On the supposed aversion of software engineers to “the business”.

There’s a claim that’s often made about software engineers, which is that we “don’t want anything to do with the business”. To hear the typical story told, we just want to put our heads down and work on engineering problems, and have little respect for the business problems that are of direct importance to the companies where we work. There’s a certain mythology that has grown up around that little concept.

Taking a superficial view, this perception is accurate. The most talented software engineers seem to have minimal interest in the commercial viability of their work, and a rather low level of respect for the flavor-of-the-month power-holders who direct and supervise their work. It’s easy to conclude that software engineers want to live in an ivory tower far away from business concerns. It’s also, in my experience, completely incorrect. Business can be intellectually fascinating. As I’ve learned with age, new product development, microeconomics and game theory, and interpersonal interactions are just as rich in cognitive nutrition as compiler design or random matrix theory. I might prefer to study hard technical topics in my free time, in order to keep up a specialty, but I’m a generalist at heart and I don’t view business problems or interpersonal challenges as inferior or “dirty”. More to this, I think that most software engineers agree with me on that. We’re not ivory tower theoreticians. We’re builders, and as we age, we begin to respect the challenges involved in large projects that present interpersonal as well as technical challenges.

So why are so many talented software engineers seemingly averse to the business? Why do most talented programmers fly away from line-of-business work, leaving it to the less capable and credible? It’s this: we don’t want to deal with the business as subordinates. That, stated so, is the truth of it.

There are a few who protect their specialties with such intensity that any business-related work is viewed as an unwanted distraction, and I’m glad that they exist, because the hardest technical problems require a single-minded focus. I’m not speaking (not here and now, anyway) for them. Instead, I’m talking about a more typical technologist, with an attraction to problem-solving in general. Is she willing to work for “the business”? Of course, but not as a subordinate. If she’s going to be called in to mix business concerns with her work, she’s going to want the authority and autonomy necessary to actually solve the problems put in front of her. It’s when working with the business doesn’t come with these requisite resources and permissions that she’d rather slink away and build interpreters for esoteric languages.

The stereotype is that software engineers and technologists “don’t care” about business problems. The reality is that they avoid working on line-of-business software because the position is inherently subordinate. Give them the authority to set requirements, instead of coding to them, and they’ll care. Make them partners and drivers instead of “resources”, and they’ll actually give a damn. But expect them to interact with the business in a purely subordinate role, as in a typical business-driven “tech” company, and the talented ones (who are invariably smarter than the executives shouting orders, but have chosen not to participate in the political contest necessary to get to that level) will hide from the front lines.

If a company views software engineering as a cost center, and programming as a fundamentally subordinate activity, it will find that talented programmers avoid direct interaction with the business (which will, by design, happen on subordinate terms) and software it builds will either be of low quality or irrelevant to its business needs– because those who have the ability to write high-quality software won’t even bother to make their work relevant. However, this pattern of degeneracy (although common) should not be taken as a foregone conclusion. There are more similarities than differences between business problems and engineering problems, and it’s quite possible to give people with programming and engineering talent the incentive to learn about the business. While technical talent flies away from “business-driven programming” like a bat out of hell, there’s no intrinsic animosity between programming talent and “the business”. To the contrary, I think that people with experience solving these two classes of problems could have a natural affinity, and have a lot to learn from each other. Any such meeting has to come on terms of equality, however. If working with the business means doing so as a subordinate, then no one with technical talent will do so in earnest.

The back-channel culture, Silicon Valley’s war on privacy, and the juvenility of all of this.

One of the more execrable Silicon Valley institutions (and it’s not like there’s a shortage of moral failures in the contemporary Silicon Valley) is the “back channel” reference call. This is when a prospective employer or investor circumvents the candidate’s provided reference list and calls people who weren’t volunteered. While it’s morally acceptable for certain kinds of government jobs (e.g. in a security clearance) because national security is stake (and because back-channel reference checking is a well-published part of the clearance process) this is just plain obnoxious, unprofessional, and often unethical when done for regular office jobs, where human lives aren’t at stake. It’s bad for job seekers, but also bad for the people being called, who may have never volunteered to give references in the first place.

Unfortunately, the technology industry is full of unprofessional, juvenile man-children who don’t seem to know, or care, about professional protocols. So this conversation actually has to happen, and it will happen here. But, for us as a community, it’s an embarrassment that I’m writing this. It’s like when tech conferences have to publish anti-harassment policies. Shan’t we be embarrassed, as a community, that not all of our members know that groping strangers is not OK? We should, and for this issue, likewise.

Why is back-channel reference checking so bad? I can think of four reasons to despise this practice.

It violates an existing and important social contract.

