From Belonging to Burnout, Five Years at Airbnb

05 Apr 2022

Airbnb brands itself as creating community and fostering belonging. Today, former Airbnb software engineer Sahil describes how “Airfam” ignores internal inequities among different workers and shuts down those who question its culture of overwork. Despite it all, Sahil and coworkers built a genuine community based on transparency and mutual respect.

A Mac monitor on a fancy but conventional desk reads Do More

Do More - the last thing you hear before quitting / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

By Sahil S.

Finding a Home

I’ve yearned to belong my entire life. Growing up, I was excluded from communities that I saw others accepted in: my family was fragmented, I was bullied away from Indian culture, and I struggled to perform masculinity. Despite having many relationships on paper, I erased myself to fit in. I never felt accepted.

I felt most like my authentic self when I was building things. Work, I had been told by both Indian and American society, was core to my existence, and my joy for computing turned out to be highly employable. If I was useful to my employer, I would earn the money, prestige, and purpose that certified my acceptance. I internalized that if I was useful, I could belong.

In 2016, two years into my career, I joined Airbnb. The company’s mission was, and still is, to “create a world where anyone can belong anywhere.” To achieve this mission, Airbnb championed the power of community, created by millions of hosts around the world “opening their homes.” Silicon Valley treated the founders as visionaries for pursuing such a humane - and lucrative - idea. Their vision seeped into the employee culture. Just as the founders considered each host a stakeholder belonging to the Airbnb community, the executives regarded each employee as a stakeholder belonging to the “Airfam,” empowered to make contributions and shape the culture. I initially gagged at the brand-colored Kool-Aid, but I couldn’t ignore the optimism of the office, its international decor and bright skylight inspiring us to forget limits and imagine only possibilities.

This attitude was especially true for engineers. Our performance ratings were based on, above all else, our ability to “own our impact” to the business. No problem was too big, no goal too ambitious, and we produced, produced, produced. The engineering community was dedicated to the craft and welcomed me. I found mentors and role models overjoyed to build tech that kept business booming and practices that kept the culture great. Being part of this community was more than just work - through small ways like social channels and happy hours, big ways like fine dining and offsites at wineries, and the biggest ways like friendships that shaped my mid-twenties in San Francisco. Here, I could thrive. If what I produced could be accepted by this community, then maybe it would accept me, too.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

One lofty manifestation of Airbnb’s ambitions was its tradition of launches, where we all sprinted towards a big press announcement. Three months into the job, I was put through my first launch. The BBC was planning to publish an article investigating our rising user account fraud rates. To preempt this article, our executives gathered my fiftyish person org into a “war room” and mandated a plan of action to “protect the Airbnb community.” I was eager to be of service. For days, we worked late until 2 or 3 AM, sometimes pulling all-nighters. We patched ancient holes, built new defenses, and polished the user experience. We delivered tons of new features, lowered fraud rates, and enabled a successful announcement to refute the BBC article. I had held my own in the trenches, and as we clinked glasses of vodka, I felt accepted, even proud.

After the launch, org leadership hosted a team all-hands to celebrate the work and answer any questions. A veteran data scientist asked: “We worked days in a row until 3 AM. Does the executive staff understand the pressure they put us under to announce something that could’ve been done under a more reasonable timeline?” Only then did the collective fatigue in that room hit me too. For every feature we had shipped, the ultimate rationale was that “the founders really want this.” That refrain had exhausted me, particularly when my director told me at midnight that my highest priority was to make a cursor stop blinking over a textfield. But one of Airbnb’s unofficial values was to “assume good intent,” and who was I to question the intent of the executives. In response to that data scientist, leadership stressed that “we’ve relayed that feedback, but this launch was crucial to the mission,” and encouraged us to take some time off to recharge. I was grateful to that data scientist for voicing our concerns.

