Beep. Clack. Boing.
Distractions are the natural enemies of flow state — that blissed-out, 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,” says Jane Verwys, a user experience designer in Chicago and, according to one ratings 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. An air of uncertainty has crept into the conversation lately on pinball league nights, between the chimes and flashing lights of the games.
Jobs that seemed solid and stable have instead begun disappearing en masse. 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.
“People don’t want to bring their work troubles into the play space, the distraction space of pinball,” says Verwys, who plays on the 10-person team Extra Ballsy and also organizes women’s-only pinball events with her friend Anna Neal, a software developer. Half the team works in tech.
Still, it’s hard to block out the noise. Some players blast static through their earpods when it’s their turn to play, but 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’s teammate Mike Pantoliano, vice president of Seattle software company Ookla. A former top-200 ranked player nationally, Pantoliano moved to Chicago in the fall and quickly joined the pinball league.
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 — a pinball game with a far better reputation than its namesake Keanu Reeves movie — 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 says, 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 said some managers scale back their expectations for employee innovation because they expect that fearful workers will take fewer creative chances.
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 high upside gamble such as creating their own startup.
That’s a jarring calculus for younger tech workers, in particular, because the industry has largely known only fast growth and big money since helping lead the economy out of the Great Recession more than a decade ago. 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 and decided to pursue a gig that offered more stability. 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 years there, it was full speed ahead. But now Bancroft and her pinball-and-tech 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 says. “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.
She pursued multiple tech jobs that ultimately were unposted, rather than filled. “You start to think, like, ‘Are they just trying to tell me ’No, thanks,’ without saying so,” recalled Verwys, who recently started a new job as a digital product designer at Chicago-based bicycle components manufacturer SRAM. The shifter and brake manufacturer, she hopes, is insulated from the Big Tech layoffs.
Amid her protracted search, Verwys even contemplated hard choices such as backing off on her commitment to a game she loves — and dominates. Every month, Verwys spends $50 or so on quarters to drop at pinball hotspots, plus a couple hundred more to rent a pinball machine, and then tournament travel and entrance fees. It adds up. (Verwys’ friend Neal owns five machines and says whenever she hears talk of a potential recession, her first thought is about whether she’ll have to sell off part of her collection.)
Verwys, however, ultimately decided “pinball is such a big part of my life, I think I would really regret it if I just slammed on the brakes.”
So she and her friends play on, pinballing between the exhilaration of their creative and professional pursuits, and the anxiety of an uncertain future.
Steve Hendershot is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Correction: The pinball players are on a team called Extra Ballsy.