When someone applies for a job, there’s a social contract between the candidate and the company. The candidate is, under this contract, expected to represent her qualifications truthfully, and the company is expected to evaluate her in good faith.

A violation of this contract would be a company that has no open positions, but holds interviews to get proprietary information about its competitors. That’s not “good faith” because the candidate has no chance of being hired. Her time is being wasted, in order for the company to get information. That does happen, but it’s generally considered to be a slimy practice, and it’s hard enough for a company to keep the secret that it’s uncommon. Back-channel reference calling is another, similar, violation of the social contract. A company that extends an interview is representing that (a) it has the resources to hire, and that (b) it will hire the employee if the employee’s total packet (CV, interview performance, and furnished references) performs sufficiently well. To do otherwise is to show a complete lack of respect for the employee’s time. This implies that if a candidate is rejected, it ought to be something in the official “front channel” package that was the reason.

How much feedback should be offered to rejected candidates is, ethically, an open question. I doubt that it’s reasonable to expect an employer to take time to explain exactly where in the interview a candidate failed, because that can lead to fruitless and mutually demoralizing discussions. Many companies refuse to provide explanations, for that reason. I will maintain the ethical obligation of the employer to communicate (sometimes, passively) what stage the failure occurred at. If the candidate isn’t called back, it was the CV. If the candidate gets an interview but nothing else, it was interview performance. If the candidate is asked for references but doesn’t get an offer, then he needs to consider a different set of people the next time he gives references. Injecting other “secret” stages into this process just adds noise to the feedback. While I don’t consider companies responsible to communicate the exact reasoning behind their decision, using a process that obfuscates existing feedback is a breach of professional ethics.

For a concrete example, let’s say that a candidate gets to the stage of furnishing references and volunteers a few, and they come up positive. Then a few back-channel references are called, and something negative comes back. It doesn’t matter if it’s untrue or if the person isn’t a credible source; the candidate’s probably sunk and, of course, he probably won’t be told that it was a back-channel reference that did him in. Now his relationship with three of his closest professional colleagues is needlessly and wrongly complicated.

Back-channel reference checking also has a way of getting back to the candidate’s current employer. Plenty of defenders of this practice say, “Oh, I’d never do that.” Bullshit. If you’d reject an otherwise stellar candidate based on unreliable back-channel feedback, then you’ve already proven that you can’t be trusted to be “careful” with peoples’ careers. Back-channeling publishes a possibly private job search (yet another violation of the social contract) and word travels fast.

I think that, in the long run, back-channel reference checking is actually quite expensive for companies. Savvy candidates, when dealing with companies that use the practice, are going to fake competing offers in order to put time pressure on employers and prevent the back-channel cavity search from happening. (It violates the social contract for a candidate to lie like that, but if the contract’s already broken, why not?) That will lead to hasty decision-making, compromise the existing hiring practices, and result in costly mistakes.

It’s a show of power and aggression.

It takes social access to get into a stranger’s past at any level of depth. People don’t like giving references unless they’ve agreed to be a reference for someone, and back-channel references never knew that they were references (and may take personal offense to not having been asked first, not knowing that their names weren’t volunteered). HR officials at companies, often, will only verify basic details about previous employees, knowing the legal risks of giving anything more. Likewise, most people who are asked out of the blue for a reference aren’t going to give one to just anyone. They have to trust the person asking. Back-channel cavity searches require knowing a lot of people. They’re easier for large corporations which can involve a lot of people, or for venture capitalists who’ve been buying and selling influence for decades, but pretty much impossible for the little guy to use.

When VCs claim that back-channel reference checks (currently legal, but let’s hope that Washington becomes aware of the issue and does the right thing) are critical to their business, what they’re actually doing is gloating about having the social resources necessary to conduct such investigations. It’s hard to get people to volunteer information that is often inappropriate for them to share. “Do you feel like fucking over a random stranger?” “I really want to know if Sue is of the future-pregnant persuasion; does she talk about kids a lot?” “Tom didn’t put dates on his CV; can you tell me his approximate ‘graduation year’?” “Give me a rundown of Mark’s health-problems-I-mean-‘performance’-reviews from 2008 to 2013.” “Is Angela one of the ‘political’ Native Americans or is she just like anyone else?” People don’t answer these questions, asked cold by strangers with no skill at interrogation. It takes resources (mostly, trust and contacts) to get it.

