Silicon ‘nopes’: Utah tech workers discuss lack of flexibility, culture problems

Workers who responded to The Tribune’s survey disputed the idea that the Salt Lake market is the ‘hottest’ in the country.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dave Sunderland, a director of client services for a local Utah tech company, poses for a portrait on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Sunderland says he loves his job and is optimistic about the tech industry despite widespread views to the contrary.

Salt Lake City was the “hottest” job market in the nation last year, according to a new Wall Street Journal analysis, which highlighted Utah’s “tech hub” for the region’s job success.

The geographic discrepancy aside — the Journal’s analysis includes Silicon Slopes, based mostly in Utah County, as part of Salt Lake City — some Utah tech workers aren’t feeling the heat.

Recent data suggest the tech job market is relatively stagnant — growing or shrinking by fractions of a percent. And respondents to a Salt Lake Tribune survey largely reported feeling disillusioned by the industry and unsure of its future.

Twenty-eight tech workers responded to the Salt Lake Tribune’s survey. It’s a small fraction of the state’s tech workforce of more than 100,000 people. But their responses largely dispute the optimism often ascribed to Utah’s tech scene, celebrated at such conferences as Silicon Slopes Summit and Domopalooza.

Competition for jobs, not wages

Cass Swallow is among the majority of survey respondents who found tech work outside the state after losing his job in Silicon Slopes last year. The job market he was forced into felt unrecognizable from the one he joined as a young software developer a decade ago, when he said he was offered a job practically on-site at a tech networking event. Now, he said, it can take up to a year to land a new tech job.

Swallow took a job as an app developer for a small company in another state last summer. He said he does not expect much growth potential at his new company, but in exchange he has gotten more flexibility and work-life balance. He can take his kids to school, he said, or take care of an ailing parent — both of which he said he has had to do in the last year. But such flexibility has always been the promise of tech work.

“The trade-off is worth it, but I didn’t expect going into a tech career that I’d have to make that sacrifice” to trade career growth for work-life balance, he said.

Big tech companies, such as Pluralsight, have been offered tax incentives from the state for recruiting more employees to Utah. The incentives are “post-performance,” Jim Grover, director of grants and incentives for the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, told The Tribune last July, after Pluralsight laid off more of its workforce. The incentives only kick in, he said, if a company can prove growth on their tax returns.

But after a few years of rapid growth, some big tech companies are now tightening their belts. Pluralsight moved many of its jobs to India and has implemented at least seven rounds of layoffs in the last two years. Its cuts were company-wide — Pluralsight has employees around the world — and Utah employees were among them.

One survey participant, who did not wish to be interviewed, said they are in their fifth job in four years. Two of those jobs have been based in Utah. “It’s tough right now,” they wrote. “Due to how turbulent it’s been, it’s very difficult not to wonder if the work I’m putting in will be worth anything.”

Tech companies nationwide are facing “economic headwinds,” industry analysts say. The wave of layoffs was not exclusive to Utah companies, and the industry is competitive anywhere you go.

Ryan Welling said he was able to find a new job with a 50% salary increase just two years ago — the job market was “hot,” and knew he could get “whatever job” he wanted.

Now, he sees jobs on LinkedIn with hundreds of applicants, all fighting to stay in the industry.

“The number of jobs has dried up,” he said.

It’s not a Utah-specific problem, but Utah’s market has some unique challenges, survey respondents said. Some Utah employees have given up on Silicon Slopes altogether.

“I feel like so many places in the tech world failed their people, especially here in Utah,” said Wendy, a program manager in healthcare software who asked to be identified by her first name to avoid jeopardizing her highly coveted new job.

Wendy recently took a job out of state after 10 months of unemployment and more than 250 applications. It was a “brutal uphill battle,” she said. Most companies didn’t offer an interview; one offered a job, but for $40,000 less than her previous salary.

“The industry is so saturated, companies started taking advantage of applicants,” she said. “One job I was applying for had 2,600 applicants. I’d apply for a job, get a denial — not even an interview — and then they would repost that job not even a week later.”

For Cal Christensen, the decision to take a job outside of Utah came down to two factors: Flexibility and pay.

