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The Almighty Buck

Suicide of an Uber Engineer: Widow Blames Job Stress (sfchronicle.com) 288

An anonymous reader shares a report: Joseph Thomas thought he had it made when he landed a $170,000 job as a software engineer at Uber's San Francisco headquarters last year. [...] But his time at Uber turned into a personal tragedy, one that will compel the ride-hailing company to answer questions before a judge about its aggressive work culture. Always adept with computers, Joseph Thomas worked his way up the ladder at tech jobs in his native Atlanta, then at LinkedIn in Mountain View, where he was a senior site reliability engineer. He turned down an offer from Apple to go to Uber, because he felt he could grow more with the younger company and was excited about the chance to profit from stock options when it went public. But at Uber, Thomas struggled in a way he'd never experienced in over a decade in technology. He worked long hours. He told his father and his wife that he felt immense pressure and stress at work, and was scared he'd lose his job. [...] One day in late August, Zecole (the wife) came home from dropping their boys off at school. Joseph was sitting in his car in the garage. She got into the passenger seat to talk to him. Then she saw the blood. Joseph had shot himself. [...] Uber declined to comment on the legal dispute and said Thomas never complained to the company of extreme stress or racial discrimination.
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Suicide of an Uber Engineer: Widow Blames Job Stress

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  • Choice (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @10:06AM (#54304709)

    "He turned down an offer from Apple to go to Uber"

    If he had a job offer from Apple and choose to go work at Uber it also means he was good at what he does and he could have dropped his new job and find a better one, at Apple or some other place.

    • If he didn't like the culture why didn't he just get another job?
      • While salary might have been an indirect reason not to quit, I'm gonna lay it out and say "father of 2" pops to mind. The responsibility of having dependents is something I can only grasp. Then again, he committed suicide, so I digress. I think the human mind is too complex and, pardon the obvious, moody to blame such an extreme action on a specific reason. But my personal view is, with 2 kids and that salary, and a managerial position (apparently he did interviews, from the comments below), it was either p

        • That's a pretty good way of looking at it. A year after my mom passed away, my dad remarried to a woman who's husband committed suicide. He did think he was providing well enough for them, and in his suicide note hoped the insurance would provide well for them. His life insurance had a suicide clause, so it didn't pay off. Depression is a terrible illness.

      • If he didn't like the culture why didn't he just get another job?

        TFS says he "was excited about the chance to profit from stock options when it went public".

        This should be a warning never to place financial gain above your own health.

    • "He turned down an offer from Apple to go to Uber"

      If he had a job offer from Apple and choose to go work at Uber it also means he was good at what he does and he could have dropped his new job and find a better one, at Apple or some other place.

      As a rule of thumb suicidal people don't make rational decisions. In this case since the terror of losing the job was one of the things that put him over the edge.

      Don't expect suicidal people to voluntarily walk away from the things troubling them, they may not believe walking away is an option.

      • Don't expect suicidal people to voluntarily walk away from the things troubling them, they may not believe walking away is an option.

        Yep they have a tendency to cling like hell to the very things that are making them depressed and suicidal in the first place

        • Yep they have a tendency to cling like hell to the very things that are making them depressed and suicidal in the first place

          This is very, very true. Depression narrows the scope of your thinking, leading to odd circular reasoning and despair over problems that are either solvable or not actually problems in the first place. In your mind, not solving this particular problem in this particular way means that you are a complete failure.

      • Don't expect suicidal people to voluntarily walk away from the things troubling them, they may not believe walking away is an option.

        OTOH, he sort of did the ultimate walk-away, leaving his family behind to fend for itself.

    • Well, remember that you have a limited number of job-changes (and you don't know up front just how many that is) before nobody will hire you. Plus, leaving one job after just a few months is a big red flag. What I can't reconcile is that we're supposedly highly in-demand, yet our working conditions get worse and worse each year. Shouldn't we be the ones with the leverage here?
      • Well, remember that you have a limited number of job-changes (and you don't know up front just how many that is) before nobody will hire you.

        Unless you're a contractor. I worked seven days a week for two years (2011-2013) to recover from being unemployed for two years and filing for Chapter Seven bankruptcy. I've worked 30+ IT support assignments for three different contracting agencies during that time.

        Plus, leaving one job after just a few months is a big red flag.

        Maybe, maybe not. If a contract doesn't work for me, I'm ready to walk into the next job. I nearly walked off my current job because the CIO kept screaming at me because someone else lied to him and the contract had a $5K penalty for not giving a

      • by alexhs ( 877055 )

        Plus, leaving one job after just a few months is a big red flag.

        A big red flag showing that the workplace environment is toxic there? As if we didn't know already?
        Why would an employee care about a high turnover rate at the company he's leaving anyway?

        Shouldn't we be the ones with the leverage here?

