An insight on how to fix technology’s Damaso Effect

I’m going to start this analysis by focusing on a negative pattern of behavior that seems unrelated to technology’s Damaso Effect.

The Misogyny Loop

I know someone (I’ll call him “Stan”) who’s about 30 and has never been in a relationship that lasted longer than about six months. He’s not unattractive and, while his opinions on many topics are wrong, he’s intelligent and well-employed. He’s even cordial. It’s pretty easy to see what’s wrong with the guy: he’s openly misogynistic. He believes that women are petty, irrational, capricious, emotionally dysregulated and have poor values, and it doesn’t take much to get him to share that opinion.

On one hand, he’s completely wrong. I don’t mean that it’s morally abhorrent (although it is) so much as that it’s just incorrect. Virtually everything Stan believes (or, at least, says he believes) about women and men and the relative value of each is total horseshit. You can’t take it seriously; it will just make you angry. Unfortunately, men who think this way are not uncommon, either in the technology industry or the world at large. Some learn canned social skills to trick shallow, confused women into going to bed with them and call themselves “pickup artists”. Others call themselves “incels” (involuntarily celibate) and stew about their predicament on the Internet. They’re awful to listen to, repetitive in their whining, and generally bad at seeing the real problem. “Hookup culture” is revolting, but pinning it on the women alone is misguided. The general pattern, for these men, is that they take traits of the worst people and project them on to “women”. I wouldn’t be surprised if female misandrists didn’t do the same to “men”. It’s a gender-neutral fact that the sexually and socially “loudest” people are often the worst ones, but they’re also a small fraction of the population. If you let them bias you, you’ll reach bad conclusions.

Stan, when he generalizes to “women”, sounds like an idiot. (If women are irrational and emotional, then why are most crimes committed by men?) Yet, I will give him this: his judgment is correct, over most of the women he’s dated. I’ve met a few of them, and they generally treat him poorly. He dates stupid, shallow, capricious, and damaged women, and this generates negative experiences that reinforce his blighted worldview. Comparing his small group of male friends to an adversely selected set of women, he concludes that men are better people and that women are unfair, capricious, and slutty creatures to be used only for sex. His negative views of woman keep him from meeting normal women (they don’t want anything to do with a guy who thinks women are innately inferior, and who can blame them?) and forming healthy relationships, and thus he falls into a Misogyny Loop. Because his attitudes toward women are abhorrent, he meets and dates damaged women who confirm his biases, and becomes even more entrenched in this negative view of the female sex.

Technology and the Business

I’ve written about the Damaso Effect. Programmers have a tribal dislike for “The Business”, for HR, and for the managers and executives (“pointy-haired bosses”) who pay us. As with Stan’s misogyny, these feelings didn’t emerge out of nothing. The sampling may be adverse and biased (and I’ll get to that) but the experiences are real. For most of us, the businesspeople who manage us are incompetent fuckups. Stack ranking, a textbook example of bad HR that is despised by competent business leaders, is still quite common in technology companies, and that’s because our biggest companies actually are run by a bunch of fucking idiots.

From Harvard Business School, the good students go on to start hedge funds or work on billion-dollar private equity deals, the middling ones get partner-track slots at McKinsey or end up directly report to CEOs of large corporations, and the leftovers get passed to California and boss nerds around. The best of our tribe (software engineers and lifelong technologists) answer to the worst of theirs. It sucks. It’s hard to ignore the tribal hatred that comes out of the humiliation inherent in a skilled programmer being told, by a fresh-out-of-college management consultant, that he has to attach future code-change commits to “user stories”. But let’s try to put any hatred and history aside, and step back. By any definition of the concept of a “business person”, there are competent, smart, ethical ones out there. I’ve met quite a few of them. They exist. They just… don’t come anywhere near our industry. Can you blame them?

Could we be like Stan? Is it possible that our blanket negative view of “business people” makes our industry unattractive to all but the hangers-on in their tribe? I think so. I think that it’s likely.

The screwy art of making exceptions

There’s something I should mention about Stan. Because he’s socially inept and (in his own mind) a tad bit desperate, he fabricates relationships that exist only in his head. His bitterness toward women in general leads him to erroneously up-regulate a woman’s signals. Thinking that women are horrible creatures who are predisposed to despise him, he tends to overreact to basic decency (real and superficial) in them. So he will mistake politeness for niceness, niceness for friendship, and friendship for sexual attraction. Also, his extreme negativity makes him a terrible judge of character. If a woman is basically decent to him, he puts her on a pedestal. She becomes one of those ultra-rare “good ones”, untouched by “feminism” and “frat boys” and the filth of the world. After this happens, she can treat him like dirt and he’ll make excuses for her. He’ll see the light (on her, but not in general) eventually, but his worldview becomes even more depraved as he learns the wrong lesson, that even his “perfect woman” turned out to be awful.

Similar to Stan’s misogyny, software engineers also harbor a generalized dislike for “business people”, whom we tend to view as stupid, emotional, childish, petty, and short-sighted. And about the business people who run our industry, we’re not wrong. We’re just failing to see the whole set of them. (See a pattern, here?) This bitterness doesn’t make us keen observers or tough judges of character. It makes us fucking marks. A naive engineer, whose model of a slimy businessman is a 40-year-old Harvard graduate in a suit, is underprepared when the 25-year-old Stanford “bro”, in jeans and sandals, cuts him out of the startup he built.

In relationships and business, deeply bitter people are often clingy. Whether it’s “women” or “business”, there is some Other that they despise but also depend on, and they tend to caricature it in the most vicious way. Anyone sending signals that negate this stereotype can break through the “bitter shield”, win undeserved trust, and eventually have license to treat a person badly while that person makes excuses for the awful behavior. In dating, the Stans of the world fall for “quirky” girls who’ve put on glasses to send “I’m not a slut” signals without improving their moral character. In business, the bitter engineers fall head-over-heels for talentless young things who read enough Hacker News to know that professing fandom for Postgres and OCaml will make them seem technical and smart (even while they continue to force their engineers to use PHP and work 18-hour days). In all of this confusion, we get cloudy but stable result where most of the clueless young engineers, even if they despise “managers” and “executives” in the abstract, like their supervisors. This is analogous to the common American attitude toward elected officials, and why there is so much incumbency that bad politicians are almost never voted out. Most Americans dislike “politicians” who make backhanded deals “in Washington”, but they love their politicians. “George Starr fixed the pothole on my street!” Well, yeah, that’s what he’s fucking supposed to do (maybe not directly, but you get the idea). These people fail to recognize that their own charismatic local favorites, more often than not, are part of what’s wrong with “politicians”. They also tend, because they’ve put a specific person (the “alpha male” to whom they’ve clung for protection) on a pedestal, to react with undue emotion (a sense of “betrayal”) when the relationship goes sour.

Good and bad tribalism

The truth about us, as software engineers, is that we get our tribalism completely-the-fuck wrong. We can be immensely tribal about stupid shit. If a person doesn’t have an active Github profile, we “flip the switch” (bozo bit) and assume that he’s an idiot, even if he has a completely different job. People who don’t “look like” programmers (and there shouldn’t fucking be a “look”, because technology is too fucking important to push talent out for stupid reasons) face an uphill battle at getting basic respect. We’re quite superficial, and I’ve been guilty of this in the past, too, such as by overvaluing technical preferences as an index of value or intelligence (e.g. “he’s a Java developer, he must be an idiot.”) Our superficiality, however, makes us really easy to confuse and hack.

We tend to think of “non-technical people”, in the business world, as idiots. It doesn’t help fight this stereotype that many of them are idiots, especially in technology, due to the Damaso Effect (which, as I’ve indicated, might be partly our fault).

Before going further, let me give a working definition of idiot for the business world: an idiot is either (a) a person doing an important job poorly, or (b) one doing an unimportant (or counterproductive) job aggressively enough to cause problems. There are many causes for idiocy, and while the cerebral narcissists among us tend to jump to a lack of innate intelligence, that’s actually one of the less common ones. Other issues are (and these will overlap) willful ignorance, lack of care, poor interpersonal skills, dislike of one’s job, and many external ones such as inept (or malevolent) supervision, bad strategic leadership, or environmental incoherency. Over 90% of non-technical people (and probably, to be honest, more than 70% of programmers) are idiots at work and a lack of innate intelligence isn’t the problem. We err when we assume that it is. Our adversaries (who are not always idiots themselves, but who spread and encourage idiocy for their own benefit) can, usually, flash enough cognitive muscle to break our stereotype of “the business idiot” and get us to take them seriously– to our detriment.

For all our superficial tribalism, software engineers are shockingly quick to sell their colleagues out to management, and to do exactly what their bosses want. Let’s use stack ranking as an example. When a company puts forced ranking in place, every savvy manager will hire an “insurance incompetent” or two, and put them on inconsequential work. It’s not a good thing for the company or the world, but it’s a way to put the team at ease because their jobs aren’t at risk; when the stack-rank gods demand human sacrifice, the insurance incompetents go while everyone capable stays employed. This allows members of the core team to focus on their jobs rather than politics. Typical software engineers are too clueless to realize the value in this and, further yet, will vehemently oppose it. “I can’t believe I’m working at the same company as a guy who mixes tabs and spaces!” (“I can’t believe someone else’s money is being used to hire an incompetent and protect my job!”) Many engineers (without political benefit in doing so) turn on their own weak, and will sell out their entire teams if given time in the executive sun. This is because they’re easy to confuse by invoking superficial tribal color. “Don’t worry, Tom’s not an asshole manager. He plays video games and used to code, ten years ago. He’s one of us.” Because engineers are a low-status tribe in the business world, it only takes a few flashes of tribal empathy, from The Business, to compromise the weakest of us. Instead of falling for this nonsense, we need to stop judging people based on tribal identity and start judging them based on what they actually do.

Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive, but managers don’t really suffer from engineers’ tribal dislike of them. We still need people with at least some of these skills. The tribalism makes engineers easy to manipulate. Here’s one place where the two cases (of Stan’s misogyny, and engineers’ dislike of business people) depart. Misogyny actually hurts women. Our dislike of “slimy suit-wearing businessmen” just makes us easier to hack by slimy businessmen who don’t wear suits– because they’re 23-year-old Stanford grads. Businesspeople don’t give a shit whether we like or hate or love or despise “businesspeople”; they just care about making money off of us. And while we should be gladly helping the best of them make money (so long as they don’t harm in the world in doing so, and they share the wealth with us) we should not be allowing them to drive us into subordination.

The right kind of tribalism

The current software tribalism is mean-spirited, exclusionary, and privileged, but it’s also ineffective at getting us what we actually want. For an analogue, peruse Quinn Norton’s notion of white privilege as, in reality, a ruse that convinces disaffected whites to oppose their own economic interests; because, at least, they have it better than the blacks. We’ve created a culture of subordinate and pointless privilege. In software, we now have a world in which well-educated, white men never have to grow up, and this suits the venture capitalists and “founders” because, so long as we aren’t required to turn into adults, we won’t expect to be paid or treated like adults.

I’ve written at length about the value of having a professional guild or collective bargaining. Respectfully negotiating on our behalf, toward our genuine shared interests, will get us a lot further than tribal shit flinging. Rather than having this unfocused dislike toward a large set of people whose skills we barely understand, we should figure out how, with focus and respect, to reach equality. We need them and they need us.

It’s going to be hard to reach common ground with the business elites. There’s much in the business world that is archaic, anti-meritocratic, classist, anti-feminist, irrational, mean-spirited, status-driven, imperialistic, and just plain broken. A world in which “pedigree” and connections matter so much more than substance, drive, and talent is a hard one to respect, and that’s what the business mainstream, at the highest levels, is. (It’s less that way amid the small, local businesses that tech companies, more often than not, blow away.) But what world are we creating, and have we created? The noxious miasma in VC-funded Silicon Valley is not superior to the corporate mainstream “establishment”; it is the establishment. So maybe it’s time to just forget about “worlds” and start talking to individuals as we figure out how to do things better. We had our chance to build a better world, in Northern California, back when housing was cheap and the air was fresh and the word “traffic” referred to telecommunications rather than automotive congestion, and we fucking blew it. Maybe those people in Washington and New York (“the paper belt”) were worth listening to, after all. Maybe people who’ve spent as much time amid bureaucracy and human politics and finance have a thing or few they can teach us.

There are certain tribal values among us, as technologists, that are worth preserving. What makes us unusual is that our discipline is progressive in nature. Code, well written, can be used forever. While most of the world is mired in zero-sum power struggles and territorial squabbling, we get a chance to add, even if in a small way, to the sum of human knowledge. That’s pretty damn cool, and the best things about us as a culture, I believe, derive from the progressive and collaborative nature of what we do. At least on paper, we create new wealth. We solve new problems, and the nature of code is that a solution once devised can be used anywhere.

Unfortunately, there are facts that break against us: our leadership is absolutely excremental, as Valleywag gleefully (and very competently) shows the world on a regular basis. “We” (meaning the executives injected into companies where we do most of the actual fucking work) destroyed San Francisco, and now the world is bracing for our “disruption”, just hoping that a 2000-style dot-bomb crash will prevent us “techies” (meaning the slimy proto-executives whom many of us blindly follow) from ruining everything. We have to fix “ourselves”, and fast. We have to organize so we can choose better leaders. Instead of having puppet leaders shoved into our top ranks from the refuse of the business world, we have to prove to ourselves (and to them) that we can do better when we select leaders who respect the best of our values, while diverting us away from our worst tendencies. They don’t have to be full-time coders. They probably won’t be. They have to be technologists in ethics; being so in craft is important, but secondary.

Right now, as a tribe, we’re far from self-sufficient. Indeed, in the 21st century, self-sufficiency doesn’t really exist. That ship sailed (or, more accurately, that container carrier motored away) a long time ago, and the global economy is far too interconnected. There’s a lot of knowledge that we, as a tribe of a couple million people with elite technical skills, just don’t have. We should be meeting with union organizers in order to learn the diverse forms of collective bargaining, and in order to find an arrangement that prevents the negatives (wage normalization, tyranny of seniority, mediocrity) associated with unions from setting in. We should be venturing deeper into “the business world” to find better (and, most likely, more experienced and older) leadership. There’s a whole slew of successes and failures that the rest of the business and governmental world has seen over the past few centuries, and throwing that knowledge out because we think we’re above “paper belt” politics (and we’re obviously not) does no good to anyone. We’ve got to do two things. First, we have to end our own tribal bigotry and reach out. We must vehemently oppose assaults (external and internal) on our values; but, at the same time, welcome other kinds of people. It’s not just our game, and they know how to do things (such as lead and build organizations) that we haven’t learned to do for ourselves. Second, we need to develop the ability to manage our own affairs. We have to step up, from the inside, and lead. If we don’t, then we’ll continue to answer to the mainstream business culture’s fail-outs, and stack ranking will never go away.

The core of the problem

It’s going to be hard to fix our affairs. To illustrate this, let’s take note of Stan and his dating woes. The transactional, superficial view of dating is that people match up based on attractiveness, whether superficial and physical or total and holistic: 10’s pair up with 10’s, 3’s pair up with 3’s, and so on, and it’s rare that a person gets to go into a higher “league”. Some people find this reductive and offensive, but there’s no question that the early stages of dating often are that way. Of course, as the Stans of the world will endlessly complain, there are skewing factors. Age is one, because men tend to prefer younger women and women prefer older men. Thus, 25-year-old men will readily date 20-year-old women, but the reverse is uncommon. Among college students, a male “7” is unlikely to find a female “7” in his age group, because the women have more options and some are “taken off the market” by older men. He’ll have to settle for a “4” or “5” if he wants relational market equality. Among 40-year-olds, it’s the reverse; average-looking men, in that pool, become highly desirable. Most men who fall into the Misogyny Loop do so in high school or college, when they get shafted by age-skew and there really is a shortage of available decent women (relative to the number of decent men) in the same-age dating pool. It’s not that available decent women (at any age) don’t exist. There are a lot of them, but (among 20-year-olds) they are popped off the market faster than men.

I don’t care to analyze dating, because I’m a 31-year-old married man who believes (and hopes) he is done with that nonsense, for life. It should be obvious that I intend to apply this to business. Business has “marriage/matching problems” and skew issues as people with separate skill sets try to size each other up and find parity. What should the equity split be, say, between two Technology 7’s and a Business 8? How should decisions be reached, and salaries be computed?

Let’s talk about new business formation (startups). The only reason why software engineers are decently well-paid, compared to the rest of the U.S. increasingly-former middle class, is that (at least, in theory) we have an alternative: to do a startup. A good software engineer typically makes $140,000 per year in San Francisco, $110,000 in Chicago, $90,000 in London, and $60,000 in Paris or Madrid. Why? It’s not just cost of living: London’s more expensive than San Francisco, and Paris isn’t cheap either. It’s about competing alternatives. The Googles have to compete with the Facebooks and the Facebooks have to compete with companies that don’t exist yet; and, for all the Valley’s flaws, it’s still the easiest place in the world to raise venture capital. To start a business that is interesting in the technology space, two things (the “2 C’s”) matter: Code or Contacts. If someone’s not packing one or the other (or, very rarely, both) then you can’t afford to make that person a founder.

You’ll soon need accountants, attorneys, HR experts, economists, and sales managers. I don’t mean to denigrate those skills. They just don’t need to be baked in to a new company’s formation. They’ll typically be employees, not founders. You can start with a service like TriNet and “bootstrap” up to a full-fledged HR department, just as you can start with Amazon Web Services (“the cloud”) and build your own data centers later. Early on, however, you absolutely need Code and, even more desperately, you need Contacts. These two assets almost never occur in the same person (they both take years of full-time effort to build, except for the very wealthy are born into Contacts) so they’re often described as separate roles: the technology co-founder(s) and business co-founder(s). In order to have a healthy company without warring tribes, you need equality between the partners. So, at what point are they socially equal, in terms of leverage?

