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”. The second is that we allow this “passion” to be used against us. 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.

Meritocracy is the software engineer’s Prince Charming (and why that’s harmful).

One of the more harmful ideas peddled to women by romance novels and the older Disney movies is the concept of “Prince Charming”, the man who finds a young girl, sweeps her off her feet, and takes care of her for the rest of her days. It’s not a healthy concept, insofar as it encourages passivity as well as perfectionism in mates. But it also encourages women to make excuses for bad (and often abusive) men. Because the archetype is so unreasonable, men who can make themselves seem to fulfill it are the manipulative and sometimes abusive ones, not genuine good (but flawed) men. I’d argue that software engineers have a similar Prince Charming.

It might begin as a search for “a mentor”. Savvy software engineers take knowledge and favor from multiple people, but every Wall Street or Silicon Valley movie showcases a mentor/protege relationship as the path to success. Meet this magical person, and he’ll take care of your career from there on out. That doesn’t exist for most people, either, and most software engineers learn that around age 25. Their counterreaction is to develop a bizarre self-reliance in which they start refusing help, wanting to work alone, and denigrating those who advance their careers based on “politics” or “connections”. Having too much dignity to wait for a magical mentor to rescue them from mediocrity, they insist on their new Prince Charming, an interpersonal force that will recognize and elevate talent: meritocracy.

The problem with meritocracy is that every organization claims to be one, yet almost all organizations are deeply political. Software engineers are not a subtle breed, so I must imagine that they imagine most non-meritocracies perceive themselves as such, and admit so much, and that’s clearly not true. Oil companies, banks, startups and dysfunctional academic bureaucracies all have this in common: they believe in their own meritocracy. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be self-consistent and stable. “We’re a meritocracy” means nothing. And what is “merit”? Organizations make promotion decisions not to recognize some abstract principle of “merit”, but on what is perceived to be in the short-term, narrow interest of the organization. It’s not what software engineers mean when they use the term merit, but one could argue that political acumen is organizational merit. The people who are promoted in and end up dominating organizations are… those most able to convince organizations to promote them, whether through delivering objective value or by trickery and intimidation. It’s a self-referential, Darwinian sense of “merit” akin to “fitness”. Darwinian fitness is neither a matter of good, bad, or anything other than the ability to self-replicate.

Of course, I know what software engineers mean when they say they want to live in a “meritocracy”. They want important decisions that affect their working lives to be made by the right people. The problem is that the ability to make good executive decisions is almost impossible to measure, reliably, especially on a timeframe that businesses would consider acceptable. Political machinations can happen, on the other hand, in split seconds. Saying something stupid in a meeting can end someone’s career, even if that person is, in general, a good decision-maker. It takes too long to select leaders based on the quality of their decisions, so organizations develop political side games that end up consuming more energy, time and attention (especially at high levels) than the actual work or purpose of the organization. Generally, this side game takes on the feeling of a war of attrition. Nonsensical pressures and busywork are added until people embarrass themselves out of contention, or their health fails, or they leave to pursue better options, leaving one person standing. Software isn’t different from that, with the long hours and posturing machismo and general disregard for health.

By believing in meritocracy, software engineers trick themselves into making excuses for awful companies and bad bosses that hurt their careers, destroy their confidence, and unapologetically exploit them. When they enter organizations, they tend (at least, when young) to want to believe in the self-professed “meritocracy”, and it’s hard to let such an idea go even in the face of adverse evidence. When these engineers are betrayed, it’s practically an ambush.

Older, savvier engineers know that few workplaces are meritocracies. In general, the claim of “meritocracy” is nothing more than a referendum on the leadership of the company. For this reason, it’s only in the midst of an open morale crisis (in which firing the obviously unhappy people isn’t viable because almost everyone is obviously unhappy) that one can admit to the organization’s non-meritocracy.

The expensiveness of it all

Software engineers’ belief in meritocracy costs them money and career advancement. By conflating their organizational position (low, usually) with personal merit, their confidence falls to zero. Computer programming, if marketed properly, ought to be “the golden skill” that allows a person unlimited mobility within industry. However, we’ve allowed the businessmen who’ve colonized us to siloize us with terms like DBA, operations, data scientist, etc., and use those to deny opportunities, e.g. “you can’t take on that project, you’re not a real NLP programmer”. As a class, we’ve let these assholes whittle our confidence down to such a low level that our professional aura is one either of clueless youth or depressive resignation. When they beat us down, we tend to blame ourselves.

Our belief in meritocracy hurts us in another way, in that we justify things being unduly hard on us. We hate the idea of political promotion. Perhaps, on first principles, we should. What this means is that engineers are promoted “confirmationally” rather than “aspirationally”. In HR-speak, confirmational promotion means that they’re given formal recognition (and the organizational permission to operate at the level they have been) once they’re already working at the level signified by the title. Aspirational promotion means that people are promoted based on potential, but this opens the door for a host of clearly political promotions. On paper, confirmational promotion is superior, if infuriatingly slow. (It requires people to blow off their assigned duties and to take unrequested risks.) Engineers, of course, prefer confirmational regimes. And what’s wrong with that?

Engineers don’t like to negotiate, they don’t like politics, and they’re against favoritism. Most have a proud self-reliance that would leave them uncomfortable even if personally favored. They’re also, in general, irreverent toward title as long as they believe they’re fairly paid. To them, confirmational promotion is right. The problem? Everyone but engineers is promoted aspirationally. Engineers need long, completed, successful projects to get bumped to the next level. What, pray tell, does it take to become VP of Product or Senior Manager as opposed to Manager, or to rise on just about any of the nontechnical tracks, in most tech companies? Absolutely nothing. There is no fucking magic there. You have to convince someone to “see something” in you. That is, you have to play politics.

To the engineer’s chagrin, playing politics comes easily for most ambitious people. It sure isn’t rocket science. Getting over one’s own moral objections is, for most people, the hardest part. The result of this is that nontechnical tracks, including management tracks that often cross over engineers, are characterized by easy aspirational promotion driven by favoritism and politics. The “meritocratic” engineering track is clearly much more difficult. There are people over 35, with IQs over 140, who haven’t made “senior engineer”, for fuck’s sake. (At a “mere” 125 IQ, you’re smarter than 97% of the nontechnical VPs at most tech companies.) It’s characterized by confirmational promotion, instead. And this is a point of pride for software engineers: it’s really hard to climb the ladder, because one is competing with the smartest people in the organization, and because while favoritism exists, political promotions are much rarer on the engineering track than on non-technical tracks (largely because promotions in general are rarer).

This is something that software engineers don’t really get. What do job titles actually mean in organizations? Companies will say that “Director” means one thing and “VP” means another, with some jargon about “the big picture” and a person’s responsibilities within the organization. The truth is that they mean very little, other than serving as political tokens that prove the person was able to get them. “Director” means, “he was able to negotiate a salary between $X and $Y from HR”. Not more.

Where it leads

If you ask an engineer whether he thinks he’s ready to be VP of Engineering or CTO, you’ll get a half-hearted, self-deprecating answer. “You know, I might be ready to lead a small team, but I’m not sure I’m at the VP/Eng level yet.” Cluelessly, he believes that “the VP/Eng level” exists objectively rather than politically. On the other hand, if you ask a nontech the same question, he’ll take it without hesitation. Even if he’s terrible at the job, he gets a generous severance (he’s a VP) and will fail up into a better job. The relevant concept here is the effort thermocline, or the level in an organization where jobs stop being harder with increasing rank, but become easier (although, more political). It can be politically difficult to get a job above the effort thermocline, but it’s ridiculously easy to keep it. At that point, one has power and credibility within the organization sufficient that one cannot, personally, fail due to a lack of effort.

Nontechs, except for clueless people in their 20s who haven’t figured out what they want to do, go into work with one purpose: to get promoted beyond the effort thermocline. That’s not to say that they’re all unambitious or lazy. They’re just realistic about how the game works. Even if you want to work hard, you don’t want hard work to be expected of you. If you’re an SVP and you show up for work every day and put in an honest effort, you get credit for it. If you’re a worker bee, you get nothing for your 8-or-more hours per day. It’s just what you’re expected to do.