        Only if the employees join their forces rather than trying to undercut each other. Leaving the place can be a solution at a personal level, but not at the society level: it takes more time to bleed dry a company (that will play PR games like renaming itself, pledges by the CEO, denouncing "isolated" incidents, etc) than it

  • It's true (Score:5, Insightful)

    by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @10:09AM (#54304727) Homepage Journal

    Some Bay Area tech companies are real meat grinders. I've definitely been so stressed out and overworked that it affected me emotionally. But that's a long way from suicide. I can't imagine what Uber could do to an employee that is different than some of the worst companies I've worked at. I suspect that some people are more sensitive to on the job pressure, or other psychological conditions may be at play here. And I would have hoped someone in that situation seek counseling or quit their jobs before getting to the point of suicide.

    • Pixar was unique in Silicon Valley companies in that we had deadlines that could not move. The film had to be in theaters before Christmas, etc. I'd see employees families come to Pixar to have dinner with them. I took the technical director training but decided to stay in studio tools, first because Pixar needed better software more than they needed another TD, and second because of the crazy hours.
      • My deadlines can't move either, I work at a fabless silicon company. When we pay a foundry to tool up and manufacture our design, we have millions of dollars invested and have reserved a place in line and cannot miss those deadlines without scrapping that chip and moving to a future generation. When the chip returns, we have to test it and make sure it is correct before we make any last minute changes. So there is a 72 hour bring-up period, most of us work 18 hour shifts and the campus is open around the cl

        • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

          I don't think what you describe is unique to Pixar, and we have similar inflexibility in the semiconductor industry.

          It's not unique. It's because your company is run by managers who realize both the nature of the work (there are deadlines that are hard to move) and there will be periods where you're working extremely long hours. But they also realize the importance of family, so they invite your family to come over and join you during break periods so you don't get all bogged down in work.

          For some companies

          • For some companies, Pixar and many semiconductor ones, allowing unauthorized personnel even in "public" areas is quite a big deal (who knows what they may see or overhear). That they allow children and spouses to hang around is a really big deal - it shows the company cares about the well-being of its workers. Sure they're in a public area, bur even in a private cafeteria often sensitive things get discussed.

            Luckily we can hide the vast majority of stuff in the labs. And certain floors of buildings are off limits to outsiders as well. But cafeterias are places we can safely take interview candidates, family members, and other visitors. There is a visitor badging process and it's quite painless. Important areas are badged and tail gating is rarer now they have cracked down on it.

            The management here also acknowledges that there is a crunch time and a down time. When I'm working with the architects of the next chi

    • Some Bay Area tech companies are real meat grinders. I've definitely been so stressed out and overworked that it affected me emotionally. But that's a long way from suicide. I can't imagine what Uber could do to an employee that is different than some of the worst companies I've worked at. I suspect that some people are more sensitive to on the job pressure, or other psychological conditions may be at play here. And I would have hoped someone in that situation seek counseling or quit their jobs before getting to the point of suicide.

      You are approaching this from a rational viewpoint. Pretty much by definition, someone who commits suicide isn't doing the same (outside of people in constant untreatable pain and so on).

      • You are approaching this from a rational viewpoint. Pretty much by definition, someone who commits suicide isn't doing the same (outside of people in constant untreatable pain and so on).

        Sorry, I'm not trying to lay blame here. And my comment about "affected me emotionally" is an understatement because I don't like to discuss it, because during that time I was not very rational.
        It is very possible that he had clinical depression, and if there was some way to have gotten him to professional counseling this might have been caught and treated. In a perfect world, depression shouldn't be something you live with until you have so much anxiety that you pop, it should be something that gets treate

  • by bogaboga ( 793279 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @10:20AM (#54304785)

    He worked long hours. He told his father and his wife that he felt immense pressure and stress at work, and was scared he'd lose his job...

    Look , were all scared we'd lose our job. That's the nature of [most] work these days.

    What I have learned in the west is that people do not really "enjoy life." They live to work. Laws surrounding how family matters are handled do not necessarily favor the male. These could all have had a hand in this.

    I must say I am sorry for the family's loss. I also think we in the west need to take life easier a bit. It's not all about money. We should also understand that elsewhere in the world, there are folks who seem to be happier with much less than what we have here.

    I know this, for I am well travelled. To conclude, let's not start blaming the employer right away. There's definitely much more to this than this piece says.

    • Look , were all scared we'd lose our job. That's the nature of [most] work these days.

      No, it's the nature of most people's finances today.

  • Uber declined to comment on the legal dispute and said Thomas never complained to the company of extreme stress or racial discrimination.

    Why do I get the feeling that he complained about being "really stressed" but technically not "extreme stress"? Oh yeah, it's because Uber is a bunch of shysters that would gladly stab you in the back and sell your children into slavery if they knew they could get away with it.