Of course, there’s a hell of a lot of skew. Is a Tech 8, like me, going to pair up with a Biz 8? Not a chance. The market value of a Tech 8 isn’t that much higher than that of a Tech 5. A Tech 5’s salary will be between $90,000 and $150,000 per year; the Tech 8 is at $120,000 to $200,000, depending on location. A Biz 8 can get a $500,000-per-year job out of a 5-minute phone call. They, to put it simply, have more options. Tech 10s have to stay in tech for their skills to be treated as meaningful. (I’d argue that a legit Technology 10 could kill it, with proper training, in business or law or medicine… but I won’t get into that here.) Business 10s can go anywhere in the global economy. There are two fundamental commodities in an economy: Past (property, reputation, connections, wealth) and Future (motivation, creativity, talent, grit) and the exchange rate between the two has always favored Past.

Even in the contemporary technology “startup” world, it matters more to have Contacts than Code. A Tech 8 can write a scalable, back-end recommendation engine in Haskell. She’s incredibly valuable. You can bet a company on her. On the other hand, a Biz 6 can get a TED invite and a Biz 8 can get into Davos. Even a Biz 7 can deliver Sequoia or Y Combinator in an afternoon with half an idea scribbled on a napkin, and can get a total pile of crap “acqui-hired” for $5 million per head by Google. The Biz 8 and Tech 8 “deserve” to be equal in social standing, but they’re not. The skew is enormous. It sucks and it’s frustrating, but it’s something we have to deal with.

If I (a Tech 8 without special connections) went to New York or San Francisco today and looked for a “business co-founder”, I’d have to sift through hundreds of Biz 3-5 who “just need a programmer”, offering 5% equity in companies around their lame ideas, not shared ideas that might emerge and be better than either of us would come up with individually. It’s a dreadful market. The exchange rate between Code and Contacts is morally unacceptable. Contacts is winning so handily that it’s creating tribal hatred and bad startups. It’s driving us, as programmers, toward defensive rejection. We loathe our (objectively unfair) low status relative to the business mainstream, and our loss of the world (Silicon Valley) we created. We should loathe it. We should be disgusted (even though a large part of it is our fault). Unfortunately, many of us overreact. Instead of hating arrogant individuals who lord their unreasonable, unjustified high status over us, we let it evolve into a generalized hatred of “business people” or “suits” or “MBAs”. I’ve been as guilty of this, in the past, as anyone, but we’ve got to fucking stop.

So why is it like this? Why is there so much skew? Part of it is that, sadly, society just has more options for Contacts than for Code. Jeff Dean (a Tech 10) would likely be an obscure programmer without Google. The proving ground of a large corporation that allowed him to hone and show his exceptional engineering ability; without his work at Google, we wouldn’t know that he’s a Tech 10. On the other hand, Biz 10’s aren’t anywhere near tech companies; they’re managers of billion-dollar hedge funds who turn away almost all investment offered to them. Hell, it’s rare that you find a Biz 6 willing to be a “business co-founder”. A Silicon Valley founder is a middling product manager, and the true executives are the investors, and savvy people spot the pattern quickly and head for the investor ranks if they’re going to be part of that game. Biz 5-6 are routinely offered entry-level (associate) positions at prestigious venture capital firms, and Biz 7-8 get partner-level jobs, offered on the spot. Yes, it’s unfair as hell. So, what are we going to do about it?

I’m coming to an answer that isn’t the forceful kind of solution that I tend to like. Slinging mud is a hell of a lot of fun. I won’t deny that. And there’s a world of deserving targets out there. However, is hating “The Business” getting us anywhere? Or might we do better to swallow our pride, and to replace unfocused tribal dislike with focused and deliberate organization around our own interests? I think the answers are obvious, here.

If we don’t want for the bulk of us to answer to Biz 3’s for the rest of our lives, then we need to start attracting the Biz 7-9’s who have other options. We have to convince them that what we can build is genuinely important (which means we need to stop it with the played-out social media nonsense). They don’t need us, but we (probably) need them. Their skills, we can learn and grow internally, and we’ll have to do some of that. Their contacts, at least for now, have to be drawn in from outside, since we (as engineers) are a deeply middle-class group. It’s going to be hard to do this. It’s going to be especially hard to convince them to form partnerships at the level of equality that we deserve. I don’t have all of the answers, certainly not yet. I do think that we’d have better odds if we took stock of, and reformed, our attitudes toward business people and what they do. This will also force us to acquire a sense of nuance that will enable us to push the actually scummy business leaders (who are, right now, most of them) out of our industry. It can’t hurt.

Cheap votes: political degradation in government, business, and venture capital.

I’ve written a lot about how people in the mainstream business culture externalize costs in order to improve their personal careers and reputations, and the natural disconnect this creates between them and technologists, who want to get rich by creating new value, and not by finding increasingly clever ways to slough costs to other people. What I haven’t written as much about is how these private-sector social climbers, who present themselves as entrepreneurs but have more in common with Soviet bureaucrats, managed to gain their power. How exactly do these characters establish themselves as leaders? The core concept one needs to understand is one that appears consistently in politics, economics, online gaming, and social relationships: cheap votes.

Why is vote-selling illegal?

First, a question: should it be illegal to buy and sell votes? Some might find it unreasonable that this transaction is illegal; others might be surprised to know that it wasn’t always against the law, even if it seems like the sort of thing that should be. Society generally allows the transfer of one kind of power into another, so why should individual electoral power be considered sacred? On theory alone, it’s hard to make the case that it should be. 

I’ll attempt to answer that. The first thing that must be noted is that vote-buying matters. It increases the statistical power of the bought votes, to the detriment of the rest of the electorate. On paper, one vote is one vote. However, the variance contribution (or proportion of effect) of a voting bloc grows with the square of its size. In that way, the power of a 100-person, perfectly correlated (i.e. no defections) voting bloc is 10,000 times that of an individual. 

Let’s give a concrete example. Let’s say that the payoff of a gamble is based on 101 coins, 100 white and one black. The payoff is based on the heads flipped, with each white coin worth $1 and the black coin worth $100. The total range of payoffs is $0 to $200, and the black coin will, obviously, contribute $100 of that. So does the black coin have “half of” the influence over the payoff? Not quite; it has more. The white coins, as a group, will almost always contribute between $30 and $70– and between $40 and $60, 95 percent of the time. It’s a bell curve. What this means is that whether a round will have a good payoff depends, in practice, almost entirely on the black coin. If it’s heads, you’ll almost never see less than $130. If it’s tails, you’ll rarely see more than $70. The white coins matter, but not nearly as much, because many of the heads and tails cancel each other out. 

Both the white and black coins have the same mean contribution to the payoff: $50. However, the variance of the single black coin is much higher: 2500 (or a standard deviation of $50). The white coins, all together, have a variance of 25, or a standard deviation of $5. Since variance is (under many types of conditions) the best measure of relative influence, one could argue that the black coin has 100 times the mathematical influence of all the white coins added together, and 10,000 times the influence of an individual white coin. 

These simplifications break down in some cases, especially around winner-take-all elections. For example, if two factions are inflexibly opposed (because the people in them benefit or suffer personally, or think they do, based on the result of the election) and each has 45% of the vote, then the people in the remaining 10% (“spoilers”) have significantly more power, especially if something can bring them to congeal into a bloc of their own. That is a commonly-cited case in which individual, generally indifferent “swing” voters gain power. Does this contradict my claim about the disproportionate power of voting blocs? Not really. In this scenario, they have disproportionate decisive effect, but their power is over a binary decision that was already set up by the movement of the other 90%. 

Moreover, it’s improbable that the people in that 10 percent would form a bloc of their own. What prevents this? Indifference. Apathy. They often don’t really care either way about the matter being voted on. They’d probably sell their votes for a hundred dollars each. 

In quite a large number of matters, specific details are too boring for most people to care, even if those issues are extremely important. They’d much rather defer to the experts, throw their power to someone else, and get back to their arguments about colors of bikesheds. Their votes are cheap and, if its legal, people will gain power or wealth by bundling those cheap votes together and selling the blocs.

So why is vote-selling illegal? It causes democracy to degenerate (enough that, as we’ll see, many organizations eschew democracy altogether). The voters who have the most interest in the outcome, and the most knowledge, will be more inclined to vote as individuals. Though they will correlate and may fall into loose clusters (e.g., “conservatives”, “liberals”) this will tend to be emergent rather by intent. On the other hand, the blunt power of an inflexible voting bloc will be attained by… the bought votes, the cheapest votes, the “fuck it, whoever pays me” set. The voting process ceases to reflect the general will (in Rousseau’s sense of the concept) of the people, as power is transferred to those who can package and sell cheap votes– and those who buy them. 

Real-life examples

Official buying and selling of votes is illegal, but indirect forms of it are both legal and not uncommon. For example, over ninety percent of voters in a typical election will give their vote, automatically, to the candidate of one of two major political parties. These candidates are usually chosen, at this point in history, through legitimate electoral means: the party’s primary. But what about the stages before that, as incumbents in other offices issue endorsements and campaign checks are cut?

Effectively, the purpose of these parties is to assume that cheap-vote congealment (and bloc formation) has already happened, tell the populace that it’s down between two remaining candidates, and make the voters feel they have a choice between two people who are often quite very similar in economic (in the U.S., right-of-center) and social (moderately authoritarian) policies while differing on superficial cultural grounds (related to religion in a way that is regional and does generalize uniformly across the whole country). The political parties, in a way, are the most legitimate cheap-vote aggregators. They know that most Americans care more about the bike-shed difference between Democratic corporate crooks and Republican corporate crooks– the spectator-sport conflict between Springfield and Shelbyville– than the nuances of political debate and the merits of the issues.

The vote-buying process is more brazen in the media. While expensive and thorough campaigns can’t turn an unlikeable person into a winner, they can have a large effect in “swing states” or close matches. There are some people who’ll be swayed by the often juvenile political commercials that pop up in the month before an election, and those are some of the cheapest voters. The electioneer need not even buy their vote directly; it has already been sold to the television station or radio show (a highly powerful cheap vote aggregator) to whom they’ve lent their agency. 

This is one of the reasons I don’t find low voter turnout to be distressing or even undesirable, at least not on first principles. If low voter turnout is an artifact of disenfranchisement, then it’s bad. If poorer people can’t get to the polls because their bosses won’t let them have the time off work (and Election Day ought to be a day off from work, but that’s another debate) then that’s quite wrong. On the other hand, if uninformed people don’t show up, that’s fine. I don’t get involved in civic activities unless I know what and who I’m voting for; otherwise, I’d be, at best, adding statistical noise and, at worse, unwittingly giving power to the cheap vote sellers and buyers who’ve put their preferred brand into my head. 

All this said, cheap-vote dynamics aren’t limited to politics. In fact, they’re much more common in economics. Just look at advertising. People vote with their dollars on what products should be made and what businesses should continue. A market, just like an election, is a preference aggregator. The problem? No one knows all of the contenders, or could possibly know. As opposed to a handful of political candidates, there might be twenty or two hundred vendors of a product. Quite a great number of them will buy not based on product quality or personal affinity but on reputation (brand) alone. Advertising has a minimal effect on the most knowledgeable (Gladwell’s “Mavens”) but it’s extremely powerful at bringing in the cheapest votes, the on-the-fence people who’ll go with what seems like the least risky choice. 

Venture capital

Maybe it’s predictable that I would relate this to technology, but it’s so applicable here that I can’t leave the obvious facts of the issue unexplored. 

Selection of organizational leadership almost always has a cheap-vote issue, because elections with large numbers of indistinguishable alternatives are where cheap votes have the most power. (A yes/no decision that affects everyone is where cheap votes will have the least power.) Most people see the contests as wholly external, because all the credible candidates are (from the individual’s point of view) just “not me”. Or, more accurately, if no one they know is in contention, they’re not going to be invested in the matter of which bozo gets the tallest stilts. As organizations get large, the effect of this apathy becomes dominant. 

Therefore, it’s rare in any case that selection of people will be uncorrupted by cheap vote dynamics, no matter how democratic the election or aggregation process may be. While some people are great leaders and others are terrible, it’s nearly impossible to reliably determine who will be which kind until after they have led (and, sometimes, it’s not clear for some time afterward). If asked to choose leaders among 20 candidates in a group of 10,000, you’ll see nuisance (by “nuisance”, I mean, uncorrelated to policy) variables like physical attractiveness, charisma, and even order of presentation (making the person who designs the ballots a potential cheap-vote vendor) take a disproportionate effect. This is an issue in the public sector, but a much more egregious one in the private sector, given the complete lack of transparency into the “leadership” class, in addition to the managerial power relationships and the general lack of concern about organizational corruption. 

Corporations (for better or worse, and I’d argue, for the worse) eliminate this effect by simply depriving employees of the ability to choose leaders at all: supervisors and middle managers and executives are chosen from the top down, based on loyalty to those above, and the workers are assumed to be voting for the pre-selected by continuing to work there. The corporation cheapens the worker’s vote, in effect, by reducing its value to zero. “You were going to sell your vote anyway, so let’s just say that the election happened this way.” Unless they can organize, the workers are complicit in the cheapening of their votes if they continue to work for such companies and, sadly, quite a large number do. 

There are people, of course, who are energetic and creative and naturally anti-authoritarian. Such people dislike an environment where their votes have already been cheapened, bought for a pittance, and sold to the one-party system that calls itself corporate management. The argument often made about them is that they should “just do a startup”, as if the one-party system of Silicon Valley’s venture capital elite would be preferable to the one-party system of a company’s management. By and large, it’s not an improvement.

In fact, the Silicon Valley system is worse in quite a large number of ways. A corporation can fire someone, but generally won’t continue to damage that person’s reputation, for fear of a lawsuit, negative publicity, and plummeting internal morale. This means that a person who rejects, or is rejected by, one company’s one-party system can, at the least, transition over to another company that might have a better one party in charge. There is, although not to the degree that there should be, some competition among corporate managers, and that generally keeps most of them from being truly awful. On the other hand, venture capitalists, with their culture of note-sharing, collusion, and market manipulation (one which if it were applied to publicly-traded stocks instead of unregulated private equities, would result in stiff prison sentences for all of them; alas, lawmakers don’t much care what happens to the careers of middle-class 22-year-old programmers) frequently do damage the careers of those who oppose the interests of the group. Most of the VC-era “innovations” in corporate structure and culture– stack-ranking, the intentional encouragement of a machismo-driven and exclusionary culture, fast firing, horrendous health benefits because “we’re a startup”– have been for the worse. The Valley hasn’t “disrupted” the corporate establishment. It’s reinvented it in a much more onerous way. 

So how do the bastards in charge get away with this? The Silicon Valley elite are, mostly, the discards of Wall Street. They weren’t successful in their original home (the corporate mainstream) and they aren’t nearly as smart as the nerds they manage, so what gives them their power? Who gives up the power that they win? Once again, it’s a cheap vote dynamic in place. 

Venture capitalists are intermediaries between passive capital seeking above-normal returns and top technical talent. There’s a lot of passive capital out there coming from people who want to participate, financially, in new technology development. Likewise, there are a lot of smart people with great ideas but no personal ownership of the resources to implement them. The passive capitalists recognize that they don’t have the ability to judge top talent from pretenders (and neither do the narcissistic careerists on Sand Hill Road to whom they trust to their assets, but that’s another discussion) and so they sell their votes. Venture capitalists are the ones who buy those votes and package them into statistically powerful blocs. Once this is done, the decision of a single venture capitalist (bolstered by others in his industry who’ll follow his lead) determines which contender in a new industry will get the most press coverage, the most expensive programming talent, and sufficient evidence of “virality” to justify the next round of funding. 

As programmers, we (sadly) can’t do much to prevent pension funds and municipalities from erroneously trusting these Bay Area investor celebrities who couldn’t tell talent from their own asshole. I’ve said enough, to this point, about that side, and the cheap-vote buying that happens between passive capitalists and the high priests who are supposed to know better. In theory, the poor returns delivered by those agents ought to result in their eventual downfall. After all, shouldn’t people lose faith in the Sand Hill Road elite after more than a decade of mediocre returns? This seems not to be happening, largely because of the long feedback cycle and high variance intrinsic to the venture capital game. Market dynamics work in a more regularized setting, but when there is that much noise and delay in the system, capable direct judgment of talent (before the results come in) is the only reliable way to get decent performance. Unfortunately, the only people with that capability are us, programmers, and we’re near the bottom of the social hierarchy. Isn’t that odd?

So let’s talk about what we can do. Preventing the flow of capital from passive investors into careerist narcissists at VC firms who fund their underqualified friends is probably not within our power at the present time. It’s nearly impossible to prevent someone with a completely different set of interests from cheapening his or her vote. Do so aggressively, and the person is likely to vote poorly (that is, against the common interest and often his own) just to spite the regulator attempting to prevent it, just as a teenage girl might date low-quality men to offend her parents. So let’s talk about our votes.

VC-funded companies (invariably calling themselves “startups”) don’t pay very well, and the equity disbursements typically range from the trivial down to the outright insulting. Yet young engineers flock to them, underestimating the social distance that a subordinate, engineer-level role will give them from the VC king-makers. They work at these companies because they think they’ll be getting personal introductions from the CEO to investors, and join that circuit as equals; in reality, that rarely happens unless contractually specified. They strengthen the feudal reputation economy that the VCs have created by giving their own power away based on brand (e.g., TechCrunch coverage, name-brand investors). 