Christensen survived two rounds of layoffs at a Salt Lake City-based tech startup before meeting the chopping block at the end of 2022. He had more success in the job hunt, interviewing with several companies and even getting a verbal offer. But the Utah companies he interviewed with all wanted him in an office — a gripe Wendy also noticed.

The bigger problem, Christensen said, was salary. Utah’s tech wages have not kept pace with the rest of the industry, Christensen and several other survey respondents said, despite the industry’s wages being higher than state’s median wages.

“The money’s better, without a doubt,” Christensen said of out-of-state tech jobs. He estimated the offers he got from non-Utah companies were as much as 45% higher. In one case, Christensen said he got two offers for the same role — one in Utah, one in North Carolina. The Utah company offered him $65,000. North Carolina offered more than $100,000.

Utah tech still a ‘boys club’

Christensen also has a theory about why his applications went further than those of some colleagues: Christensen is in his early 30s. Young enough, he said, to be taken seriously.

His older colleagues “aren’t even getting looked at,” he said.

Other survey respondents agreed. Three said they felt Utah’s tech workforce discriminated against its older members, instead favoring young, less expensive talent.

Several survey respondents said it was the culture of Silicon Slopes that drove them away or soured their job satisfaction. Twelve responses — nearly half — mentioned cultural biases, like racism and sexism, in their assessment of Utah’s workforce.

“The Utah tech industry is a concentration of Utah County companies dominated by a ‘BYU Bro’ culture,” one wrote, adding that they “say that as an active, practicing Latter-Day Saint.”

“While I lived in Salt Lake County and have many colleagues working in Utah tech companies, I have only worked in one Utah County tech company and have avoided them since, opting to work for Silicon Valley and Seattle tech companies that are eager to hire a remote workforce and don’t have all the Utah weirdness baggage.”

Two respondents, including Welling, likened Utah’s tech industry to a multi-level marketing “scam.” Expanding on his answer in an interview with The Tribune, Welling said Utah’s tech culture also feels explicitly Mormon and “bro-y.”

Welling has avoided Utah companies his entire career, instead working for out-of-state companies with Utah offices.

“I would rather some good old-fashioned corporate greed ... than having to deal with anyone in Utah,” he said.

One respondent said they have “never experienced such homophobia, racism or ableism” as they did in their Utah tech job.

Another wrote that as “an attractive white woman, I am underestimated the moment I walk in the door. … I frequently get ‘dumb blonde’ comments from people who barely know me. … If you aren’t a white LDS male, good luck!”

Wendy told The Tribune she was explicitly called a “token female hire” at a company in Lehi.

“And I was treated like the token woman,” she said. “It was a boys club.”

Opportunity still abounds

Survey respondents were not uniformly disappointed in Utah’s tech industry. There is still plenty of opportunity to be gleaned, some said, if you know where to look.

“I am proud to be part of the Utah tech industry,” wrote Dave Sunderland, a client services director at a Utah fintech company. “I know that just getting by has become increasingly difficult for many Utahns with the high rate of inflation, but I feel like tech, while not perfect, offers a higher standard than most other sectors.”

In a follow-up interview with The Tribune, Sunderland said he can understand his fellow tech workers’ frustrations. His own company cut staff last year. Fear of more layoffs looms large over tech workers’ heads.

But Sunderland said rather than succumb to that fear, he and his colleagues have focused on how to grow in their current roles and within their current companies. There are fewer tech jobs now than there were three years ago, but there is also less turnover, Sunderland said.

And the perks of working in tech — flexible schedules, good benefits, higher pay compared to the state’s median wages — outweigh the risks for Sunderland.

“In general, for people who want to raise a family and have a somewhat flexible schedule, tech is a pretty good industry,” he said.

Other respondents said they have faith in the ubiquity of tech — it powers our world, two people wrote, and therefore always will be relevant.

“There are just so many different jobs in tech, both in and out of the ‘tech’ industry,” one wrote. “I feel confident I’ll always be able to find something.”

Another wrote, “if you are experienced and have an in-demand skill set, there is still ample opportunity to land a well paying role.”

Sunderland offered this advice to Utah tech workers who may be struggling: Expand your skillset. It’s easier to learn and grow in a job you already have, he said, and more skills equal more value.

“If you can get into a field you like at least moderately, there are usually paths [forward],” he said. “Companies are interested in creating road maps for internal mobility.”

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.