The Secret And Intriguing Life Of Silicon Valley Millionaire Engineers Who Barely Work


Image: Business Insider
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Putting aside the fractional population that is workaholic, most of us just want a life where we get paid millions without needing to work much. Most of the very few people that have that kind of life lounge in the Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley engineers generally referred to as “resters and vesters” or “coasters” do not have to do much, but make lots of money just waiting for their stock to vest.

The very tempting life of the coasters may be incredibly shiny and luxurious, but it does not come without risks. The engineers say that the rest-and-vest involves severe career risks and pitfalls.

Most of the people working in the Silicon Valley, making good bucks lead overly exhausting lives. One of the engineers working for a company that has recently been acquired by Facebook made $1 million a year, but her work had drained her so bad that she fell ill at the mere thought of going to work. That is when she decided to give up that life and join the not-so-secret club in the silicon valley known as the “rest and vest.”

Any employee, mostly an engineer that goes into the rest and vest mode has very easy or no work load at all. They hang out in the company, collecting full salaries and stock. The stock is the total compensation for a senior engineer and it often exceeds the salary itself.

Most problems in this employee’s life had arisen due to the merger that was mostly political, and the integration had failed to function properly. Her manager suggested that she go in the rest and vest mode just to keep quiet about the merger problems. The engineer had already planned to leave by the end of the year, so she decided to spend the next six months networking, attending tech conferences, and working on pet projects while she made out something for her future.

The coaster culture is prevalent, and Business Insider talked to many of them who had direct knowledge of it. Hiring managers try to pull these people back to the productive lives.

Image: Business Insider

Jobs in the Silicon Valley are generally very demanding and work intensive, and landing in the no-work-get paid-world of coasters has many paths. The CEO of the startup Outreach, Manny Medina has been a coaster briefly and has also lured people to work like him. The man worked for Microsoft and learned how Microsoft used his coaster behavior to their advantage.

Medina began working as a software engineer for a company when he was in grad school, wrapped up the assigned project months early and informed the company that he would leave right after graduation. The company kept Manny on their payroll just to train other employees for the next few months. All he had to do in this time was answer questions, hang out in the office, and sometimes write a bit of documentation. He explained his experience saying, “My days began at that point at 11, and I took long lunches. They didn’t want you to build anything else because anything you built would be maintained by someone else. But you have to stand by while they bring people up to speed.”

When Medina landed a job in Microsoft years later, he learned their strategy where they would hire the experts of futuristic fields like artificial intelligence, natural speech language, quantum computing and the likes, merely to keep them away from competitors. The people maintain jobs as researchers or professors at a university while collecting salaries from Microsoft. Manny explains the strategy, “You keep engineering talent but also you prevent a competitor from having it, and that’s very valuable. It’s a defensive measure.” He says it is a common practice in both the engineering and R&D departments.

Image: Business Insider

While Microsoft uses the coasters for their defense, many other companies just keep them, so they do not jump ships to their disadvantage. Facebook has a bonus program called “discretionary equity” or DE, which essentially means handing over a huge chunk of restricted stock units worth tens to thousands of dollars. It is more of an appreciation bonus, but the purpose is also to keep the people in their pocket at least for the time that it takes for the restricted stock to vest.

Many Facebook engineers say that the company requires them to work very long days and a former Facebook engineer comments, “At Facebook the ‘OGs’ (Original Gangsters, referring to people who worked for the company before the IPO) we know got DE. Their Facebook stock quadruples, and they don’t leave. They are really good engineers, really indispensable. And then they start to pull 9-5 days. These are really smart people, and they don’t leave. They’re in their mid-30s, pulling in seven figures a year, and they don’t have to work as hard. We say they’re just coasting. ”

There is another variety of these people that are referred to as “10x Engineers.” They are just people who do not have to work hard just because they are ten times more effective than an ordinary engineer. These people are not necessarily overly smart but they know the system in such detail that they can do the work of 10 hours in just one.

The former engineer who has lived the coaster life at Facebook says, “When people have been there long enough, they often bring a value that’s not easy to see. They might know where the bodies are buried on some project, be called in as a last resort to debug a project, or they are known as a great pinch hitter. One guy at Facebook didn’t seem to work a lot, but when the site would go down, he could find things that couldn’t be found.”

Sometimes you do not even need smartness or effectiveness to live the rest and vest life if you have been a part of the company long enough. People who have made it to the top engineering ranks do not need to work a lot to stay. These people do the right amount of work, get a good review, get their pays, collect the stocks and live on. Of all companies, this type of culture is common at Google. One of the Google engineers describes, “Most of my friends at Google work four hours a day. They are senior engineers and don’t work hard. They know the Google system, know when to kick into gear. They are engineers, so they optimized the performance cycles of their own jobs.”

A Google manager who has recently left the company also says, “There are a lot ‘coasters’ who reached a certain level and don’t want to work any harder. They just do a 9-5 job, won’t work to get promoted, don’t want to get promoted. If their department doesn’t like them, after a year or two, they move somewhere else.”

Many of the senior engineers just complete their projects and live the rest and vest lives until they decide what they want to take up next.

Alphabet’s research unit X is also known for the coaster culture, and an engineer working there confirms saying, “At X, we don’t have a sense of budgetary concerns. Engineers get paid $250,00 to $600,000 range, but there’s no sense of urgency. It’s like a startup but not really. It’s like a startup with unlimited funds,” adding “You get paid so much after a certain level at Google, that once you get there, there’s no real reason to work that hard. Life is good; you maximize your vacation. I’ll come in when I want to. What incentive do you have to work harder when you are already making $500,000 in salary, and there is no more upward trajectory?”

An X spokesperson, Courtney Hohne denies the culture entirely saying, “We have a compensation program here that has been tailored to encourage intellectual honesty from our teams. So we developed this program to reduce any incentives to just hang around until some far-off payday. X is not about polishing products or optimizing systems that support millions of users. X is designed to be a place for early stage prototyping and de-risking. Different engineers (and business people) like different stages of the innovation process, and that’s ok.”

Image: Business Insider

The reasons for resting and vesting vary from short time unassignment or long term low work load, but in all cases, you have to be physically present there. The on campus perks at Google are so good that spending a day there can be fun in itself. A former Google manager says, “You want to have lunch at a lovely cafe, or maybe attend a tech talk, or a class, or you want to go to a bodywork class at 6 p.m. or to get juice at the Slice Cafe, and it’s on another campus. So you end up working 6 hours. There are times you have to put in nights and weekends, but in general, the company is so big and has so much money, you can work less.”

Image: Business Insider

Google may be famous for providing so many perks to its employees, but they are no less at other companies like Facebook either. Facebook offers classes, video arcade, while Oracle has sand beach volley ball, swimming pools, and Microsoft holds many X-boxes, soccer and cricket fields, and even a day spa.

While the life of these rest and vest engineers sounds drool worthy, it involves serious career risks in a place like Silicon Valley packed with ambitious and smart engineers always looking forward to the next big thing. They can enjoy this lifestyle for a while, but the luxury does not last years especially in places like Microsoft research where projects do not always lead to commercial products and at X where projects can often get canceled.

Image: Business Insider

An X employee says, “They know staying at X can be a career deadpool.” Manny Medina talks about the coasters that spend too long a time resting and vesting, “These engineers are highly, highly paid, but there is no other company that will take them. Eventually, they get tired and want to go get real work.” When these people are willing to let go of their high pay expectations they end up in new startups that require them to work so much harder.

The conclusion? Not everything that glitters is gold but having that glitter for a while can be nice, right?

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