Often, the person who does the back-channel reference check will admit to doing it. When it results in rejecting the candidate, the failure is more silent, but often it results in further “conversation”, the purpose of which is to humiliate the candidate (reducing her likelihood of negotiating for a higher salary or better job role than the company is prepared to give her) under the guise of addressing “concerns”. At that point, it’s about showing utter dominance by waltzing into that person’s career, turning over all the furniture, and using the toilet without flushing. It’s to impress the target with the godlike ability to get access to all sorts of inappropriate information. It’s a way of saying, I don’t have to play by the rules, because I’m powerful enough to get away with anything.

It’s invasive.

That Silicon Valley’s back-channeling is invasive hardly needs explanation. There’s a general protocol around what is and is not appropriate for a prospective employer to research. Running a background check to make sure the person worked at the companies, and attended the schools, that she said she did? Totally OK. Finding out that she has kids, showing up at their elementary school unannounced to observe them, and bribing an unscrupulous principal into getting their academic records, in order to find out if they’re special-needs kids who might be more demanding of the mother’s time than average kids? That’s not OK. There’s a lot of information that is arguably potentially relevant to someone’s future job performance that we, as a society, have rightly decided to be off-limits in making decisions about whether to hire someone.

The “front channel” employment process, at least, imposes some accountability on both sides. The employer communicates its priorities through the questions that it asks, and thereby puts credibility at risk if those priorities are unreasonable or, worse yet, illegally discriminatory. Volunteered references are provided so the employer can validate that the candidate actually worked at the companies claimed and isn’t completely off-base about previous roles and functions within those companies. Using back-channel references is, however, about the more powerful party’s escape from accountability. To ask for information communicates that there is interest in it. To surreptitiously acquire it does not, which means that there’s plenty of room for impropriety and invasion.

It’s also uselessly invasive. The feedback is noisy. For every person with knowledge about someone and his work, there are ten with opinions. Venture capitalists and CEOs who perform these back-channel inquiries may think they’re sharpshooters who can quickly get to credible sources, but they’re not that good. They just never get feedback on their failures, because they’ll reject anyone who doesn’t come up with a perfect bill and never see that person again.

One of the reasons why 2-3 volunteered references (and, at absolute most, 5) has been the standard in employment for so long is that, perhaps counterintuitively, the quality of employee hired doesn’t improve beyond that number. The main reason to check references is to filter out unethical people who interview well, but past 7, you are empirically more likely to hire an unethical psychopath. Why so? Among unethical people, you tend to have two kinds: the petty, untalented ones who make annoying messes, and the talented, dangerous ones (psychopaths, usually) who can take down a whole company. The first category can’t get references; they burn bridges, leave messes in their wake, and are generally disliked by everyone who knows them well. The second category always have glowing references. They have no qualms about making friends pose as bosses, buying references off-the-shelf from made-up companies (yes, this service exists) and “coaching” people into telling exactly the story they want. You can’t actually filter out the second category of psychopath through any social proof system, which means that, after a certain point, your best odds are with not excluding normal people.

If you ask for 10 references, the average, basically ethical, person with a normal career has to dig into his third string and at least one of them is going to be less impressed with him than he expected, so he’ll fail. The psychopath, however, will always pass the 10-ply reference check. That applies even moreso to back-channel references, because psychopaths hide in plain sight and great at intimidating other people into acquiescence. The psychopath might have enemies and detractors, but it’s not being disliked that ruins a person’s career, but low social status (by the way, “performance” at 95% of jobs is social status). Psychopaths make sure that any slight against their social status is swiftly punished, often having loyalists in every social sphere they’ve inhabited. So the back-channel reference check, counter-intuitively, strengthens the psychopath’s power. Some of the people called will dislike him, but not a single one will diminish his social status in any way, and this will strengthen his image as a powerful, “high-performing” person and deliver him the job. Psychopaths really are like cancer cells, able not just to evade human “immune systems” built on social proof and reputation, but often to co-opt those for their own purposes and weaponize them against the good. How to beat psychopaths is a complicated topic for another essay; the best strategy is not to attract them. One of the major reasons I champion open allocation is the specific fact that such an environment is unpalatable to the workplace psychopath.

The invasiveness of the back-channel reference check, empirically, delivers no investigative value about what actually matters (ethical character). It drags up a lot of “juicy” (meaning “inappropriate”) gossip, though. That is why, in a world of oppressive, inane juvenility like Silicon Valley, they’ll probably never go away entirely. It’s too much “fun”, for a certain species of manchild that the Valley has given undue power, to invade a stranger’s personal and professional lives.

At any rate, reference checks aren’t actually investigative in purpose. The real purpose of reference checking is to keep the moral middle classes– people who aren’t unethical psychopaths, but probably would lie a bit to improve their careers, if they weren’t afraid of getting caught– honest. At that, it’s probably a necessary evil, and I think it’s fine for employees to ask for 2-3 (hell, even 5) references to validate that the employee’s represented career history and qualifications are correct. If references were never checked, then people would inflate their qualifications more than they already do, and that would add noise to the job-search process. The reference check has legitimate value in verifying the correctness of a candidate’s claims. This doesn’t justify an adversarial invasion of privacy.