When young people work for these VC darlings under such rotten terms, they’re devaluing their votes. When they show unreasonable (and historically refuted) trust in corporate management by refusing to organize their labor, they are (likewise) devaluing not only their political pull, but the credibility and leverage of their profession. That’s something we, as a group, can change. We probably can’t fix the way startups are financed in the next year; maybe, if we play our local politics right and enhance our own status and credibility, we’ll have that power in ten. We can start to clean up our own backyards, and we should. 

Sadly, talent does need access to capital, more than capital needs talent. The pressing needs of the day have given capital, for over a century, that basic supremacy over labor: “you need to eat, I can wait.” But does talent need access to a specific pool of capital controlled by narcissists living in a few hundred square miles of California office park? No, it doesn’t. We need money, but we don’t need them. On the other hand, if the passive investors who provide the capital that fuels their careers even begin to pay the littlest bit of attention, the VCs will need us. After all, it’s the immense productive capacity of what we do (not what VCs do) that gives venture capital the “sexiness” that excuses its decade-plus of mediocrity. Their ability to coast, and to fund suboptimal founders, rests on the fact that no one is paying attention to whether they do their jobs well, the assumption being that we (technologists) will stay on their manor, passively keeping our heads down and saying, “politics is someone else’s job; I just want to solve hard problems.” As long as we live on the VCs’ terrain, there is no way for passive investors to get to us except through Sand Hill Road. But there is no reason for that to continue. We have the power to spot, and to vote against, bad companies (and terrible products, and demoralizing corporate cultures) as and before they form. And we ought to be using it. As I’ve said before, we as software engineers and technologists have to break out of our comfort zones and (dare I say it?) get political.

How the Other Half Works: an Adventure in the Low Status of Software Engineers

Bill (not his real name, and I’ve fuzzed some details to protect his identity) is a software engineer on the East Coast, who, at the time (between 2011 and 2014) of this story, had recently turned 30 and wanted to see if he could enter a higher weight class on the job market. In order to best assess this, he applied to two different levels of position at roughly equivalent companies: same size, same level of prestige, same U.S. city on the West Coast. To one company, he applied as a Senior Software Engineer. To the other, he applied for VP of Data Science.

Bill had been a Wall Street quant and had “Vice President” in his title, noting that VP is a mid-level and often not managerial position in an investment bank. His current title was Staff Software Engineer, which was roughly Director-equivalent. He’d taught a couple of courses and mentored a few interns, but he’d never been an official manager. So he came to me for advice on how to appear more “managerial” for the VP-level application.

The Experiment

His first question was what it would take to get “managerial experience” in his next job. I was at a loss, when it comes to direct experience, so my first thought was, “Fake it till you make it”. Looking at his résumé, the “experiment” formed in my mind. Could I make Bill, a strong but not exceptional data-scientist-slash-software-engineer, over into a manager? The first bit of good news was that we didn’t have to change much. Bill’s Vice President title (from the bank) could be kept as-is, and changing Staff Software Engineer to Director didn’t feel dishonest, because it was a lateral tweak. If anything, that’s a demotion because engineering ladders are so much harder to climb, in dual-track technology companies, than management ladders.

Everything in Bill’s “management résumé” was close enough to true that few would consider it unethical. We upgraded his social status and management-culture credibility– as one must, and is expected to, do in that world– but not his technical credentials. We turned technical leadership into “real”, power-to-fire leadership, but that was the only material change. We spent hours making sure we weren’t really lying, as neither Bill nor I was keen on damaging Bill’s career to carry out this experiment, and because the integrity of the experiment required it.

In fact, we kept the management résumé quite technical. Bill’s experience was mostly as implementor, and we wanted to stay truthful about that. I’ll get to the results of the experiment later on, but there were two positive side effects of his self-rebranding, as a “manager who implemented”. The first is that, because he didn’t have to get his hands dirty as a manager, he got a lot of praise for doing things that would just have been doing his job if he were a managed person. Second, and related to the first but far more powerful, is that he no longer had to excuse himself for menial projects or periods of low technical activity. As opposed to, “I was put on a crappy project”, which projects low status, his story evolved into “No one else could do it, so I had to get my hands dirty”, which is a high-status, managerial excuse for spending 6 months on an otherwise career-killing project. Instead of having to explain why he didn’t manage to get top-quality project allocation, as one would ask an engineer, he was able to give a truthful account of what he did but, because he didn’t have to do this gritty work, it made him look like a hero rather than a zero.

What was that project? It’s actually relevant to this story. Bill was maintaining a piece of old legacy code that took 40,000 lines to perform what is essentially a logistic regression. The reason for this custom module to exist, as opposed to using modern statistical software instead, was that a variety of requirements had come in from the business over the years, and while almost none of these custom tweaks were mathematically relevant, they all had to be included in the source code, and the program was on the brink of collapsing under the weight of its own complexity. These projects are career death for engineers, because one doesn’t learn transferrable skills by doing them, and because maintenance slogs don’t have a well-defined end or “point of victory”. For Bill’s technical résumé, we had to make this crappy maintenance project seem like real machine learning. (Do we call it a “single-layer neural network”? Do we call the nonsensical requirements “cutting-edge feature engineering”?) For his management résumé, the truth sufficed: “oversaw maintenance of a business-critical legacy module”.

In fact, one could argue that Bill’s management résumé, while less truthful on-paper, was more honest and ethical. Yes, we inflated his social status and gave him managerial titles. However, we didn’t have to inflate his technical accomplishments, or list technologies that he’d barely touched under his “Skills” section, to make a case for him. After a certain age, selling yourself as an engineer tends to require (excluding those in top-notch R&D departments or open-allocation shops) that you (a) only work on the fun stuff, rather than the career-killing dreck, and play the political games that requires, (b) mislead future employers about the quality of your work experience, or (c) spend a large portion of your time on side projects, which usually turns into a combination of (a) and (b).

Was this experiment ethical? I would say that it was. When people ask me if they should fudge their career histories or résumés, I always say this: it’s OK to fix prior social status because one’s present state (abilities, talents) is fully consistent with the altered past. It’s like formally changing a house’s address from 13 to 11 before selling it to a superstitious buyer: the fact being erased is that it was once called “13”, one that will never matter for any purpose or cause material harm to anyone. On the other hand, lying about skills is ethically wrong (it’s job fraud, because another person is deceived into making decisions that are inconsistent with the actual present state, and that are possibly harmful in that context) and detrimental, in the long term, to the person doing it. While I think it’s usually a bad idea to do so, I don’t really have a moral problem with people fudging dates or improving titles on their résumés, insofar as they’re lying about prior social status (a deception as old as humanity itself) rather than hard currencies like skills and abilities.

Now, let’s talk about how the experiment turned out.

Interview A: as Software Engineer

Bill faced five hour-long technical interviews. Three went well. One was so-so, because it focused on implementation details of the JVM, and Bill’s experience was almost entirely in C++, with a bit of hobbyist OCaml. The last interview sounds pretty hellish. It was with the VP of Data Science, Bill’s prospective boss, who showed up 20 minutes late and presented him with one of those interview questions where there’s “one right answer” that took months, if not years, of in-house trial and error to discover. It was one of those “I’m going to prove that I’m smarter than you” interviews.

In the post-mortem, I told Bill not to sweat that last interview. Often, companies will present a candidate with an unsolved or hard-to-solve problem and don’t expect a full solution in an hour. I was wrong on that count.

I know people at Company A, so I was able to get a sense of how things went down. Bill’s feedback was: 3 positive, 1 neutral, and 1 negative, exactly as might have been expected from his own account. Most damning were the VP’s comments: “good for another role, but not on my team“. Apparently the VP was incensed that he had to spend 39 and a half minutes talking to someone without a PhD and, because Bill didn’t have the advanced degree, the only way that that VP would have considered him good enough to join would be if he could reverse-engineer the firm’s “secret sauce” in 40 minutes, which I don’t think anyone could.

Let’s recap this. Bill passed three of his five interviews with flying colors. One of the interviewers, a few months later, tried to recruit Bill to his own startup. The fourth interview was so-so, because he wasn’t a Java expert, but came out neutral. The fifth, he failed because he didn’t know the in-house Golden Algorithm that took years of work to discover. When I asked that VP/Data Science directly why he didn’t hire Bill (and he did not know that I knew Bill, nor about this experiment) the response I got was “We need people who can hit the ground running.” Apparently, there’s only a “talent shortage” when startup people are trying to scam the government into changing immigration policy. The undertone of this is that “we don’t invest in people”.

Or, for a point that I’ll come back to, software engineers lack the social status necessary to make others invest in them.

Interview B: as Data Science manager.

A couple weeks later, Bill interviewed at a roughly equivalent company for the VP-level position, reporting directly to the CTO.

Worth noting is that we did nothing to make Bill more technically impressive than for Company A. If anything, we made his technical story more honest, by modestly inflating his social status while telling a “straight shooter” story for his technical experience. We didn’t have to cover up periods of low technical activity; that he was a manager, alone, sufficed to explain those away.

Bill faced four interviews, and while the questions were behavioral and would be “hard” for many technical people, he found them rather easy to answer with composure. I gave him the Golden Answer, which is to revert to “There’s always a trade-off between wanting to do the work yourself, and knowing when to delegate.” It presents one as having managerial social status (the ability to delegate) but also a diligent interest in, and respect for, the work. It can be adapted to pretty much any “behavioral” interview question.

As a 6-foot-1, white male of better-than-average looks, Bill looked like an executive and the work we did appears to have paid off. In each of those interviews, it only took 10 minutes before Bill was the interviewer. By presenting himself as a manager, and looking the part, he just had an easier playing field than a lifelong engineer would ever get. Instead of being a programmer auditioning to sling code, he was already “part of the club” (management) and just engaging in a two-way discussion, as equals, on whether he was going to join that particular section of the club.

Bill passed. Unlike for a typical engineering position, there were no reference checks. The CEO said, “We know you’re a good guy, and we want to move fast on you”. As opposed tot he 7-day exploding offers typically served to engineers, Bill had 2 months in which to make his decision. He got a fourth week of vacation without even having to ask for it, and genuine equity (about 75% of a year’s salary vesting each year).

I sat in when Bill called to ask about relocation and, honestly, this is where I expected the deal to fall apart. Relocation is where so many offers fall to pieces. It’s a true test of whether a company actually sees someone as a key player, or is just trying to plug a hole with a warm body. The CEO began by saying, “Before getting into details, we are a startup…”

This was a company with over 100 employees, so not really a startup, but I’m going to set that aside for now. I was bracing for the “oh, shit” moment, because “we’re a startup” is usually a precursor to very bad news.

“… so we’ll cover the moving costs and two months of temporary housing, and a $10,000 airfare budget to see any family out East, but we can’t do loss-on-sale for the house, and we can’t cover realtor fees.”

Bill was getting an apology because the CEO couldn’t afford a full executive relocation workup. (“We’re just not there yet.”) For a software engineer, “relocation” is usually some shitty $3,000 lump-sum package, because “software engineer”, to executives, means “22-year-old clueless male with few possessions, and with free storage of the parental category”. On the other hand, if you’re a manager, you might be seen as a real human being with actual concerns about relocating to another part of the country.

It was really interesting, as I listened in, to see how different things are once you’re “in the club”. The CEO talked to Bill as an equal, not as a paternalistic, bullshitting, “this is good for your career” authority figure. There was a tone of equality that a software engineer would never get from the CEO of a 100-person tech company.

Analysis

Bill has a superhuman memory and took a lot of notes after each interview, so there was plenty to analyze about this sociological experiment. It taught me a lot. At Company A, Bill was applying for a Senior Engineer position and his perceived “fit” seemed to start at 90. (Only 90, for his lack of PhD and Stanford pedigree.) But everything he didn’t know was points off. No experience with Spring and Struts? Minus 5. Not familiar with the firm’s Golden Algorithm? Not a real “data scientist”; minus 8. No Hadoop experience? Minus 6. Bill was judged on what he didn’t know– on how much work it would take to get him up to speed and have him serving as a reliable corporate subordinate.

Company B showed a different experience entirely. Bill started at 70, but everything he knew was a bonus. He could speak intelligently about logistic regression and maximum likelihood methods? Plus 5. He’s actually implemented them? Plus 6. He knows about OCaml? Plus 5. Everything he knew counted in his favor. I’d argue that he probably scored these “points” for irrelevant “interesting person” details, like his travel.

When a programmer gets to a certain age, she knows a lot of stuff. But there’s a ton of stuff she doesn’t know, as well, because no one can know even a fraction of everything that’s going on in this industry. It’s far better, unless you’re applying for a junior position, to start at 70 and get credit for everything you do know, than to start at 90 (or even 100) and get debited for the things you don’t know.

This whole issue is about more than what one knows and doesn’t know about technology. As programmers, we’re used to picking up new skills. It’s something we’re good at (even if penny-shaving businessmen hate the idea of training us). This is all about social status, and why status is so fucking important when one is playing the work game– far more important than being loyal or competent or dedicated.

Low and high status aren’t about being liked or disliked. Some people are liked but have low status, and some people are disliked but retain high status. In general, it’s more useful and important to have high status at work than to be well-liked. It’s obviously best to have both, but well-liked low-status people get crap projects and never advance. Disliked high-status people, at worst, get severance. As Machiavelli said, “it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” People’s likes and dislikes change with the seasons, but a high-status person is more unlikely to have others act against his interests.

Moreover, if you have low social status, people will eventually find reasons to dislike you unless you continually sacrifice yourself in order to be liked, and even that strategy runs out of time. At high social status, they’ll find reasons to like you. At low status, your flaws are given prime focus and your assets, while acknowledged, dismissed as unimportant or countered with “yes, buts” which turn any positive trait into a negative. (“Yes, he’s good in Clojure, but he’s might be one of those dynamic-typing cowboy coders!” “Yes, he’s good in Haskell, but that means he’s one of those static-typing hard-asses.” “Yes, he’s a good programmer, but he doesn’t seem like a team player.”) When you have low status, your best strategy is to be invisible and unremarkable, because even good distinctions will hurt you. You want to keep your slate ultra-clean and wait for mean-reversion to drift you into middling status, at which point being well-liked can assist you and, over some time– and it happens glacially– bring you upper-middle or high status.

When you have high status, it’s the reverse. Instead of fighting to keep your slate blank, it’s actually to your benefit to have things (good things) written about you on it. People will exaggerate your good traits and ignore the bad ones (unless they are egregious or dangerous). You start at 70 and people start looking for ways to give you the other 30 points.

The Passion of the Programmer

I’ve always felt that programmers had an undeserved low social status, and the experiment above supports that claim. Obviously, these are anecdotes rather than data, but I think that we can start to give a technical definition to the low social status of “software engineers”.

Whether programmers are over- or underpaid usually gets into debates about economics and market conditions and, because those variables fluctuate and can’t be measured precisely enough, the “are programmers (under|over)-paid?” debate usually ends up coming down to subjective feelings rather than anything technical. Using this technical notion of status– whether a person’s flaws or positive traits are given focus– we have the tools to assess the social status of programmers without comparing their salaries and work conditions to what we feel they “deserve”. If you are in a position where people emphasize your flaws and overlook your achievements, you have low social status (even if you make $200,000 per year, which only means efforts to cut your job will come faster). If the opposite is true, you have high social status.

Using this lens, the case for the low social status of the programmer could not be any clearer. We’ll never agree on a “platonically correct” “fair value” for an engineer’s salary. What can see is that technologists’ achievements are usually under-reported by the businesses in which they work, while their mistakes are highlighted. I’ve worked in a company where the first thing said to me about a person was the production outage he caused 4 years ago, when he was an intern. (Why is nothing said about the manager who let an intern cause an outage? Because that manager was a high status person.) A big part of the problem is that programmers are constantly trying to one-up each other (see: feigned surprise) and prove their superior knowledge, drive, and intelligence. From the outside (that is, from the vantage point of the business operators we work for) these pissing contests make all sides look stupid and deficient. By lowering each others’ status so reliably, and when little to nothing is at stake, programmers lower their status as a group.

There was a time, perhaps 20 years gone by now, when the Valley was different. Engineers ran the show. Technologists helped each other. Programmers worked in R&D environments with high levels of autonomy and encouragement. To paraphrase from one R&D shop’s internal slogan, bad ideas were good and good ideas were great. Silicon Valley was an underdog, a sideshow, an Ellis Island for misfits and led by “sheepdogs” intent on keeping mainstream MBA culture (which would destroy the creative capacity of that industry, for good) away. That period ended. San Francisco joined the “paper belt” (to use Balaji Srinivasan’s term) cities of Boston, New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Venture capital became Hollywood for Ugly People. The Valley became a victim of its own success. Bay Area landlords made it big. Fail-outs from MBA-culture strongholds like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs found a less competitive arena in which they could boss nerds around with impunity; if you weren’t good enough to make MD at the bank, you went West to become a VC-funded Founder. The one group of people that didn’t win out in this new Valley order were software engineers. Housing costs went up far faster than their salaries, and they were gradually moved from being partners in innovation to being implementors’ of well-connected MBA-culture fail-outs’ shitty ideas. That’s where we are now.

So what happened? Was it inevitable that the Valley’s new wealth would attract malefactors, or could this have been prevented? I actually think that it could have been stopped, knowing what we know now. Would it be possible to replicate the Valley’s success in another geographical area (or, perhaps, in a fully distributed technical subculture) without losing our status and autonomy once the money spotted it and came in? I think so, but it’ll take another article to explain both the theoretical reasons why we can hold advantage, and the practical strategies for keeping the game fair, and on our terms. That’s a large topic, and it goes far beyond what I intend to do in this article.

