What I Fought For

Before reading this, please read Jeff Vogel’s excellent essay, “How I Deal With Harassment, Abuse, and Crazies In General“. His experiences, as one who has encountered both the positive and negative aspects of publicity, are eerily similar to mine.

“A Reputation Problem”

To put things in context, I’ll recount some recent happenings.

This past February, I left a position as an R&D Director at a “unicorn” startup. Why? A Fortune 1000 company wanted to build an applied logistics lab in downtown Chicago, and had selected me to be its VP of Engineering, in charge of a 7-figure hiring budget.

That turn of events was much of why I removed many of my old blog posts. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing. I do. When you’re an executive, though, you have to be extremely careful in what you say, because you’re going to have a large number of people watching your every move and fretting about whether it will affect their jobs. Pulling out of the blogging game seemed the prudent thing to do, at least temporarily, for the sake of the people who’d be reporting to me.

This company’s “Labs” division was set up to open on March 28. It didn’t. Why? Out of respect for the privacy of others involved, I’m not going to get into the details. It was a mix of others’ life events and mundane difficulties inside the parent company. I’m not even inclined to complain. Others, who pulled up stakes to move here for the project, were hurt more by the closing (or, more accurately, the never-opening) than I was.

During February and March, that project’s fate became more uncertain. I started talking to recruiters, in order to figure out what I would do if the project were scuttled.

I managed to get myself introduced to someone whom the top hedge funds in Chicago and New York tap when they need CTOs and partner-level hires, and he’s known for speaking candidly. Here’s what he said (emphasis mine):

If it were anyone else with your talents, I could place you pretty much anywhere. 300, 400 grand a year base, direct mentorship from people like [billionaire hedge fund manager] and [another billionaire hedge fund manager]. You’d be one of the best people they’ve seen in years, and unlike the people around them, you’re honest and ethical. The thing that’s holding you back is… a reputation problem. People Google you and think, “This guy’s going to start a union.”

This is going to make it hard to place you. Guys like [name] don’t like people they can’t buy. If I were you, I’d start blogging again and come out against unions. Do that for six months, and I can put you anywhere you want to go.

I’m not going to come out against unions. Collective bargaining is a complicated topic. I could gain, economically, in voicing a simplistic view; but it wouldn’t be intellectually honest to do so.

I might as well take this opportunity to explain what I do and do not believe.

Brass tacks

“A reputation problem” is a polite understatement. There’s a misconception about me, which is that I attempted to unionize Google. Nothing of the sort happened. Nonetheless, several of top internet search hits for my name are people attacking me, mostly, for reasons that stem from the events that have been misconstrued in this way.

With all of this misinformation out there, employers might see me as a radical unionist. In reality, I’m an intellectually honest (and harmless) moderate who’d rather just do his job. I like doing things that I’m good at, and I’m extremely good at my job. On the other hand, I’ve never organized a union before and don’t know if I’d be any good at it.

Silicon Valley is aggressively opposed to unions. Companies routinely share lists of suspected unionists, and people who end up on these lists can be blacklisted, assigned to the worst managers if “discovered” once inside the company, harassed in public, and subjected to all sorts of libel.

For example, I’ve had people whom I’ve never met lie about my performance at Google and the circumstances under which I left. I’ve been subjected to two high-profile, bad-faith website bans (Hacker News, Quora). When I started an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit, hoping to keep the discussion confined to my technical interests, I faced a voting ring comprised of at least 45 accounts (that is the number that were detected by Reddit; it could be higher) that drowned out substantive discussion. The top comment asked me why I was a “mega-douche”. It seems that tech thugs, while dedicated to their work, aren’t very creative with their insults. (If these people ever need a competent writer, I happen to “know a guy”.)

I’m not even “a unionist”. I just choose not to reject the idea out of hand. Because of my mathematical training, I don’t reject many ideas out of hand; I wait for proof or refutation before assuming certainty. I’m philosophically agnostic. Yet, for having the intellectual honesty to consider that collective bargaining might be worth consideration, I’ve been attacked, over and over again for years, by some of the worst people in Silicon Valley.

Now, am I going to walk into my next job and start a union? No. I doubt that have the organizational skills for it. We’re talking about programmers. I’d call that a cat-herding task, but cats are prettier and less vicious, in my experience, than most private-sector software people. Do I abstractly believe that software programmers have the right to some form of collective bargaining? Sure, but I’m not planning to build it at my next company. I’d rather build great products and solve hard problems, that being more in line with my core competencies.

So what do I believe?

First of all, I believe that collective bargaining is a right. Corporations are collectives that bargain on behalf of the rich people who own the means of production. The workers ought to have similar backing. It’s only fair. In fact, most respected professional organizations are, in fact, labor unions under a more genteel name. The American Medical Association is a doctor’s union. The Society of Actuaries is a union. Many of these unions are, on the whole, net positive for society. The AMA has done some evil things, but we’re probably better off with it than without.