It’s discriminatory.

For those who rely on back-channel references, one of their favorite reasons for doing so is access to all sorts of information that can’t be requested in the “front channel” process, relating to age and health issues and pregnancy history and socioeconomic status. Off the bat, the discriminatory intent is obvious.

There’s more to it, though. Right now, in 2014, venture capitalists and technology employers have an almost pedophiliac attraction to youth, especially when it comes in the package of a sociopathic frat boy. It’s not really about chronological age. Rather, they like people who haven’t been challenged yet, with stars in their eyes and a general cluelessness about the world. They champion “failure” because it benefits the VC for the founders to take risks that would be considered irresponsible by anyone who’s had enough life experience to see what actually happens when one fails. Also, there’s a vicarious nostalgia in play: VCs want to be reminded of the time when all they worried about was drinking and getting laid, before the jobs and the kids and aging parents. Instead of being honest about their midlife crises and buying Ferraris or boats or marrying trophy wives, they’ve taken the midlife crisis in the form of a hilariously underqualified protégé (like Lucas Duplan or Evan Spiegel) made “startup CEO” by their own largesse (and, given the Valley’s culture of co-funding, connections to other investors). This, dear reader, is what “culture fit” at startups is really about. It’s about socioeconomic and cultural homogeneity, and isolation from the challenges of the real world (kids, aging parents, health issues). It’s college for people who were too socially incompetent in their late adolescence to make the most of that stage of life when they were in it, and who want a retry in their young adult (or, for investors, midlife) years.

People who’ve been challenged, and how know that there are actual stakes in life, don’t like back-channel reference checking for the same reason that they don’t like open-plan offices. If you’ve ever had a serious health problem, the added stress of having it in front of 50 other people is just intolerable. With age and challenge, people become far more competent in general but lose a bit of endurance with respect to the weird and mostly minor (but cumulative) cultural insults of the open-plan, juvenile, “startup” culture with its lousy health benefits, blurred lines between personal and professional life, and general lack of respect for established professional protocols that form out of decades of experience. If this heightened desire for privacy doesn’t happen for any other reason, it certainly happens when people have kids. Why so? The college bubble is an artificial world whose socioeconomic heterogeneity is enforced in order to create a culture of ubiquitous trust. You don’t need to worry about each person individually, because the “adult supervision” of the admissions office has already done that. The “hip” tech culture is all about preserving that youthful attitude (“I don’t need privacy because there are no really bad people around”) toward life. However, in reality, the world is dangerous and has lots of evil people in it (even at colleges, but that’s swept under the rug!) When people have children, the biological and emotional need to protect another creature makes it impossible to harbor that prevailing, universal trust. If you have to protect someone else’s life, you can’t trust everyone. And open-plan offices (more specifically, visibility from behind, or “open-back visibility”) are about forcing the employee to render trust to the whole office. The same holds for back-channel references, but in that case, there’s even less consent. If you think back-channel reference checking is morally acceptable, then you’re arguing that people should be mandated to trust complete strangers in their own careers.

The truth about privacy and protocol is that they’re not just there to protect “the weak” or people “who have something to hide”. To want privacy doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It just means that you’ve had enough life experience to know that not everyone can be trusted with all information. I’m well aware of the fact that my tone, on issues like this one, sounds unduly adversarial to many people. I don’t actually see the world in adversarial, zero-sum terms. The world ought to be mostly cooperative, and I think that it is. However, I recognize that a large number of interactions and transactions are innately adversarial, and I’m old enough to know that even people who’ve done nothing wrong have a desire for (and a right to) privacy.

Privacy and the lack of it

College is a time of life in which people relinquish some privacy because there is “adult supervision” that is supposed to prevent things from getting too far out of hand, and because people of low socioeconomic status (presumed to be where criminals come from) are generally excluded, unless they’ve been vetted heavily for intellectual ability as well as good behavior. In the college bubble, most students don’t have to work outside of their studies, and most students’ parents are in their 50s and at the peak of their careers (not 35-year-old single mothers who gave birth to them at 17, not 82 and dying). Excluding managed intellectual challenges in coursework, most of these people have never been challenged… and those who have either don’t fit in or become others’ “diversity experiences”. If this is an uncharitable depiction, let me admit: this isn’t entirely bad. It’s the “magic” of socioeconomic protection and age heterogeneity that enables people who met in September to be “best friends” by October, and feeling safe to discover alcohol and sex and psychoactive drugs and politics and computer science around such people– in a world where privacy is relaxed and people get to know each other quickly– is a big part of that. The suspicion and chaos and status-assessment and busyness that characterize “the Real World” haven’t set in yet, in the sunny college bubble, and that allows deep friendships to form in a month instead of over years. Yes, I can see the appeal of being 18-22 forever.

