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.
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.
Bill has a superhuman memory and took a lot of notes after each interview, so there was plenty to analyze about this sociological experiment. It taught me a lot. At Company A, Bill was applying for a Senior Engineer position and his perceived “fit” seemed to start at 90. (Only 90, for his lack of PhD and Stanford pedigree.) But everything he didn’t know was points off. No experience with Spring and Struts? Minus 5. Not familiar with the firm’s Golden Algorithm? Not a real “data scientist”; minus 8. No Hadoop experience? Minus 6. Bill was judged on what he didn’t know– on how much work it would take to get him up to speed and have him serving as a reliable corporate subordinate.
Company B showed a different experience entirely. Bill started at 70, but everything he knew was a bonus. He could speak intelligently about logistic regression and maximum likelihood methods? Plus 5. He’s actually implemented them? Plus 6. He knows about OCaml? Plus 5. Everything he knew counted in his favor. I’d argue that he probably scored these “points” for irrelevant “interesting person” details, like his travel.
When a programmer gets to a certain age, she knows a lot of stuff. But there’s a ton of stuff she doesn’t know, as well, because no one can know even a fraction of everything that’s going on in this industry. It’s far better, unless you’re applying for a junior position, to start at 70 and get credit for everything you do know, than to start at 90 (or even 100) and get debited for the things you don’t know.
This whole issue is about more than what one knows and doesn’t know about technology. As programmers, we’re used to picking up new skills. It’s something we’re good at (even if penny-shaving businessmen hate the idea of training us). This is all about social status, and why status is so fucking important when one is playing the work game– far more important than being loyal or competent or dedicated.
Low and high status aren’t about being liked or disliked. Some people are liked but have low status, and some people are disliked but retain high status. In general, it’s more useful and important to have high status at work than to be well-liked. It’s obviously best to have both, but well-liked low-status people get crap projects and never advance. Disliked high-status people, at worst, get severance. As Machiavelli said, “it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” People’s likes and dislikes change with the seasons, but a high-status person is more unlikely to have others act against his interests.
Moreover, if you have low social status, people will eventually find reasons to dislike you unless you continually sacrifice yourself in order to be liked, and even that strategy runs out of time. At high social status, they’ll find reasons to like you. At low status, your flaws are given prime focus and your assets, while acknowledged, dismissed as unimportant or countered with “yes, buts” which turn any positive trait into a negative. (“Yes, he’s good in Clojure, but he’s might be one of those dynamic-typing cowboy coders!” “Yes, he’s good in Haskell, but that means he’s one of those static-typing hard-asses.” “Yes, he’s a good programmer, but he doesn’t seem like a team player.”) When you have low status, your best strategy is to be invisible and unremarkable, because even good distinctions will hurt you. You want to keep your slate ultra-clean and wait for mean-reversion to drift you into middling status, at which point being well-liked can assist you and, over some time– and it happens glacially– bring you upper-middle or high status.
When you have high status, it’s the reverse. Instead of fighting to keep your slate blank, it’s actually to your benefit to have things (good things) written about you on it. People will exaggerate your good traits and ignore the bad ones (unless they are egregious or dangerous). You start at 70 and people start looking for ways to give you the other 30 points.
The Passion of the Programmer
I’ve always felt that programmers had an undeserved low social status, and the experiment above supports that claim. Obviously, these are anecdotes rather than data, but I think that we can start to give a technical definition to the low social status of “software engineers”.
Whether programmers are over- or underpaid usually gets into debates about economics and market conditions and, because those variables fluctuate and can’t be measured precisely enough, the “are programmers (under|over)-paid?” debate usually ends up coming down to subjective feelings rather than anything technical. Using this technical notion of status– whether a person’s flaws or positive traits are given focus– we have the tools to assess the social status of programmers without comparing their salaries and work conditions to what we feel they “deserve”. If you are in a position where people emphasize your flaws and overlook your achievements, you have low social status (even if you make $200,000 per year, which only means efforts to cut your job will come faster). If the opposite is true, you have high social status.
Using this lens, the case for the low social status of the programmer could not be any clearer. We’ll never agree on a “platonically correct” “fair value” for an engineer’s salary. What can see is that technologists’ achievements are usually under-reported by the businesses in which they work, while their mistakes are highlighted. I’ve worked in a company where the first thing said to me about a person was the production outage he caused 4 years ago, when he was an intern. (Why is nothing said about the manager who let an intern cause an outage? Because that manager was a high status person.) A big part of the problem is that programmers are constantly trying to one-up each other (see: feigned surprise) and prove their superior knowledge, drive, and intelligence. From the outside (that is, from the vantage point of the business operators we work for) these pissing contests make all sides look stupid and deficient. By lowering each others’ status so reliably, and when little to nothing is at stake, programmers lower their status as a group.