The loss of status is a sad thing, because technology is our home turf. We understand computers and software and the mathematical underpinnings of those, and our MBA-culture colonizers don’t. We ought to have the advantage and retain high status, but fail at doing so. Why? There are two reasons, and they’re related to each other.

The first is that we lack “sheep dogs”. A sheep dog, in this sense, is a pugnacious and potentially vicious person who protects the good. A sheep dog drives away predators and protects the herd. Sheep dogs don’t start fights, but they end many– on their terms. Programmers don’t like to “get political”, and they dislike it even when their own kind become involved in office politics, and the result is that we don’t have many sheep dogs guarding us from the MBA-culture wolves. People who learn the skills necessary to protect the good, far too often, end up on the other side.

The second is that we allow “passion” to be used against us. When we like our work, we let it be known. We work extremely hard. That has two negative side effects. The first is that we don’t like our work and put in a half-assed effort like everyone else, it shows. Executives generally have the political aplomb not to show whether they enjoy what they’re doing, except to people they trust with that bit of information. Programmers, on the other hand, make it too obvious how they feel about their work. This means the happy ones don’t get the raises and promotions they deserve (because they’re working so hard) because management sees no need to reward them, and that the unhappy ones stand out to aggressive management as potential “performance issues”. Not to be passionate is almost a crime, especially in startups. We’re not allowed to treat it as “just a job” and put forward above-normal effort only when given above-normal consideration. We’re not allowed to “get political” and protect ourselves, or protect others, because we’re supposed to be so damn “passionate” that we’d do this work for free.

What most of us don’t realize is that this culture of mandatory “passion” lowers our social status, because it encourages us to work unreasonably hard and irrespective of conditions. The fastest way to lose social status is to show acceptance of low social status. For example, programmers often make the mistake of overworking when understaffed, and this is a terrible idea. (“Those execs don’t believe in us, so let’s show them up by… working overtime on something they own!”) To do this validates the low status of the group that allows it to be understaffed.

Executives, a more savvy sort, lose passion when denied the advancement or consideration they feel they deserve. They’re not obnoxious about this attitude, but they don’t try to cover it up, either. They’re not going to give a real effort to a project or company that acts against their own interests or lowers their own social status. They won’t negotiate against themselves by being “passionate”, either. They want to be seen as supremely competent, but not sacrificial. That’s the difference between them and us. Executives are out for themselves and relatively open about the fact. Programmers, on the other hand, heroize some of the stupidest forms of self-sacrifice: the person who delivers a project (sacrificing weekends) anyway, after it was cancelled; or the person who moves to San Francisco without relocation because he “really believes in” a product that he can’t even describe coherently, and that he’ll end up owning 0.05% of.

What executives understand, almost intuitively, is reciprocity. They give favors to earn favors, but avoid self-sacrifice. They won’t fall into “love of the craft” delusions when “the craft” doesn’t love them back. They’re not afraid to “get political”, because they realize that work is mostly politics. The only people who can afford to be apolitical or “above the fray”, after all, are the solid political winners. But until one is in that camp, one simply cannot afford to take that delusion on.

If programmers want to be taken seriously, and we should be taken seriously and we certainly should want this, we’re going to have to take stock of our compromised position and fix it, even if that’s “getting political”. We’re going to have to stop glorifying pointless self-sacrifice for what is ultimately someone else’s business transaction, and start asserting ourselves and our values.

Greed versus sadism

I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading Advocatus Diaboli, and his view on human nature is interesting. He argues that sadism is a prevailing human trait. In an essay on human nature, he states:

They all clearly a demonstrate a deep-seated and widespread human tendency to be deceitful, cruel, abusive and murderous for reasons that have almost nothing to with material or monetary gain. It is as if most human beings are actively driven a unscratchable itch to hurt, abuse, enslave and kill others even if they stand to gain very little from it. Human beings as a species will spend their own time, effort and resources to hurt other living creatures just for the joy of doing so.

This is a harsh statement, and far from socially acceptable. Sadism is a defining human characteristic, rather than a perversion? To put it forward, I don’t agree that sadism is nearly as prevalent as AD suggests. However, it’s an order of magnitude more prevalent than most people want to admit. Economists ignore it and focus on self-interest: the economic agent may be greedy (that is, focused on narrow self-interest) but he’s not trying to hurt anyone. Psychology treats sadism as pathological, and limited to a small set of broken people called psychopaths, then tries to figure out what material cause created such a monster. The liberal, scientific, philosophically charitable view is that sadistic people are an aberration. People want sex and material comfort and esteem, it holds, but not to inflict pain on others. Humans can be ruthless in their greed, but are not held to be sadistic. What if that isn’t true? We should certainly entertain the notion.

The Marquis de Sade– more of a pervert than a philosopher, and a writer of insufferably boring, yet disturbing, material– earned his place in history by this exact argument. In the Enlightenment, the prevailing view was that human nature was not evil, but neutral-leaning-good. Corrupt states and wayward religion and unjust aristocracies perverted human nature, but the fundamental human drive was not perverse. De Sade was one of the few to challenge this notion. To de Sade, inflicting harm on others for sexual pleasure was the defining trait. This makes the human problem fundamentally insoluble. If self-interest and greed are the problem, society can align peoples’ self-interests by prohibiting harmful behaviors and rewarding mutually beneficial ones. If, however, inflicting pain on others is a fundamental human desire, then it is impossible for any desirable state of human affairs to be remotely stable; people will destroy it, just to watch others suffer.

For my part, I do not consider sadism to be the defining human trait. It exists. It’s real. It’s a motivation behind actions that are otherwise inexplicable. Psychology asserts it to be a pathological trait of about 1 to 2 percent of the population. I think it’s closer to 20 percent. The sadistic impulse can overrun a society, for sure. Look at World War II: Hitler invaded other countries to eradicate an ethnic group for no rational reason. Or, the sadists can be swept to the side and their desires ignored. Refusing to acknowledge that it exists, however, is not a solution, and I’ll get to why that is the case.

Paul Graham writes about the zero-sum mentality that emerges in imprisoned or institutionalized populations. He argues that the malicious and pointless cruelty seen in U.S. high schools, prisons, and high-society wives is of a kind that emerges from boredom. When people don’t have something to do– and are institutionalized or constrained by others’ low regard for them (teenagers are seen as economically useless, high-society wives are made subservient, prisoners are seen as moral scum)– they create senseless and degrading societies. He’s right about all this. Where he is wrong is in his assertion that “the adult world” (work) is better. For him, working on his own startup in the mid-1990s Valley, it was. For the 99%, it’s not. Office politics is the same damn thing. Confine and restrain people, and reinforce their low status with attendance policies and arbitrary orders, and you get some horrendous behavior. Humans are mostly context. Almost all of us will become cruel and violent if circumstances demand it. Okay, but is that the norm? Is there an innate sadism to humans, or is it rare except when induced by poor institutional design? The prevailing liberal mentality is that most human cruelty is either the fault of uncommon biological aberration (mental illness) or incompetent (but not malicious) design in social systems. The socially unacceptable (but not entirely false) counterargument is that sadism is a fundamental attribute of us (or, at least, many of us) as humans.

What is greed?

The prevailing liberal attitude is that greed is the source of much human evil. The thing about greed is that it’s not all that bad. In computer science, we call an optimization algorithm “greedy” if it is short-sighted (i.e. not able to capture the whole space, at a given algorithmic step) and these greedy algorithms often work. Sometimes, they’re the only option because anything else requires too much in the way of computational resources. “Greed” can simplify. Greedy people want to eat well, to travel, and for their children to be well-educated. Since that’s what most people want, they’re relatable. They aren’t malignant. They’re ruthless and short-sighted and often arrogant, but they (just like anyone else) are just trying to have good lives. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, most would argue. Most importantly, they’re reasonable. If society can be restructured and regulated so that doing the right thing is rewarded, and doing the wrong thing is punished or forbidden, greedy people can be used for good. Unlike the case with sadism, the problem can be solved with design.

Is greed good? It depends on how the word is defined. We use the word ambition positively and greed negatively, but if we compare the words as they are, I’m not sure this makes a lot of sense. Generally, I view people who want power more negatively than those who want wealth (in absolute, rather than relative terms) alone. As a society, we admire ambition because the ambitious person has a long-term strategy– the word comes from the Latin ambire, which means to walk around gathering support– whereas greed has connotations of being short-sighted and petty. We conflate long-range thinking with virtue, ignoring the fact that vicious and sadistic people are capable of long-term thought as well. At any rate, I don’t think greed is good. However, greed might be, in certain contexts, the best thing left.

To explain this, note the rather obvious fact that corporate boardrooms aren’t representative samples of humanity. For each person in a decision-making role in a large business organization, there’s a reason why he’s there and, if you think it comes down to “hard work” or “merit”, you’re either an idiot or painfully naive. Society is not run by entrepreneurs, visionaries, or creators. It’s run by private-sector social climbers. Who succeeds in such a world? What types of people can push themselves to the top? Two kinds. The greedy, and the sadistic. No one else can make it up there, and I’ll explain why, later in this post.

This fact is what, in relative terms, makes greed good. It’s a lot better than sadism.

The greedy person may not value other concerns (say, human rights or environmental conservation) enough, but he’s not out to actively destroy good things either. The sadist is actively malicious and must be rooted out and destroyed. It is better, from the point of view of a violence-averse liberal, that the people in charge be merely greedy. Then it is possible to reason with them, especially because technology makes rapid economic growth (5 to 20+ percent per year) possible. What prevents that from happening now is poor leadership, not malignant obstruction, and if we can share the wealth with them while pushing them aside, that might work well for everyone. If the leaders are sadistic, the only way forward is over their dead bodies.

“The vision thing”

Corporate executives do not like to acknowledge that the vast majority of them are motivated either by greed or by sadism. Instead, they talk a great game about vision. They concoct elaborate narratives about the past, the future, and their organization’s place in the world. It makes greed more socially acceptable. Yes, I want power and wealth; and here is what I plan to do with it. In the corporate world, however, vision is almost entirely a lie, and there’s a solid technical reason why that is the case.

We have a term in software engineering called “bikeshedding“, which refers to the narcissism of petty differences. Forget all that complicated stuff; what color are we going to paint the bike shed? The issue quickly becomes one that has nothing to do with aesthetics. It’s a referendum on the status of the people in the group. You see these sorts of things in mergers often. In one company, software teams are named after James Bond villains; in the other, they’re named after 1980s hair bands. If the merger isn’t going well, you’ll see one team try to obliterate the memetic cultural marks of the other. “If you refer to Mötley Crüe in another commit message, or put umlauts where they don’t belong for any reason, I will fucking cut you.”

Bikeshedding gets ugly, because it’s a fundamental human impulse (and one that is especially strong in males) to lash out against unskilled creativity (or the perception of unskilled creativity, because the perceiver may be the defective one). You see this in software flamewars, or in stand-up comedy (with hecklers pestering comics, and the swift comics brutally insulting their adversaries.) This impulse toward denial is not sadistic or even a bad thing at its root. It’s fundamentally conservative, but inflicting brutal social punishments on incompetent wannabe chieftains is what kept early humans from walking into lions’ dens.

As a result of the very strong anti-bikeshedding impulse, creativity and vision are punished, because (a) even those with talent and vision come under brutal attack and are drawn into lose-lose ego wars, and (b) almost never are there creatively competent adults in charge who can resolve conflicts, consistently, on the right side. The end result is that these aspects of humans are driven out of organizations. If you stand for something– anything, even something obviously good for the organization– the probability that you’ll take a career-ending punch approaches one as you climb the ladder. If you want to be a visionary, Corporate America is not the place for it. If you want to be seen as a visionary in Corporate America, the best strategy is to discern what the group wants before a consensus has been reached, and espouse the viewpoint that is going to win– before anyone else has figured that out. What this means is that corporate decisions are actually made “by committee”, and that the committee is usually made up of clever but creatively weak individuals. In the same way as mixing too many pigments produces an uninspiring blah-brown color, an end result of increasing entropy, the decisions that come from such committees are usually depressing ones. They can’t agree on a long-term vision, and to propose one is to leave oneself politically exposed and be termed a “bikeshedder”. The only thing they can agree upon is short-term profit improvement. However, increasing revenue is itself a problem that requires some creativity. If the money were easy to make, it’d already be had. Cutting costs is easier; any dumbass can do that. Most often, these costs are actually only externalized. Cutting health benefits, for one example, means work time is lost to arguments with health insurance companies, reducing productivity in the long run, and being a net negative on the whole. But because those with vision are so easily called out as bikeshedding, impractical narcissists, the only thing left is McKinsey-style cost externalization and looting.

Hence, two kinds of people remain in the boardroom, after the rest have been denied entry or demoted out of the way: the ruthlessly greedy, and the sadistic.

Greedy people will do what it takes to win, but they don’t enjoy hurting people. On the contrary, they’re probably deeply conflicted about what they have to do to get the kind of life they want. The dumber ones probably believe that success in business requires ruthless harm to others. The smarter ones see deference to the mean-spirited cost-cutting culture as a necessary, politically expedient, evil. If you oppose it, you risk appearing “soft” and effeminate and impractical and “too nice to succeed”. So you go along with the reduction of health benefits, the imposition of stack ranking, the artificial scarcities inherent in systems like closed allocation, just to avoid being seen that way. That’s how greed works. Greedy people figure out what the group wants and don’t fight it, but front-run that preference as it emerges. So what influences go into that group preference? Even without sadism, the result of the entropy-increasing committee effect seems to be, “cost cutting” (because no one will ever agree on how to increase revenue). With sadism in the mix, convergence on that sort of idea happens faster, and ignorance of externalized costs is enhanced.

The sadist has an advantage in the corporate game that is unmatched. The more typical greedy-but-decent person will make decisions that harm others, but is drained by doing so. Telling people that they don’t have jobs anymore, and that they won’t get a decent severance because that would have been a losing fight against HR, and that they have to be sent out by security “by policy”, makes them pretty miserable. They’ll play office politics, and they play to win, but they don’t enjoy it. Sadists, on the other hand, are energized by harm. Sadists love office politics. They can play malicious games forever. One trait that gives them an advantage over the merely greedy is that, not only are they energized by their wins, but they don’t lose force in their losses. Greedy people hate discomfort, low status, and loss of opportunity. Sadists don’t care what happens to them, as long as someone else is burning.

This is why, while sadists are probably a minority of the general population, they make up a sizeable fraction of the upper ranks in Corporate America. Their power is bolstered by the fact that most business organizations have ceased to stand for anything. They’re patterns of behavior that have literally no purpose. This is because the decision-making derives from a committee of greedy people with no long-term plans, and sadistic people with harmful long-term plans (that, in time, destroy the organization).

Sadists are not a majority contingent in the human population. However, we generally refuse to admit that it exists at all. It’s the province of criminals and perverts, but surely these upstanding businessmen have their reasons (if short-sighted ones, but that is chalked up to a failure of regulation) for bad behaviors. I would argue that, by refusing to admit to sadism’s prevalence and commonality, we actually give it more power. When people confront frank sadism either in the workplace or in the public, they’re generally shocked. Against an assailant, whether we’re talking about a mugger or a manager presenting a “performance improvement plan”, most people freeze. It’s easy to say, “I would knee him in the nuts, gouge out his eyeballs, and break his fingers in order to get away.” Very few people, when battle visits them unprepared, do so. Mostly, the reaction is, I can’t believe this is happening to me. It’s catatonic panic. Refusing to admit that sadism is real and that it must be fought, we instead give it power by ignoring its existence, thus allowing it to ambush us. In a street fight, this is observed in the few seconds of paralytic shock that can mean losing the fight and being killed. In HR/corporate matters, it’s the tendency of the PIP’d employee to feel intense personal shame and terror, instead of righteous anger, when blindsided by managerial adversity.

The bigger problem

Why do I write? I write because I want people in my generation to learn how to fight. The average 25-year-old software engineer has no idea what to do when office politics turn against him (and that, my friends, can happen to anyone; overperformance is more dangerous than underperformance, but that’s a topic for another essay). I also want them to learn “Work Game”. It’s bizarre to me that learning a set of canned social skills to exploit 20-year-old women with self-esteem problems (pickup artistry) is borderline socially acceptable, while career advice is always of nice-guy “never lie on your resume, no exceptions” variety. (Actually, that’s technically correct. Everyone who succeeds in the corporate game has lied to advance his career, but never put an objectively refutable claim in writing.) Few people have the courage to discuss how the game is actually played. If men can participate in a “pickup artist” culture designed to exploit women with low self-respect and be considered “baller” for it, and raise millions in venture funding… then why it is career-damaging to be honest about what one has to do in the workplace just to maintain, much less advance, one’s position? Why do we have to pretend to uphold this “nice guy”/AFC belief in office meritocracy?

I write because I want the good to learn how to fight. We need to be more ruthless, more aggressive, and sometimes even more political. If we want anything remotely resembling a “meritocracy”, we’re going to have to fight for it and it’s going to get fucking nasty.

However, helping people hack broken organizations isn’t that noble of a goal. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see the current owners of Corporate America get a shock to the system. I’d enjoy taking them down (that’s not sadism, but a strong– perhaps pathologically strong, but that’s another debate– sense of justice.) Nonetheless, we as a society can do better. This isn’t a movie or video game in which beating the bad guys “saves the world”. What’s important, if less theatric and more humbling, is the step after that: building a new and better world after killing off the old one.