“Culture fit” and the Valley’s worship of youth are outgrowths of this desire, which many share: to create a world in which it’s possible not to grow up. (If one wonders how the adult supervisors, like VCs, benefit by running a silly camp for overgrown adolescents, the answer is that people who aren’t expected to act like adults won’t demand to be paid like adults, and the VCs can make out like bandits. Considering that, they actually charge a bit more than college bureaucracies.) One of the reasons why the consumer web contingent now dominating the Valley simply doesn’t get peoples’ need for privacy is that it, collectively, is still stuck at a mental age around 23 and, more specifically, in the mindset of a certain type of 23-year-old who’s never been challenged or tested. (Obviously, I do not intend to apply the “never been tested” label to all people at that age, or at any age, since it wouldn’t be accurate or fair.) They don’t have to be white, male, young, heterosexual, childless and from upper-middle- or upper-class backgrounds but, for statistical reasons, they usually are.

Back-channel reference checking becomes, if not morally acceptable, more understandable when one realizes how juvenile private-sector technology has become. I’ve lived in the Real World and I’ve definitely had legitimate challenges: deaths in the family, personal health issues, lost jobs and even a couple 3-4 month spells of unemployment. I’ve seen enough to know that the stakes in this life are fucking real. There’s no Dean of Students who sits down and talks the bad things out of happening. You don’t go in front of a Financial Standing Committee if you lose all sources of income; you actually suffer. As such a person who has actually lived in the world, and seen what it is, and learned that it is pure idiocy to trust literally anyone into one’s career via “back channel references”, I am vehemently against the practice. And I am morally right. However, there are exactly two types of people who can be ethically OK with the increasing prevalence of back-channeling in technology: (1) powerful sociopaths who’ve decided that the rules no longer apply to them, because their getting away with something is proof that it’s OK for them to do it, and (2) clueless naifs who’ve never suffered or been challenged… yet. To people in college mode, a back-channel reference check is no different from asking, “Hey bro, how many guys do you think Monica has slept with?” That is, it’s very inappropriate, but not the sort of thing that would lead to a seven-figure lawsuit or a jail sentence.

More generally than this, I think that people become more private and discerning as they grow up. When you’re six, you’ll be friends with that “funny” kid who puts dog poop on a stick, holds it front of his face, and laughs at it. When you’re 31, if you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time making conversation with people of average (or even 90th percentile!) taste and cultural awareness. This isn’t all good. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to crack barriers in a meaningful way and, given my average-at-best social ability, don’t always know how to do it. I’m glad that there are people like the 20-year-old (as of 2004) Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg who can get insights into these problems and, at least in some partial way, solve them. College is too “open” for that mentality to work outside of a socioeconomically heterogeneous bubble– we’d have to become a Scandinavian socialist country for the college mentality to work outside of an academic bubble, and I don’t see that as politically palatable in this country– but the “adult world” is a bit too closed, cynical, and cold. In many ways, I see the appeal of the former, and I think the ideal point is somewhere in the middle. (The world would be less closed and frigid with less socioeconomic inequality, but I’m not anywhere close to having control over that variable.) That said, I’m a realist. Trusting strangers unconditionally in one’s career is just plain stupid at any age. Not everyone in this world is good, it doesn’t take much effort or luck for the bad people to make themselves dangerous, and the stakes are too fucking real to pretend they don’t exist.

We, the fully-fledged adults, might seem cynical, stodgy, and adversarial when we tell Silicon Valley man-children that their fratty back-channel reference calls aren’t OK, or that they should stop putting sexist humor in slides about their products, or that open-plan offices are a back-door age and health discrimination that we find crass, or that they need to stop betting their companies on the (extremely rare) clueless young thing that gives his all to a company that gives him only 0.05% of the equity (because, honestly, most of those people aren’t talented, just young and eager). We’re not. We’re just experienced. We know that privacy, protocol, and propriety are actually important. We’ve seen people suffer needlessly due to others’ stupidity, and we’ve learned that the world is a complicated and difficult place, and we’re trying to defend the good, not just against the evil, but against the much larger threat presented by the mindless and immature.

