I advise several tech companies, have others as clients and even volunteer as a tech-startup mentor with an accelerator program. Yet, my experiences were nothing like Dan’s.
I love the industry. It’s exciting. It’s new. It moves as fast as a newsroom. But, had I simply drunk the ‘Kool-Aid’ as he says many in the tech world have done? Was I brainwashed? How could our experiences be so dramatically different?
I couldn’t let it go and started to have conversations about it with other former journalists I know. And, then it became clear.
Dan Lyons did this to himself. This was self-inflicted.
And, it doesn’t matter if it’s HubSpot or Google or Facebook…the company is not relevant to the points I’m about to make — I’m focusing on the transitioning journalist because I have many friends who are in the same position as Lyons — and I want them to know that Lyons’ experience is not an experience everyone has when moving from journalism to the tech world. It’s a cautionary tale when it comes to making the move over.
Lesson Learned #1 – Make Sure Journalism Is Out Of Your System:
Since I successfully left journalism in 2009, quite a few former friends and colleagues in the industry have confided in me about their desire to jump to the world of PR or content marketing. And, they ask me for advice.
I always start with the same question: Is journalism truly out of your system? Can you walk away from it with no regrets? If they pause for even a moment, I suggest they rethink. The journalism world is unlike any other, in my opinion — and if you’re still a journalist-at-heart, the ability to transition into the private sector can be seriously impeded. I wrote a whole blog about it called “There Is Life After Journalism”.
Dan Lyons was 51-years-old. He was laid off at a time when he wasn’t even thinking about leaving the media. He had a great life, was well known, worked for a major publication and it all came crashing down. He had no financial package — just two weeks notice. This has happened to friends of mine. It can force you to question your entire place in the world. And, I don’t for a moment make light of it. It must have been awful for Lyons with a family to support. So, he needed work and applied for the job at HubSpot to make ends meet — and more pointedly, was chasing the big lure of possible riches associated with stock options. Lyons was a seasoned tech reporter and had covered stories of people getting wealthy like this — and decided to go for it when, in reality, he wasn’t done with journalism (something proven by the fact that after he left HubSpot, he went back into the media business).
Me, on the other hand — I left journalism when I was done with it. I dumped it — it didn’t dump me. Like a faltering relationship, I knew about two years before I left the media that I was falling out of love with the industry that had been so good to me. It was a great run with some great people and fantastic times. But, it was over. When I left, I was done with it. There was no lure of fast money — just independence, a load of responsibility and personal risk – and, most importantly, professional satisfaction.
And, I have no complaints as it’s been a fascinating transition — and a lot of hard work. I made an overt effort to be my own boss and pick the projects I work on — rather than going to work for another company because deep down at my core, I’m a lot like Dan Lyons and I was self aware enough to know that jumping back into another huge machine at that time wasn’t a wise decision.
Lesson Learned #2 – Do Your Research Before Applying For A Job
I am constantly amazed by seeing journalists who are professional researchers — fail to apply the same rigour to research involving their personal lives. I was as guilty as anyone. I was an investigative journalist — yet I found myself doing minimal research when making major retail purchases.
Dan Lyons clearly did not do his research before taking the job at HubSpot. One Google search would have shown employee photos, etc. like the one above. And, although there’s nothing wrong with these photos, to a veteran journalist over 50-years-old, he/she may see those photos and pause for thought. A little research would have gone a long way.
A job is like a marriage. Two people can both be great people — but not gel. Journalists inherently spend most of their time researching other people — but before making the leap, you need to engage in some self-awareness and honestly.
Understand that many if not most tech companies don’t truly understand ‘journalism’ nor do they understand journalists. They’re hiring content marketers, bloggers, etc. But, let’s be clear — they’re hiring you to help them promote and sell. It isn’t journalism.
In the case of HubSpot, Lyons didn’t know what he was getting into — and the company obviously didn’t understand the DNA of a journalist. It was doomed to fail from day one.
Lesson Learned #3 – Prepare For A Dramatic Culture Shift
As outlined previously, newsrooms are unique places. So, I don’t care if you’re a journalist transitioning to a tech company or a bank — be prepared for a huge culture shock. I’ve lived this culture shift — it’s very real and requires patience and reflection for journos.