Second of all, I recognize that there is a diverse array of collective-bargaining arrangements, and that not all are good. “Unions” have a negative reputation in the United States and, sure, there are bad unions out there. There are also good unions, and good union workers. The negative reputation of unions comes more from propaganda and clever redefinition of the term “union” than anything else.

Traditional labor unions emerge (and, often, work very well) when the labor has been deemed by both sides to be a commodity: for example, coal production. If commoditization of the labor is irresistible, then the union tries to ensure that it happens on fair terms.

In fact, the strongest objections against programmer unions come from software engineers who resist allowing their work to be viewed as a commodity. To this, I am sympathetic and in intellectual agreement. It would be a better world if we were artisans. That said, we’ve failed to oppose commoditization of our labor for as long as we’ve been without a collective arrangement; in fact, we’ve been subjected to open-plan offices (surveillance) and “Scrum” practices that reduce our labor to piece-work. If we believe that our work is a commodity, then we should not be resistant to unions. If we truly believe that it’s not, then we ought to consider a professional organization or a guild system that can defeat the commoditization that has happened this far.

Professional organizations are unions that exist to uphold ethical principles (for doctors, don’t kill patients; for journalists, print the truth) that ought to supersede both economic concerns and managerial authority; they exist to dictate terms of partial commoditization. Likewise, high-end unions (as in Hollywood and professional sports) and guilds exist to enable those who view themselves as athletes or artists (and who might, therefore, insist that their work is not a commodity, but must sell their labor to others who see it precisely that way) to coexist with commercial players. Most likely, a structure that will actually work for software engineers will be somewhere between the lightweight unions of Hollywood and the professional societies that doctors and lawyers and actuaries have.

Third, I am (surprisingly?) more skeptical of software engineer unionization than supportive, at least right now. Why is that? For a while, software engineering has been dominated by the venture-backed startup culture. We’ve had the worst people driving out the good for at least 15 years, if not longer. We’ve ended up with an exclusionary macho-subordinate culture. We have sexism, ageism, classism, racism, and widespread harassment in our midst. We can’t blame all of this on management. Tech-company executives certainly use such divisions to keep software engineers from uniting and demanding a larger share of the value that we create, but we as engineers also allowed those divisions to exist in the first place. If we create a union without fixing our culture at the same time, we’ll probably generate one of the bad kinds of unions (the garbage-in, garbage-out principle). We should fix our culture first. That’s the top priority.

Fourth, we can nonetheless learn from existing professional and trade unions, and start figuring out what will and will not work. Most programmers believe that all unions negotiate (and regulate) compensation and that, therefore, top performers will see mediocre wages. That claim is demonstrably untrue: professional athletes have unions, as do screenwriters and actors, and nothing has prevented top performers from earning 7- and 8-figure compensation. Most likely, an effective union for software engineers would not try to set salaries, but would give employees additional rights when it comes to how they are managed. We could kill stack ranking and improve working conditions, and I don’t see a good reason not to do that. We could guarantee employees the right to an independent representative on issues surrounding performance management and (if necessary) separation. Again, that’s a no-brainer. We could force employers to act in a way that avoids harm to the individual’s reputation. Who would be hurt by that? No one.

Fifth, it’s important to note that it is impossible to unionize a workforce that doesn’t want to have a union. I’m well aware that Silicon Valley is terrified of unions. However, any company that declines to hire me based on my reputation or “cultural fit” is making two assumptions: (1) that I want to start a union and (2) that I can. The first is not especially true, and the second is very likely false.

Let’s be honest here. Software engineers are individualistic even when it goes against their own interests. Decades of Silicon Valley propaganda have worked. Programmers have been successfully divided into warring tribes based on gender, geography, age, and even choices of tools. An extremely charismatic person might be able to unite all these tribes, like Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones. As for me? My social skills are pretty average. It’s simultaneously flattering and annoying that some employers have thought that I’m capable of single-handedly unionizing their workers, in addition to everything else that I have to do. In reality, that’s not a credible threat.

Sixth, one should note that unions are often good for the companies that are unionized. The (incorrect) common viewpoint is that, since unions drive up workers’ wages, shareholders are losing money. This isn’t necessarily true. If the union’s effect is to make the internal labor market fairer and more efficient, and to improve workers’ conditions, that might actually result in the company getting more value out of its people. Companies can actually become more profitable after being unionized. The workers, after all, have no more desire to kill the company (that they’ve worked so hard to unionize) than the owners.

Who gets hurt by unions? Executives, the most. Managers lose authority and power, while their jobs become more complicated. They can no longer unilaterally terminate people, which means that extorting the workers into supporting their own career goals is no longer an option. For owners, however, unions often mean that a better product is produced. So, while wages increase, the net effect can be positive or negative for profits.

Managers dislike unions because they’re perceived to be a vote of no confidence from their workers. However, as pertains to Silicon Valley, such a vote is in order and has been for years, because Silicon Valley is so severely mismanaged.