So…

The predominant culture in Silicon Valley has moved against privacy, with personal and professional lives bleeding together, frat culture (and its general disregard for propriety) invading San Francisco, and back-channel communication becoming part of the hiring process, all in the name of “culture fit” (preserving the college-like bubble). This is not the only culture in technology, and it’s certainly not moving in unopposed. Sadly, it does seem to be winning. Demanding privacy at a level previously taken for granted (even asking for quiet working conditions and a barrier at one’s back) has become unusual, isolating, and embarrassing. The attitude that it often meets is, “Why do you need privacy if you’re not doing anything wrong?” Only political naifs consider that question to be remotely reasonable to ask. Everyone needs privacy, because the world is complicated and dangerous and trusting the whole world with all of one’s information is just reckless. This isn’t Stanford. This is real fucking life.

The end result of this is an exclusionary, insular culture of an especially pernicious sort. Silicon Valley’s oppressive mandatory optimism and its contempt for privacy and those who demand it aren’t just classist and sexist and racist and ageist. In fact, Silicon Valley doesn’t have a coherent desire to be any of those things. It’s about a rejection of experience. To live in that sort of college-like bubble, you have to reject the knowledge that not all people in the world are good. You have to accept intrusions against your privacy and person like open-back visibility at work, micromanagement in the name of “Agile”, and back-channel reference calls. You have to have never been challenged or tested, or at least seem like that’s the case. However, that puts us, as an industry and community, far away from the realities of human existence. It makes us, just as we are ethically and professionally reckless as shown in our use of back-channel references, out-of-touch and dangerously oblivious to what we are actually doing to the world.

We have to take stock of this and change course. No one else is going to do it for us. It’s up to us to lead and, to do that, we have to grow the fuck up.

Leadership is not a stepping stone

This line of thought was inspired by a tweet from Carter Schonwald:

To which I replied…

These aren’t new ideas, from me or in general. Savvy people in technology have begun to realize that much of what’s getting funded isn’t deep, infrastructural technology, but the audition projects of well-connected, mid-level product managers trying to make their case for “acqui-hire” into a junior executive role at a large corporation, or, better yet, a position in venture capital. No news, right? It’s an old topic. Let’s not beat it to any more deaths than it’s already had.

Yet I realized that, of all the con games going on in the VC-funded consumer-web ecosystem, this insight gets to the fundamental issue. There’s a dishonesty inherent to a “founder” presenting himself as an entrepreneur, doomed to sail or sink with his ship, when his actual priority is shoring up his reputation so that he gets a better job no matter what happens to the company. This means that, if saving the business or his employees’ careers mandates that he oppose the interests of investors, he won’t (and can’t) do so.

The “founders”– at least the business ones who tend to be tracked naturally into the CEO role– are probably savvy enough to know that they’re really mid-level product managers because the VCs are the real executives of Silicon Valley. They also know that most of them are going to get managed promotions (e.g. acqui-hires or VC jobs) rather than build independent companies. They must know that. The odds already tell that story. For the business “founders” and probably some of the technical ones, the job is just a stepping stone. It’s the technical people, who don’t know as much as they think they do about business, negotiation, or the dominant personalities in this game, who believe they’re building the next Facebook and will throw down 100 hours per week to overcome the deliberate understaffing (relative to expectations) of the venture. Most of the work is done by “true believers”, but the power in and over the company is held most strongly by nonresidents (VC bosses) and transients (business co-founders, connected executives) angling for their next bump up. This leads us directly to a six-word compact objection…

dot dot fucking dot

… Leadership is not a stepping stone.

Ethically, I’m fine with people treating their jobs as stepping stones, to be used to get to something better, because most people are in non-leadership positions. In truth, “stepping stone” is how I’ve viewed most of my jobs, as an impatient person at a high level of talent. If I’m not being groomed for a meaningful position or a major role on an important project, I’ve already got my eyes focused elsewhere. That is, on my part, knowing non-leadership. It’s a peacekeeping strategy: rather than fight for the limited advancement opportunities or executive attention/mentoring or top projects in one place, why not avoid conflict and seek improvement elsewhere, at no one’s cost? I don’t see it as disloyal or “mercenary” to keep an eye out for external promotion. I view it as necessary because it prevents and defuses conflict.

That said, people who are expected to be leaders shouldn’t be treating their companies as stepping stones. It’s one thing to be a manager in the reductionist sense– an officer hired to make decisions pertaining to another’s assets– and take that careerist view. That’s not what executives present themselves as being, however. In most companies, they call themselves the “leadership team” (a gag-inducing pair of words, but never mind that). Founders, as well, certainly present themselves as being tied-to-the-mast leaders. This isn’t quite correct, because while a genuine leader may have to oppose the interests of an individual within the group, they ought to be defending the group against external threats. That’s why people give up their power, as individuals, to leaders: to have a more coordinated and quicker response to external or emergent dangers.