Above the effort thermocline, promotion is political, and people stop pretending otherwise. When you get “into the club”, you’re permitted to speak frankly (and hear frank speech) about how the organization actually works. The issue with the engineer’s mind is that it clings to a belief in right and wrong. It’s moralistic. It struggles to accept what people really are. Engineers don’t want to contend with the basic fact of most organizations, which is that they’re politically corrupt and dysfunctional, because most people are lazy, greedy, and weak. I’d likewise argue that this is connected to the low levels of acquired social skills in people like software engineers. It’s not a neurological disability for most. They never learn to read cues beyond a subconscious and juvenile level, because they hate what they see, which is that humans are mostly defective and that many are horrible.

Engineers don’t like the concept of the effort thermocline, or of political promotion in general. As much as they can, they’d refuse to have it within their ranks. I’d tend to side with the engineers. Who wouldn’t, from first principles, prefer a meritocracy over a political rat’s nest? The business responds by turning off political promotions for most engineers– while the rest of the organization continues to get them. The result is that, while they start off well in terms of pay and occupational dignity, engineers are being surpassed by the nontechs (who gleefully accept political promotions and feel none the worse for it) by age 30 and, by 40, are undervalued and way underpaid relative to their worth to their companies.

Engineering tracks in organizations are notoriously title-deflating, in comparison to the rest of the business world. Most software engineers would be appalled by how little talent and work ethic are required to become a non-technical VP at even the most esteemed tech companies. Many of these people are lazy (11-to-3 with 90-minute lunches) and just plain dumb. And by dumb, I don’t mean programmer dumb (understands the theory behind neural networks, but has never put one in production) but actual shame-to-the-family, village-idiot stupid. You know how towns in the Midwest used to bus their “defectives” to San Francisco in the mid-20th century? Well, so does the corporate world, and they end up as nontechs and upper management in tech companies.

Conclusion?

Meritocracy is the Prince Charming of the software engineer. It doesn’t exist. It never has, and it never will. Some have asked me to comment on recent HR issues occurring at open-allocation technology companies. The only thing I can say is that, yes, open-allocation companies have serious political issues; but closed-allocation companies have those same issues and more. Open allocation is strictly superior, but not a panacea. When there are people, there is politics. The best an organization can do is to be fair and open about what is going on, and hope to achieve eventual consistency.

Every organization defines itself as a meritocracy, and most engineers (at first, until they are disillusioned with a company) will tend to believe it. They aren’t stupid, so they don’t believe their companies to be perfect in that regard, but they (cluelessly) tend to believe that meritocracy is a core value of the leadership. Almost never is that the case. “We’re a meritocracy” is code for, “don’t question promotions around here”.

The Prince Charming delusion of meritocracy is dangerous because it leads people to make excuses for bad actors. Every company has to lay off or fire people, and frequently these choices are made with imperfect information and under time pressure (one large layoff is less damaging to morale than several small, measured, layoffs) so often the wrong people are let go. A self-aware organization understands this and lets them go gracefully: with severance, outplacement assistance, and positive reference. A delusional “meritocracy” has to cook the books, create psychotic policies that impede internal mobility for everyone, and generate useless process in order to build phony performance cases. In practice, just as many people are let go as in established (and less delusional companies) but their reputations have to be demolished first, with bad project assignments and hilariously disingenuous “performance improvement plans“. Personally, I’d rather see the honest, times-are-tough, layoff than the tech company’s dishonest “low performer initiatives”, much less the permanent (and destructive) rolling layoff of stack ranking.

The biggest casualty, however, of the typical engineer’s head-in-sand attitude toward political promotion is that they never stop happening to everyone else. Engineers just make themselves ineligible. Engineers want promotion to be confirmational (that is, resulting from demonstrated merit) rather than aspirational (that is, based on potential and, therefore, subjective, personal, and political). The problem with this is that, after 10 to 20 years, most engineers haven’t been able to demonstrate even 20% of what they’re capable of. They kept getting crappy projects, were never allowed to finish anything, were rushed to produce work that broke under strain, and their lack of finished accomplishment (due to political forces often not their fault) left them ineligible for promotion to more senior roles, but too old to even pretend in the junior roles (hence, the age discrimination problem). After that gauntlet of false starts and misery, they’re still answering to nontechnical people and executives who had the benefit of aspirational, political promotion. By refusing to play politics and believing in the false god of meritocracy, they deprived themselves of the full spectrum of causes for advancement. Politics, however, went on regardless of whether they believed in it.

This false meritocracy is very clever when it comes to reinventing itself. Few expect a large company like, say, Alcoa or Exxon-Mobil to be a meritocracy. Engineers have figured out, as a group, that “big companies” become political. The response? Startups! Venture capital! The actual result of this has been to replace well-oiled and stable (if inefficient) corporate non-meritocracies with the mean-spirited and psychotic non-meritocracy of the VC-funded ecosystem and the feudalistic reputation economy that the leading investors, through collusion, self-dealing, and note-sharing, have created. The cheerleading of intellectually charismatic figures like Paul Graham and Marc Andreessen has managed to create a sense of meritocracy in that world, but belief in those idols also seems to be waning, and I’m proud to say that I contributed to that loss of faith.

If meritocracy is impossible, what should we do? As individuals, we need to learn to fight for ourselves. It’s not undignified or desperate or “pushy” to look out for our own interests. It’s what everyone else is doing, and we should get on board. As a collective, we need to have honest introspection on what we value and how best to achieve it. Perfect meritocracy within any organization is impossible. It is good to strive for that, but bad to believe it has been achieved anywhere. Eventual consistency and technical excellence are achievable, and we should aim for those.

Before we do anything, though, we need to learn how to fight for ourselves. Bringing frank knowledge to the good, in that fight, is what I’ve been striving to do all along.

The right and wrong way to lie in business, Part 2

In the previous essay, I opened an honest discussion of the ethics and practice of lying in business. I argued that it is better to tell one large-enough lie than a hundred small lies, and that the best lies are those to establish social equality in spite of an existing trust-sparse environment. That is, you lie to flip one’s bozo bit to the “off” position, but not to go any further and certainly not in an attempt to establish superiority over the other party. I also argued that one should aim to lie harmlessly. People who spread malicious gossip ruin themselves as much as their targets. They become, figuratively and literally, bad news. Now I’ll cover a third principle of lying in business: own the lie.

3. Owning the lie.

Lies, even ethical ones, can be corrosive to relationships. People have a visceral aversion to being lied to. When you lie to someone, you’re making the statement that you don’t believe the person can be trusted with the truth. In reality, most people can’t be trusted with the truth. The truth is too complex, they’ll only understand it partially, and often conclude against you based not only the truth but on their own superficial, limiting prejudices. However, it’s not socially acceptable to tell people that you can’t trust them with the truth. You can’t just say, “I’ve inflated my job titles because we barely know each other, and I’m afraid that you’ll write me off if you know that I was only Director, not a VP”. This means that you never want to be caught lying to someone. It’s less damaging if you tell the lie to a group that they happen to be a part of.

Lying to someone is corrosive because people take it personally. This means that, when you decide to lie, you have to be comfortable telling the lie to everyone. Moreover, you have to act, going forward, as if the lie were true. There’s a saying in creative writing, most often applied to poets, that the bad ones borrow and the good ones steal. Incompetent people lack the originality to deviate from a found gem, so they replicate it in a way that is overly literal and clumsy. The adept creators, on the other hand, know that very little in the world is entirely original, so they willingly take ideas from disparate sources and merge them in a way that is uniquely theirs. A similar rule applies to lying in business: steal, don’t borrow. If you’re going to lie about something, you must be prepared to continue lying about it until the end of time. People are unable to detect truth in others, so they fixate on consistency (which is hypocritical, because human beings are deeply inconsistent) instead. The result of this is that, for any lie you intend to tell, you must make sure it is consistent with existing written facts, and live in a way that continues to be consistent with it.