Here we address a cultural problem. Why do companies get to a point where the ultimate power is held by sadists, who can dress up their malignant desires as hard-nosed cost-cutting? What causes the organization to reach the high-entropy state in which the only self-interested decision it can make is to externalize a cost, when there are plenty of overlooked self-interested decisions that are beneficial to the world as a whole? The answer is the “tallest nail” phenomenon. The tallest nail gets hammered down. As a society, that’s how we work. Abstractly, we admire people who “put themselves out there” and propose ideas that might make their organizations and the world much better. Concretely, those people are torn down as “bikeshedders”, by (a) their ideological opponents, who usually have no malicious intent but don’t want their adversaries to succeed– at least, not on that issue–; (b) sadists relishing the opportunity to deny someone a good thing; (c) personal political rivals, which any creative person will acquire over time; and (d) greedy self-interested people who perceive the whim of the group as it is emerging and issue the final “No”. We have a society that rewards deference to authority and punishes creativity, brutally. And capitalism’s private sector, which is supposed to be an antidote to that, and which is supposed to innovate in spite of itself, is where we see that tendency in the worst way.

Greed (meaning self-interest) can be good, if directed properly by those with a bit of long-term vision and an ironclad dedication to fairness. Sadism is not. The combination of the two, which is the norm in corporate boardrooms, is toxic. Ultimately, we need something else. We need true creativity. That’s not Silicon Valley’s “make the world a better place” bullshit either, but a genuine creative drive that comes from a humble acknowledgement of just how fucking hard it is to make the world a tolerable, much less “better”, place. It isn’t easy to make genuine improvements to the world. (Mean-spirited cost-cutting, sadistic game-playing, and cost externalization are much easier ways to make money. Ask any management consultant.) It’s brutally fucking difficult. Yet millions of people every day, just like me, go out and try. I don’t know why I do it, given the harm that even my mild public cynicism has brought to my career, but I keep on fighting. Maybe I’ll win something, some day.

As a culture, we need to start to value that creative courage again, instead of tearing people down over petty differences.

 

Why corporate penny-shaving backfires. (Also, how to do a layoff right.)

One of the clearest signs of corporate decline (2010s Corporate America is like 1980s Soviet Russia, in terms of its low morale and lethal overextension) is the number of “innovations” that are just mean-spirited, and seem like prudent cost-cutting but actually do minimal good (and, often, much harm) to the business.

One of these is the practice of pooling vacation and sick leave in a single bucket, “PTO”. Ideally, companies shouldn’t limit vacation or sick time at all– but my experience has shown “unlimited vacation” to correlate with a negative culture. (If I ran a company, it would institute a mandatory vacation policy: four weeks minimum, at least two of those contiguous.) Vacation guidelines need to be set for the same reason that speed limits (even if intentionally under-posted, with moderate violation in mind) need to be there; without them, speed variance would be higher on both ends. So, I’ve accepted the need for vacation “limits”, at least as soft policies; but employers expect their people to either use a vacation day for sick leave, or come into the office while sick, are just being fucking assholes.

These PTO policies are, in my view, reckless and irresponsible. They represent a gamble with employee health that I (as a person with a manageable but irritating disability) find morally repugnant. It’s bad enough to deny rest to someone just because a useless bean-counter wants to save the few hundred dollars paid out for unused vacation when someone leaves the company. But by encouraging the entire workforce to show up while sick and contagious, they subject the otherwise healthy to an unnecessary germ load. Companies with these pooled leave, “PTO”, policies end up with an incredibly sickly workforce. One cold just rolls right into another, and the entire month of February is a haze of snot, coughing, and bad code being committed because half the people at any given time are hopped up on cold meds and really ought to be in bed. It’s not supposed to be this way. This will shock those who suffer in open-plan offices, but an average adult is only supposed to get 2-3 colds per year, not the 4-5 that are normal in an open-plan office (another mean-spirited tech-company “innovation”) or the 7-10 per year that is typical in pooled-leave companies.

The math shows that PTO policies are a raw deal even for the employer. In a decently-run company with an honor-system sick leave policy, an average healthy adult might have to take 5 days off due to illness per year. (I miss, despite my health problems, fewer than that.) Under PTO, people push themselves to come in and only stay home if they’re really sick. Let’s say that they’re now getting 8 colds per year instead of the average 2. (That’s not an unreasonable assumption, for a PTO shop.) Only 2 or 3 days are called-off, but there are a good 24-32 days in which the employee is functioning below 50 percent efficiency. Then there are the morale issues, and the general perception that employees will form of the company as a sickly, lethargic place; and the (mostly unintentional) collective discovery of how low a level of performance will be tolerated. January’s no longer about skiing on the weekends and making big plans and enjoying the long golden hour… while working hard, because one is refreshed. It’s the new August; fucking nothing gets done because even though everyone’s in the office, they’re all fucking sick with that one-rolls-into-another months-long cold. That’s what PTO policies bring: a polar vortex of sick.

Why, if they’re so awful, do companies use them? Because HR departments often justify their existence by externalizing costs elsewhere in the company, and claiming they saved money. So-called “performance improvement plans” (PIPs) are a prime example of this. The purpose of the PIP is not to improve the employee. Saving the employee would require humiliating the manager, and very few people have the courage to break rank like that. Once the PIP is written, the employee’s reputation is ruined, making mobility or promotion impossible. The employee is stuck in a war with his manager (and, possibly, team) that he will almost certainly lose, but he can make others lose along the way. To the company, a four-month severance package is far cheaper than the risk that comes along with having a “walking dead” employee, pissing all over morale and possibly sabotaging the business, in the office for a month. So why do PIPs, which don’t even work for their designed intention (legal risk mitigation) unless designed and implemented by extremely astute legal counsel, remain common? Well, PIPs a loss to the company, even compared to “gold-plated” severance plans. We’ve established that. But they allow the HR department to claim that it “saved money” on severance payments (a relatively small operational cost, except when top executives are involved) while the costs are externalized to the manager and team that must deal with a now-toxic (and if already toxic before the PIP, now overtly destructive) employee. PTO policies work the same way. The office becomes lethargic, miserable, and sickly, but HR can point to the few hundred dollars saved on vacation payouts and call it a win.

On that, it’s worth noting that these pooled-leave policies aren’t actually about sick employees. People between the ages of 25 and 50 don’t get sick that often, and companies don’t care about that small loss. However, their children, and their parents, are more likely to get sick. PTO policies aren’t put in place to punish young people for getting colds. They’re there to deter people with kids, people with chronic health problems, and people with sick parents from taking the job. Like open-plan offices and the anxiety-inducing micromanagement often given the name of “Agile”, it’s back-door age and disability discrimination. The company that institutes a PTO policy doesn’t care about a stray cold; but it doesn’t want to hire someone with a special-needs child. Even if the latter is an absolute rock star, the HR department can justify itself by saying it helped the company dodge a bullet.

Let’s talk about cost cutting more generally, because I’m smarter than 99.99% of the fuckers who run companies in this world and I have something important to say.

Companies don’t fail because they spend too much money. “It ran out of money” is the proximate cause, not the ultimate one. Some fail when they cease to excel and inspire (but others continue beyond that point). Some fail, when they are small, because of bad luck. Mostly, though, they fail because of complexity: rules that don’t make sense and block useful work from being done, power relationships that turn toxic and, yes, recurring commitments and expenses that can’t be afforded (and must be cut). Cutting complexity rather than cost should be the end goal, however. I like to live with few possessions not because I can’t afford to spend the money (I can) but because I don’t want to deal with the complexity that they will inject into my life. It’s the same with business. Uncontrolled complexity will cause uncontrolled costs and ultimately bring about a company’s demise. What does this mean about cutting costs, which MBAs love to do? Sometimes it’s great to cut costs. Who doesn’t like cutting “waste”? The problem there is that there actually isn’t much obvious waste to be cut, so after that, one has to focus and decide on which elements of complexity are unneeded, with the understanding that, yes, some people will be hurt and upset. Do we need to compete in 25 businesses, when we’re only viable in two? This will also cut costs (and, sadly, often jobs).

The problem, see, is that most of the corporate penny-shaving increases complexity. A few dollars are saved, but at the cost of irritation and lethargy and confusion. People waste time working around new rules intended to save trivial amounts of money. The worst is when a company cuts staff but refuses to reduce its internal complexity. This requires a smaller team to do more work– often, unfamiliar work that they’re not especially good at or keen on doing; people were well-matched to tasks before the shuffle, but that balance has gone away. The career incoherencies and personality conflicts that emerge are… one form of complexity.

The problem is that most corporate executives are “seagull bosses” (swoop, poop, and fly away) who see their companies and jobs in a simple way: cut costs. (Increasing revenue is also a strategy, but that’s really hard in comparison.) A year later, the company is still failing not because it failed to cut enough costs or people, but because it never did anything about the junk complexity that was destroying it in the first place.

Let’s talk about layoffs. The growth of complexity is often exponential, and firms inevitably get to a place where they are too complex (and, a symptom of this is that operations are too expensive) to survive. The result is that it needs to lay people off. Now, layoffs suck. They really fucking do. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to execute one. To do a layoff right, the company needs to cut complexity and cut people. (Otherwise, it will have more complexity per capita, the best people will get fed up and leave, and the death spiral begins.) It also needs to cut the right complexity; all the stuff that isn’t useful.

Ideally, the cutting of people and cutting of complexity would be tied together. Unnecessary business units being cut usually means that people staffed on them are the ones let go. The problem is that that’s not very fair, because it means that good people, who just happened to be in the wrong place, will lose their jobs. (I’d argue that one should solve this by offering generous severance, but we already know why that isn’t a popular option, though it should be.) The result is that when people see their business area coming into question, they get political. Of course this software company needs a basket-weaving division! In-fighting begins. Tempers flare. From the top, the water gets very muddy and it’s impossible to see what the company really looks like, because everyone’s feeding biased information to the executives. (I’m assuming that the executive who must implement the cuts is acting in good faith, which is not always true.) What this means is that the crucial decision– what business complexity are we going to do without?– can’t be subject to a discussion. Debate won’t work. It will just get word out that job cuts are coming, and political behavior will result. The horrible, iron fact is that this calls for temporary autocracy. The leader must make that call in one fell swoop. No second guessing, no looking back. This is the change we need to make in order to survive. Good people will be let go, and it really sucks. However, seeing as it’s impossible to execute a large-scale layoff without getting rid of some good people, I think the adult thing to do is write generous severance packages.

Cutting complexity is hard. It requires a lot of thought. Given that the information must be gathered by the chief executive without tipping anyone off, and that complex organisms are (by definition) hard to factor, it’s really hard to get the cuts right. Since the decision must be made on imperfect information, it’s a given that it usually won’t be the optimal cut. It just has to be good enough (that is, removing enough complexity with minimal harm to revenue or operations) that the company is in better health.

Cutting people, on the other hand, is much easier. You just tell them that they don’t have jobs anymore. Some don’t deserve it, some cry, some sue, and some blog about it but, on the whole, it’s not actually the hard part of the job. This provides, as an appealing but destructive option, the lazy layoff. In a lazy layoff, the business cuts people but doesn’t cut complexity. It just expects more work from everyone. All departments lose a few people! All “survivors” now have to do the work of their fallen brethren! The too-much-complexity problem, the issue that got us to the layoff in the first place… will figure itself out. (It never does.)

Stack ranking is a magical, horrible solution to the problem. What if one could do a lazy layoff but always cull the “worst” people? After all, some people are of negative value, especially considering the complexity load (in personality conflicts, shoddy work) they induce. The miracle of stack ranking is that it turns a layoff– otherwise, a hard decision guaranteed to put some good people out of work– into an SQL query. SELECT name FROM Employee WHERE perf <= 3.2. Since the soothsaying of stack ranking has already declared the people let-go as bottom-X-percent performers, there’s no remorse in culling them. They were dead weight”. Over time, stack ranking evolves into a rolling, continuous lazy layoff that happens periodically (“rank-and-yank”).

It’s also dishonest. There are an ungodly number of large technology companies (over 1,000) that claim to have “never had a layoff”. That just isn’t fucking true. Even if the CEO was Jesus Christ himself, he’d have to lay people off because that’s just how business works. Tech-company sleazes just refuse to use the word “layoff”, for fear of losing their “always expanding, always looking for the best talent!” image. So they call it a “low performer initiative” (stack ranking, PIPs, eventual firings). What a “low-performer initiative” (or stack ranking, which is a chronic LPI) inevitably devolves into is a witch hunt that turns the organization into pure House of Cards politics. Yes, most companies have about 10 percent who are incompetent or toxic or terminally mediocre and should be sent out the door. Figuring which 10 percent those people are, is not easy. People who are truly toxic generally have several years’ worth of experience drawing a salary without doing anything, and that’s a skill that improves with time. They’re really good at sucking (and not getting caught). They’re adept political players. They’ve had to be; the alternative would have been to have grown a work ethic. Most of what we as humans define as social acceptability is our ethical immune system, which can catch and punish the small-fry offenders but can’t do a thing about the cancer cells (psychopaths, parasites) that have evolved to the point of being able to evade or even redirect that rejection impulse. The question of how to get that toxic 10 percent out is an unsolved one, and I don’t have space to tackle it now, but the answer is definitely not stack ranking, which will always clobber several unlucky good-faith employees for every genuine problem employee it roots out.

Moreover, stack ranking has negative permanent effects. Even when not tied to a hard firing percentage, its major business purpose is still to identify the bottom X percent, should a lazy layoff be needed. It’s a reasonable bet that unless things really go to shit, X will be 5 or 10 or maybe 20– but not 50. So stack ranking is really about the bottom. The difference between the 25th percentile and 95th percentile, in stack ranking, really shouldn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong: a 95th-percentile worker is often highly valuable and should be rewarded. I just don’t have any faith in the ability of stack ranking to detect her, just as I know some incredibly smart people who got mediocre SAT scores. Stack ranking is all about putting people at the bottom, not the top. (Top performers don’t need it and don’t get anything from it.)

The danger of garbage data (and, #YesAllData generated by stack ranking is garbage) is that people tend to use it as if it were truth. The 25th-percentile employee isn’t bad enough to get fired… but no one will take him for a transfer, because the “objective” record says he’s a slacker. The result of this– in conjunction with closed allocation, which is already a bad starting point– is permanent internal immobility. People with mediocre reviews can’t transfer because the manager of the target team would prefer a new hire (with no political strings attached) over a sub-50th-percentile internal. People with great reviews don’t transfer for fear of upsetting the gravy train of bonuses, promotions, and managerial favoritism. Team assignments become permanent, and people divide into warring tribes instead of collaborating. This total immobility also makes it impossible to do a layoff the right way (cutting complexity) because people develop extreme attachments to projects and policies that, if they were mobile and therefore disinterested, they’d realize ought to be cut. It becomes politically intractable to do the right thing, or even for the CEO to figure out what the right thing is. I’d argue, in fact, that performance reviews shouldn’t be part of a transfer packet at all. The added use of questionable, politically-laced “information” is just not worth the toxicity of putting that into policy.

A company with a warring-departments dynamic might seem like a streamlined, efficient, and (most importantly) less complex company. It doesn’t have the promiscuous social graph you might expect to see in an open allocation company. People know where they are, who they report to, and who their friends and enemies are. The problem, with this insight, is that there’s hot complexity and cold complexity. Cold complexity is passive and occasionally annoying, like a law from 1890 that doesn’t make sense and is effectively never enforced. When people collaborate “too much” and the social graph of the company seems to have “too many” edges, there’s some cold complexity there. It’s generally not harmful. Open allocation tends to generate some cold complexity. Rather than metastasize into an existential threat to the company, it will fade out of existence over time. Hot complexity, which usually occurs in an adversarial context, is a kind that generates more complexity. Its high temperature means there will be more entropy in the system. Example: a conflict (heat) emerges. That, alone, makes the social graph more complex because there are more edges of negativity. Systems and rules are put in place to try to resolve it, but those tend to have two effects. First, they bring more people (those who had no role in the initial conflict, but are affected by the rules) into the fights. Second, the conflicting needs or desires of the adversarial parties are rarely addressed, so both sides just game the new system, which creates more complexity (and more rules). Negativity and internal competition create the hot complexity that can ruin a company more quickly than an executive (even if acting with the best intentions) can address it.

Finally, one thing worth noting is the Welch Effect (named for Jack Welch, the inventor of stack-ranking). It’s one of my favorite topics because it has actually affected me. The Welch Effect pertains to the fact that when a broad-based layoff occurs, the people most likely to be let go aren’t the worst (or best) performers, but newest members of macroscopically underperforming teams. Layoffs (and stack ranking) generally propagate down the hierarchy. Upper management disburses bonuses, raises, and layoff quotas based on the macroscopic performance of the departments under it, and at each level, the node operators (managers) slice the numbers based on how well they think each suborganization did (plus or minus various political modifiers). At the middle-management layer, one level separated from the non-managerial “leaves”, it’s the worst-performing teams that have to vote the most people off the island. It tends to be those most recently hired who get the axe. This isn’t especially unfair or wrong, for that middle manager; there’s often no better way to do it than to strike the least-embedded, least-invested junior hire.