    • Uber is a bunch of shysters that would gladly stab you in the back

      Sadly, it would be easier to list the employers you couldn't say that about than the ones you could.

  • by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @10:35AM (#54304893)

    For people reading this, my suggestion is to make an effort to simply be kind and/or friendly to people you work with or interact with. Maybe it will help someone who really needs it.

    If something is so bad that you can't be kind or friendly, find another job or make whatever other change you need to make.

    • by malkavian ( 9512 )

      In all the back and forth that goes on, with people taking sides, and building up walls, it's lovely to see someone go back to basics, and actually say something simple and constructive!

      Alas, mental illness being what it is, finding another job becomes impossible when you start suffering from some variants of it.. That's what led to the sad outcome.. But if there had been more of the friendly engagement, I suspect that it would never have gone as far as it did..

  • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @11:02AM (#54305113)

    Let's just pile on Uber and blame them for all kinds of things. They seem to be the designated whipping boy for all things bad in the tech industry now, so why not? I think that it is now fashionable to beat on Uber for all it's perceived sins. I'm not saying Uber is a great place, it obviously has earned some of this, but at this point, we are beyond what seems reasonable to me.

    Where I feel for this guy's widow, Uber is ultimately NOT responsible for his death, he is. I know this is hard to admit and as she goes though the stages of grief she is obviously hurting and lashing out at Uber as she goes though this process. I hope she can find peace with this issue eventually and see that her husband's death is only one person's fault. That person is not her or Uber, but hm. In the mean time, I'm very sorry she is going though this.

    For anybody out there thinking of following in this guy's footsteps. Consider this: The pain you leave behind for your loved ones is real and the question of "why" will forever cloud their lives in an unfair way. Please get help, tell somebody and work it out somehow, for them, killing yourself is not an answer, it doesn't make the problem go away.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jeff4747 ( 256583 )

      If you ever come across someone suffering from clinical depression in real life, shut the fuck up. You are utterly and completely unqualified to deal with it. In fact, you are particularly harmful.

      • And you are being helpful how?

        "Get help" is bad advice? I fail to see how that's a bad idea over suffering in silence or just killing oneself...

        I never claimed to be an expert in this subject, but I have been where this woman is, dealing with a family member's death at their own hands. I had a difficult time making peace with what happened too, but hey, I'm no expert and never claimed to be one.

        How about you? Are you an expert?

        • And you are being helpful how?

          Hopefully by getting people like you to stop "helping".

          "Get help" is bad advice? I fail to see how that's a bad idea over suffering in silence or just killing oneself.

          The thing you fail to understand is we don't need advice.

          People with depression are not sitting there going "I don't know what to do!!". We are depressed. We are aware of it. We know that there are various kinds of help available. Thus your "advice" is not at all helpful. In fact, yet another normal person saying "just go get fixed so I don't have to think about people like you" is not exactly helpful.

          Hence my advice to you to just shut up and let

        • by thoper ( 838719 )

          Well, I'm going to step in here and try to explain this,

          When you say that the only culprit is the person who killed himself, you are no only denying his victim status, you are actually proclaiming him the perpetrator of a moral wrong.

          People who kill themselves are the primary victims of whatever circumstance provoked their decision, and putting the blame in them and dismissively telling them to "get help" or that his circumstances are not "bad enough" to grant a suicide are really bad ways to approach the

    • by malkavian ( 9512 )

      I've run companies, managed people, and worked shop floor in my time. And there's one thing about management; they're hired to represent the company, and they're responsible for keeping track of the workers. This involves their health, physical and mental.
      As this was extreme comorbid anxiety and depression, this would have been impossible for a manager not to notice. Which brings about the question of whether the lack of action was due to incompetence (not noticed extreme distress in employee) or neglige

  • If he was so stressed out that he committed suicide, it means he wasn't a good match for the job. But he must have been quite a bit above average to even make it that far and he could easily have found a well-paying job elsewhere.

    It seems likely, given the nature of Uber, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco, that diversity goals may have played a role in his hire. We know from academic environments (where this is easier to study) that this kind of mismatch harms its intended beneficiaries [theatlantic.com]. Success at technica

    • It seems likely, given the nature of Uber, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco, that diversity goals may have played a role in his hire

      So you are saying, just from reading the article, that this guy was just an affirmative action token hire..?

  • by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @11:33AM (#54305379)

    Coming from the New York metro area, I know how insane cost of living is compared to other parts of the country. Generally, New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago and of course California cost way more to live in than just about anywhere else. Part of it is taxes, part of it is because that's where all the high-salary jobs tend to gravitate to, but the reality is that a $170K salary in San Francisco is barely above middle class. Rent in SF proper is more expensive than anywhere outside Midtown Manhattan, and houses start in the million dollar range and go up from there. California has great weather, but I would never live there for that reason. I already pay a lot for a house in a suburb about 60 miles from the city -- I love living here but there would be no way I could justify paying more than double what I'm already paying to buy a house.

