AMID LAYOFFS AND RESHUFFLING, ANXIOUS CITY TECH WORKERS SEEK SOLACE IN PINBALL
National cutbacks from tech giants such as Amazon, Google have put local industry on tilt
Beep. Clack. Boing.
Distractions are the natural enemies of flow state — that blissedout, locked-in mode revered by tech people as the space where the best work happens.
Yet tech folks love pinball. The cacophony is part of the charm because the challenge is to overcome it. Area pinball leagues are full of tech workers on teams with names such as “Tilty as Charged.”
“It’s really a game about control,” said Jane Verwys, a user experience designer in Chicago and, according to one rating system, the top-ranked woman pinball player in the world. “The better you are, the more control you have over the situation.”
That sense of control is in short supply among tech workers these days, as waves of layoffs sweep across the sector. Already in 2023, 102,000 tech workers have lost jobs at U.S.-based tech companies such as Microsoft and Alphabet (Google), according to Crunchbase. Last year, the total exceeded 140,000.
Chicago’s tech scene has, thus far, largely been spared. But in an industry that for most of this decade has known only rapid growth and big money, the cutbacks mark the sort of foreboding trend that gets your attention — and perhaps encourages retreat into comfortable spaces like the arcade.
Between turns at league venues like Logan Arcade and Emporium Wicker Park, the conversations sometimes turn serious.
“This is a scary time to be working in tech or trying to get a job in tech,” said Verwys’ teammate Mike Pantoliano, vice president of Seattle software company Ookla. A former top-200-ranked player nationally, Pantoliano moved to Chicago in the fall.
Pantoliano is a flow-state Jedi, someone who prides himself on his ability to concentrate. He’s also a bit unsettled regarding the threat of layoffs, which is the sort of thing that will get in your head and stay there even while you’re at league night playing Johnny Mnemonic and trying to unlock the “spinner millions” bonus that serious players know is the key to victory.
The goal remains flow state, but getting and staying there becomes more difficult, fragile and fleeting.
“There’s a switch that you flip when it’s your turn to step up, and a lot of times how I perform depends very much on how well I’m able to separate and focus on what’s at hand,” he said, describing his approach to pinball.
Tech companies face a similar dynamic during waves of cutbacks and layoffs, said Gale Wilkinson, founder and managing partner of Chicago-based venture capital firm Vitalize.
She expects to see a substantial reshuffling of tech employees both in Chicago and across the country, not only due to people who are laid off and rehired elsewhere but because remaining workers “have to kind of watch what’s happening on the board.”
“What happens after that depends on the worker’s personality. Some people will say, ‘I need to go from a risky position to something that is less risky,’” said Wilkinson.
In other cases, Big Tech workers will judge that “the stability that those firms offered historically is not there at this point in time,” she said, spurring them to take a highupside gamble such as creating their own startup.
That’s a jarring calculus for younger tech workers, in particular. Plenty of coders and UX designers turned to tech in the first place because of the financial security it promised.
Take Taylor Bancroft, for example. She lost her job at a brewery in Portland, Maine, early in the pandemic. She got into software development and moved to Austin, Texas, quickly landing a job at a startup, along with a part-time role as a tech lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
This was the sort of meteoric rise that enables you to call your own shots, so Bancroft brainstormed her ideal job and then actually landed it: She now works at Elk Grove Village-based pinball manufacturer Stern on the team that oversees the internet-connected features of the company’s new machines.
For a couple of years, it was full speed ahead. But now Bancroft and her friends find themselves speculating about who would be first to lose their jobs: senior employees with bigger salaries or newcomers like Bancroft.
“It’s not like there’s a wealth of people around me in Chicago that are getting laid off,” Bancroft said. “It’s just like this air of uncertainty. And it did feel like there was this powerful, upward momentum of my career that was happening really quickly — but now it’s like, man, nothing’s really stable ever.”
Verwys knows that firsthand. She spent most of last year out of work but recently started a new job as a digital product designer at Chicago-based bicycle components manufacturer SRAM. The manufacturer, she hopes, is insulated from the Big Tech layoffs.
“THIS IS A SCARY TIME TO BE WORKING IN TECH OR TRYING TO GET A JOB IN TECH.” MIKE PANTOLIANO, vice president of Seattle software company Ookla