Seventh, a company-specific union won’t work for software engineers. As in Hollywood, we have project-based careers and it’s normal to change companies frequently. The most important function of a technologist’s union will not be to protect jobs but to protect our reputations and our professional autonomy across the course of our careers. Any collective bargaining structure will have to be like the Hollywood actors’ and writers’ guilds in terms of conferring benefits that persist independently of the member’s specific employer.

Eighth, unionbusting is one area in which otherwise competing malefactors will cooperate. This isn’t surprising, but its implications are disturbing.

For example, in Silicon Valley, there are employers who check references on people not provided (“back channel” reference calls). Why is this practice, an instance of ethical degeneracy that facilitates illegal activity, tolerated? It’s because these companies want to share blacklists and bust potential unions. Although companies generally don’t care to share dirt on garden-variety low performers, because the legal risks of doing so are too high, the few people every year (almost invariably high performers) who are deemed to be suspected unionists will have a hard time. Companies will break their own rules, when it comes to those.

These employers know, of course, that most of the people named on these lists are no threat to them. They also don’t care. Paranoia trumps the rights of the innocent.

Why are they so paranoid? It’s hard to say. From where I’m standing, the probability of Silicon Valley technologists unionizing in the next ten years is very low. There is a sense in Silicon Valley’s elite that doomsday is around the corner, and programmer unions are one purported risk. Not only is this unlikely, but if it did happen, it would probably be beneficial to the ecosystem as a whole. A union (or guild or professional society) that killed Scrum and open-plan offices would make programmers more productive and result in better products and higher profit margins. The paranoia around “The U Word” just isn’t justified. For existential threats to the technology industry, I’d worry more about Silicon Valley’s investor class and the industry’s management.

The next 40 miles

As of April 2016, there isn’t much evidence of a desire among software engineers to unionize, professionalize, or organize in any way that would threaten the status quo. This might be the case because the startup culture is powered by its low-level workers’ unrealistic expectations (e.g. the fresh college grad who works 90-hour weeks because he thinks he’s going to be a CEO in three years) and because those who have more experience are usually purged. The VC-supported startup culture of misogyny and age discrimination (see: open-plan offices) serves to exclude people with the diversity of experience that we’d need in order to organize, and I believe that this is the true purpose of that culture.

What should we be doing? The first thing that we need to do is fix software’s culture. With any collective organization, we’re not going to have much success until we do this. We need to stop driving out women, programmers over 30, and people from non-traditional racial or career backgrounds. Diversity is a strength, so let’s not lose it.

Let’s go further and be blunt about a few things. Women, on average, have more organizational and social skills than men. Older people generally have acquired more of these skills than people who just got out of college. If we want to band together and kill employee stack ranking or negotiate for better parental leave policies or change a company’s performance appraisal system, then we can’t afford to tolerate a culture that divides us and that drives such people out, justifying it with juvenile explanations of “cultural fit”, and thereby leaving only the most manipulable. Why does Silicon Valley insist on hiring only young men? Because they don’t have the experience and organizational skill to threaten management’s interests. It’s easy to exploit them. While those fresh college graduates are almost never as good at programming as their more senior counterparts, that often doesn’t matter in a style-over-substance startup culture where companies exist to be sold quickly, rather than being built for the long term.

Next, and here’s where I get truly controversial: I think that it’s important to solve the charlatan problem. We have a labor market flooded with incompetents, and we suffer under micromanagement frameworks like “Scrum” that are sold on the promise of making such people productive (they don’t work, but that doesn’t always matter).

I think that the best way to drive out the non-programmers and the non-serious technologists is to implement an exam track similar to what the actuarial sciences use. We want to keep the programming profession open to everyone who has the ability, drive, and intellectual curiosity; while at the same time preventing management from flooding the labor market with an inferior-but-manipulable substitute: open-plan Scrum drones.

Exams aren’t perfect, and I’d love to refine the process to allow project-based alternatives for people who aren’t great test takers, but they’d bring us a lot closer to meritocracy than what exists right now, in which a programmer’s capability is usually assessed according to outmoded reputation metrics (which I’m good at gaming, but at the cost of my soul) like job titles assigned by employers. The field is polluted with biased and manufactured information. Just knowing who the legitimate programmers are, and how to find and identify them, would be a step in the right direction.

What I like about an exam track is that it’s blind. Your answers are scored by people who have no idea whether you’re male or female, white or black, 17 or 73 years old, Bay Area royalty or Blackfoot Lakota. I’d like a system where everyone who has the talent necessary to be in this field, and the drive to learn the broader field of computer science, because I think that such knowledge is important if one wishes to design systems correctly, can get in. Blind grading delivers a massive improvement over “culture fit”, under which a person can be rejected for not having played beer pong for ten years and not using PUA lingo in regular conversation. I know a lot of women who’ve switched to the actuarial sciences (from software engineering) for exactly that reason; they wanted a career where their progress would be measured objectively, rather than by a bunch of young, arrogant men using the “just like me” metric of human value. Who can blame them, really?