Still, I wanted to do even more. As exhausted as I was, working through those nights had rewarded me with camaraderie and respect. To someone craving usefulness, and without caretaking responsibilities, it felt like a fair bargain. I volunteered to re-architect our most complex anti-fraud user experience system, manage the on-call rotation, participate in the org-wide site reliability rotation, conduct interviews, travel for college recruiting, facilitate presentations on allyship, and support employee resource groups. I volunteered for as many opportunities as I could because I felt exhilarated to earn my place in the community. Leaning into this spirit paid off - everything I produced for the company I got back in titles, money, and respect, and by those metrics, acceptance. I belonged.

Discovering Cracks in the Foundation

In December 2018, I decided to join what is now called, a social impact housing program for those displaced by crises such as natural disasters or conflict. Founded by designers, Airbnb exalted “product” roles - especially engineers, product managers, and designers. But as I built products for this program, I realized the importance of customer service, partnerships management, policy, community engagement, marketing, and many other roles. When the tech hit its limits, such as when needed to coordinate with governments and international aid agencies, or when an NGO partner couldn’t find housing for survivors on the website, it was these unsung roles that made (and Airbnb more broadly) successful.

However, Airbnb’s altruism did not align with its workplace policies, and I began to notice disparities in my coworkers’ experiences. At least one-fourth of the team were contractors, and Airbnb worked with around 500 contractors in total. In many cases, it seemed like contractors were doing the work of a full-time employee, but with fewer benefits, workplace privileges, and advancement opportunities. My contractor friends were frustrated with being kept in limbo - one week they would be told that they were going to be hired (“we can’t imagine not having your expertise full-time!”) and the next, be given a lukewarm non-answer (“we’ll have to see”). One weary colleague remarked “some of us are putting starting a family on hold until we know if we’re getting employed.” Airbnb claimed that belonging also meant having the psychological safety to “voice critical opinions,” but how could anyone feel safe to dissent with their livelihoods in such precarity?

Contractors made up a small proportion of Airbnb’s 7,000-plus workforce, but I saw the gaps in our experience mirrored everywhere. In sharing our salaries, I learned my non-product coworkers sometimes made 65% or lower than me, despite having deep expertise and doing work equally essential as mine, if not more so. On top of that, the non-product career ladder did not have clear expectations for advancement. “Airbnb fucked up my career growth,” I heard. I was floored to hear that the customer service wage started at only $18 an hour, and hadn’t changed for seven years. I realized employee resource group leadership, a second job for some, was uncompensated. These material conditions bled into work-life - while some of us took Ubers to work and shopped at Barney’s, others maxed out credit cards or could only afford to live in the East Bay. And, of course, I observed that BIPOC women experienced the compounding of these conditions. I couldn’t fathom the drain from microaggressions, code switching, and gatekeeping, which cut across the product orgs, too.

Leaders preached that each worker was responsible for our culture, and that had largely been true for me: I was given a career ladder, a salary, and opportunities that made me feel empowered. Yet through direct messages, one-on-ones, and whispered conversations, I saw evidence that the company instituted barriers to empowerment and rewarded each of us very differently for our contributions. I struggled to assume good intent from the company without some of the policies that might have proven that intent: a clearer non-product career ladder, compensation for all types of labor, and pay scale transparency. Belonging to this workplace, it seemed, was a story we all heard but not a reality we all experienced.

Slogging Through Crises

Just as we began conversations about improvements, the pandemic struck. The travel industry, our business, cratered. Virtual war rooms sprouted across the entire company to generate new revenue, cut costs, or handle the avalanche of customer service requests. Like prior launches, we pushed our service, our codebase, and ourselves to the brink. But as we burned to a crisp trying to save the company, the founders announced that they had no choice but to lay off all 500ish contractors and around 1,900 employees. The CEO cried on a broadcast that we needed to say goodbye to some of our Airfam and called on us to support each other through this difficult time. “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers played at the end of the broadcast. I was shocked, and then, with the rest of the Airbnb community, I grieved.