    I think the fact that this person moved from Georgia to California without demanding a much higher salary is a huge contributor to his stress. Uber isn't exactly known as a warm and fuzzy employer either -- it sounds like a carbon copy of all the other frathouse startups from Bubbles 1.0 and 2.0. Anyone who's older and different in an environment like that is going to have a hard time fitting in. If you can't do 16-hour coding sessions while playing beer pong, you're an outsider, but will still be expected to perform the same way as everyone else. Older people who have worked a fair amount usually realize when they're being taken advantage of, but what if this guy just felt he couldn't leave? Having a potential lottery ticket in the form of stock options is a big reason lots of people stay in the crazy startup culture. With a family to support, and the feeling that he'd fail if he had to go back to Atlanta, no wonder he lost it.

    That's one of the reasons I'd never work at a startup -- there's zero work life balance, no stability and the "if we wanted you to have a family, we would have issued you one" culture. Seriously, I'm older and have seen how companies take advantage of employees -- I prefer to work hard enough to have an employer want to keep me, but not give my life over to them. That's for suckers!

    • I moved up to Portland OR from Los Angeles in 2015, and I agree with everything you wrote. Cost of living is much lower, I can afford a very nice home at a good price, and I have more time (and money) to do the things I want to do at the same income level as I had in California. I would never move back to California, even if they paid me double what I'm making now.
    • You make good points.
      I'm a senior software engineer in the Atlanta area and I make just over 100k, that's a joke by valley standards
      I have dreamed about going out to California and working with one of big tech rockstar companies (Apple, Google, Netflix, etc.), if they'd actually have me that is...

      but the truth is now that I'm past 40, they probably wouldn't have me... and even if they did, I wouldn't go.. I'm all in (taxes, interest, principle, insurance, HOA) on my mortgage for slightly over 1000 bucks,
  • by zifn4b ( 1040588 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @12:35PM (#54305919)

    I am one of those people that was considered a computer prodigy myself. A lot of us when we are younger we believe we can change the world. We believe the world values technology, science and advancing human civilization. And then we come into contact with the real world that really doesn't care about those things. It primarily cares only about profits and in a lot of cases doesn't even care about morals and ethics. What you find is that your one and only true natural talent doesn't have near the value in this "advanced" society as you thought it did and your entire sense of self identity rests upon that very idea.

    You have two choices when you arrive at this crossroads. You accept what you've come to understand reality to be or you don't. If you don't and you continue to try to reject reality and insert your own, it's quite possible you could end up where this unfortunate soul did. If you accept it, you realize that your skills and money and all that stuff are really a means to an end. And it really is a means to attain freedom so that you can do what you want, in whatever way you want and not have to compromise with this apathetic system we have.

    I think the saddest part of it all is this is another young, idealistic person who came into the workforce, torch burning bright full of life and passion and he was snuffed out. He was looked at as a resource. The thing that the corporate types full of apathy and devoid of compassion don't realize is that when you put that flame out, it's typically out for good. In the case of Joseph Thomas, it's really out for good and that's a terrible tragedy.

  • CA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by reanjr ( 588767 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @01:40PM (#54306605) Homepage

    As a white midwesterner working in CA, I can sympathize with the idea that CA tech companies have toxic cultural problems. I can only imagine what it's like to be a black dude.

    CA runs on passive aggresive behavior. It can be psychologically damaging to someone who grows up and has worked with real people their whole life.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday April 26, 2017 @03:14PM (#54307499) Homepage Journal

    It's an anti-social company that's a horrible place to work. Everybody knows that by now.

    What nobody can know for sure is why an individual takes his life, or what circumstances would have to be different.

    Take Google, which in several recent lists is the best company in America to work for. Google has just shy of 60,000 employees. Given the US suicide rate of 46/100,000, if Google were largely reflective of that you'd expect 28 suicides/year among Google employees. Of course (a) not all Google employees are Americans and (b) Google employees are economically better off than most people in their societies, so you'd expect there to be a lower rate of suicide. But it's safe to assume a dozen Google employees a year take their lives.

    And if you look at them as individuals, you'd inevitably suspect work stress was involved, and if you'd look you'd probably find it -- because it's a chicken-or-egg thing. Suicide is a catastrophic loss of coping ability; when you head that way you will find trouble everywhere you turn.

    When something like this happens to an individual, everyone feels the need to know why -- even strangers. But that's the one thing you can never know for certain. Now if suicide rates were high for Uber, then statistically you could determine to what degree you should be certain that Uber is a killing its employees with a bad work environment (or perhaps selecting at-risk employees).

    I think its inevitable and understandable that this man's family blames Uber. And it's very likely that this will be yet another PR debacle for the company. But the skeptic in me says we just can't know whether Uber has any responsibility for the result.

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