She rides for Zelos

Is what we do, as software engineers, important? Is it ethically meaningful? I would like to say “yes” but, at the same time, most of what I’ve done in my career has been meaningless to the advancement of human society. It hasn’t mattered, and that bugs me. I think that, as a community, we need to start thinking about the ethical ramifications of what we’re doing.

There are the small failures that I see on a day-to-day basis. One trait of true professionals is that people inside the profession never criticize each other to outsiders. That’s not necessarily for the purpose of secrecy, but because the outsiders will lack appropriate context and become dangerous, even if they don’t mean to be. For example, let’s say that two engineers disagree about source code formatting. It’s just one of those stupid topics that programmers get into heated conflict over, because there isn’t one clear right way to do it.

What happens, though, when such a dispute gets escalated to non-technical management? To the manager’s ear, it sounds like one of the engineers is willfully refusing to conform to “correct” source code formatting and therefore singularly responsible for the disagreement. Whom will that manager judge to be in the wrong? Well, since there isn’t an objective right way to format code, the person with more political pull will win, and the other will lose and be labelled as the nonconformist. Non-technical managers exposed to engineering disagreements, but feeling a need to Make A Decision, often take those issues out of context and become TWiGs (Toddlers With Guns). As a general rule, I think that we won’t be respected as a profession until we develop the social and individual skills to handle these matters, whether they’re minuscule disagreements or genuine performance issues, internally. As programmers, we’re far too quick to tattle on each other to management and that gives us the reputation of being spoiled, untrustworthy children.

Even still, there are much bigger ethical failures that are even more worrying than our internal affairs. I don’t consider advertising or statistical arbitrage to be unethical, much less evil. (In fact, Wall Street is, on the whole, far more ethical than its reputation makes it out to be, but that’s another discussion for another time.) However, some industries clearly are actually evil. Employee time-tracking software is a major business. Who writes this code? Someone does. That’s because we don’t collectively have the muscle to deny talent to the purveyors of evil. We ought to be applying our skills to finding cures for cancer, or alternative energy sources to fossil fuels. Most of Silicon Valley, however, is just helping rich people create and profit from unemployment.

The question I’ve had to ask myself, again and again, is: does any of this stuff matter? When I’m reading math or CS papers at 9:30 on a Sunday night, what on earth am I working toward? Is it worth it, given the professional adversity that comes with the fight, to keep giving a damn about the ethics of what we do as software engineers and to fight so hard to be a better person, both technically and morally? Can we actually exert any influence over whether technology becomes a force for good instead of evil? I don’t know. I wish I did.

What gives me hope, oddly, is the adversity that I’ve experienced. I wouldn’t have had to deal with any of the nonsense that I have, if these ideas (even when expressed, as I have, with moderation and justified trepidation) weren’t a threat to people. My experience at Google has had some undesirable publicity. A billionaire venture capitalist extorted Quora into banning my account. Paul Graham blocked me on Twitter, even though we had no significant interaction (we spoke for about two minutes about programming languages in 2007) to that point. The bad guys know who I am. This is indicative of a high likelihood that I’m on to something.

I believe that we, as technologists, can take back our industry. To do so, we need to stop treating our careers as things that other people (managers) and institutions (employers) make happen to us, and step up and make things happen for ourselves. Toward this end, we need to work as a collective and develop a “slapping one is slapping all” mentality. If someone is denied a job based on a back-channel reference call, then it’s morally incumbent on those with knowledge to let that person know, and help that person raise hell. It is the morally right thing to do.

On the same token, we’re in a state that is both degraded and paradoxical. In some ways, we need to make the software industry more inclusive. We need to halt the processes that drive out older programmers, women, minorities, people with disabilities, and others who are culturally vulnerable. We need to make a culture that includes and welcomes all people of talent, and not just people who look like me. At the same time, we need to make the industry more exclusive, in the sense of protecting everything that matters. There are a lot of programmers with no intellectual curiosity, nor any sense of craftsmanship, and those open-plan Scrum brogrammers (who implement the sexual harassment culture and the ageism that needlessly drive out talent) just need to go. This is why I am so adamant in supporting the institution of an exam track. We should let in the people who have the drive and curiosity to become good at programming, while excluding the incompetents who are here because they’ve heard that there’s easy money. (In other words, we need to replace a “get rich quick” easy-money culture, built on lies, with a “get rich slowly” hard-money culture, built on the truth.) The easy-money crowd creates a culture of immaturity, narcissism, centralization of managerial power, and harassment, instead of a culture of technological progress and self-betterment.

Let’s talk about the near future. The VC-backed bubble is going to end, just like the one in the late 1990s did. The toxic unicorns are likely to die, and they might take Scrum and open-plan offices and the harassment culture with them. Let’s hope so. However, my fear is that, due to our lack of organization, legitimate programmers might also see our salaries and conditions decline. How confident should we be that a falling tide will only wreck the boats of the easy-money brogrammers and the sleazy tech executives? I’ve been in this industry for too long to have that kind of confidence. The crash will hurt. The scumbags in charge of Silicon Valley will do everything they can to make sure that we lose our shirts before they lose theirs.