Things that are inconsistent put people ill-at-ease. For example, Wall Street has a negative reputation among the public and, while some of that’s earned, much of it’s not. People hold a negative view of markets in general, and a large part of that is that they appear inconsistent. The “fair value” of a corporation can rise or drop by a billion dollars in a day for no apparent reason. (More accurately, there is a trade-off between availability, efficiency, consistency at a given time, and consistency across time. Markets favor the first three and abandon the fourth.) To people who want everything to be “fairly” priced, it seems like something shady is going on. How can it be that the “fair value” of something changes so erratically? In reality, nothing shady is (at most times) going on; it’s just that the platonic “fair value” doesn’t exist. To the general public, however, this feels like inconsistency, and hence there are complaints about “price gouging” when market forces drive the price of gas to $4 per gallon.

Of course, there are bad things that happen on markets. There are manipulators, dishonest schemes, and moral hazards pertaining to risk (especially when derivatives are used) all over the place. Markets also do a great job of local optimization (what is the best price for butter?) but fail at achieving equally important global targets, such as avoidance of poverty and social breakdown, enforcement of human rights, protection of the environment, and universal healthcare. Much that happens on Wall Street deserves to be despised, and I don’t intend to claim otherwise, and much of the American corporate system is far from a free market anyway. I simply purport that the visceral dislike humans have (and have had, for centuries) for market mechanics has little to do with the actual abuses, and is more a result of an overreaction to their obvious (but not morally objectionable, since supply and demand do change, sometimes rapidly) inconsistency. Something that is constantly changing (such as a claimed “fair price”) is distrusted. That applies to human beings as well. An intelligent person changes his views when they discover new information, or just because they think about a problem in a different way, but a politician whose ideology evolves is called a “flip-flopper”.

So what does it mean to own a lie? Many people, when they tell a lie for the first time, get petty enjoyment out of it. “I got away with it!” Don’t fall for that petty “rush”. It’s actually really easy to get away with most lies. That’s why the consequences for being caught are often so disproportionate to the offense. Many companies, at least by their outward claims, hold a zero-tolerance policy toward lies on resumes because, in fact, 95 percent of those lies are never caught, requiring the penalty for those who are caught to be at least 20 times the possible gain. (Moreover, in that other 5 percent, those are usually people who are going to be fired anyway, and put under re-investigation because the company wishes to renege on a contractual executive severance, or to somehow extort the caught liar.) Getting away with a lie is actually the typical, default, outcome. It shouldn’t be celebrated. One definitely shouldn’t take in the petty thrill of “getting one over” on someone. Some people get addicted to that thrill and become the purveyors of small or harmful lies: the blowhards and gossips. That’s useless, because it’s so easy to get away with lies.

When you decide to lie, to improve your career or reputation, you’re not “getting one over” on anyone. You’re taking a non-truth and making it true. You will forever act as if it were true. The people you’ve lied to haven’t been defeated or bested. You’ve had no win against them. You changed the truth independent of them. You, then, told that truth to them. You related to them as equals, not as if they were gullible inferiors.

If the above sounds vaguely psychotic, it’s not my intent. Yes, if you’re going to use a lie, you must own it. For example, if your lie is that a previous employer placed you in its high-potential program, you have to stop complaining about that company and how unfair the place was. It’s best to convince yourself that the lie was true, because it has become the new truth. Now, if one began owning delusions, one might tend toward (if not psychosis) pathological narcissism. That’s clearly not good. Instead, I would argue that one should only tell ownable lies. That restricts the scope of what one can lie about, which is generally a good thing. Lying is somewhat of a surgical art. You have to change one aspect of “the working truth” without creating inconsistencies or having too many side effects on unrelated “working truths”. It’s far from easy to do it right.

I initially said to “lie big”, and I stand by that. By “big” I mean effectively and tactically. The social costs of lying (even if not caught) are severe enough that one should not lie without an agenda. A hundred small lies become impossible to keep up. That one should usually lie harmlessly, and restrict oneself to ownable lies, push downward on the scope of reasonable lies and keep a person from lying too big. Some people lie about the college they attended. That’s a terrible idea. Faking a four-year experience, to one who has actually had it, is pretty much impossible. If the lie can’t be owned, then don’t tell it.

What is the truth? How can it be “modified”?

The concept of truth is much more complicated than people like to admit. “It is 39 degrees in New York City.” Is that a true statement? As of 8:16 am on April 6, 2014, it is objectively true (at least, according to The Weather Channel). At other times, it will be false. There is nothing about New York that makes it inherently 39 degrees. That’s a property of it at a given time, and the world on April 7 will be nearly indistinguishable (apart from trusted written record) from one in which New York’s temperature was a different number. “In Inception, Cobb dreamt the entire thing.” Is that true? People debate it, and while I’d rather not spoil the movie, I think the evidence points a certain way on that. But is it a fact? No, it’s a conclusion one draws from presented fiction. There’s a book (I won’t name it, because that would spoil it) where the titular character discovers that she’s a character in a book, written for a woman (call her Helen) who’s “real”. Of course, Helen’s also a character in a book, so “Helen is real” is not a truthful statement about reality about intent. The author intends her to be real within a universe that is fictional. Ah! But can anyone other than the author speak to intent? And couldn’t that author truthfully (or, at least, consistently) represent his intent in myriad ways?

You should never lie in a way that contradicts an objective fact. This should be obvious. Don’t cook the books; you will probably get caught. The good news, for those who need to lie, is that most human behavior and judgment (especially in business) is based on pseudofacts, which are much more manipulable. “Erica is good at her job.” “Stanley was formally recognized as a high-potential hire.” “Andrea does not get along well with the team.” “Jason was only promoted because he’s the boss’s favorite; Jason must have something on him.” All of those sound like factual statements, but are completely subjective.

Great minds discuss ideas, middling minds discuss events, and base minds discuss people. (Most minds are base, and great minds are base some of the time.) Ideas stand alone on their own merit and can be debated from first principles. The extreme of this is mathematics, where things are objectively true (within a specific formal system) or not. Even “controversies” within mathematics (e.g. the Axiom of Choice) pertain not to whether the axiom is valid mathematics (there is a valid mathematics with Choice, and a valid one without it) but to the subjective question of which of these equally valid mathematical frameworks is more useful and deserves more study. As for events, those stand in for facts in a more parochial but also more applicable way. “2 plus 2 is 4″ is a factual theorem that is always true, everyhwere. “The temperature in New York at 8:16 am was 39 degrees” is an event, or a piece of data, relevant to one place and point in time. We can reason about why the seasons exist, in the realm of ideas, and such explorations have informed humanity’s understanding of the solar system and, eventually, the cosmos; but if we want to know what to wear for a trip, we’re better off with empirical data (events) pertaining to the weather we can actually expect. Further down the line, we have the business world, still driven by emotion far more than by data. There, judgment of people (the ultimate bike shed) outweighs anything else, and one should do whatever is necessary (lie, intimidate, cajole, bribe) to make sure the relevant parties come down on the right side.

In the realm of ideas, a lie is an objective falsehood like “2 plus 2 is 5″. One should assume that those will always blow up, making the liar appear foolish. However, in the realm of events, lies can be inserted relatively easily. “At 8:16 am on April 6, 2014; the temperature in New York was 60 degrees.” That’s false, but it could conceivably be true. New York, in April, has cold days and warm days. Nothing contradicts it (although there are other, more reliable, readings that would call it into doubt, since New York isn’t known for microclimates). Even with that written record, it’s theoretically possible (if unlikely) that one observation point recorded a valid 60-degree reading while the rest were around 39. All that said, the realm of events has got to remain mostly truthful. Let’s say that the world of mathematics is 100% truthful. Events that are recorded as true in various databases (climate, physics experiments, business) are probably true 99.9999% of the time. Occasionally, there’ll be a ridiculous reading. When it comes to people, especially in business, it’s mostly non-truth that we call “reputation”: social-status-biased judgments that, while full of exaggeration and rumor, are used because they’re the best proxy we have. Not quite lies, not quite truth. Bullshit would be a good technical term. Most of the information we use to judge other people in the business world is bullshit: non-verifiable, non-truthful non-lies. “Sam left because he couldn’t hack it.” “Teresa wasn’t a team player.” “Bill was the obvious leader of the group.” “Mark only wanted to work on the fun stuff.” These statements are utterly subjective, but it’s their subjectivity (and their bullshittiness) that makes them so powerful. People are viscerally drawn to those of high status. Merit is something we invent because we want to believe we’re more than animals, and that our decisions are made from more of a high-minded place than they actually (for most people) are. Status is what humans judge each other by, and it’s almost all bullshit. Sam (above) left because his lack of pedigree had his superiors dropping low-end grunt work on him. Teresa’s high intelligence intimidated those around her and she was saddled with the “not a team player” epithet. Bill claims he was the leader of the group, and the rest were too meek to oppose him. Mark was an objective high performer but disliked for his political views, and “only wanted to work on the fun stuff” was the only charge that could stick, in the effort to damage his reputation. All of that stuff, above, is judgment of people (complex organisms, simplified with labels like “not a team player” or “high performer”) given false objectivity. One lies because one needs to fight it, and to “correct” unfavorable judgments of oneself.