The end result of the Welch Effect, however, is that the people let go are often those who had the least to do with their team’s underperformance. (It may be a weak team, it may be a good team with a bad manager, or it may be an unlucky team.) They weren’t even there for very long! It doesn’t cause the firm to lay off good people, but it doesn’t help it lay off bad people either. It has roughly the same effect as a purely seniority-based layoff, for the company as a whole. Random new joiners are the ones who are shown out the door. It’s bad to lose them, but it rarely costs the company critical personnel. Its effect on that team is more visibly negative: teams that lose a lot of people during layoffs get a public stink about them, and people lose the interest in joining or even helping them– who wants to work for, or even assist, a manager who can’t protect his people?– so the underperforming team becomes even more underperforming. There are also morale issues with the Welch Effect. When people who recently joined lose their jobs (especially if they’re fired “for performance” without a severance) it makes the company seem unfair, random, and capricious. The ones let go were the ones who never had the chance to prove themselves. In a one-off layoff, this isn’t so destructive. The Welch Effected usually move on to better jobs anyway. However, when a company lays off in many small cuts, or disguises a layoff as a “low-performer initiative”, the Welch Effect firings demolish belief in meritocracy.

That, right there, explains why I get so much flak over how I left Google. Technically, I wasn’t fired. But I had a disliked, underdelivering manager who couldn’t get calibration points for his people (a macroscopic issue that I had nothing to do with) and I was the newest on the team, so I got a bad score (despite being promised a reasonable one– a respectable 3.4, if it matters– by that manager). Classic Welch Effect. I left. After I was gone I “leaked” the existence of stack ranking within Google. I wasn’t the first to mention that it existed there, but I publicized it enough to become the (unintentional) slayer of Google Exceptionalism and, to a number of people I’ve never met and to whom I’ve never done any wrong, Public Enemy #1. I was a prominent (and, after things went bad, fairly obnoxious) Welch Effectee, and my willingness to share my experience changed Google’s image forever. It’s not a disliked company (nor should it be) but its exceptionalism is gone. Should I have done all that? Probably not. Is Google a horrible company? No. It’s above average for the software industry (which is not an endorsement, but not damnation either.) Also, my experiences are three years old at this point, so don’t take them too seriously. As of November 2011, Google had stack ranking and closed allocation. It may have abolished those practices and, if it has, then I’d strongly recommend it as a place to work. It has some brilliant people and I respect them immensely.

In an ideal world, there would be no layoffs or contractions. In the real world, layoffs have to happen, and it’s best to do them honestly (i.e. don’t shit on departing employees’ reputations by calling it a “low performer initiative”). As with more minor forms of cost-cutting (e.g. new policies encouraging frugality) it can only be done if complexity (that being the cause of the organization’s underperformance) is reduced as well. That is the only kind of corporate change that can reverse underperformance: complexity reduction.

If complexity reduction is the only way out, then why is it so rare? Why do companies so willingly create personnel and regulatory complexity just to shave pennies off their expenses? I’m going to draw from my (very novice) Buddhist understanding to answer this one. When the clutter is cleared away… what is left? Phrases used to define it (“sky-like nature of the mind”) only explain it well to people who’ve experienced it. Just trust me that there is a state of consciousness that can be attained when gross thoughts are swept away, leaving something more pure and primal. Its clarity can be terrifying, especially the first time it is experienced. I really exist. I’m not just a cloud of emotions and thoughts and meat. (I won’t get into death and reincarnation and nirvana here. That goes farther than I need, for now. Qualia, or existence itself, as opposed my body hosting some sort of philosophical zombie, is both miraculous and the only miracle I actually believe in.) Clarity. Essence. Those are the things you risk encountering with simplicity. That’s a good thing, but it’s scary. There is a weird, paradoxical thing called “relaxation-induced anxiety” that can pop up here. I’ve fought it (and had some nasty motherfuckers of panic attacks) and won and I’m better for my battles, but none of this is easy.

So much of what keeps people mired in their obsessions and addictions and petty contests is an aversion to confronting what they really are, a journey that might harrow them into excellence. I am actually going to age and die. Death can happen at any time, and almost certainly it will feel “too soon”. I have to do something, now, that really fucking matters. This minute counts, because I may not get another in this life. People are actually addicted to their petty anxieties that distract them from the deeper but simpler questions. If you remove all the clutter on the worktable, you have to actually look at the table itself, and you have to confront the ambitions that impelled you to buy it, the projects you imagined yourself using it for (but that you never got around to). This, for many people, is really fucking hard. It’s emotionally difficult to look at the table and confront what one didn’t achieve, and it’s so much easier to just leave the clutter around (and to blame it).

Successful simplicity leads to, “What now?” The workbench is clear; what are we going to do with it? For an organization, such simplicity risks forcing it to contend with the matter of its purpose, and the question of whether it is excelling (and, relatedly, whether it should). That’s a hard thing to do for one person. It’s astronomically more difficult for a group of people with opposing interests, and among whom excellence is sure to be a dirty word (there are always powerful people who prefer rent-seeking complacency). It’s not surprising, then, that most corporate executives say “fuck it” on the excellence question and, instead, decide it suffices to earn their keep to squeeze employees with mindless cost-cutting policies: pooled sick leave and vacation, “employee contributions” on health plans, and other hot messes that just ruin everything. It feels like something is getting done, though. Useless complexity is, in that way, existentially anxiolytic and addictive. That’s why it’s so hard to kill. But it, if allowed to live, will kill. It can enervate a person into decoherence and inaction, and it will reduce a company to a pile of legacy complexity generated by self-serving agents (mostly, executives). Then it falls under the MacLeod-Gervais-Rao-Church theory of the nihilistic corporation; the political whirlpool that remains once an organization has lost its purpose for existing.

At 4528 words, I’ve said enough.

Technology’s Loser Problem

I’m angry. The full back story isn’t worth getting into, but there was a company where I applied for a job in the spring of 2013: to build a company’s machine learning infrastructure from scratch. It was a position of technical leadership (Director equivalent, but writing code with no reports) and I would have been able to use Clojure. As it were, I didn’t get it. They were looking for someone more experienced, who’d built those kinds of systems before, and wouldn’t take 6 months to train up to the job. That, itself, is not worth getting angry about. Being turned down happens, especially at high levels.

I found out, just now, that the position was not filled. Not then. Not 6 months later. Not to this day, more than a year later. It has taken them longer to fill the role than it would have taken for me to grow into it.

When they turned me down, it didn’t faze me. I thought they’d found a better candidate. That happens; only thing I can do is make myself better. I found myself, however, a bit irked when I found out that they hadn’t filled the position for longer than it would have taken me to gain the necessary experience. I lost, and so did they.

That’s not what makes me angry. Rationally, I realize that most companies aren’t going to call back a pretty-good candidate they rejected because they had just opened the position and they thought they could do better (if you’re the first 37% of candidates for a job, it makes sense for them not to choose you and, empirically, first and second applicants for a high-level position rarely get it). That’s the sort of potentially beneficial but extremely awkward social process that just won’t happen. What makes me angry is the realization of how common a certain sort of decision is in the technology world. We make a lot of lose-lose decisions that hurt all of us. Extremely specific hiring requirements (that, in bulk, cost the company more in waiting time than training a 90% match up to the role) are just the tip of the iceberg.

You know those people who complain about the lack of decent <gender of sexual interest> but (a) reject people for the shallowest, stupidest reasons, (b) aren’t much of a prize and don’t work to better themselves, and (c) generally refuse to acknowledge that the problem is rooted in their own inflated perception of their market value? That’s how I feel every time I hear some corporate asswipe complain about a “talent shortage” in technology. No, there isn’t one. You’re either too stingy or too picky or completely inept at recruiting, because there’s a ton of underemployed talent out there.

Few of us, as programmers, call the initial shots. We’ve done a poor job of making The Business listen to us. However, when we do have power, we tend to fuck it up. One of the problems is that we over-comply with what The Business tells us it whats. For example, when a nontechnical CEO says, “I only want you to hire absolute rock stars”, what he actually means is, “Don’t hire an idiot just to have a warm body or plug a hole”. However, because they tend to be literal, over-compliant, and suboptimal, programmers will interpret that to mean, “Reject any candidate who isn’t 3 standard deviations above the mean.” The leads to positions not being filled, because The Business is rarely willing to pay what one standard deviation above the mean costs, let alone three.

Both sides now

I’ve been on both sides of the interviewing and hiring process. I’ve seen programmers’ code samples described with the most vicious language over the most trivial mistakes, or even stylistic differences. I’ve seen job candidates rejected for the most god-awful stupid reasons. In one case, the interviewer clearly screwed up (he misstated the problem in a way that made it impossible) but, refusing to risk face by admitting the problem was on his end, he claimed the candidate failed the question. Another was dinged on a back-channel reference (don’t get me started on that sleazy practice, which ought to be illegal) claiming, without any evidence, that “he didn’t do much” on a notable project four years ago. I once saw an intern denied a full-time offer because he lived in an unstylish neighborhood. (The justification was that one had to be “hungry”, mandating Manhattan.) Many of us programmers are so butthurt about not being allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table that, when given the petty power associated with interviewing other programmers, the bitch-claws come out in a major way.

Having been involved in interviewing and recruiting, I’ll concur that there are a significant number of untalented applicants. If it’s 99.5 percent, you’re doing a lot of things wrong, but most resumes do come from people way out of their depth. Moreover, as with dating, there’s an adverse weighting in play. Most people aren’t broken, but broken people go on orders of magnitude more dates than everyone else, which is why most peoples’ dating histories have a disproportionate representation of horror stories, losers, and weirdos. It’s the same with hiring, but phone screening should filter against that. If you’re at all good at it, about half of the people brought in-office will be solid candidates.

Of course, each requirement cuts down the pool. Plenty of companies (in finance, some officially) have a “no job hopper” or “no unemployeds” rule. Many mandate high levels of experience in new technologies (even though learning new technologies is what we’re good at). Then, there are those who are hung up on reference checking in weird and creepy ways. I know of one person who proudly admits that his reference checking protocol is to cold-call a random person (again, back-channel) is the candidate’s network and ask the question, without context, “Who is the best person you’ve ever worked with?” If anyone other than the candidate is named, the candidate is rejected. That’s not being selective. That’s being an invasive, narcissistic idiot. Since each requirement reduces the size of qualified people, it doesn’t take long before the prejudices winnow an applicant pool down to zero.

Programmers? Let’s be real here, we kinda suck…

As programmers, we’re not very well-respected, and when we’re finally paid moderately well, we let useless business executives (who work 10-to-3 and think HashMap is a pot-finding app) claim that “programmer salaries are ridiculous”. (Not so.) Sometimes (to my horror) you’ll hear a programmer even agree that our salaries are “ridiculous”. Fuck that bullshit; it’s factually untrue. The Business is, in general, pretty horrible to us. We suffer under closed allocation, deal with arbitrary deadlines, and if we don’t answer to an idiot, we usually answer to someone else who does. Where does the low status of programmers come from? Why are we treated as cost centers instead of partners in the business? Honestly… much of the problem is us. We’ve failed to manage The Business, and the result is that it takes ownership of us.

Most of the time, when a group of people is disproportionately successful, the cause isn’t any superiority of the average individual, but a trait of the group: they help each other out. People tend to call these formations “<X> Mafia” where X might be an ethnicity, a school, or a company. Y Combinator is an explicit, pre-planned attempt to create a similar network; time will tell if it succeeds. True professions have it. Doctors look out for the profession. With programmers, we don’t see this. There isn’t a collective spirit: just long email flamewars about tabs versus spaces. We don’t look out for each other. We beat each other down. We sell each other out to non-technical management (outsiders) for a shockingly low bounty, or for no reason at all.

In many investment banks, there’s an established status hierarchy in which traders and soft-skills operators (“true bankers”) are at the top, quants are in the middle, and programmers (non-quant programmers are called “IT”) are even lower. I asked a high-ranking quant why it was this way, and he explained it in terms of the “360 degree” performance reviews. Bankers and traders all gave each other top ratings, and wrote glowing feedback for minor favors. They were savvy enough to figure out that it was best for them to give great reviews up, down, and sideways, regardless of their actual opinions. Quants tended to give above-average ratings and occasionally wrote positive feedback. IT gave average ratings for average work and plenty of negative feedback. The programmers were being the most honest, but hurting each other in the process. The bankers and traders were being political, and that’s a good thing. They were savvy enough to know that it didn’t benefit them to sell each other out to HR and upper management. Instead, they arranged it so they all got good ratings and the business had to, at baseline, appreciate and reward all of them. While it might seem that this hurt top performers, it had the opposite effect. If everyone got a 50 percent bonus and 20% raise, management had to give the top people (and, in trading, it’s pretty obvious who those are) even more.

Management loves to turn high performers against the weak, because this enables management to be stingy on both sides. The low performers are fired (they’re never mentored or reassigned) and the high performers can be paid a pittance and still have a huge bonus in relative terms (not being fired vs. being fired). What the bankers were smart enough to realize (and programmers, in general, are not) is that performance is highly context-driven. Put eight people of exactly equal ability on a team to do a task and there will be one leader, two or three contributors, and the rest will be marginal or stragglers. It’s just more efficient to have the key knowledge in a small number of heads. Open source projects work this way. What this means is that, even if you have excellent people and no bad hires, you’ll probably have some who end up with not much to show for their time (which is why open allocation is superior; they can reassign themselves until they end up in a high-impact role). If management can see who is in what role, it can fire the stragglers and under-reward the key players (who, because they’re already high performers, are probably motivated by things other than money… at least, for now). The bankers and traders (and, to a lesser extent, the quants) had the social savvy and sense to realize that it was best that upper management not know exactly who was doing what. They protected each other, and it worked for them. The programmers, on the other hand, did not, and this hurt top performers as well as those on the bottom.

Let’s say that an investment bank tried to impose tech-company stack ranking on its employees, associate level and higher. (Analyst programs are another matter, not to be discussed here.) Realizing the mutual benefit in protecting each other, the bankers would find a way to sabotage the process by giving everyone top ratings, ranking the worst employees highly, or simply refusing to do the paperwork. And good for them! Far from being unethical, this is what they should do: collectively work The Business to get what they’re actually worth. Only a programmer would be clueless enough to go along with that nonsense.

In my more pessimistic moods, I tend to think that we, as programmers, deserve our low status and subordinacy. As much as we love to hate those “business douchebags” there’s one thing I will say for them. They tend to help each other out a lot more than we do. Why is this? Because they’re more political and, again, that might not be a bad thing. Ask a programmer to rate the performance of a completely average colleague and you’ll get an honest answer: he was mediocre, we could have done without him. These are factual statements about average workers, but devastating when put into words. Ask a product manager or an executive about an average colleague and you’ll hear nothing but praise: he was indispensable, a world-class player, best hire in ten years. They realize that it’s politically better for them, individually and as a group, to keep their real opinions to themselves and never say anything that could remotely endanger another’s career. Even if that person’s performance was only average, why make an enemy when one can make a friend?

“Bad code”

Let’s get to another thing that we do, as programmers, that really keeps us down. We bash the shit out of each other’s code and technical decision-making, often over minutiae.

I hate bad code. I really do. I’ve seen plenty of it. (I’ve written some, but I won’t talk about that.) I understand why programmers complain about each other’s code. Everyone seems to have an independent (and poorly documented) in-head culture that informs how he or she writes code, and reading another person’s induces a certain “culture shock”. Even good code can be difficult to read, especially under time pressure. And yes, most large codebases have a lot of code in them that’s truly shitty, sometimes to the point of being nearly impossible to reason about. Businesses have failed because of code quality problems, although (to tell the whole story) it’s rare that one bad programmer can do that much damage. The worst software out there isn’t the result of one inept author, but the result of code having too many authors, often over years. It doesn’t help that most companies assign maintenance work to either to junior programmers, or demoted (and disengaged) senior ones, neither category having the power to do it right.

I’d be the last one to come out and defend bad code. That said, I think we spend too much time complaining about each other’s code– and, worse yet, we tend toward the unforgivable sin of complaining to the wrong people. A technical manager has, at least, the experience and perspective to know that, at some level, every programmer hates other peoples’ code. But if that programmer snitches to a non-technical manager and executive,  well… you’ve just invited a 5-year-old with a gun to the party. Someone might get fired because “tabs versus spaces” went telephone-game into “Tom does shoddy work and is going to destroy the business”. Because executives are politically savvy enough to protect the group, and only sell each other out in extreme circumstances, what started out as a stylistic disagreement sounds (to the executive ear) like Tom (who used his girlfriend’s computer to fix a production problem at 11:45 on a Friday night, the tabs/spaces issue being for want of an .emacs.d) is deliberately destroying the codebase and putting the whole company at risk.

As programmers, we sell each other out all the time. If we want to advance beyond reasonable but merely upper-working class salaries, and be more respected by The Business, we have to be more careful about this kind of shit. I’ve heard a great number of software engineers say things like, “Half of all programmers should just be fired.” Now, I’ll readily agree that there are a lot of badly-trained programmers out there whose lack of skill causes a lot of pain. But I’m old enough to know that people come to a specific point from a multitude of paths and that it’s not useful to personalize this sort of thing. Also, regardless of what we may think as individuals, almost no doctor or banker would ever say, to someone outside his profession, “half of us should be fired”. They’re savvy enough to realize the value of protecting the group, and handling competence and disciplinary matters internally. Whether to fire, censure, mentor or praise is too important a decision to let it happen outside of our walls.

There are two observations about low-quality code, one minor and one major. The minor one is that code has a “all of us is worse than any of us” dynamic. As more hands pass over code, it tends to get worse. People hack the code needing specific features, never tending to the slow growth of complexity, and the program evolves over time into something that nobody understands because too many people were involved in it. Most software systems fall to pieces not because of incompetent individuals, but because of unmanaged growth of complexity. The major point on code-quality is: it’s almost always management’s fault.