What happens then? When jobs disappear in large numbers, worker leverage declines. Motivation to fix the problem increases (read: people get pissed off) but the ability to do so declines. We can’t assume that “the crash” will hurt the bad guys and not the good. If we don’t plan and organize around our own interests, one way or another, then history suggests the opposite.

The problem faced by those of us who are legitimate technologists is that the labor market has been flooded with an inferior product: the open-plan Scrum brogrammers who aren’t good or even acceptably mediocre programmers, but who look the part (“cultural fit”). They can’t fool real programmers, but they can fool non-technical management and even investors. Why are they beating us? For one thing, they’re winning the battle for cultural influence, just because there are fewer legitimate programmers than charlatans who can be trained and paid to act the part. The open-plan drones have redefined “programmer” to mean “naive semi-privileged idiot” instead of “trusted professional”. They’ve also been able to sell, to management, a perception of flexibility. You can hire twenty-five of them in an afternoon, and they’ll work long hours and tolerate punishing work conditions. This would sound great, except for the fact that their technical abilities are abysmal. They’re so terrible, in fact, that they’re often negatively productive on a project with any technical meat. Worse yet, if they’re given any creative or ethical responsibilities, the results are catastrophic.

Why has the market for programmers been flooded by inferior replacements? The perception is that technical excellence doesn’t matter, and that the market situation proves this. I disagree strongly. As far as I’m concerned, if a technical problem isn’t solved correctly, it hasn’t been solved. A mathematical proof that covers four out of five cases is not a proof. Who would want to use an email system that drops one message out of ten? Would people use a social networking site if their private messages were exposed to the public because of irresponsible engineering? Technical excellence matters a hell of a lot. Getting the right answer is important. Unfortunately, short-term incentives often produce disalignment, and long-term consequences take so long to come to fruition that powerful individuals (such as technology executives) can avoid accountability for their own bad decisions.

Bad software engineering and terrible corporate cultures hurt companies. They hurt society. The problem is that they never hurt the individual managers and executives who create these illnesses, in search of short-term profit. Those people get promoted away from the messes they create, and someone else gets stuck having to clean up.

How do we fix this? I don’t know, but I know who will have to solve the problem. It will have to be us, the competent and responsible technologists. No one else knows just how much society is losing right now. Most of society doesn’t even know that the technology industry is so badly run, much less how much value has never been realized because of that fact. Only we, right now, are remotely aware of that. All of this said, we’ve solved problems that are much harder, and we can hack this one. If we can put a person on the moon, we can organize around technologists’ shared interests (as well as those of society). We just need to wake up to the fact that this time it’s a political problem rather than a technical one that is most important.

Appendix: questions I get asked

Here are some questions I’ve been asked, in my personal and professional life, on the topics above.

“Why did Google think you were a potential unionist?”

I said something on a mailing list, pertaining to a specific product, that had a lot of internal visibility. This was a mistake on my part. The comment was taken out of context and developed a life of its own, leading to a suspicion that I was a union organizer.

It wasn’t, and isn’t, true. At the time, I held no strong opinions about software unionization. After having my reputation damaged (something that unions could protect a person from) by this experience, I am far more sympathetic to that cause.

“How did you find out that you were on a Silicon Valley unionist list?”

I’d heard rumors for years. In March 2014, a source sent me internal documents that confirmed the list’s existence and that I was, at one time, on it. Another source corroborated this, two months later.

Later that year, I applied for a job and was told (by a close friend inside that company) that I had been turned down for an interview only because my name appeared on “Google’s List” of suspected unionists.

“How is blacklisting enforced?”

Since these lists are illegal, they are usually only shared at an executive level.

The targeted person is usually subjected to negative, unsubstantiated rumors pertaining to health, work performance, and (until recently) sexual orientation. For every person in-the-know who engages in deliberate unionbusting, there are several “useful idiots” whose role is just to reliably repeat the gossip they are fed.

“How many people are on suspected unionist lists?”

Because these lists are illegal, it’s hard to know. An educated guess is that this affects at least 200 people per year in the U.S. technology industry. While this represents less than 0.01% of all professional programmers, a surprisingly high number of people on these lists are pillars of our community.

Many people are placed on these lists by mistake and often they have no idea what is going on. If they’re older, I’d presume that they’d attribute their difficulty in finding employment to age.

“Does Google still retain or participate in this sort of unionbusting?”

I don’t know. I’ve been told that Google dismantled the machinery that it uses to track suspected unionists.

However, if the company still uses stack ranking (and I do not know whether it does) then it is overwhelmingly likely that the unionbusting is just hidden in the stack-ranking machinery.

In fact, the point of employee stack ranking is, traditionally, to intimidate employees and prevent them from organizing. Rich companies actually don’t care about harmless low performers who draw salaries but do little or nothing. (I’ve seen people like that hang on for years.) They do care about unions. They’re scared to death of an organized labor force.

