- Tech workers' TikTok videos are going viral amid pandemic work stresses.
- Some workers have grown businesses from their following, landing sponsors and recognition from television networks.
- Workers are poking fun at their employers diversity statements, unusual circumstances and work-from-home anxieties.
When Alexis Gay had to present second quarter results to her team on a Zoom video call, she sat down and wondered how she could do it. She wanted to be transparent but she also wanted to be encouraging to her teammates who had worked so hard through unprecedented circumstances.
The second quarter of 2020 was one of the worst in years for many tech companies, as the Covid-19 pandemic sent the economy into a tailspin. As a senior manager at San Francisco-based digital company Patreon, Gay knew colleagues were still learning how to work remotely while the country was in crisis.
While rehearsing what she'd say, she couldn't help but laugh.
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Gay grew up wanting to be an actor, but found herself seven years into a tech job where she fully leaned into the industry's hustle culture. And now, she found herself trying to do it with a straight face during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Before her meeting, she made a satirical video depicting how she'd approach a team.
"This is a learning quarter," she said as she looked to the side of camera as if trying to convince herself of what she was saying. "These are unprecedented times," she said in another cut. "But the team really dug deep!" she said in another cut, as if trying to encourage her team.
Her video immediately got tens of thousands of likes across various social media platforms. "I was tapping into that idea of like, 'what are we going to say about Q2?" She laughed.
Gay is one of several tech workers leaning on comedy to poke fun at their workplaces, where the quirks and qualms of employers grew more pronounced amid the pandemic. It's the latest spin on a recent trend, where employees offer first-person accounts chronicling the dystopian nature of Silicon Valley work-life.
Often using quick-take comedic videos, workers are poking fun at recruiting strategies, diversity pledges and the industry's homogenous makeup. Some have even begun making money from their followings, many of whom are millennials facing high rates of burnout, exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic. For some, it's become a form of therapy.
From tech to comedy
In January 2021, as the pandemic raged through a winter surge, Gay took a leap and decided to pursue comedy full-time.
"The awareness of how uncertain the future was was a point driven home every day," she said. "It felt like, the time is now because we simply don't know what's coming next."
Since graduating college, Gay had worked tirelessly in various roles in tech, from marketing to sales to partnerships. She's liked her jobs for the most part, she says.
"There was an excitement to being young and fresh in the start-up world," she said. "This was a world where all I had to do was raise my hand and work hard. I showed up early, stayed late and did that whole deal. I became addicted to this idea that you can build and create something. Like, I was having an impact."
While working at San Francisco-based cloud company Twilio -- although she liked the job -- she realized she didn't really care that much, she said.
"It was like, you work in tech, all your friends work in tech, you hang out on the weekends and talk about tech," she said. "It felt like this homogenous routine."
Gay then moved to another company that was closer to her heart: Creators making content. Her most recent role was at San Francisco-based Patreon, where she worked in creator partnerships. Around the same time, she joined a San Francisco improv group.
She launched another popular video in March 2021 called "every single park hang in San Francisco," which drew industrywide attention. "Alexis continually captures the reality of our industry better than any @semil end of year post ever could," tweeted Compound Ventures partner Michael Dempsey.
"She's so spot on it's terrifying," another Twitter user stated. (Gay said Twitter works well for comedy — the short format writing makes prime real estate for zingers, and everybody in San Francisco tech is on the platform.)
Gay said her comedy isn't meant to be anti-tech, though. "If anything this is self-deprecating humor," she laughed. "For me, it's poking fun at me and my friends and the fact that for seven years, this was the choice I made. "
Now, Gay is using the skills she learned in her tech roles to earn money from her videos on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. She still does some consulting and panel moderating for conferences on the side, she said.
Gay is not the first to make the leap to a comedy career.
Sarah Cooper, a former Google user experience design lead, found huge success after she filmed a satirical commentary about what it's like to work at Google and at a big tech company. She achieved global popularity in 2019 for her TikTok videos lip syncing to President Donald Trump. In 2020, she landed a Netflix deal for her own show, "Sarah Cooper: Everything's Fine." And, in March 2021, CBS ordered a pilot for a show based on her book "How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men's Feelings."
"What is so cool about seeing her mainstream success is that origin story of being a tech comedy person didn't pigeonhole her later on so that's been affirming," Gay said.
Satire from a diverse perspective
Josh Ogundu, a product operations lead at TikTok and a startup advisor at accelerator Techstars L.A Cohort, makes videos about the reality versus expectation of working in tech.