In an era of heartless pandemic layoffs, the public story of Airbnb’s layoffs was one of community love through hard times, proven by generous severance packages and job hunting resources for laid off colleagues. I did not believe this story. This was Airbnb. It was a “unicorn.” I was sure that refraining from lavish lunches, canceling ski offsites, and raising $1 billion from emergency venture capital investments was enough to keep Airbnb afloat, so I grew skeptical that executives had considered everything in the budget when trying to save jobs. I was making well over six figures and volunteered to take a pay cut, but was denied by Human Resources, and I saw sympathy but no action from the multi- and deca-millionaires in leadership roles. Having experienced burnout from launches and having seen the inequities in my coworkers’ experiences, I realized that the company had always seen the Airfam as a line item to minimize, even through its most bullish days. What evidence was there that Airbnb - and its biggest profiteers - would suddenly prioritize us when its revenue was threatened? After the company IPO’d in December 2020 at a valuation of $47 billion, the devastation of these layoffs was referred to as “financial discipline.”

Shortly after the layoffs, the company accelerated again to multiple launches per year. Losing one out of four colleagues left many teams understaffed. The most repeated advice was to “talk to your manager if your workload was too much,” but even the most supportive managers could not push back against the top-down demands “to do more with less.” After every launch, my friends across the company and I would gather to share our frustrations. Our specific concerns varied depending on our role, but across the company, we were demoralized by opaque career advancement policies, bias towards short-term results, and unsustainable workloads. Yet in every forum, the highest levels of leadership drummed “we hear you, but this is just the Airbnb way,” as if we were not stakeholders in the Airbnb way, as if having any concerns was incompatible with belonging to the Airfam. With enough complaints, we would get superficial concessions such as time off, a little headcount, or a leaner roadmap, before being hurled into the next launch. The cycle continued as travel picked up, the stock price popped, and the media praised Airbnb for its innovation and humanitarianism, as everything blared “we’re achieving the mission.”

The hollow reminder to “take care of yourself” distributed all accountability away from those with decision-making power and onto each of us. But I still internalized it. Half a decade of hearing that I was empowered to shape the culture had burrowed into my psyche. As burnt out as I was, I worked even more, clinging to this promise of acceptance, hoping that I could somehow work myself into being enough. Trying to meet relentless expectations, I erased myself. I lost all joy and confidence in my skills as an engineer. I abandoned my hobbies. I declined invites from friends. I neglected partners. I responded to Slack messages during a launch instead of texts from my sister during Hurricane Irma. I produced, produced, and produced, earning more promotions and praise, hyperventilating through anxiety attacks in the minutes between back-to-back Zoom meetings. I ignored the somatic response in my body, until, at the lowest points of my life, I considered ending it. To survive, I made the heartbreaking decision to leave Airbnb.

Walking Out But Not Away

I could have left Airbnb before things got so bad. But despite all that I observed and experienced, I truly loved my job. I got tremendous career opportunities, was privileged to build wealth, and felt accepted by a passionate, brilliant, and supportive community. This community of workers, those who cared for my well-being just as much as my work, kept me sustained. Every time I second-guessed my experience, someone was there asking a brave question or reaching out to me in an honest conversation, assuring me that I wasn’t alone. Those conversations in turn helped me empathize with my coworkers and pull others out of isolation. Only because of this collective was I able to endure as long as I did.

There is truth in our collective experience. For us to contribute our best work while sustaining ourselves, that truth must be reflected in our working conditions. Our belonging depends on it. If the Airbnb way is to ignore this truth while extracting all it can from us, then not only is it antithetical to the Airbnb mission, but it is also fundamentally unjust. As stakeholders, we deserve accountability and systemic change instead of platitudes and concessions, and only by engaging with each other in mutual honesty and respect can we chart how to get there. Perhaps then, we will have a workplace community to which we truly belong.

My deep thanks to Tamara, Yindi, Danny, and the rest of the TWC Newsletter crew. Thanks also to dear friends that helped me process and articulate my experiences, and sustained me throughout these years.