 

“Have you pursued legal action?”

I’ve received settlements due to specific cases of defamation.

I do not believe that I can pursue the larger matter without putting the careers of my sources in jeopardy, so I won’t. Moreover, I live in Chicago and am not especially concerned with whether my name is on a Silicon Valley blacklist.

“I think I’m on a unionist black list. How do I get my name off of it?”

I have no idea. It’s almost impossible to get hold of these lists, because their existence is illegal. My advice would be to leave Silicon Valley.

Wall Street is less paranoid about unions, insofar as it actually pays its people. It’s unlikely that they care about Silicon Valley’s suspected unionist lists. If your professional reputation, in the broader sphere, hasn’t yet been trashed, consider it. If it has been damaged, then you need to hire a competent attorney.

“Someone said you were a poor performer at Google. Were you?”

I have to answer this one directly and truthfully. To start, I’ve been an average or strong (and usually quite strong) performer at every job that I’ve held. However, I was only at Google for five and a half months and did not get much time to distinguish myself. So, I would not place myself in the “strong” bucket, at least not on technical contributions, during that time.

It’s rare, at Google, that someone commits substantial code in the first 6 months, because of the amount of time that it takes to learn the codebase. My experience wasn’t an exception. Since I was there for such a short time, and spent much of that time in a war that I didn’t start, I didn’t get to check in much code. That part is true.

I was considered by my peers to be an average performer.

“Do you expect me to believe that everyone who doesn’t like you is part of an illegal unionbusting conspiracy?”

No, of course not. It’s impossible to have any public presence without being disliked by someone. I hold strong views, and I express them boldly.

Had I not been placed on a suspected unionist list in 2011, I doubt that I would have had nearly the amount of publicity that I’ve had. If I had any notable reputation, in this alternate world, it would be a strongly positive one, as it is among people who actually know me.

“Why do Paul Graham and Y Combinator hate you?”

That is unclear, actually. They started the fight, and I’d be happy to end it. I would guess that it’s a mix of political disagreement and the personal pettiness of specific individuals.

“Why are you banned on Hacker News?”

See above.

“Why are you banned on Quora?”

Quora has received funding from, and is at this point largely controlled by, Y Combinator. “An investor” (probably from Y Combinator, but this has not been confirmed) threatened Quora’s management that, unless I was banned in a public way, they would be rendered unable to raise future funding. Vendetta-driven, intentional product failures are more common in Silicon Valley than most people would like to believe, and they come as often from a company’s investors as from its management.

I was a top contributor to Quora. I had more than 8500 followers (and, now, over 9000) and was a Top Writer in each year. My answers were published to many of Quora’s media partners, including Time, Fortune, the BBC, and the Huffington Post.

Because I was a model contributor, my ban caused a substantial loss of faith, among Quora’s community, in its moderation. User engagement, especially among users deemed to be high-value content creators, began to decline. In reaction to this, Quora asked me to rejoin its community in February 2016, and offered a cash settlement. I turned their offer down.

 

“Could you sign a document agreeing not to support a union, as a condition of employment?”

I don’t think that that’s legal.

In truth, I would find it needless to sign such a thing. Given programmers’ strong anti-union/libertarian tendencies, starting a union among would require monumental organizational ability and charisma. I consider myself very average in those abilities and would not constitute a credible thread.

Besides, I’d rather write code and solve hard technical problems. Organizing labor is admirable and important work, but that’s not my skill set.

“Why do you air ‘dirty laundry’ about ex-employers?”

I don’t. I made that mistake, once, with Google.

There are some who believe that “biting the hand” deserves a professional death penalty. Such people should be counted among the enemies of progress and treated as such. Nonetheless, I still believe that it is unwise, for an entirely different reason, to disparage an ex-employer.

That reason is this: in practice, the workers are more exposed to the corporate reputation than the executives (excluding the CEO). Bad-mouthing an ex-employer hurts the wrong people. That’s why I’ll almost certainly never do it again.

I have exposed unethical behavior by Y Combinator and Quora. I never worked for either of these companies.

“Do you, broadly, support Silicon Valley unionization?”

As above, what’s more important than formal structure is fixing the culture. I would rather commit my time to (a) upholding and promoting a culture of technical excellence while (b) driving out exclusionary behaviors.

Until we have the right culture, formal unionization is probably the wrong way to go: garbage in, garbage out. Developing an exam system (as in the actuarial professions) or some other way of formally verifying talent and credibility is a much smaller step that I would support immediately.

“How do you respond to people who believe that unions in Silicon Valley will kill its ability to innovate?”

Of course, that is possible. Silicon Valley seems to be a nadir in terms of innovation, but the wrong labor structures could make it even worse.

However, a collective arrangement, which probably would look more like a professional organization (Society of Actuaries) or a lightweight union (Screen Actors Guild) than a traditional labor union, could also improve the situation greatly. How so? If people who actually make things get more respect, they’ll be more engaged and the products made will be better. If they make more money, they’ll be able to fund more interesting projects and “bootstrap”.