False events and the new truth

To lie effectively, one has to operate in the realm of events, which is the world of middling (and practical) minds. In the realm of ideas, it is hard to lie, because bad ideas usually end in some sort of contradiction or failure. The judgment of people can’t be addressed directly, because it’s not socially acceptable to discuss, directly, what people are actually trying to figure out. Let’s say that you’re under attack. I’ll use, again, the case of a negative reference when seeking a job. Your ex-boss is saying that you were a poor performer and that he wouldn’t hire you again. What is the best counterattack?

  • A. “Well, he’s a jackass.”
  • B. “That’s because he’s a child molester.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)
  • C. “You know, that’s funny, because three months after I left, he called me begging to re-join his team. He even offered me a 20% raise.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)
  • D. “He never liked me, because I’m a Red Sox fan and he’s a Yankees fan.” (Assuming that’s a lie.)

The answer is, of course, C. But why is it C? Let’s eliminate the other three. Answer D violates “lie big”. It’s a small lie and it’s just not believable. There might be a few people who are so vested in sports fandom that they’d ruin someone’s life over it, but they’re rare and typically don’t acquire organizational credibility such as a management position. It’s a small lie. When you use a small lie as “the explanation” for something negative in your past, you lose credibility, because even if you may not have deserved the hit against you, you’re showing a lack of insight into what happened. So strike D, that’s a no-go. Answer B violates “lie harmlessly”. It’s understandable that one would be angry when facing a negative reference, and wish to ruin that person’s reputation and life. That might be a worthy project in its own right. However, the practical need at the moment is to recover from the accusation of poor work performance, not to damage the one making the claim. “He’s a child molester” doesn’t answer the question. It raises more questions. (How do you know? Why haven’t you reported him?  It’s too big of a lie, way too harmful, and doesn’t help you. His being a pervert doesn’t invalidate his accusation against you.

We’ve stricken the two obvious bad answers. What about Answer A, which is arguably the only truthful answer (non-jackasses don’t ruin their ex-subordinates’ careers, so I can call A “truthful” from first principles) among the four? Aside from the general prohibition against “bad-mouthing” ex-employers– that’s a prohibition that might not apply here (negative references put you squarely into atypical territory, and when you have to choose between your reputation and an ex-employers you always favor yours)– why does “he’s a jackass” fail you? You’re addressing judgment of people directly– too directly, in fact. That’s not socially acceptable, because gossip is so low-minded. You have to make it look like you’re discussing objective events. If you don’t have any, make some up.

Most of the judgment-of-people bullshit (to use the technical meaning of bullshit, which is a non-truthful non-lie, neither true nor false because the claim is of such low value that its truthfulness is undefined) can be subverted with the insertion of non-truthful events. Bad reference from an ex-boss? Repeat again: “three months later, he begged me to rejoin his team.” Bad performance review interfering with internal mobility? “I accidentally upstaged him in a meeting with his manager by having an idea that his boss really liked. He tried to take credit and, being loyal, I actually let him, but his boss still attributed it to me.” Fired from a previous job? “I left on amicable terms, and my manager has repeatedly said that the door’s still open.” Ex-boss said you’re “not a team player”? “Man, he told me not to work so hard because it was making the rest of the team insecure. I thought we were past that, but I guess not.” You can almost always recover from a smear, even when cloaked in false objectivity, by inserting non-truthful events (verbal conversations, with no record, are the best) into the stream. When you do so, you’re not “telling a lie”. You’re changing the truth. Those conversations, even if they never happened physically, now did happen. You make it a fact that your ex-boss begged you to rejoin his team, and your choice to remain with your new job (your professionalism) is actually why he’s smearing you. This makes the explanation for his smear against your performance much simpler than the complex array of things (typically, a months-long story that caused bad things to happen to a good person) that actually happened. It’s a mind-fuck, I won’t deny it. That’s why one shouldn’t lie often.

Ethics, past and future

I’ve put forward that there are good and bad liars. A “bad liar” could be the ineffective kind or the unethical kind. The ineffective ones are the blowhards. They may or may not get caught in specific lies, but they fail to achieve their desired effects. Seeking to elevate their social status through non-truth, they undermine their own credibility and become laughingstocks. Those who strive to achieve social superiority through lies usually end up that way. It’s much better to lie just enough to establish equality and basic credibility– that is, to overcome the prejudices that emerge in a trust-sparse system. Doing this requires that one’s lies simplify. The problem with blowhards is that they’re so in love with their own (exaggerated or outright made-up) stories that they litter the “claimed event stream” with complexity and lose credibility.

Let’s step away from the blowhards (really, they aren’t that interesting) and ask a higher-minded question. What differentiates the ethical liars from the unethical ones? This is a subjective matter (I’m sure not everyone will agree with my definition of ethical) but I think the crux of it is that ethical liars focus on fixing the past: making it simpler and cleaner so it goes down easier. They’re manicuring their own reputations and removing some hard-to-explain bad luck, but not trying to mislead anyone. On the other hand, fraudsters intend to deceive about the future. Con artists want their targets to believe in high-impact future events (specifically, financial returns) that simply aren’t going to happen. Ethical liars are making it easier for counterparties to make the right decision for both parties, and using non-truth to overcome the pernicious, lose-lose, inefficiency of a trust-sparse world. Often, simplifying non-truths about the past are necessary to overcome embarrassments that, trivial as they are, might disrupt the trust needed to build a future that is properly coherent and (paradoxically) more truthful than what would emerge if those non-truths weren’t there. Unethical liars, on the other hand, want their targets to make what are, for the target, wrong decisions. That is, I think, the fundamental difference. Ethical liars simplify the past to make the future truthful. Unethical ones want the future to contain even more untruth (specifically, untruth that benefits them).

It is bizarre that, in the judgment-of-people theatre of business, the best way to achieve truth is (sometimes) with a strategic lie. I don’t know how to resolve that dissonance. It’s probably connected to quite a few of the deeper philosophical questions of general human politics. That’d take at least another essay to explore.

Until then, go forth, beat the bad guys, and lie carefully.

The right and wrong way to lie in business, Part 1

There’s a New York Times article entitled “The Surprisingly Large Cost of Telling Small Lies”. According to it, the best strategy for success in business is never to lie. Not surprisingly, few people can get through even a short conversation without telling a lie. I don’t disagree with the premise that honesty is often the best approach to forming a genuine, long-term relationship. However, it wouldn’t be honest for me to give the advice that one should never lie in business. In fact, there are times when it’s the optimal approach, and even cases when it’s ethically the right thing to do.

It’s rare that someone will say, under his or her real name, that people should lie on their CVs or have peers pose as ex-managers on reference calls or otherwise misrepresent their prior social status. I won’t exactly go that far. If the purpose of your lie is to turn a truthful 90th-percentile CV into a pants-on-fire 99th-percentile one, you should usually spare yourself the headache and not lie. If you have an ex-boss who hates you and has cost you jobs with negative references, you probably should have a peer fill in for him. These are judgment calls that come down to a case-by-case basis, and I don’t think the general problem has a simple solution.

