On the Psychology of “Tech Money”

Reading Time: 11 minutes

One time, a literal millionaire purchased a coffee for me while he was pitching me to come work for him as an engineer.

I splurged and asked for a vanilla latte (about $6).

a latte

After we spoke about the position, I told him I didn’t think I was a fit and explained my reasons why, none of which were personal. It was an “I could probably do this job, but I’m not uniquely qualified to do it” type of situation.

He texted me within the hour to ask for his $6 back.

In my whole career, I’ll never forget that. It feels comically clueless to folks with backgrounds like mine. But I’ll bet you he forgot by lunchtime that day. I see a deep cultural divide on this.

The divide appears around congenital wealth.

It’s not how much money someone makes currently. It’s how rich they grew up.

Folks who grew up in affluent households will venmo for the salsa.1 I suspect they think about their relationship to money and power differently to folks who did not grow up so flush. In the same way white people walk around blissfully unaware of their racial privilege and men tend to walk through the world less aware of gender dynamics, congenitally rich people walk through the world with a blissful ignorance to how their money impacts their interactions.

“Look, we’re all sitting around this table at this taqueria together, therefore we are equal!”

It’s their version of “I don’t see color,” because they never really had to.

I think it genuinely doesn’t occur to them how it looks for them to venmo for the salsa.

It makes them instantly distinguishable from folks who are new to tech money.

I learned that real estate agents and other professionals who put food on their tables by sniffing out pocket depth have a term for this: HENRYs. It stands for “High earning, not rich yet.” And it describes a lot of software engineers.

Here’s why: programming is a weird profession. It’s one of the most lucrative work-a-day professions that you could conceivably enter without undergoing a massive initial expense. We don’t require programmers to sport the kinds of degrees we demand of doctors ($400k in tuition) or lawyers ($300k in tuition) to begin their careers. Those sorts of licensing requirements supposedly solve quality problems. I won’t touch that claim today, but I’ll say that either way, they also do another thing: they filter those high income fields to people who were already rich and people who are willing to remain not rich for a long, long time while they pay back their student debt. The second group has lots of time to get used to the way the first group behaves before they join the first group.

In tech, not so. The HENRYs get thrown in with the silver spoons right away.

And HENRYs relate to money differently than silver spoons.

Most of my friends who grew up less affluent who now work in tech…kinda, don’t feel entitled to the money. We relate to it like it’s, sort of, not ours.

We low-key talk about things like “Don’t you wish you could just pick up the tab without feeling like a dweeb?” Because we know we could, and we want to, and we also know that doing that looks a lot like leveraging power over the people we want to help. What if we later come back and act like they owe us something? We’re keenly aware of the way that picking up the tab would impact our relationships, just like we’re aware of what it means to venmo for the salsa.

My one friend, his company sold. He had worked extremely hard and also gotten extremely lucky. Now it paid off, but he grew up poor. On day, like, 2 of this new existence, he went out and subscribed to every Patreon of every creator he knew.

I’ve had conversations with folks like this on topics such as:

  • Do you hide your income from your skater friends?
  • Where do you donate to? How do you pick?
  • Do you just pick up the tab at restaurants?

The answer rarely includes demanding single-digit amounts of money from people with whom we we value our personal relationship. Maybe money isn’t personal for folks who have always had plenty of it, but for us, it usually is.

So we have DIFFERENT money weirdness.

A lot of people from this existence remember the first thing they spent “tech money” on.

I remember. I spent it on 3 things: phone bill, gym, teeth whitening.

1. Phone: I wanted to be off my dad’s plan and dismiss his objections about how a joint phone plan is cheaper. This way, when I came out as queer, he couldn’t cut my phone.

2. Gym and teeth whitening: truth be told I was like “If I have to be a lesbian I’d at least like to be a hot one.”2

Another money weirdness we have: we save things.

My grandmother turned ziploc bags inside out and put them in the dishwasher. She also washed plastic cutlery for reuse.

Every year I spring clean my tupperware cabinet of like 200 lidded yogurt containers and takeout boxes.

When I buy something nice for myself (shoes, makeup, cheese), I won’t use it because it feels too precious to use. I have to convince myself to eat/use the thing I bought to eat/use.

Another: spending guilt around things that were too expensive when we were kids.

I love Lindt truffles. They are my favorite chocolate at Target. I especially love the black bag: it’s the darkest kind they make. A bag of Lindt truffles costs $4.49. Every single time I buy them, I have to stand in the aisle and verbally remind myself “You can afford this.”

But back to the point: I think congenintally rich folks are like “of course this money is mine,” and folks new to tech income are more like “I don’t trust or believe that this money is mine.”

And their behaviors reflect these differences.

Will this always be the case in our industry?

For better or worse, I don’t think so. I think eventually our truly irresponsible amount of power and leverage will catch up to us. Tech deserves a whole lot more regulation than it currently gets, and tech companies would need a lot more mandated accountability before they’d focus less on amassing the buddy fortunes of venture capitalists and more on, like, not doing a shitty job.

But we also live in a very individualist culture. So I think at least one prong of that change set would involve licensing and insuring individual engineers, and I expect the cost of that to get pushed down to individual entrants into the field the same way it does in law or medicine.