For the past twenty years, the biggest threat to Silicon Valley innovation hasn’t been some union bogeyman but the technology industry’s management. A common slur against unions is that they can promote a culture of complacent, arrogant mediocrity. That culture already exists. See: Scrum, open-plan offices, business-driven engineering. Unions could make that culture worse, but they could also drive it away.

“Have you ever tried to start a union?”

No.

“What do you think of Google now?”

I harbor no ill will toward Google. In fact, I met a lot of very talented people during my time there, and it’s upsetting that there was so much awkwardness surrounding my own experience, which was atypical for me and for Google.

“What have you been up to recently?”

I mentioned above that I was selected to be the VP/Engineering for a company that, for reasons having nothing to do with me, decided to non-exist. Oops.

Since that opportunity self-vaporized, I’ve been looking around the area for people who need top technical talent: machine learning, functional programming, or distributed programming, at a Principal+ Engineer (as an individual contributor) or Director+ (as a manager) level.

I’ve got 10 years of experience as a software engineer, know more machine learning and statistics than most self-proclaimed “data scientists”, and function well as an individual contributor as well as in leadership. So I don’t expect to be on the market for too long.

To keep myself sane, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the gym and reading a lot of math papers. I’ll probably pick up a book on Erlang/OTP, because that platform seems interesting.

“Have you had significant employment difficulties, because of your vocal support of programmers’ rights?”

Severe ethicality can provoke cowardice in some people, sure, so I haven’t been entirely free of professional adversity; but yes, I’m able to get jobs.

I have had to work very hard to overcome adversity. I’m often reading technical papers at 9:30pm on a Friday night. (“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”) I don’t get much rest. I’m always leveling up on something.

“What can I do to help?”

For me, there’s no need to do anything. I’m not a victim. I’m an extremely competent technologist and I am beating this.

What one can do is to prevent the sorts of things that I’ve described from happening to anyone else in the future. Blacklisting or attempted blacklisting are never acceptable, not for any reason.

Certainly, if you’re aware of a unionist blacklist at your company or between companies, share it with the press. If a company conducts a back-channel reference call (except in the context of a federal security clearance, where those are ethically acceptable) then make sure the target knows who was called and what was said. Inform that person of his or her rights under the law.

When people are denied jobs for reasons other than the ability to do the job (e.g. “culture fit”, unsubstantiated rumors, illicit back channeling) it is critical to let them know what happened, and that they should consult an attorney to see if they have legal recourse. This is the only way to actually enforce the laws against unionbusting, blacklisting, and discrimination in employment.

“In the end, what did you fight for?”

I must confess that some of what I am is a product of accident.

At Google, I’d been that the company was open to internal critique and, since it was my first big-company job, I was naive and took that directive literally. Random chance had it land my name on a list of suspected unionists. This has had a positive effect on my work ethic (since I’ve had to work much harder than most of my peers, just to survive) but a negative effect on my view of human nature.

Through that experience, I’ve become committed to pursuing social justice in technology. Not only is it the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but it’s the first step toward something bigger: taking back our industry.

If we can make the technology industry more diverse, and fair, and truly meritocratic, then we can solve more important problems and build better products. We can get ourselves out of the rut that has us implementing the ideas of wealthy, greedy actors who have no love for technology, and we can kill the build-to-flip business culture. In doing so, we can replace our industry’s current form with one that a person can actually believe in.

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The software industry handles failure poorly.

The startup world venerates failure. Well, sort of. It venerates business failure, so long as it happens in a way that the investors approved of. The VCs will manage the careers of the founders, and no one else involved with the failing company (i.e. the people who lose jobs) is considered to matter. “Failure is awesome!” “Go out and fail!” There’s plenty of talk among technology people about “failing fast”, and yet what I’ve observed is that our industry handles failure quite poorly.

Of course, the software industry is full of failure. In the corporate context, the term failure is somewhat subjective, but I’ve heard that 60 to 80 percent of software projects fail. I don’t doubt that number at all. I’m going to put it higher: I’d guess that 97 percent of software efforts fail. Admittedly, my standard of success is high. How do I get to 97%? Well, about 40 percent of projects are cancelled before they deliver anything. That’s a clear case of failure (“total hard failure”). Another 30 percent can be salvaged and reformed into something, but underperform the expectations set based on their headcount and resources, and are written off as embarrassments (“partial hard failure”).