What I can offer are three principles for lying in business: lie big, lie harmlessly, and own the lie.

1. Lying big

By “lie big”, what I really mean is, “lie effectively”. The lie has to be big enough to matter, because unskilled and small lies will drag a person down with unanticipated complexity. You can easily paint yourself into a corner. We just don’t have, as humans, the cognitive bandwidth to keep up ten unrelated lies at the same time without becoming utterly exhausted.

The cost of a lie isn’t, usually, being caught. Perhaps 99% of the lies people tell to inflate their social status are never explicitly caught, but they can do damage on a subconscious level. Social interaction is a real-time problem, and the psychological overhead involved in keeping up a network of lies is often detectable. The lies themselves aren’t detected, and the conscious thought, “he is lying”, probably never occurs. However, the liar appears less genuine. Astute people will find him “fishy” or “sketchy”. He might seem like he’s trying too hard to impress people, or that he’s a “politician”. Nothing formally sticks to him, but he doesn’t warm hearts or earn trust. That is the most common case of the person who lies too much: never caught, but never really trusted. He’s a blowhard, full of himself, and probably doesn’t have the best motivations.

That, above, is the logical endpoint of too many lies. How to people get to blowhard status? Small lies. Pointless, minuscule lies that inflate the liar’s status but in a meaningless way, like cheating at a golf game. In sitcoms, these “white lies” blow up in some hilarious way and are resolved inside of 20 minutes (“oh, that Jack!”) In real life, they tend to just accumulate. People don’t like confrontation, and it’s more fun to egg the liar on anyway, so they prefer not to call the blowhard out on his shit. They’d rather watch him make a fool of himself. The only people who’ll do that for the blowhard are his best friends; but some people are so addicted to the petty thrill of tiny lies that they alienate everyone and have no friends. Then, they’re past the point of no return.

One big lie that achieves a strategic effect is infinitely superior to the cognitive load and social upkeep of a hundred little lies toward the same effect. Make the lie count, or don’t lie.

So, what are some good reasons to lie? This is going to sound completely fucked-up, but the best reason to lie is to earn basic trust (a technical term that I’ll define later). Now that I said something that sounds obnoxious, let me explain why it’s not. People lie, most of the time, for one basic reason: social status modulation. This establishes a taxonomy of lies that gives us four categories: (I) up-modulating status to equality, (II) up-modulating status past equality, or to superiority, (III) down-modulating status to equality, and (IV) down-modulating status to inferiority. I’m not going to focus on down-regulation here. Type III lies are usually harmless omissions, justifiable as social humility, and Type IV is sycophantic and rarely useful. So, let’s focus on the upward lies: types I and II. Type I lies are to establish equality, and those I recommend. If you’re an entrepreneur dealing with an investor who’s never been fired, then you’ve never been fired (even if you have). Type II lies are the lies of the blowhard. Avoid those. Once you are lying just to seem smarter, better, or more connected than the people you are lying to, you’re going to come under a hundred times more scrutiny. If you only lie to establish equality, the level of scrutiny is much lower, because to scrutinize your claims is to assert superiority, and people (even in positions of power) generally aren’t comfortable doing that.

So, the best reason to lie is to up-regulate one’s status to equality, and not beyond it. People who fixate on superiority become small liars. Rather than lying strategically, they’re so focused on being dominant at everything that they lie even when the stakes are petty, and eventually make fools of themselves.

That said, when is it right to lie? Examine your past, your job history, and reputation. Are you a social equal with the other party, and would you expect him to feel that way? You need not be more accomplished; he might be older or just luckier. You need not be richer. You do need to be a social equal. Figure out what that means in your given context. Next, are you looking to form a long-term friendship or a “weak tie”? If the former, try to avoid generating new lies. If you’re interested in forging genuine friendships, honesty really is the best policy. Weak ties have different rules. A weak tie is a tacit understanding of social equality and credibility. It’s only about what I’ve termed “basic trust”. You don’t get a lot of time in which to form (or not form) it. You’re going to be judged superficially. It’s not enough to be a person of merit; you have to look like one.

A theme that continually recurs around the question of honesty is complexity. Small lies generate a nasty complexity load. Even though you won’t be caught on specific lies– because if you’re a known blowhard, no one cares– you’ll start to lose your general credibility (basic trust). Astute people can practically smell the smoke of an overheated mind. Complexity is the devil. In software, it’s a source of bugs. In data science, it’s a source of “over-fitted” models with no predictive power. In politics, it’s a source of exploits and loopholes. In social interactions, it’s a source of general enervation. People throw their hands up and say, “I can’t figure this shit out”, and it’s just lose-lose. When you want them siding with you, they back away slowly.

So when is it the absolute right strategy to lie? Sometimes, the truth is too complex for people to handle. The lie might be simpler, and this might favor it, especially under the superficial judgments that form (or break) weak ties in business.

Take the biggest disappointment of your career, dear reader. Chances are, there were multiple contributing factors. Some were your fault, some weren’t. There were probably months of warning signs along the way. This setback or disappointment will be different for everyone, so let’s come up with a model example: a two-year-long “hero story” that still leads to a negative outcome, such as being fired. On the social market where weak ties are formed, are most people willing to hear a story that complex, and expend the cognitive energy necessary to come down on the right side? Nope. They hear the words “I was fired” and the “bozo bit” goes into the on position. Everything else becomes a story of a weak or unlucky person trying to justify himself. In these cases, it’s better to present a simple lie that goes down easy than the complex truth. It might even be more socially acceptable. For example, “bad-mouthing” an ex-employer is usually more disliked than telling a bilaterally face-saving story (that is, a lie).

This importance of weak ties and simplicity to the heart of it, which is the (above-mentioned) notion of basic trust. Basic trust doesn’t mean that a person is trusted in all things. Would you, as reader, trust me with a million dollars in cash? Probably not. However, you’re reading what I am writing, which means you trust that what I have to say is worth your time. Basic trust is the belief that someone is essentially competent and has integrity. The person is worth hearing out, and treating as a social equal. This is more bluntly termed the “bozo bit”, or “flipping the switch”. If the bozo bit is “on”, that person’s input is ignored. If it’s “off”, that person will usually be treated as a social equal, regardless of differences in rank or wealth.

Organizations can be trust-sparse or trust-dense, and tend to “flip the switch”, collectively, at once. Elite colleges are trust-dense, insofar as students generally trust each other to have valid intellectual input. Some people may lose that trust (because there are idiots everywhere, even at top schools) but new people start out with the bozo bit in the “off” position. There’s a basic trust in them. Most companies become trust-sparse at around 50 people. The way one can tell is to examine its attitude toward internal mobility. Formal performance reviews are already a sign of trust-sparsity, but when those become part of the transfer packet, the organization is stating that it only considers managerial input in personnel decisions. Trust sparsity is the rule, and non-managerial employees (i.e. those who haven’t been vetted and placed on a trusted white-list) have their bozo bit “on”. At a later point, organizations become trust-sparse even within the managerial subset, and begin requiring “VP-level approval” for even minor actions. This means that the organization has reached such size that even the managerial set exhibits trust sparsity, and only a smaller subset (those with VP-level titles) are trusted by the organization.

Trust sparsity is unpleasant, but something one must contend with. If you cold-call a company or send a resume without a personal introduction, you have to prove that you’re not a loser. One might find high-status arrogant people with shitty prejudices (“I don’t hire unlucky people”) abhorrent. Abstractly, I might agree with that dislike of them. That doesn’t mean they’re never useful. I wouldn’t want to have a meaningful relationship with a hiring manager who thinks anyone with a less-than-perfect career history is a loser, but he is a gatekeeper, and I might lie for the purpose of using him.

When should you lie in business? There is one good reason. You lie to “flip the switch” on your bozo bit. It’s that simple. In a trust-sparse organization, or the world at large, it often takes a reasonably big lie to achieve that. Lying by saying that you earned “Employee of the Month” in July 2007 won’t do it, because that’s one of those small lies that really doesn’t mean anything; you need affirmation that your previous company considered you a genuine high-potential employee. (You were placed in the semi-secret “high-potential program” and had lunch once a month with the CEO.) So lie big. Make the lies count, so you can make them few, and keep that complexity load down. Massage your past and reputation, if needed. Change a termination to a voluntary departure. If it suits your story, back-recognize yourself as a leader or a high-potential employee by the organization where you last were. Flip that bozo bit into the “off” position, establishing social equality with the other party. And lie no more than that.