Yet, when there is a conflict of interest between their employees and their investors, founders must choose the investors. Founders know that VCs talk and that the influential ones can shut them down with a phone call. They also know that, if they fail, they need references and introductions from their VC backers. A boss can end your job, but a VC can end your career. Founders have no choice but to manage up, and that’s a problem for the whole system, because managing up is generally the antithesis of leadership.

The truth is that there’s very little leadership in Silicon Valley. While the ability to flit about companies does give talented, reputable engineers more leverage than they would have elsewhere, individual Valley startups are often characterized by intense power distances, and holding political power isn’t the same as leading. “Flat” is often a euphemism for “dictatorial”. Well-run larger companies actually require managers to show some of the characteristics expected of a leader, while startups often take a “my way or the highway”: approach, and use “culture” to back-cast departures as “non-regretted”. These startups generally manage up into the founders, who manage up into “investors” (the true executives of the Valley) who manage up into better-connected investors with better deal flow. Everyone is just trying to get a notch or two ahead. There’s nothing wrong with that– I’m the same way– in general, but it’s not appropriate for people who want others to look to them for defense and direction.

Is management leadership?

Corporate executives like to use “management” and “leadership” interchangeably, but they have almost opposing meanings in many cases. A manager is a person who makes decisions pertaining to an asset that he or she does not own, such as a company or a celebrity’s reputation. They’re almost always going to be selected from the top, by owners of those assets or by higher tiers of management. Genuine leaders are generally selected and elevated from the bottom. You don’t get to decide that you’re a leader just because you have authority or resources. The people being led decide whether you’re a leader. Of course, there is a shared interest between owners and employees that the company sustain basic function, but the alignment often ends there, and the pathetic equity slices that Silicon Valley gives to regular employees (like software engineers) are never going to change that. When this conflict of interest exists (and it usually does) to be a manager requires taking one side, and being a leader requires taking the other one.

A leader can be a manager or not, and a manager can be a leader or not. All four possibilities exist. Managers will often say that they are leaders, but their salaries are paid and their performance is evaluated from above, and they know it. Often, they are at best puppet leaders. Some have the genuine charisma or alignment of interest necessary to be accepted as legitimate leaders (that the group would choose if left to its own devices) and others have the moral fortitude to take their reports’ career needs and long-term goals (personal, financial, and career-related) seriously, but it’s not a requisite part of the charter, and it’s not common.

The middle management problem

This problem isn’t limited to Silicon Valley. Middle management is generally problematic, in this analysis. Most companies can find a place for a lifelong individual contributor. For the highly competent, there’s an opportunity to establish credibility and value without traditional organizational ascent. Management has different rules. Just as there are (by definition) no good poker players who lose money, there are no good managers who don’t rise. If you’re a middle manager for ten years, no one will take you seriously. Top executives won’t mentor you, and you won’t get the most talented reports, because you won’t be able to promote them. If you couldn’t bring yourself to rise against any political headwinds, how can you protect and advance others? As soon as a person steps into a management role, the clock starts. Middle management is an up-our-out role.

This is what VC-funded technology’s age discrimination problem, for the record, is really about. Most of these consumer web startups aren’t technology but marketing experiments using technology. There isn’t enough technical depth to them to justify an individual contributor track lasting more than 5-10 years. That brings the acceptable maximum age for engineers to 30-35 (and for “product” people, it’s even lower). Allowing no more than 5 years in middle management, this requires that people reach the executive ranks (venture capitalist) no later than 40. If a 41-year-old VC partner encounters a 50-year-old “founder” who’s still asking VCs for money, he’s going to wonder what the hell happened. By 50, people should be asking you for money, introductions, and resources.

The severe time pressure that is on middle managers tends to compromise their decisions. They need approval from above to get promoted. That’s not negotiable. As for anyone else in the corporate world; if they do their jobs well, but their bosses dislike them and evaluate them poorly, they still lose. Good will from below, on the other hand, is completely optional. Sure, it’s better and easier to have it, but it can be tossed away in a pinch. If they succeed, they won’t be seeing much of those people in the future, because they’ll be a level or two higher in a couple of years.