The 28-year old posts videos to his account NaijaNomad, and has reached tens of thousands of viewers since the beginning of the year. He even got a shout out from show runner and "Billions" co-creator Brian Koppelman on Twitter.
He often pokes fun at companies' multi-million-dollar diversity initiatives, recruiting practices and how when companies refer to "hiring" for certain roles, they often mean contractors, who usually don't get the benefits and perks that regular employees enjoy.
"What Big Tech says on the surface and what happens in practice is very different," Ogundu said.
One of his videos, called "tech guy breaking into tech," pokes fun at people who come from privileged background complaining about being an underdog. Another pokes fun at tech companies rewarding employees with Slack emojis, whiskey and, essentially, anything but compensation.
After the 2020 murder of George Floyd and subsequent racial justice protests, a string of tech companies pledged to do more to fight racial injustice.
Ogundo's response: A parody video called "Tech founders talking about diversity in tech." In it, Ogundu looks to the side of the camera with a disinterested face as if speaking to a crowd, and says, "At Big Tech BigCo, we pride ourselves on diversity....Due to our five-year $100 million pledge to diversify tech, we are able to hire five more people of color as contractors this year than in any previous year."
He said he saw a gap in Silicon Valley satirical comedies, which focused on engineers but ignored the real challenges for people of color.
"For me, it's having an outlet to talk about more serious topics by poking fun at it and opening it up for a broader conversation in a way that isn't an attack on someone," Ogundu said.
San Francisco-based Hallie Lomax sought a similar kind of honesty. A Lyft engineer who's worked at various Silicon Valley tech companies, the 27-year-old started a digital comic strip called "At Work Comics" which she describes as "moments with people I am paid to talk to."
It began as a way to document her uncomfortable experiences during an internship at a tech company.
"This guy in my office would be weirdly flirty with me and I didn't like it so I started posting using the hashtag #guyatwork did this thing." During the pandemic, she revived her hobby of drawing she more or less abandoned before she got into tech as a software engineer during college.
One comic from 2020 depicts a man on a video call saying "I want to make coffee but I don't want to show you my house." Another comic shows her working from her laptop from a small home when her dog begins mounting a nearby stuffed animal. "This is a hostile work environment," the character is shown saying while staring at her dog.
"It's kind of like the opposite of a micro-aggression," she said. "It's these micro positive moments that add up over time to create an overwhelming feeling of positivity."
They also help her reconcile being a Black woman in a homogenous tech industry, she said.
"I've had a lot of pretty weird, negative experiences, but with this, I have evidence that there are a lot of good times and positive relationships I've had with coworkers and some of them are even pretty good friends," Lomax said. "The tech industry can be a very hard place to be, especially when you don't necessarily feel like you're a part of the 'in' groups, but if you can remember all of the good times you've had, it's easier to look past it all."
Lyft even asked Lomax to do a comic for its blog after coworkers took notice.
The blog post, called "mentoring myself" features light-hearted drawings of her character talking to new trainees, recalling from her first days in tech "a crippling paranoia that you don't have what it takes to succeed in the professional world."
It shows a drawing of her in a penguin costume with the words "If I had a dollar for every time someone told me I had imposter syndrome, I'd question whether or not I deserved so much money."
Millennial work anxiety
Rod Thill, a 30-year old sales worker for an e-commerce logistics company, saw his social media following explode to millions of followers in October 2020 after posting about Silicon Valley's "grind" culture and the stresses of feeling inadequate during a time when workers can't read their bosses' expressions.
His TikTok name is @Rod and bio says "Anxious Millennial" with a tear drop emoji.
"Last April, I had a management change during a pandemic and I had never met them face-to-face," Thill said. "When that happened, it intensified the anxiety. Reading communication has been really hard to do during this time."
Thill's breakout video came when he described millennials working with the irrational fear they're going to get fired. "I am a pretty stellar employee and still feel like I'll get fired for no reason," he said.
He's garnered over a million followers across platforms in months and is now doing sponsorships with brands like StitchFix, Lenovo and Wholly Guacamole. "Millennials love guac, so it fits in."
Companies are now hiring Thill for happy hour events and awards nights. Now, he's begun writing a TV script about millennials in startup culture and hired an agent. But he doesn't plan on quitting his day job anytime soon.
Like Gay, Thill needed to be able to talk and laugh about the realities of workplace anxiety and an outlet like TikTok seemed perfect.
"Millennials, I think, like to just open up and check apps real quick," said Thill, describing why he thinks he struck a chord with people. "Working in corporate America, time is money and breaks are amazing."