2. Lying harmlessly.

It is my reckless honesty that has me speaking on the rectitude of certain classes of lies in business. Good lies are those that get past peoples’ prejudices to establish basic social equality and form useful “weak ties”. I do not advocate being unethical. If you make a promise you can’t possibly deliver, you’re doing the wrong thing and deserve the punishments that fall upon you. If you claim to be a licensed doctor and you’ve never set foot in a medical school, that’s job fraud and you deserve to go to jail. That’s not what I’m talking about.

If you massage dates on your resume to cover a gap (remember that a simple lie can be better, socially, than a complex truth) then that’s ethically OK; you’re not doing anything wrong. (Still, don’t get caught on that one. Many in business have Category 5 man-periods over even the smallest resume lies. Best to keep lies out of writing.) If you falsely claim to been in the top bonus bucket during your analyst program, because the private equity firm to which you’re applying won’t interview you otherwise, you’re doing no wrong. They deserve to be lied to, for having such a shitty prejudice.

Lies that hurt people are more likely to be caught than those that don’t, and most lies that hurt people are flat-out unethical. Avoid that kind. Your goal in lying should be to make yourself win, not to have others lose.

In a trust-dense setting, one should never have to lie, and one generally shouldn’t lie, at all. It’s lies that bring the organization or subculture toward trust-sparsity in the first place! On the other hand, trust-sparsity admits opportunities in which one can lie while causing no harm to anyone. In trust-sparse settings, people are assumed to be low-status idiots (“bozos”) unless formally recognized otherwise, with accolades such as job titles and managerial authority, and they’re almost never given the opportunity to prove otherwise. If a person of essentially good character and ability can use strategic non-truths to establish credibility, and lies no more than is necessary to do that, then no harm was done. In fact, it can be ethically the right thing to do. The person simply took ownership of his own reputation by inserting a harmless non-truth. This “flipping one’s own switch” is subversive of the general trust-sparsity, but trust-sparsity is goddamn inefficient at any rate, and society needs this sort of lubrication or else it will simply cease to function. This is why, in the MacLeod analysis of the organization, so-called Sociopaths (who are not all bad people, but generally political and willing to employ the forms of dishonesty I uphold) are so necessary. Without lies, nothing gets done in a trust-sparse world.

The problem is that people often do lie harmfully. There are two major kinds of harmful lies. The first is a false promise. This ranges from outright job fraud (claiming a capacity one does not have) to the sympathetic but reckless, but not consciously dishonest, optimism of the typical entrepreneur. I am in no way advocating promises that one cannot keep. Rather, I’m advising people to bring their reputation and status to where they belong, but not past that point. Don’t claim to be a surgeon if you’re not. The second (very common) kind is the lie to hurt others: rumors invented to disparage and humiliate. In addition to being generally unethical and toxic, they’re almost always counter-productive. No one likes a rumormonger or a bearer of bad news, even when that news is believed to be truthful.

Occasionally, one is in an adversarial situation where lying about another person is required. An example would be a bad reference. It’s best to avoid bad references by having peers substitute as ex-managers, but one might get caught in the blue, betrayed unexpectedly or nabbed by a “back channel” reference check. (Note: subvert back-channel reference checks by faking a competing offer and imposing time pressure. If you ever face a back-channel reference check, you failed in getting the offer fast enough.) In that case, my advice is: discredit, don’t humiliate.

You might be very angry when you find a negative reference. You have the right to be angry. You’ve been sucker punched. You might be tempted to say, “That’s because I caught him sleeping with his secretary.” Don’t do that! (At least, don’t sabotage his personal life while looking for a new job; keep your projects separate.) You’re better off with a lie to the effect of, “That’s funny, because he asked me to come back three months after I left. I declined respectfully, but he must be bitter.” That discredits him, but it doesn’t embarrass him any more than is necessary to do the job. You can’t appear to enjoy delivering news that makes someone look bad. With the affair with the secretary, you’re reveling in your ex-boss’s (made-up) demise. With the latter, you’re painting yourself as a top performer (even your ex-boss recognized it) and leaving the other party to connect the dots (that the bad reference is an artifact of the ex’s bitterness).

Also, one must always assume that, when lying about another person, that person will learn of the lie. So “discredit, don’t humiliate” is an aspect of a more general principle, “intimidate, don’t frighten”. You want your adversaries to be intimidated. Timid people shrink from action. They’ll shut the fuck up about you and let you focus on better things (like selling yourself, not justifying yourself in light of rumors). Frightened people, on the other hand, are humiliated, angry, and unpredictable. Even though fright is more of a psychic punishment than timidity, having severely-punished people on the stage is not good for you.

Lies (or truths) that destroy people tend to have enough kinetic energy to boomerang. Even the people who had the news first, unless they’re investigative journalists and the news is truthful, will be hit hard. Negative rumors are best avoided in all contexts: don’t start them, don’t spread them, and don’t even hear them in public. That is the general rule. There are (very rare) times when it is best to break it, and those involve frank combat. In frank combat, you don’t seek to humiliate or frighten your enemies. You have to destroy them, before they destroy you.

Competition is not enough to justify lying harmfully. If the only way to win among multiple candidates for a promotion is to lie harmfully, it’s probably worth passing on that round. (Maybe the other candidate actually is a better fit for the role.) If someone’s legitimately outperforming you and you lie harmfully to bring her down, you’re committing a grave wrong. It’s a much better use of the energy to befriend and learn from her. Jobs are short, but careers are long, and a rival in one bardo is often a great friend in the next. Good-faith competition is not frank combat, and the rule of “lie harmlessly” (or, better yet, not lying at all) still applies. Frank combat exists not when you are being outperformed in good faith, but when your reputation is being attacked. You didn’t choose war, but it chose you.

In frank combat, the best policy is still to lie with minimal harm, but not to shrink away from force if you need to use it. If a stun gun will work, use it instead of the revolver. Only use lethal force if the assailant won’t respond to anything else. The guideline of “discredit, don’t humiliate” applies when it can, but some people just won’t accept that they’ve been discredited (i.e. shut the fuck up) until they’re down for the count. That is a rare case, but it’s the one in which nasty, negative rumors might be the best way to go. Even then, there’s a subtlety to it. Not only must the rumor be believable, but you have to deny it in the public. Negative rumors, most of the time, aren’t so devastating because people actually believe the non-truths. Rather, it’s because they lower the target’s status, generate complexity (leading to people, as discussed above, just giving up rather than rendering judgments) and paint the person as one who “fits the mold” for the rumor, even though you, personally, haven’t taken a stand and won’t call it true.

All this said, frank combat is quite rare and always best avoided. Like a bar fight, no one wins. There’s pain, there’s losing, and there’s losing big. Winning at frank combat is like winning an earthquake. Go out of your way to avoid it.

Most ineffective liars don’t intentionally put themselves into frank combat. The problem of harmful liars is that, like the small liars, they enjoy the petty win over the other person and lose sight of the one valid purpose of lying in business: to flip one’s own “bozo bit”. Unless someone is calling you a bozo, you gain nothing by setting his “bozo bit” back into the “on” position, and you make the world worse (trust sparsity). People who lie harmfully contribute to trust sparsity, also known as discord, and Dante has them in the Eighth Circle of Hell for a reason.

(Part 2 will come out later this week.)

Why your organization is intractably political, and how to fix it.

There’s a lot of advice out there on the Internet for corporate leaders on how to make their organizations less political. Everyone hates office politics; it’s all that shit that deprives an organization of its ability to do the right thing, causes good people to leave in disgust or get fired for the wrong reasons, and enables bad people to rise, and eventually causes the organization to fail in ways that seem obviously preventable from the outside. Ben Horowitz has a lot to say on the tactics of fighting political behavior. I don’t disagree with what he says, but I’m going to take a different approach, from a higher level.