In sum, there’s an intractable conflict of interest in the concept of middle management. To be honest about it, I don’t think there’s a solution. Performance evaluation in any job where the results aren’t completely objective is, in truth, destined to be gamed. And most of the work that is perfectly objective is being given over to machines, who work more reliably and cheaply than humans do. For the subjective stuff, those who quickly identify influential people and appease them are always going to rise faster than earnest, uniform high performers. Managing up will always be rewarded more than genuinely leading a team. This is no surprise, in the corporate theatre, to the more cynical among us. What’s more irksome, in contrast against the way that world is presented, is that it’s equally true in Silicon Valley. For all the talk about “vision” and “disruption”, anyone who has the political skill to be a founder knows that whether one’s startup succeeds or fails matters only one-tenth as much as how one’s performance is viewed by investors. If you build a great business, but you’re fired and stripped of your equity and can’t get a meeting with anyone to build your next project, you’ve lost. If your company crashes and 180 employees see their last paychecks bounce, but it’s viewed as not your fault and you get a partner-level position at Sequoia, then you’ve won.

Where this all ends up

Most managers aren’t leaders, because they can’t be. They have to manage up. That is, in effect, their job. I don’t think that “360-degree reviews” fix this problem either, because people they have the power to fire aren’t going to honestly evaluate their performance (not if they’re smart, anyway). The effect, for a middle manager, of failing to manage up, is immediate and brutal: loss of reputation, advancement opportunities, and often the job. The effect of poor leadership is insidious and unfolds over enough time that other circumstances (including external conditions and random events that occur in the mean time) can be blamed. By the time there could be macroscopic damage, visible from above, due to poor leadership; the manager has either been advanced, relegated to terminal status, or fired, all for reasons unrelated to his actual ability to lead those below him.

This means that it will be rare that a middle manager actually leads the group he is expected to oversee. It’s not his fault. His job is defined above him by people with almost no concern with the well-being of his reports. In the Valley, we shouldn’t expect this kind of leadership from founders, either. The only people with the latitude to genuinely lead are the well-connected investors whose names can make or break companies. Of course, since that set of people is selected through a process that values “managing up” as well, it’s only by a rare coincidence when a person is invited who actually has the vision, charisma, or moral perceptiveness necessary to lead. Just as in any other executive suite, 90 percent of them won’t have it, because they’re selected based on other criteria: the ability to manipulate and appease the people above them, and to game whatever system of performance evaluation is set in place.

The lesson of this is that truth is anarchy. If you’re a young engineer, don’t look for leadership. Don’t expect the Hollywood depiction of affairs, where a “mentor” just happens to see where you are and “fix” your career, to occur. It rarely works like that. Most young engineers think that, if they work 100-hour weeks on the low-impact grunt work that they’re assigned, someone above them will “discover” them, ask “Why the fuck are they wasting your time on this shit?”, and fast-track them to better things. That’s far too rare to bet one’s career on it happening. Barring the rare stroke of fortune that might happen once every ten years or so, you have to become your own mentor and advocate, because no one’s going to do that job for you. The few people who do have the credibility to clear away political nonsense, and to create small fields of sanity and protection, are going to want to work with people who’ve done much of their work for themselves. Self-mentoring is the rule, and guardian angels are the exception.

The insight that truth is anarchy, in the corporate world, is an important one. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that the few people who can genuinely lead aren’t born with the ability. Personal charisma is superficial. Leading others is largely about providing protection against the chaotic and negligent-to-malevolent world outside: from external competitors (who aren’t malevolent, but opposed in interests) to internal cost-cutters (who compensate for their mediocrity and lack of vision by offering ideas that seem to save money in the short term, while harming the company in the long run). Much of whether one can provide this protection relies on credibility and status, and getting those is always more political than based on merit, but an equally important capability is to know how to create fields of sanity and fairness in an insane and unfair world. The first step is to attempt to create such a thing for oneself, and it’s typical to fail a couple of times before getting it right. I think that, 15 years from now, the people in my age group who mI’ll recognize as the best leaders will be the ones who are currently waking up to reality (“truth is anarchy”) and, rather than being blinded by corporate smoke-screens and phony loyalty, learning how to fight for themselves. To lead is to fight for others, and that’s almost impossible to know how to do, unless one has years of battle scars won in fights for oneself.

Of course, most of the people who get to be executives and founders will be the non-fighters and the company police. That will never change. We just have to find a place where we appear out of their way, and outperform them. Silicon Valley used to be the place to do just that. Circa 2025, it’s going to have to be somewhere else.

An insight on how to fix technology’s Damaso Effect

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

The Misogyny Loop

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

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

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

Technology and the Business

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

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

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

The screwy art of making exceptions

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

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

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

Good and bad tribalism

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

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

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

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

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

The right kind of tribalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

The core of the problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is vote-selling illegal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real-life examples

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

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

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

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

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

Venture capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview A: as Software Engineer

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

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

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

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

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

Interview B: as Data Science manager.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Passion of the Programmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greed versus sadism

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is greed?

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

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

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

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

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

“The vision thing”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bigger problem

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

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

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

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

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

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