Bad code comes from a multitude of causes, only one of which is low skill in programmers. Others include unreasonable deadlines, unwillingness to attack technical debt (a poor metaphor, because the interest rate on technical “debt” is both usurious and unpredictable), bad architecture and tooling choices, and poor matching of programmers to projects. Being stingy, management wants to hire the cheapest people it can find and give them the least time possible in which to do the work. That produces a lot of awful code, even if the individual programmers are capable. Most of the things that would improve code quality (and, in the long term, the health and performance of the business) are things that management won’t let the programmers have: more competitive salaries, more autonomy, longer timeframes, time for refactoring. The only thing that management and the engineers can agree on is firing (or demoting, because their work is often still in use and The Business needs someone who understands it) those who wrote bad code in the past.

One thing I’ve noticed is that technology companies do a horrible job of internal promotion. Why is that? Because launching anything will typically involve compromises with the business on timeframe and headcount, resulting in bad code. Any internal candidate for a promotion has left too many angles for attack. Somewhere out there, someone dislikes a line of code he wrote (or, if he’s a manager, something about a project he oversaw). Unsullied external candidates win, because no one can say anything bad about them. Hence, programming has the culture of mandatory (but, still, somewhat stigmatized) job hopping we know and love.

What’s really at the heart of angry programmers and their raging against all that low-quality code? Dishonest attribution. The programmer can’t do shit about the dickhead executive who set the unreasonable deadlines, or the penny-pinching asswipe managers who wouldn’t allow enough salary to hire anyone good. Nor can he do much about the product managers or “architects” who sit above and make his life hell on a daily basis. But he can attack Tom, his same-rank colleague, over that commit that really should have been split into two. Because they’re socially unskilled and will generally gleefully swallow whatever ration of shit is fed to them by management, most programmers can very easily be made to blame each other for “bad code” before blaming the management that required them to use the bad code in the first place.

Losers

As a group, software engineers are losers. In this usage, I’m not using the MacLeod definition (which is more nuanced) and my usage is halfway pejorative. I generally dislike calling someone a loser, because the pejorative, colloquial meaning of that word conflates unfortunate circumstance (one who loses) with deserved failure. Here, however, it applies. Why do we lose? Because we play against each other, instead of working together to beat the outside world. As a group, we create our own source of loss.

Often, we engage in zero- or negative-sum plays just to beat the other guy. It’s stupid. It’s why we can’t have nice things. We slug each other in the office and wonder why external hires get placed over us. We get into flamewars about minutiae of programming languages, spread FUD, and eventually some snot-nosed dipshit gets the “brilliant” idea to invite nontechnical management to weigh in. The end result is that The Business comes in, mushroom stamps all participants, and says, “Everything has to be Java“.

Part of the problem is that we’re too honest, and we impute honesty in others when it isn’t there. We actually believe in the corporate meritocracy. When executives claim that “low performers” are more of a threat to the company than their astronomical, undeserved salaries and their doomed-from-the-start pet projects, programmers are the only people stupid enough to believe them, and will often gleefully implement those “performance-based” witch hunts that bankers would be smart enough to evade (by looking for better jobs, and arranging for axes to fall on people planning exits anyway). Programmers attempt to be apolitical, but that ends up being very political, because the stance of not getting political means that one accepts the status quo. That’s radically conservative, whether one admits it or not.

Of course, the bankers and traders realize the necessity of appearing to speak from a stance of professional apolitical-ness. Every corporation claims itself to be an apolitical meritocracy, and it’s not socially acceptable to admit otherwise. Only a software engineer would believe in that nonsense. Programmers hear “Tom’s not delivering” or “Andrea’s not a team player” and conceive of it as an objective fact, failing to recognize that, 99% of the time, it means absolutely nothing more or less than “I don’t like that person”.

Because we’re so easily swayed, misled, and divided, The Business can very easily take advantage of us. So, of course, it does. It knows that we’ll sell each other out for even a chance at a seat at the table. I know a software engineer who committed felony perjury against his colleagues just to get a middle-management position and the right to sit in on a couple of investor meetings. Given that this is how little we respect each other, ourselves, and our work, is it any wonder that software engineers have such low status?

Our gender issues

I’m going to talk, just briefly, about our issues with women. Whatever the ultimate cause of our lack of gender diversity– possibly sexism, possibly that the career ain’t so great– it’s a major indictment of us. My best guess? I think sexism is a part of it, but I think that most of it is general hostility. Women often enter programming and find their colleagues hostile, arrogant, and condescending. They attribute that to their gender, and I’m sure that it’s a small factor, but men experience all of that nonsense as well. To call it “professional hazing” would be too kind. There’s often nothing professional about it. I’ve dealt with rotten personalities, fanaticism about technical preference or style, and condescension and, honestly, don’t think there’s a programmer out there who hasn’t. When you get into private-sector technology, one of the first things you learn is that it’s full of assholes, especially at higher levels.

Women who are brave enough to get into this unfriendly industry take a look and, I would argue, most decide that it’s not worth it to put up with the bullshit. Law and medicine offer higher pay and status, more job security, fewer obnoxious colleagues, and enough professional structure in place that the guy who cracks rape jokes at work isn’t retained just because he’s a “rockstar ninja”.

“I thought we were the good guys?”

I’ve often written from a perspective that makes me seem pro-tech. Originally, I approached the satirical MacLeod pyramid with the belief that “Technocrat” should be used to distinguish positive high-performers (apart from Sociopaths). I’ve talked about how we are a colonized people, as technologists. It might seem that I’m making businesspeople out to be “the bad guys” and treating programmers as “the good guys”. Often, I’m biased in that very direction. But I also have to be objective. There are good business people out there, obviously. (They’re just rare in Silicon Valley, and I’ll get to that.) Likewise, software engineers aren’t all great people, either. I don’t think either “tribe” has a monopoly on moral superiority. As in Lost, “we’re the good guys” doesn’t mean much.

We do get the worst (in terms of ethics and competence) of the management/business tribe in the startup world. That’s been discussed at length, in the essay linked above. The people who run Silicon Valley aren’t technologists or “nerds” but machiavellian businessmen who’ve swooped in to the Valley to take advantage of said nerds. The appeal of the Valley, for the venture capitalists and non-technical bro executives who run it, isn’t technology or the creation of value, but the unparalleled opportunity to take advantage of too-smart, earnest hard workers (often foreign) who are so competent technically that they often unintentionally generate value, but don’t know the first thing about how to fight for their own interests.

It’s easy to think ourselves morally superior, just because the specific subset of business people who end up in our game tends to be the worst of that crowd. It’s also a trap. We have a lot to learn form the traders and bankers of the world about how to defend ourselves politically, how to stand a chance of capturing some of the value we create, and how to prevent ourselves from being robbed blind by people who may have lower IQs, but have been hacking humans for longer than we could have possibly been using computers. Besides, we’re not all good. Many of us aren’t much better than our non-technical overlords. Plenty of software engineers would gladly join the bad guys if invited to their table. The Valley is full of turncoat software engineers who don’t give a shit about the greater mission of technology (using knowledge to make peoples’ lives better) and who’d gladly sell their colleagues out to cost-cutting assholes in management.

Then there are the losers. Losers aren’t “the bad guys”. They don’t have the focus or originality that would enable them to pull off anything complicated. Their preferred sin is typically sloth. They’ll fail you when you need them the most, and that ‘s what makes them infuriating. They just want to put their heads down and work, and the problem is that they can’t be trusted to “get political” when that’s exactly what’s needed. The danger of losers is in numbers. The problem is that so many software engineers are clueless, willing losers who’ll gladly let political operators take everything from them.

When you’re young and don’t know any better, one of the appeals of software engineering is that it appears, superficially, to tolerate people of low social ability. To people used to artificial competition against their peers, this seems like an attractive trait of the industry; it’s not full of those “smooth assholes” and “alpha jocks”. After several years observing various industries, I’ve come to the conclusion that this attitude is not merely misguided, but counterproductive. You want socially skilled colleagues. Being the biggest fish in a small pond just means that there are no big fish to protect you when the sharks come in. Most of those “alpha jocks” aren’t assholes or idiots (talk to them, nerds; you’ll be surprised) and, when The Business comes in and is looking for a fight, it’s always best to have strong colleagues who’ve got your back.

Here’s an alternate, and quite possible hypothesis: maybe The Business isn’t actually full of bad guys. One thing that I’ve realized is that people tend to push blame upward. For example, the reputation of venture capitalists has been harmed by founders blaming “the VCs” for their own greed and mismanagement. It gives the grunt workers an external enemy, and the clueless can be tricked into working harder than they should (“they don’t really like us and haven’t given us much, but if we kill it on this project and prove them wrong, maybe they’ll change their minds!”). It actually often seems that most of the awfulness of the software industry doesn’t come directly from The Business, but from turncoat engineers (and ex-engineers) trying to impress The Business. In the same way that young gang members are more prone to violence than elder dons, the most creative forms of evil seem to come from ex-programmers who’ve changed their colors.

The common enemy

So long as software engineers can easily be divided against each other on trivial matters like tabs versus spaces and scrotum versus kanban, we’ll never get the respect (and, more importantly, the compensation) that we’re due. These issues distract us from what we really need to do, which is figure out how to work The Business. Clawing at each other, each trying to become the favored harem queen of the capitalist, is suboptimal compared to the higher goal of getting out of the harem.

I’ve spoken of “The Business” as if it were a faceless, malevolent entity. It might sound like I’m anti-business, and I’m not. Business is just a kind of process. Good people, and bad people, start businesses and some add great value to the world. The enemy isn’t private enterprise itself, but the short-term thinking and harem-queen politics of the established corporation. Business organizations get to a point where they cease having a real reason to exist, and all that’s left is the degenerate social contest for high-ranking positions. We, as programmers, seem to lack the skill to prevent that style of closed-allocation degeneracy from happening. In fact, we seem to unintentionally encourage it.

The evil isn’t that software is a business, but that technical excellence has long since been subordinated entirely to the effectively random emotional ups and downs of non-technical executives who lack the ability to evaluate our work. It’s that our weird ideology of “never get political” is actually intensely political and renders us easy to abuse. Business naturally seems to be at risk of anti-intellectual tendencies and, rather than fight back against this process, we’ve amplified it just to enjoy the illusion of being on the inside, among the “cool kids”, part of The Business. Not only does our lack of will to fight for our own interests leave us at the mercy of more skilled business operators, but it attracts an especially bad kind of them. Most business people, actually, aren’t the sorts of corporate assholes we’re used to seeing run companies. It’s just that our lack of social skill appeals to the worst of that set: people who come in to technology to take advantage of all the clueless, loser nerds who won’t fight for themselves. If we forced ourselves to be more discerning judges of character, and started focusing on ethics and creativity instead of fucking tabs-versus-spaces, we might attract a better sort of business person, and have an industry where stack ranking and bastardized-“Agile” micromanagement aren’t even considered.

If we want to improve our situation, we have to do the “unthinkable” (which is, as I’ve argued, actually quite thinkable). We have to get political.

Why corporate conformity doesn’t work

Narcissism and conformism seem, at first glance, to be somewhat opposite of each other. A narcissistic person believes deeply in his own superiority: others are inferior, detestable, and exist to be used toward his own ends. Narcissists demand attention and adoration, and a continual recognition by the group in which they reside that they’re a cut above. If they can’t lead a group, because it won’t let them, they’ll sabotage it to prove (to themselves, if nothing else) that they were smarter all along. When in a leadership position, they’re typically bad at it, much more focused on “managing up”– that is, appealing to the higher-ranking and more successful narcissists above them– than truly leading the team. It’s not surprising that peoples’ narcissistic colors break out in the corporate world, in which invisible differences between people can produce order-of-magnitude differences is remuneration, division of labor, and respect. Most white collar workers secretly believe, like the narcissist but for different reasons, “I’m better than this job.”

Advocatus Diaboli wrote beautifully on this topic:

The most important difference between blue-collar and white-collar workers is not about differences in levels of formal education, artistic tastes or social attitudes. [It is about] how they see their peers. Blue-collar types tend see their peers as colleagues (good or bad) who are in the same boat they are in. White-collar types see their peers as life-long adversaries who do not belong in the same boat they are in. Some also believe that they “really” belong to a much more exclusive boat and were just plain unlucky to land in their one they are in. (Emphasis mine.)

I’ll get back to that contention, held by many, and (arguably) true for many. Most institutionalized working people are stuck in roles far below their capability. The “I’m too good for these people” contention is pure narcissism, devoid of value or truth. Most people, by definition, are average relative to the groups in which they reside. On the other hand, “I’m too good for this job” is, for many, an accurate reflection of reality. They’re being asked to do things that could be done with far less training, skill, and natural ability. That is, also, an uneasy place to be. People who are overqualified for their jobs can be replaced by (or, worse, surrounded by and eventually answering to) sloppier, less skilled, and cheaper workers. They’re more likely to see their conditions decline (as their positions are eliminated, commoditized, and consolidated) than ever to be recognized (unless they change companies) as built for better things.

Corporate conformity, on the other hand, appears superficially to be a denial of that narcissism. The corporate conformist’s modus operandi is to eliminate even the slightest suspicion of narcissistic stirrings. To distinguish oneself in any way is detrimental. Being the laziest person on the team is deadly, but so is being the hardest worker. Being the office liberal or office conservative or office Christian or office atheist is yet another way to ensure that promotion never happens. It’s not about what one’s political views are. Even when many people agree with him, the office liberal showed arrogance by thinking that his views matter and should be heard. Differentiating oneself should only be done in the blandest way. Even travel can be off-limits: going on more interesting vacations than one’s colleagues or superiors should not be talked about. Many young people attempt to cover gaps in employment with “world travel” and that’s a terrible strategy. If you’re going to lie to cover a work gap, use a painful, trying experience like a failed startup or a resolved health problem instead of travel, which induces resentment. No one envies mononucleosis.

Teamism

Corporate conformity doesn’t demand self-effacing retreat. In fact, the people who never speak up are just as likely to be sidelined as those who speak up in the wrong way. What it does require is adherence to a certain cult: teamism. One might notice that “team” is an overused and abused word in business. Executives call themselves “the leadership team” (gag!) in a public denial of what they actually are: an unprogrammed assortment of the most successful social climbers, still prone to (un-“team”-like) in-fighting.

Furthermore, the terminology of being “on” a team has its own interesting double-speak. At the bottom, team membership is discussed as factual organizational placement: which double-digit-numbered page of the org chart one’s name is written on. “Oh yeah, I’m on Tom’s team.” Executives and upper-tier managers use “on a team” to mean something different– undistinguished, mediocre, unproven, or just unlucky. As in, “if I fuck up this presentation, I might end up on a team in my next job”. The hideous, irrelevant truism, “there is no I in ‘team'” shows an understanding of how the business world actually operates. There are high-flying fighter pilots (I’s) with established personal brands. Recruiters know them by name, and great jobs come to them. Then there are teams which house the mediocre, commoditized losers who sit at the bottom and justify their petty salaries by picking up work that no one else wants to do.

Why teamism? Why is it so ubiquitous? Is it effective? (Yes, but to what end?) The answer is that American corporate life has experienced three fundamental phases of development, each corresponding to a position in the fundamental “What is human nature?” debate.  The first, which peaked in the Gilded Age, is what we call the “Theory X” view of management. Theory X holds that people (in particular, employees) are fundamentally dishonest, lazy, and selfish. This is the Hobbesian “human nature is evil” stance. A Theory X manager must intimidate his workers, lest they steal from him or slack. Beginning around 1925, the more progressive industrialists (such as Henry Ford) began to realize that this wasn’t entirely true. Theory X indicates that it’s most efficient to dominate people totally. But, empirically, shortening work hours increased productivity, and increasing wages resulted in both higher morale and more commercial success (because people could afford what was produced). At least relative to the frank indecency of Gilded Age management, human decency was proven to be good business.

From the late 1940s to the 1970s, Theory Y (“human nature is good”) dominated. Under Theory Y, workers are naturally self-motivated and creative, unless corrupted by bad management or intimidated into mediocrity. The Theory Y manager’s job is to remove obstacles and let the people below her create. People who are trusted, for the most part, will end up deserving it. Theory Y sounds wonderful; every workplace should be like that, no? So what killed it off? The culprit was the “elitism is sexy again” mentality that re-emerged in the Reagan Era (1980s). Theory Y was true enough when socioeconomic inequality was at an all-time low. For most workers, there wasn’t enough at stake to justify harming their employers. Doing something harmful, that would damage others’ careers or harm business operations, wasn’t worth it just to get a promotion that brought a 20% raise. People were probably just as narcissistic in the Theory Y heyday as they are now, but a 20% pay bump doesn’t give enough social distance for one to get away from the long-term reputation risks involved in harmful behavior. Change that raise to 500 percent, and it’s a different story. The narcissist is more empowered by the new calculus (“if I succeed, I’ll get away from these losers forever”). In 1965, there wasn’t as much to gain through bad behavior at work in 1985, when selling out an employer’s secrets to the nearest private equity firm got a person a job that paid in one month what the previous job paid out over a year.

The Theory Y workplace was trusting, open, and mutually altruistic and it could be, because external social inequality was at an all-time low. Selfish and bad behavior certainly has always been with us, and so it certainly happened even in the Theory-Y heyday, but there wasn’t the epidemic of it that could threaten a company’s existence. That changed in the 1980s, because the external stakes were so much higher. Workplaces had to become secretive, distrusting, and somewhat ruthless again. Bosses who weren’t feared had their careers ruined by a rising cohort of Boomer yuppies, and ceased to be bosses.