First, one has to define what politics is, in this sense. See, one can argue that politics is the art of making human organizations work well, in which case for something to be “political” isn’t wrong. The American “founding fathers” were, quite literally, political architects. Democracy and meritocracy are fundamentally political ideas. When people complain about a decision they found to be “political”, they’re actually saying that it’s corrupt. In neutral terms, all promotions of personnel in a workplace are political, even when made correctly, because politics is all about the distribution of power. When people complain about office politics, they’re really complaining about corruption in the political environment of the office. People often refuse to use the more accurate words, like “corrupt” and “dysfunctional”, as those are impolite and impossible to hedge. After all, it’s easier to say, “well, the decision was political” (a statement with no content, because all political decisions are political) than, “the wrong decision was made” or “the decision was made for the wrong reasons” (i.e. corruption). You probably won’t get fired for saying that your organization or team environment is more “political” than you like; while using the more direct term, “corrupt”, will raise eyebrows.

Then, the question we should be asking is, why is office corruption so common? Ben Horowitz defines politics as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution.” That is, of course, where corruption starts. It begins with illicit “carrots”– people getting favors they don’t deserve. In the beginning of an organization’s lifecycle, this isn’t that harmful– the wrong people are getting more than they deserve, but the civilians aren’t getting less– because the expansion creates a surplus. Unfortunately, every organization will, at some point, cease to expand– at least temporarily. Then, peacetime carrot-hoarding gives way to wartime stick-brandishing. Ben Horowitz, taking the perspective of a business leader trying to prevent such things, describes the ugliness of office politics at its beginning– people rising who shouldn’t– but most people experience the pain of office political corruption at its end, when it takes the form of good people getting fired, good efforts being unfairly sidelined, and organizational dysfunction reaching the level of an existential threat– and, often, by this point it’s too late to do anything about it.

Why, in human organizations and societies, do bad people advance? Just as “rich people” are neither the best nor worst nor smartest people in the world, but (disregarding inheritance) merely those who are best at making money (a tautology) the people who run human organizations are not necessarily the best or worst but, by definition, those who are best at turning human organizations toward their own desires. This isn’t a surprising conclusion, but it must always be remembered. Very few organizations, if any, have a robust enough immune system to root out and exclude the psychopaths who would become individually fit at the the organism’s expense.

Psychopaths are undesirable people, but there aren’t a lot of them in the world: possibly 2 percent of the general population. I think it’s intellectually very lazy to blame psychopaths for humanity’s dysfunctions, as if the better-inclined 98 percent were somehow blameless. Politics, done right, is all about building structures that are resilient against incompetent and malicious people, no matter how popular or charismatic they might be. Most of the great work done in politics by European and American intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries was based on this insight: focus on structure, not on personalities. This seems obvious now, but it’s something that most societies in human history– run by charismatic actors, then their progeny– missed, which is that structure is more durable than faith in some quasi-divine human or caste. A good king might turn bad, trust the wrong people, or hand the throne to an undeserving son. The only way to build a sustainable government is to design it with bad actors in mind because they will come, and some of them will be remarkably attractive and popular people. Without structure (e.g. a constitution) it will be extremely difficult for society’s guardians to resist them.

Corporations don’t have evolved political structures. They don’t have constitutions. In a non-pejorative and literal sense, they are plutocracies: governed in proportion to the financial stakes of the investors. (Financial stakes of the workers are not considered; this is one of the root moral problems with corporate capitalism. A step in the right direction would be a bicameral system in which each worker gets one vote, and both houses must clear a measure, but I digress.) The tendency, over time, toward political dysfunction is almost guaranteed. In truth, most company founders don’t worry about the long-term threat of organizational dysfunction; once the company has made them rich, it has served its purpose. Companies aren’t really designed with hundred-year visions; they don’t need to last that long to make the important people rich. The institutional erosion that occurs as people serve their own needs over the organization’s objectives is not a threat, so long as it occurs at a slow enough rate.

Let’s say, however, that one does wish to solve this problem in a meaningful way. We’re ruling out quick-and-dirty next-quarter solutions or mashed-potatoes heuristics, because we actually want to build a hundred-year organization. It should outlast its leader, which means it needs a constitution. (Employee Bill of Rights? It’s not a bad idea.) It needs to come up with a principled and transparent way of handling compensation, without becoming so complex that the most well rewarded are those who play the system. It needs to have a clear purpose, otherwise it will default to the standard corporate purpose of making management rich. A lot of this stuff I won’t cover, for now. I’m going to get to something more basic, and something organizations do that makes it impossible to avoid corruption but, in fact, encourages it.

Core insight: political corruption emerges when people all covet the same scarce things.

This is why, for just one example, well-running governments attempt to limit or even eradicate the influence of money over political decisions. Money exists in economies, by necessity, as a way for people to trade and get things they want. An undesirable side effect of this is that money becomes something that everyone wants. Money simplifies, but it also creates a bilge.

No matter what it is– real estate, jewelry, illegal drugs, reputation, or sex– anything scarce that everyone wants will be surrounded by the worst kinds of human behavior. If everyone wants it, it’s surrounded by sharp knives.

The conclusion to take from this is that anyone who wants a healthy organization needs to build one where people want different things. If five people are vying for the exact same promotion, four of them will lose and become toxic. The long odds faced even by the strongest contender will create an environment where all of them are ready to break the rules on a moment’s notice. I find it almost self-evident that the only way an organization can function, in the long term, is if the things that people want for themselves are different, to minimize those sorts of conflicts. They can share in a communal vision, sure; but people go to work for mostly selfish reasons and it’s best that the things people want for themselves be different.

That seems impossible, from a basic economic perspective, insofar as people trade labor for income and wish to do so at the most advantageous rate. Isn’t money one thing that everyone wants? Yes, but it’s probably possible, in the workplace, to have it be the only thing everyone wants. Then, there’s only one potential hotspot– compensation– and it can be dealt with in a principled and transparent way. There’s actually some really good news here, which is that I think it is possible (at least in software) to create an organization in which most people will (a) consider themselves well-compensated, and (b) be, in fact, compensated better than they would at other companies. Executives make less, in the short term; they’re paid in the long term through the superior health of the organization. An outline of what this would look like is given here.

At any rate, I don’t think most of the political nastiness in organizations comes down to money per se. I’ve met plenty of bad actors in the course of my career, and most are no richer from the bad activity than they’d be had they played a more decent game– several are poorer for it. People don’t sabotage others’ careers or ruin reputations for financial reasons so much as they’re about status. Getting more money is a side perk of winning that game, but often they play it just because they enjoy blowing up other people and warming their ugly faces in the managerial sun. Social status, to them, is an end of its own. The toxic people who destroy organizations will engage in social competition even if there is nothing at stake. It’s just what they do.

There are some crucial things to understand about toxic people (assholes). First, the only way to win is not to attract them. Even if an asshole is defeated, humiliated, or killed, he is victorious because he corrupted whatever good person condescended to fight him. It’s also impossible to exclude assholes because whatever social exclusion mechanisms a group of humans invent will, over time, be co-opted by assholes and used as a weapon against the good. Second, toxic people are attracted to social competition for its own sake– not because they want better lives for their kids or even larger cars, but simply because they enjoy humiliating other people. Third, assholes will gravitate naturally toward the largest and baddest social competitions– the major leagues. Non-assholes will behave badly in competition for scarce resources, but do not seek such engagements out; assholes gravitate toward such regions of contest and make them worse because damaged social ecologies amuse them. All of this is good news, because it means that one who understands what attracts assholes can learn how not to attract them.

Given that assholes enjoy social competition, and are especially attracted to the largest social contests, the best strategy is to avoid creating all-office social contests. Yes, there will be pissing matches that flare up from time to time over one scarce resource or another; but the asshole isn’t usually interested in the small-scale battles with trivial stakes. He wants to play in the big games that involve a whole office, draw in plenty of involuntary participants, and where winning or losing determines who gets promoted and who gets sacked. If there aren’t such conflagrations around, the asshole will likely get bored and, after starting some small shit (which must be stopped) he will leave for a better fight.

