There was once a Countryman who possessed the most wonderful Goose you can imagine, for every day when he visited the nest, the Goose had laid a beautiful, glittering, golden egg.

I started working when I was 18. But unlike most people, it wasn’t going to be stocking shelves at the local supermarket. Instead, after my final exams of high school and battling with depression for a year, I decided, drunk on arrogance and self-hatred, that I could land a job at a local startup company. How? By just walking in and claiming I’m really good at programming, obviously.

I wasn’t particularly good, but I could do a little. In the years prior I had made a small web application for my school that took off and had a lot of users. My dean was so impressed with the application that he helped me skip my German & French classes, which I was horrible at. Later on, he gave me the opportunity to graduate high school by writing my exam thesis on the platform. He never read it but asked me “What grade would you need in order to compensate your other grades and graduate?”. Thanks to him, I graduated, even though I didn’t attend 80% of my classes that year, due to depression.

I had learned the basics of JavaScript through Node.js & some database stuff with MongoDB (yeah, I know, classic script-kiddie stuff). I had no knowledge of actual industry standards, traditionally adopted technologies like PHP (I still hate that language) or SQL (I hated this language / platforms, but learned to love them). Not only that, but I had come in for an interview one day, I talked to one of the founders who was just amazed that someone could be a software engineer at 18 years old. The other founder was apparently really fond of the idea of hiring me after checking out my high school thesis.

I had another small talk with a 40-year-old frontend engineer, who was my direct colleague. He asked me to write a small YAML parser in JavaScript. He expected me to run npm install yaml-parse in the console and say I was done, instead I finished the exercise within time and handed it in. What I saw in response was him look at the code for a few seconds, seemingly get frustrated and walk away. I was hit with the classic “we’ll call” and promptly left.

It was not supposed to work out. No way that an 18-year-old kid would be hired as a Frontend engineer, right? Well, React had been the hype for a good few years at that point in 2016 and local talent was mostly mass-schooled PHP programmers that had no clue how to do any frontend work. But then again, a startup with venture capital wouldn’t just risk the future of their platform on a teen? Turns out that Arno was neurodiverse, and he was actually really excited about my code. He had walked away quickly and sternly, yes. But apparently to barge into the founder’s office, who was having a meeting, to demand I would be hired. So I was.

The Countryman took the eggs to market and soon began to get rich. But it was not long before he grew impatient with the Goose because she gave him only a single golden egg a day. He was not getting rich fast enough.

Turns out I was pretty good and like a goose walking into any space: some of my co-workers started to feel intimidated by my presence. One guy in particular was really influenced by this, the “Big Boss” as he called himself. It didn’t help he shared his name & general attitude with my father. He was as toxically masculine as a domestic abuser screaming at the referee at a losing football game. Naturally, whenever he felt threatened, insecure or undermined there would be some kind of conflict: meaning all the damn time.

At the time, I preferred a Linux computer to anything else and my MacBook Pro kept crashing. I asked the founders if I could order parts to build a custom rig, totaling a cost of €300,-. When my parts arrived the following week, I wanted to put together the thing. “Big Boss” was convinced that I should continue to suffer on a broken computer and promptly convinced the founders to not allow me to build the computer. Instead, I needed to build it in my own time.

When I hit them with the mathematics of the purchasing and labor cost of me building, things got more uncomfortable. See, a new MacBook was €2.5k. If I built a new computer worth €300,- in parts right there, I would still save the company €2.2k in costs. So unless the profit they lose was greater than that, there shouldn’t theoretically be a problem. But wait a minute, if that’s the case, isn’t it time for me to have a wage increase? The conversation couldn’t turn more uncomfortable than that, for them at least.

Outside our little kerfuffles from time to time, he would cost me several promotions. He would talk to key figures in the company and press his authority, usually quite aggressively and unsafely, to make sure I wouldn’t be part of new teams or initiatives. Ultimately, he was projecting his own insecurities of programming incompetence on me, as all engineers were universally convinced that he wrote the most legacy code. He is still hired by the company to this day, probably because him leaving would cause a collapse of all legacy systems. Technical debt galore.

I had no clue what my own boundaries were. I could whip up a working prototype in the span of a morning, since I was used to over performing to get my tasks done in school. Unfortunately, I learned that doing your work quickly gets you only one reward: more work. And while I don’t mind working more, the problem with doing a lot of work in a short time is that you need a proper cooldown period. Something my bosses saw as me just being bored and not doing any work. I took as many breaks as I needed in order to function. There was close to no space or vocabulary to talk about neurodiversity, even though mostly all engineers had special needs like mine.

Then one day, after he had finished counting his money, the idea came to him that he could get all the golden eggs at once by killing the Goose and cutting it open. But when the deed was done, not a single golden egg did he find, and his precious Goose was dead.

I had sometimes remade the same system 6 times within a week, all because the founders would change their mind on small details. They didn’t want to hire a designer because those were “expensive”, instead it was cheaper to let me labor away at a working prototype at the small chance it met their preferences. They would push deadlines for no reason other than their own incompetence. You think changing the scope every few days is going to make it easy for us to finish it on time? It’s a lot harder to detect you’re having a burnout if you don’t have any experience with it, or if you confuse it with depression. And that’s exactly what happened. A dead goose can’t lay eggs.

After one and a half years, I stopped working for them. The reason they hired me? Because I was significantly cheaper than any other engineer. They could allow me to work on high risk projects because the cost of labor was low. I’d do a better job than any of the other engineers anyway, because I knew relatively new technologies. In the Netherlands, we don’t talk about wages. I made about €2k a month, which is a lot for an 18-year-old. It was more money than I saw on my mother payslip for most of my life, so I thought I’d hit bank. The other engineers were paid €5~6k.

You would think that this experience would leave me wiser. It didn’t. As a freelancer, I was an even better deal for all sorts of shady figures making money off of other people’s code. I constantly thought I was ripping people off by working less than I was charging, but they still sold my work for more than 30x than they were paying me. Ultimately, it always leads to them trying to work me to death by pushing impossible deadlines. It was the reality of working as a young & naive freelancer.

I vowed to never work under those circumstances. But distancing yourself from the privilege of making a lot of money on demand obviously is making living difficult, especially as an uneducated 20-something. This either means making a place that values these things or finding a good place. Luckily for me, it has been the latter. Working in indie games has been nice, my current employer is understanding and empathetic. Everybody in the company makes the same money and the work is inherently rewarding. But this doesn’t change my rather formative years as an adult & working class programmer. Don’t let people rip you off. Know your worth and learn to negotiate your worth. Know how to set boundaries towards your coworkers and your bosses. If you can & have the ability to do so: try to remove yourself from these spaces and start better ones.

I am sick and tired of being a goose that shits golden eggs. Especially if someone else sells them. Especially if I know the true worth and value of that gold.

For me: I won’t ever work in tech again. Wealth is the labor’s fruit and not that of capital.