Theory X was driven by simple human greed, but its moral support came from  an “original sin” mentality, one that the secularism of the mid-20th century discarded. Calvinism held that work was, literally, a punishment for The Fall. That went out of style, and good riddance. Theory Y, however, proved itself to be too optimistic about human nature and what people are. By 1985, we’d seen as a society that people can be highly creative, industrious, and even altruistic with only moderate reward. The successful moon landing was executed not by billionaires, but by men and women who loved the work. So we’d seen some impressive Theory-Y victories. You simply wouldn’t be able to get something like the Apollo program with Theory-X management. We’d also seen that Theory Y’s optimism (echoes of which still exist in the culture of Silicon Valley, despite extreme Theory-X behavior at the top) didn’t have the whole picture. Given a sweet enough carrot, some people would do the wrong thing, and while it might not be that most people would, we’d seen that there are enough such people to present an existential threat to a business– or, at least, to a too-trusting executive’s career. We had to invent something new. If Theory X was the original-sin thesis, Theory Y was its antithesis; the synthesis became what I call “Theory Z”, or the cult of teamism.

Is human nature good, or evil? For a simplification, let’s identify “good” with altruism and “evil” with militant selfishness (egoism). Few people are degenerately egoistic, but even fewer are universally altruistic. Most people are localistic. They do care about people and things beyond themselves: their families, their physical neighborhoods, their companies and nations, and so on. People view themselves at the center of a nested collection of neighborhoods and care about the closest and smallest ones the most. The greater the distance (social, tribal, or physical), the less they care. None of this is surprising, and what it tells us is that human nature isn’t prevailingly “good” or “evil”. It’s somewhere in between, for most of us. In the corporate context, this predicts that peoples’ “corporate altruism” should be strong in a small company and weaker in a large one, and we see that to be true. It tells us that people would rather delegate undesirable work to a remote office (especially in a foreign country) than burden their officemates. That, we also see. The social and emotional bonds that are relevant tend to be formed over time through shared experience and physical co-presence. While Theory X motivates by intimidation, and Theory Y believes people are intrinsically rightly motivated so long as management doesn’t corrupt them, Theory Z attempts to harness team cohesion: bonds formed by physical closeness as well as shared experience (and suffering). Theory X was obsessed with the egoistic human, and Theory Y believed in a fundamental altruist; Theory Z is a practical (but intensely manipulative) approach focused on localism. The Theory Z manager recognizes that the individual worker doesn’t give a damn about the company as a whole (and, since Theory Z is closer to X than Y, most companies aren’t worth caring about, from a worker’s perspective) but is willing to bet that he won’t fuck over his buddies.

Mike Cohn explains it well in the software context, with this short blog post, “Sssh… Agile Is All About Micromanaging.” Those blessed enough not to be familiar with the cult that has been made of “Agile” can still learn much from this revelation.

[T]he deep, dark secret of agile: It’s all about micromanagement. Almost every principle and practice of agile is there to support micromangagement.

  • The daily scrum is about micro-managing the team’s daily work plans and making sure that everyone is doing what they say they’ll do. [...]
  • Pair programming is about making sure that programmers don’t lose focus, don’t goldplate, don’t work on only the fun stuff, and that they clean things up.

Ah, but who is it that is doing this micromanagement? It’s the team.

The purpose of the Theory Z teamism is to replace one boss five hundred feet away with ten bosses twenty feet away. It’s to diffuse responsibility when people are rejected (fired). The official manager can deflect responsibility by claiming “the team” discarded the unwanted employee. It also makes it easier for people to play political games while remaining vague in whom they are attacking. Instead of discussing specific people, they can say “the tech team is weak” and (in truth) target specific people (possibly the CTO, possibly the specific person on that team related to a matter) with plausible deniability. The purpose of Theory Z teamism is to make Theory X (micromanagement, prevailing distrust, executive greed) look like Theory Y (commitments and “consensus”). In a world that has outgrown top-down religion (Theory X) but found secular humanism (Theory Y) toothless, local microcults are the new rage. Theory Z encourages management to tailor microcults to specific corners of the company. The cloying, common theme within and between these microcults is team. The executive suite is “the leadership team”. HR won’t let you call a disliked employee a “shithead”, so you call him “not a team player”. It enables the upper management (still inclined to Theory X thinking) to hide the true dynamic of the relationship between (exploited) employee and (rent-seeking) organization by redirecting the focus to employee and “team”. You wouldn’t drop the ball on your team, Mac?

If my negativity about teamism makes it sound like I’m “anti-team”, that’s not the impression that I’m trying to convey. When an actual team synergy exists, it’s great for everyone. It’s more fun to be on a winning team than to win alone. All that said, the truth of most organizations is that there are no winning teams. The winners are executives, ace fighter pilots, and proteges who get to move about the company as themselves. It’s the rest, the non-Elect losers, who are “on a team”. The corporate world is one in which the winners interoperate with multiple teams as they choose, rather than being stuck at one table in an assigned seat. Of course, the executives still call themselves “the leadership team”, but that’s just how they market themselves internally within the organization. They aren’t a team in any meaningful sense. They’re out for themselves, and they wouldn’t be executives if they were any other way. Those who are “on a team” are the ones who don’t have any independent credibility, but who serve at the mercy of parochial “team leaders” (middle managers). Theory Z isn’t about teamwork. It’s about corralling the disaffected losers that a company still needs and saying, “be a team, now!”

My issue, then, isn’t with teamwork or genuine team formation, because those aren’t what Theory-Z teamism is. Teamism is forced team identity. Its seed mythology is that those who have been slotted by fortune (or misfortune) to answer to the same middle manager constitute a “team” in any meaningful sense. It lends false objectivity (“not a team player”) to the language used to denigrate and discard those who awaken and realize that the corporate gods don’t exist. Finally, it glorifies mediocrity and slave mentality, by applying terminology with positive associations (such as genuine teams that achieve things that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an individual) to the unfortunate, miserable state of being at the bottom of an organization.

Counter-narcissism

Teamism (“team unity”) is the justification for the extreme conformity that the corporate environment demands. When a person has multiple bosses, with new dotted lines forming at all times, there isn’t room for self-expression, and the optimal strategy is to be as bland and average as one can be, except in short bursts of targeted activity intended toward a specific promotion. (Failure often results in termination, so one must be prepared for that.) To stand out is taken, implicitly, to be a personal statement of, “I don’t have to follow your rules”, which is interpreted as “I’m too good to follow your rules”. While narcissism is tacitly accepted in the executive ranks– at a high enough level, they’re all narcissists or they wouldn’t be there– even a whiff of narcissism is viewed as toxic when it appears “on the team”. Teamism, then, is a militant anti-narcissism. It seeks out and punishes those who think they’re too good for their jobs, or who just seem to think so. As a side effect, this also punishes excellence, because people who do their jobs uncannily well are going to appear to be up to something (Theory X). Teamism is great at inducing uniformity and reliable mediocrity, and quite successful on its own terms, but it does a terrible job of encouraging people to perform beyond the Socially Acceptable Middling Effort, or the SAME.

In the short term, teamism does a fantastic job of getting what the executives want, which is for people to work hard under an assumed “social contract” with the team. The thing is that “the team” has no power. The organization can break the social contract at any time, and argue that it never existed. Over the long term, this leads inexorably to corporate degeneration. (Executives know this, but tolerate it because they’ll be promoted away from their posts before it’s a personal issue for them.) Teamism encourages people to target their effort levels toward the SAME. People who are talented can usually achieve the SAME and have energy to spare, and will find their way to better places. (This may have them promoted into upper management, or moved to better teams, or externally promoted into another company; or, it might get them isolated, rejected, and fired. Either way, the result is the same: they leave.) This has an “evaporative” effect: the more competent people leave, and the less able stay. Underperformers gradually push the SAME downward, it being safer to slightly underperform than overperform in most organizations. The SAME drifts, slowly but inevitably, toward zero. After a while, upper management will take note, but by this time, it’s often too late to do anything about it, and the remedies that do exist are toxic ones that don’t work. Executives might attempt to institute stack ranking, for example, to scare people back into working. This, however, re-awakens the narcissism and political machination that the teamism was invented to tamp down.

What is the corporate value of teamism? Why do contemporary corporate executives favor it over the management-by-fear Theory-X style, or the permissive altruism of the Theory-Y school? The short answer is that Theory Z teamism is Theory X with Theory Y trappings. It allows organizations to behave in a Theory X way (rent-seeking, throwing loyal employees overboard for any cause) while encouraging the worker to focus locally, on people in the same boat, whom one is inclined to empathize with. The longer answer is that teamism is better at exploiting cognitive dissonance as well as guilt. Teamism is aggressive counter-narcissism, its purpose being to inculcate people with the belief that they aren’t too good for their shitty jobs. If they sit on teams, and they see similarly talented people underutilized on low-quality work, it strengthens the executive case. Abstractly, most white-collar workers think (or, I would argue, know) that they’re good for what they’re asked to do. When they go into an office and see others suffering just as much as they are, it’s much harder to hold that view, because (although I disagree with this reasoning) it equates the thought, “I am too good for this job”, with “I am better than him, that guy doing an equivalently crappy job”. Some people think that way about those they sit next to on a daily basis, but most people don’t like thinking that way. Hence, cognitive dissonance sets in. If people become used to the sight of highly qualified people in humiliating, subordinate roles doing menial work, they’re likely to accept that situation for themselves.

The business view

What, pray tell, do executives gain from this? After all, isn’t it a business loss to underemploy people? On paper, it might be. Potential revenue (opportunity cost) is squandered when highly-qualified people are assigned to low-quality work. However, the profit-maximizing organization is a fictitious person. It doesn’t really exist, insofar as it cannot implement its will. For that, it relies on executives, individuals who’d rather hold a high degree of control in a malfunctioning organization than risk that control to improve it. The executive doesn’t give a damn about the organization’s profitability or long-term health. He only cares about the effect of those variables on his career, and he realizes that his needs are best served by keeping the people around him loyal. Knowing this, he often benefits more by hoarding control than anything else. A false scarcity in the allocation of important or desirable work is a powerful tool. Giving some of that power up (say, by implementing open allocation) might make the organization better and more successful, but it won’t make it easily controllable.

There is, at root, a fundamental conflict of interest between “the business” (and its desire to maximize profit, revenue, or subjective health) and the executives who actually control it. It is best for the business that all employees have the chance to contribute as usefully as their talents allow, but it’s best for executives to keep important work assigned only to proven loyalists who, even should they outperform their executive patrons, will never challenge the position of the ones who lifted them.

False scarcity

The reality, for most white-collar workers, is that their narcissistic impulse isn’t entirely wrong. Most of them are too qualified for their positions. To understand why I can assert this as if it were an objective fact, let’s examine the nature of a subordinate organizational role. To say that someone is “too good” for a specific task is a bit offensive and not especially defensible. I have cats, I clean their litter box, and I’m not “too good” for that job because someone has to do it. From first principles, the fact that work is unpleasant and menial doesn’t mean that a talented person should be “too good” for it. (People who think otherwise are likely to be actual narcissists.) So the positive definitions of a role (i.e. the things one is expected to do) don’t make a job “beneath” a talented person. So I won’t focus on unpleasant duties. Rather, I’ll focus on the negative definitions associated with a subordinate role, or the do-nots. Don’t attempt cultivate a relationship with anyone above your manager. Don’t work on things you weren’t explicitly assigned to do. Don’t speak “off script” in the presence of important people. These prohibitions (and not specific undesired tasks) are the causes that give a person of even moderate talent the justification in believing that he’s simply too good for the role.

I’d argue that most people are, factually, too good for their jobs. As I’ve said above, I don’t think anyone is too good to do an unpleasant task if it must be done. The truth is, however, that most of white-collar work isn’t about performing necessary tasks or about producing anything. It’s about managing perceptions, helping one parochial warlord beat out another, and appearing subordinate enough to (a) please one’s immediate manager, and (b) present a positive image of that manager to his superiors. Most white-collar office workers have to be present for 8 (or more) hours each day not because there’s that much work (there usually isn’t) but because working fewer hours would present the image that their bosses can’t control their charges. For the white-collar worker, most of one’s “work” time is spent supporting authority through sacrifice (most visibly, of time) rather than producing anything real. Most of the stress doesn’t come from the tasks to be performed, but from the chronic job of presenting oneself in a way that one can acquire and maintain permission to do meaningful work, which is kept in short supply by the parasites (executives) who define and allocate it. Most of the work that is done is just there to keep up appearances in an organization that could do just fine without half its people, but (luckily for them) is constitutionally incapable of figuring out which half.

When talented people realize their real jobs aren’t to produce but to subordinate, they conclude (accurately): I’m too good for this bullshit. And they’re right, all of them. They deserve better. That’s not narcissism. It’s accurate self-perception within an institutional prison that shouldn’t exist.

If people awakened to this at once, and collectively, it could spell the end of the current corporate system. What has to happen, to prevent that, is to single out those who awaken and shame them as narcissists. Closed allocation systems work exactly to that purpose. One who puts himself out there by (usually unwisely) suggesting he’d be more useful to the company doing something else can then be interpreted as acting as if he’s too good for his team and immediate manager. This makes him disliked and will have him rejected by the team (and fired) in time, intimidating those who remain. Toward the executives’ goal of maintaining control at all costs (even when it harms or may destroy the company) it is brilliant, because even the slightest internal assertions are penalized automatically. Theory Z teamism is perfect from a parasitic executive’s perspective. Most people are intelligent enough to distrust and dislike corporate executives, even within their own companies. Few people are stupid enough to overlook the fact that at least 80 percent of these high priests called “executives” are overpaid, pampered, worthless parasites. The result is that anti-executive sentiment (possibly leading to unionization, which would threaten management’s power and profits) would spread quickly if people weren’t inculcated into a sort of cultish, corporate religion. The brilliance of Theory Z is that it has people convinced they are working not for upper management (which they, rationally and rightly, couldn’t give a damn about) but their immediate team.

The result is a punitive, miserable system in which even the slightest self-assertions– even normal human impulses– are treated as arrogant narcissism. (Many religions and most cults use the same dynamic; not to believe certain improbable claims is made into rejecting one’s community.) Few people will take that social risk, and the result is an extreme conformism.

The twist

If a sort of militant anti-individualism, presented as anti-narcissism, takes hold in an organization, extreme conformity will result. Perhaps surprisingly, most people are unaware that it has happened. “My company isn’t like that.” Sorry, but it probably is. Unless you have direct on-the-spot responsibilities to important customers, showing up at specific times, regardless of whether there is work to do, is conformity. Working only on assigned projects, or only on projects assigned to a specific subcorner (sorry, I mean “team”) of the company, is conformity. Spending 8 hours per day in a state of low-level social anxiety (the long-term health risks of which are poorly publicized) not because it produces useful work, but to uphold a power relationship, is conformity. I think, sadly, that I’m accurate in arguing that over 90 percent of American workplaces are conformist hellholes that destroy creativity and squander (abuse, even) talent. Some may think that technology companies or VC-funded startups might provide a way out but, empirically, those are some of the worst in this regard.

So what about narcissism and its purported antithesis of “being a team player”? Ultraconformist workplaces might be undesirable, but shouldn’t one agree that narcissism is a bad (and, to a business, dangerous) thing? Might it be worth it to suffer a bit of conformity if the negative effects of the true narcissist are curtailed? Don’t the people at the bottom need to learn, anyway, that they aren’t special snowflakes?

Reality intrudes. Here’s the thing about conformity: it might seem like an antidote for narcissism, but it needs to be enforced. By whom? Who wants the role of conformity’s Enforcer? Generally, such people turn out to be narcissists, those who arrogate the role of speaking for a large group (as large can they can get) because of the power it commands. Narcissists, of course, love power, and have the deepest understanding of the impulses (narcissistic and otherwise) that impel others to compete with them for it. The result is that, the more conformist an organization’s culture is, the more power that organization has already given away to true narcissists.

This gets to the heart of what I’ve taken to calling the Organizational Problem. Simply put, organizations cannot be stable because they rely on people to keep them up, and because the power associated with upkeep often attracts the worst kinds. Organizations have a justified fear and dislike of the true narcissist, because such people are truly toxic when in positions of power. What they are unable to prevent, seemingly without exception, is the ability of the toxic narcissist to gain entry into whatever suborganization (be it management or an official “culture police”, as some startups have) it relies on to spot and kick out narcissists. Psychopaths truly are the cancer cells of the human organization, the fittest ones not only able to elude the immune system, but often capable of redirecting it against healthy cells.

The case for corporate conformity is that it blocks the advancement of narcissists, who supposedly can’t thrive in a conformist environment. The (completely wrong) assumption is that, because the conformist environment denies individual expression (much less admiration) the psychopath or narcissist will be unable to function in it. The reality is that narcissists (and especially psychopaths) love conformist environments. The slightly-narcissistic normal person sees the corporate conformity– the rules and expectations it imposes on people– as restraint; but the psychopath sees them as weapons. It’s no surprise that psychopaths like weapons. (Non-psychopathic narcissists do, too, but for different reasons. In general, they prefer to wear but not use the sword.)

The Organizational Problem is so convoluted and deep that I cannot offer a general solution. I wish I could. I’ve tried to find one and, honestly, haven’t been able to come up with anything simple enough to impart in a few thousand words. I don’t think there is a “closed-form” answer. I think the best that we can do, on the ground, is to remove the obstacles that don’t work, on the grounds that they generate social complexity that will, in general, benefit the narcissist and the psychopath. The first step for us, all of us, might be to accept our basic humanity and reject the toxic conformity that seems to settle, if unopposed, in the corporate world.