Dan Lyons focused a lot on that culture shift — primarily for satirical reasons. He talked about the ‘candy wall’ and ‘Fearless Friday’ and he mocked them. This is unlike anything he would have ever experienced before. Google has slides. Other companies have unusual team-building exercises that most journalists would ridicule.
I get it. He was selling books and it made for great material. But, the lesson here for journalists transitioning is that there will be a huge change in culture and they should prepare for that and be adaptable. My experience with the atmosphere at tech companies has been much more positive than any newsroom I have ever worked in — and that positivity takes some getting used to when you’re coming from an industry known for cynicism (I say that as a compliment).
Look, I’m not judging Dan Lyons — just providing some context from someone who has also made the shift from journalism to tech. I wish I had a best selling book and I wish I was a writer on Silicon Valley. Dan Lyons is clearly talented. And, he obviously knows how to generate publicity around a new book. I even bought extra copies for my friends leaving journalism (it’s a mass exodus lately). But, when I give it to them, I use it as a cautionary tale about the importance of making sure journalism is out of your blood, doing your research and knowing fully what you’re getting yourself into before making the leap.
I genuinely believe this horrible experience Dan Lyons experienced was self-inflicted and no one’s fault but his own for all the reasons noted above. He took the job for the wrong reasons, he was chasing the dream of fast cash, he didn’t do his research before taking the job and clearly wasn’t self-aware enough to know it was NEVER going to work.
Again, I’m not defending HubSpot because I don’t know them. But, I know journalists and I know enough of them who have left or been forced out – including myself. And, this blog is aimed at those people — as a cautionary tale.
As it turns out, Dan Lyons was smart enough to know that, although he wasn’t cut out for HubSpot, there was an audience for a book outlining his experiences using satire. He knew there was an audience for that kind of narrative. That’s what made him a good journalist in the first place. So, in reality, he went back to his roots, after all.
A final couple of thoughts on shitty pay and age discrimination…
A huge premise of Lyons’ book was his opinion that tech companies pay young people horribly and instead distract them with perks like ‘candy walls’ and free food.
I can’t speak to the entire industry — but I can say that the companies I work with are hiring people right out of college at a salary that’s approaching what I made at the end of my 20 year journalism career. I can’t make this shit up. I was blown away. So, I’m personally not seeing what Lyons described. I’m not saying it’s not out there — I’m sure it is — but I don’t think it’s industry-wide. On the flip side, it should be noted that journalism is notorious for hiring young people at wages so low they have to moonlight as waiters and waitresses. They pay them horribly and pay them in “ego” because it’s good social status to say you’re a journalist — until you actually have a family to support. So, if there is an issue with pay for young people, it isn’t tech-specific. It’s a broader issue. And, Lyons knows that having come out of journalism.
Finally, he says tech companies don’t hire older people — or try to get rid of them when they hit 40. Again, I can’t speak to the entire industry but the tech startup companies I work with are well represented with people in their 40’s and 50’s. In fact, just this morning, I met with a company headed up by a 25-year-old. He sought me out for my experience and guidance. I like young people (I have four children between the ages of 17 and 22) — I like their energy and I embrace the face we offer different things. So, again, I can’t speak to the experience Dan Lyons had — I guess it depends on the company and the market. But, again, I don’t believe you can’t paint the entire tech industry — or any industry for that matter — with that ageism brush.
But, I can tell you this — and Lyons knows this better than anyone: when you hit your 40’s in journalism lately, it seems like your days are numbered. I have six journalism friends in their 40’s who have been ‘downsized’ in the past year…and six more who think their days are numbered. These are top performers. But journalism doesn’t seem to be appreciating experience these days.
I do know for a fact age discrimination exists — but it’s not something you can lay at the feet of tech. And, it’s not lost on me that that kind of thinly-shrouded ageism in media is likely the very reason why a 51-year-old Dan Lyons ended up in the tech sector in the first place. So criticizing tech for doing it is like throwing stones from a glass house.
As it turned out — it all worked out for Lyons in the end…new book, TV show and I wouldn’t doubt a movie deal is in the works because, again, he is a great writer.
My lasting message, and the point of my blog, is this: if you’re a journalist who was/is thinking about making a move to the tech sector — don’t be scared away by this book. Be entertained by it and learn from it. Do your research before jumping. Leave journalism for the right reasons. Don’t chase fast money. And be open to adapting. The tech sector can be very rewarding as I’ve found it — you just need to find the right fit.
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