How do organizations destroy themselves, then? Simply put, they encourage everyone to want the same things. They create “up-or-out” cultures where not getting promoted– or even the image of not wanting fast promotion– can result in sudden termination. They attach an increasing array of inappropriate perks to job titles (I know of one company that has a manager-only in-office gym) in order to create a climate where everyone wants a fancier title. Almost by intention, companies use envy to motivate their people because it’s easier to homogenize the motivational array than to accept its inherent heterogeneity. Many of these firms explicitly want their employees all to want the same things, but that’s a recipe for disaster. When there’s that much competition for the same stuff, you get the social contests that attract assholes. Once these toxic people have taken over the social ecology, it’s very difficult to get them out.

In reality, in a healthy workplace environment, people all want different things. Some people want good work experience so they can apply to business school. Some want a short workday and will work very efficiently if they can leave at 4:00. Some want recognition and leadership opportunities. Some just want to coast, but will support their managers’ careers with a loyalty not seen in the ambitious. Some want to run the company, and some want to be out of that company in two years. Some want to make a lot of money and will work very hard if properly paid. Some just want interesting problems to solve. When there’s heterogeneity, it’s quite likely that most or all of the peoples’ desires can be met without anyone getting trampled. The ambitious will work hard and get the promotions they want, and the unambitious are left alone. Heterogeneity of desire makes it possible for everyone to get subjectively large share of the pie; because the finite resources of the company (including intangibles like managerial approval and job titles, which are not technically finite but subject to dilution) are of unequal value to different people, it’s usually possible to find an arrangement where everyone wins. It’s not always easy– I could probably formalize it as an NP-complete problem– but it can be done.

There is one “problem”, if it can be called that, with heterogeneity in desire, which is that it does make it harder to read a social hierarchy. People tend to evaluate another’s social status in terms of his ability to get what he wants. Heterogeneity makes that illegible, because while it’s usually clear what people have, it’s not clear what they want, which makes it hard to tell who is succeeding and who is failing. Does the guy working in the Denver branch office want to be in Manhattan, or does he really like the mountains? The problem is that an organization’s chain of command typically must be legitimated with some form of distributed social status, but the only way to create such a beast (noting that our social-status modules evolved in small-group contexts) is through material signals. Yet, with the value of all things being subjective, the only way for this to work is almost to coerce people into wanting the same things, making everyone’s social status visible. That’s where this desire to homogenize desires (don’t want your boss’s job? Then get the fuck out of here!) comes from. No matter how competent, the 55-year-old programmer with no desire to advance into management must go, because his existence refutes the idea that everyone should desire supervisory accolades and, eventually, introduction into the management club.

In addition to the intentional desire homogeneity that organizations create in order to assess social standing, there are also unintentional varieties that emerge when there’s a general lack of diversity in staffing. Consider the VC-funded startup world (“VC-istan”) and the engineers there. One surprising observation about more than 90 percent of these “tech” startups is that the software engineering done in them is terrible. Why is that? Almost all of the programmers in them are white, male, and under 30. That’s not inherently a bad thing– I don’t think that white men under 30 (I was one, until a couple months ago) are any worse or better than any other group– but it leads to a homogeneity in desire that is toxic to a technical culture (“launch and flee” behaviors become common). In the startup world, those engineers all want the same thing: to be funded founders someday. That’s not going to happen unless they get (a) management positions of VP/Engineering or higher, and (b) investor contact and mentorship, preferably starting 24 months before they strike out on their own– so they can arrange funding for their new ventures while working their day jobs. What you have is an environment in which all the people want the same things. That inherently leads to the worst kinds of behavior. No organization can have everyone as a leader; but many of these companies end up hiring tens of clones of the same ambitious young person, and then struggle when no one is ever willing to truly follow.

This homogeneity comes from a common conceit, “We hire only the best”. Far more than 0.1% of people work at companies that claim only to hire the top 0.1 percent. What people often mean, when they say that shit, is that they only hire people exactly like them, except preferably just slightly inferior in some legible way (younger, shorter, less attractive). To use Mitch Kapor’s phrase, their supposed meritocracy is more of a mirrortocracy. This lack of diversity kills the organization as it expands. With everyone wanting the same scarce resources, the organization gives way to political in-fighting before it can even get started.

The antidote to this behavior is to accept heterogeneity. I’m not talking about diversity only, because a company can have a diverse crowd, by typical metrics, of people who all think the same way. Rather, I mean that organizations should encourage the natural tendency of people to want different things from them. Unfortunately, this is really hard to do. Most organizations create an environment where getting anything done requires jockeying for managerial approval– yet another finite resource that generates toxic social contests. I think that the only way to solve that one is to rethink hierarchy and start fresh from the ground up.

One fundamental difference between teachers and managers

I’ll just drop right into this with what that “fundamental difference” is.

Among teachers, the demanding ones are often the best. Among managers, the demanding ones are usually the worst.

I don’t intend to imply a strict relationship, but there’s a strong correlation in both cases. In school, most people remember that the most effective teachers were also the hard-asses. They required that you learn the material, assigned homework every night, and wouldn’t allow bullshit to get past them. They actually read the papers submitted, and had useful comments. The weaker and lazier teachers gave easy A’s (to make their students go away) and had low expectations. Sure, there were exceptions. There were good teachers who were soft graders, and bad teachers who were tough and assigned lots of homework. On the whole, though, the correlation between difficulty and effectiveness was clearly positive. That was a classic decision for a student: do you take the course with the hard, great teacher or go for the cakewalk but learn less?

The good teachers were hard because the “pain” (which is just that of extracting discipline from the natural entropy of a young mind) truly was for our benefit, and because demanding hard work from their students also requires so much of them. Many of the best teachers in high school and college worked 55 or more hours per week. Being a tough grader and demanding teacher is, itself, demanding. Without the “stick” of a bad grade, a typical 15-year-old doesn’t have the foresight to overcome his own laziness and study enough. Good teachers knew this and pushed.

In the work world, it’s the opposite. Incompetent, failing, and otherwise bad managers tend to be the most demanding ones. Good managers, if they’re demanding, are only so in a certain way. The good demanding manager (a rarity, less than 1 in 100) wants you to reach your full potential and, while asking that you do your best, manages the situation to your benefit even if you fail. Bad managers, on the other hand, are constantly fighting to save their own asses, and will throw their reports in the line of fire to buy more time for themselves, and generally turn into hard-asses not because they expect greatness but because their ineptitude creates constant peril. For them, anyone showing less than undivided loyalty becomes, if not an enemy, a scapegoat when one is needed (and that’s often, because they keep screwing up). The bad manager is demanding and difficult because he’s constantly making mistakes and his underlings, if they are to survive, must not only fix them but do so with a smile, so as not to seem disloyal.

Where this mismatch between the two styles of relationship (teacher vs. manager)  is seen most clearly is in grading. Good teachers can be harsh graders, because grades don’t matter very much except as a motivator, and because there are genuine fairness concerns around academic grades that don’t apply to workplace performance reviews (which ought to be a formality). A good teacher unapologetically gives a C for mediocre work; the message is clear, but the long-term career damage of a C is (despite what students think at the time) almost nonexistent. For a contrast, good bosses always give glowing performance reviews (to show support for the reports’ careers) and, if there are genuine performance concerns, has the discussion verbally only. I’ve known professors to give “public” (inflated) and “private” (realistic) grades, the former looking good on the transcript but the latter curved to a C for average work. This duplicitous grading system seems silly in an educational context, but it’s exactly what a good manager does: criticize and direct in private, sometimes being harsh about it, but support and praise (unconditionally) in the public.

For teachers, being demanding generally means she actually cares. She has a secure job, but still works hard in the pursuit of doing it well. That’s a really strong positive signal. On the other hand, when you face a demanding boss, you have to answer this question: is he pushing you because he genuinely wants you to become great and is showing you the way, or is it just to make you serve his own career, which may be in peril (meaning that yours is, as well)? If it’s the latter, find a way out.