There was a time, perhaps 20 years gone by now, when the Valley was different. Engineers ran the show. Technologists helped each other. Programmers worked in R&D environments with high levels of autonomy and encouragement. To paraphrase from one R&D shop’s internal slogan, bad ideas were good and good ideas were great. Silicon Valley was an underdog, a sideshow, an Ellis Island for misfits and led by “sheepdogs” intent on keeping mainstream MBA culture (which would destroy the creative capacity of that industry, for good) away. That period ended. San Francisco joined the “paper belt” (to use Balaji Srinivasan’s term) cities of Boston, New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Venture capital became Hollywood for Ugly People. The Valley became a victim of its own success. Bay Area landlords made it big. Fail-outs from MBA-culture strongholds like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs found a less competitive arena in which they could boss nerds around with impunity; if you weren’t good enough to make MD at the bank, you went West to become a VC-funded Founder. The one group of people that didn’t win out in this new Valley order were software engineers. Housing costs went up far faster than their salaries, and they were gradually moved from being partners in innovation to being implementors’ of well-connected MBA-culture fail-outs’ shitty ideas. That’s where we are now.
So what happened? Was it inevitable that the Valley’s new wealth would attract malefactors, or could this have been prevented? I actually think that it could have been stopped, knowing what we know now. Would it be possible to replicate the Valley’s success in another geographical area (or, perhaps, in a fully distributed technical subculture) without losing our status and autonomy once the money spotted it and came in? I think so, but it’ll take another article to explain both the theoretical reasons why we can hold advantage, and the practical strategies for keeping the game fair, and on our terms. That’s a large topic, and it goes far beyond what I intend to do in this article.
The loss of status is a sad thing, because technology is our home turf. We understand computers and software and the mathematical underpinnings of those, and our MBA-culture colonizers don’t. We ought to have the advantage and retain high status, but fail at doing so. Why? There are two reasons, and they’re related to each other.
The first is that we lack “sheep dogs”. A sheep dog, in this sense, is a pugnacious and potentially vicious person who protects the good. A sheep dog drives away predators and protects the herd. Sheep dogs don’t start fights, but they end many– on their terms. Programmers don’t like to “get political”, and they dislike it even when their own kind become involved in office politics, and the result is that we don’t have many sheep dogs guarding us from the MBA-culture wolves. People who learn the skills necessary to protect the good, far too often, end up on the other side.
The second is that we allow “passion” to be used against us. When we like our work, we let it be known. We work extremely hard. That has two negative side effects. The first is that we don’t like our work and put in a half-assed effort like everyone else, it shows. Executives generally have the political aplomb not to show whether they enjoy what they’re doing, except to people they trust with that bit of information. Programmers, on the other hand, make it too obvious how they feel about their work. This means the happy ones don’t get the raises and promotions they deserve (because they’re working so hard) because management sees no need to reward them, and that the unhappy ones stand out to aggressive management as potential “performance issues”. The second is that we allow this “passion” to be used against us. Not to be passionate is almost a crime, especially in startups. We’re not allowed to treat it as “just a job” and put forward above-normal effort only when given above-normal consideration. We’re not allowed to “get political” and protect ourselves, or protect others, because we’re supposed to be so damn “passionate” that we’d do this work for free.
What most of us don’t realize is that this culture of mandatory “passion” lowers our social status, because it encourages us to work unreasonably hard and irrespective of conditions. The fastest way to lose social status is to show acceptance of low social status. For example, programmers often make the mistake of overworking when understaffed, and this is a terrible idea. (“Those execs don’t believe in us, so let’s show them up by… working overtime on something they own!”) To do this validates the low status of the group that allows it to be understaffed.
Executives, a more savvy sort, lose passion when denied the advancement or consideration they feel they deserve. They’re not obnoxious about this attitude, but they don’t try to cover it up, either. They’re not going to give a real effort to a project or company that acts against their own interests or lowers their own social status. They won’t negotiate against themselves by being “passionate”, either. They want to be seen as supremely competent, but not sacrificial. That’s the difference between them and us. Executives are out for themselves and relatively open about the fact. Programmers, on the other hand, heroize some of the stupidest forms of self-sacrifice: the person who delivers a project (sacrificing weekends) anyway, after it was cancelled; or the person who moves to San Francisco without relocation because he “really believes in” a product that he can’t even describe coherently, and that he’ll end up owning 0.05% of.
What executives understand, almost intuitively, is reciprocity. They give favors to earn favors, but avoid self-sacrifice. They won’t fall into “love of the craft” delusions when “the craft” doesn’t love them back. They’re not afraid to “get political”, because they realize that work is mostly politics. The only people who can afford to be apolitical or “above the fray”, after all, are the solid political winners. But until one is in that camp, one simply cannot afford to take that delusion on.
If programmers want to be taken seriously, and we should be taken seriously and we certainly should want this, we’re going to have to take stock of our compromised position and fix it, even if that’s “getting political”. We’re going to have to stop glorifying pointless self-sacrifice for what is ultimately someone else’s business transaction, and start asserting ourselves and our values.