Not to mention, we already see FAANGs and their copycats unashamedly design their interviews to pattern match on “Who has a CS degree” by specifically asking questions that come out of graduate CS curricula and rarely show up on the actual job. Despite a decade of sound criticism of this practice, it continues. The people passing the interview are the ones deciding the ongoing interview process; the survivorship bias favors folks who started out with money. HENRYs and Silver Spoons mix more freely in tech than in other fields, but it’s certainly not a uniform distribution: the really big tech salaries go, by and large, to folks who started out with money. I do expect software engineering, specifically, to trend either less lucrative or less accessible as a career path over time.

Is this a problem?

If it is a problem, I cannot even begin to speculate on what I would do to fix it. It’s a reality. It’s a thing we’re all dealing with, like mortality or taxes.

I do think that understanding that these two groups exist has allowed me to navigate tech hobnobbing with less anxiety.

People who don’t come from money have often already been subject to feeling like an imposter in this industry. I risk making them feel ostracized by venmo’ing for the salsa, and I risk making them feel leveraged by covering the tab and providing no Venmo handle at all. Maybe it’s a no-win situation, but at least I know what kind of losses I’m walking into and can choose my loss wisely.

The general consensus I’ve heard for “hacking” this from HENRYs is something like “I’ll pick up the tab to make it easy on the server and I’ll tell folks they can venmo me, but I don’t check who did or how much and I would stick a fork in my hand before I’d actually send a venmo request.”3

The other way I’ve navigated this is to specifically choose income-accessible activities: the diner. An ice cream shop. Pop-up roller skating parties that charge $5 for entry. Granted, I have a campy aesthetic in the first place: I do not enjoy going to some Pritzker-owned, walnut-lined “speakeasy” with $18 Moscow Mules and the Billboard Hot 100 on the speaker. But I do get a side advantage here: No matter how payment gets handled, I’m not exposing anyone to unexpected financial duress.4 If I have to be in a lose-lose situation, I’ve at least lowered the stakes.

I know I haven’t presented the rosiest outlook here. I’m not under the impression that my individual blog post has much, if any, impact on general trends in this industry. But I do think that the type of individual who reads my stuff appreciates the tools I can provide for navigating this industry as a professional and as a person.

And I also think, as I’ve said before, that tech as we know it has no visionary ideas left until and unless it learns to center the experiences of folks currently on its margins.

Footnotes

  1. I am writing this post in 2022, and I’m not sure how long “Venmo” will be a recognizable cultural reference. Venmo is a mobile app that permits people to quickly transfer money between their bank accounts via use of a social media handle rather than messing with checks, cards, or account and routing numbers. It has a clientele of tech savvy boomers and “noveau riche” millenials-and-younger. It has corporate competitors like Chase Quickpay and Zelle, and a startuppier competitor called Cashapp that has made a home for itself among more marginalized communities (though I am not clear on why this division exists). These companies make money off their free version by investing funds you’ve received in transfer that you have not sent to someone else or explicitly transferred to your bank acount. They also have various paid features that I can’t speak on because I don’t pay for these things. I use “Venmo” as the example throughout this article because it’s the one I see most commonly used at dinner tables surrounded by programmers at the time of this writing.
  2. Yes, beauty standards are bullshit. I grew up doing a weight-controlled sport in the already-fatphobic, teeth-obsessed ’90s/’00s United States of America. I was 24 and my choices were about MY confidence, not a judgment on what it takes to be hot.
  3. Silly fact: I didn’t even know you could send a Venmo request until I used Venmo to bill a client one time (I know; I don’t do this anymore). The client, a born-rich 22-year-old CEO of his own company, recommended the platform for the purpose.
  4. I actually get another side advantage here: these activities are not things that adult hetero people gravitate toward as date activities. This is important to me, a femme-presenting person in a masc-leaning profession who wishes to steer 100 miles clear of signalling romantic interest to any men I’ve met so far in my life.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The piece in which I literally said “Visionary ideas derive directly from centering people at the margins”

What should we be asking about Machine Learning studies, which evidently caught the interest of Dr. Rachel Tatman’s audience (podcast interview upcoming)

Outsmarting Zinger Fever on the Internet? I don’t know, I hate doing the “if you liked this, read my other thing” sections of these posts

One comment

  1. Outstanding article and keenly observed.

    I am from the UK, where we know exactly what demographic group people are from as soon as they open their mouths, sometimes when they walk into the room, which is exhausting. I live in Canada where this is still noticeable, but not as obvious as it is in the UK.

    I’m not aware of Venmo or Cashapp being used in either Canada or the UK, but I’ve noticed them in US conversations about money.

    In both the UK and Canada, if people go out for a meal, it’s the done thing to split the bill/check; in Canada, servers will ask how you want to split the cost, and bring separate bills. I have occasionally picked up the tab if I know the other person earns less than me. But I hope they know that I don’t expect anything in return. I mean if they want to return the favour if they ever become better off than me, I wouldn’t object, but I am not keeping score! And yeah, I’m from the same group as you — grew up knowing that some things were too expensive.

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