In other words, 70 out of 100 software projects are hard failures. That’s not controversial. Of the remaining 30, half of those (or 15% of the whole) are soft failures: well-made, good products that go unused, or are regarded as failures, for purely political reasons. In other words, there was no technical failure, but the product did not succeed politically. The software itself was just fine– possibly, quite excellent– it’s not going to get an engineer promoted. This leaves 15% that could be seen as successes. Of them, four-fifths (12% of the whole) devolve quickly into disliked legacy monsters that, even though they get launched and become critical to the business, are viewed with enough disdain that, while managers of the projects might get promoted, the engineers are under constant criticism for the shortcomings of the system (which may have more to do with time constraints than engineering shortfalls). This leaves only 3% of software projects that are able to (a) solve the problem, (b) do so using a resource budget deemed acceptable, (c) succeed politically, and (d) continue to be well-regarded enough to make the case for an engineer’s promotion. The other 97% of projects? They add some value to the business but, from a careerist perspective, they’re a total waste of time, because they don’t confer the political capital that would give their engineers the credibility to work on better, harder, more critical problems.

Given the low success rate of software projects, even though many of those causes of failure aren’t the engineers’ fault, it’s probably not surprising that this industry has such a high burnout rate. Our success rate is comparable to what one might expect out of an R&D lab. No one holds a researcher in low regard if many of her ideas fail; if that doesn’t happen, that often means that her aims aren’t ambitious enough. Sub-50% success rates are expected in R&D, with the understanding that the successes will pay for the exploration costs (a polite term for the costs of the failures). We, however, are held responsible and sometimes fired for software project failures, which are presented as never acceptable.

The 70% that I call hard failures can lead to project cancellations and, in bad economic times, lost jobs. So can the 15% that are soft failures (i.e. working software rejected for political reasons) although it is less common. Successfully completing something that goes unused will not get a person fired, but it does not protect a person from layoffs. The 12% that evolve into hated legacy assets rarely end jobs. In fact, they create jobs in the company, but they’re usually undesirable maintenance jobs. Those projects turn out well for managers but, for engineers, it’s rare that they make a case for promotion. Managers can say that they “successfully delivered” these projects and it’s not really a lie, but the programmers are expected to stick around and maintain them. Taking this all in, one sees that the projects that can really make a case for someone as a programmer require a large number of things to go right, and almost nothing to go wrong.

With the battle scars that come with age, programmers tend to develop prejudices that make little sense to anyone else. I’ve heard people say that it’s “impossible” to write production code in a dynamically typed language. It’s not. I personally prefer static typing, but high-quality production code is written in dynamic languages every day. I’ve heard others bash practices and tools based on previous experiences with software failure. It’s a multiple-cause attribution behavior that doesn’t make much sense.

When negative outcomes are rare, it’s sensible to attribute them to all causes. Let’s consider traffic accidents. On a drive, the positive outcome (no collision) is common and the negative one is very rare. Most traffic accidents have multiple causes: the driver was exhausted, it was snowing, and the intersection was poorly designed. It’s rare that such accidents happen because one thing goes wrong; it usually takes multiple things going wrong at the same time. The conclusions that are drawn, however, are valid: driving while exhausted is dangerous, snow makes driving more dangerous, and badly-designed intersections are dangerous. Blaming all causes makes sense.

However, when negative outcomes are common, it’s often because a single cause can ruin the whole thing. This is the nature of software. True successes are damn rare, most projects fail, and small things can cause great work to be all for nought. This is worsened by the fact that, in the corporate theater, people in power can easily obfuscate the causes of things going wrong (or, to put it more bluntly, shift blame). In the example of the traffic accident, there were multiple causes that were genuinely involved. In a corporate failure, only one cause is necessary to make it happen, but the executives can generate multiple causes that might have been involved, and they’ll frequently do so, for obvious self-serving reasons.

Let’s say, for a concrete example, that a software project is started in Python, because it’s what the engineering team knows and likes using. (It’s not my favorite language, but it works.) Four months in, there’s an executive shake-up and a new CTO comes in with a strong pro-Java bias, because it’s what he knows. In addition to this technical bias, he needs to Make Decisions on his first day, “to prove he’s serious”, so he waltzes over to one of the teams under him (this team) and, without taking time to determine why the team chose the tools that it did, he says, “There’s no way that Python can scale; use Java instead”.

What happens? Over time, the strong Python engineers leave, while the weak ones stay and begrudgingly switch over to Java. Additionally, the language overhaul turns out to be more complicated than expected and, due to time constraints, it can’t be completed. So the project ends up being a Python/Java hybrid app with poor communication between the two halves. The app is delivered, but it’s slow and buggy because the good Python engineers have left and the weak ones weren’t able to write performant code in any language. The real cause of the failure? A CTO who interfered with a functioning team. The official version of events? The CTO was right; Python simply “cannot scale”. It can’t be the idiot CTO that killed that project; Guido von Rossum himself did it.

What’s worst isn’t just that this pattern of behavior exists, but how quick software engineers are to buy into the “official” story, and attribute negative outcomes to the technologies that their projects relied upon. I’ve met so many software engineers who absolutely hate technologies that weren’t to blame, at all, for the project failures attributed to them. Did the project really fail because of Python? Or because test-driven development just takes too damn much time? Or because XML is a hideous mess of a standard (which it is, but that’s almost always irrelevant)? I strongly doubt it. In almost all cases, I’d guess that the project failed because of managerial or political factors (read: executive incompetence) and that technologies were simply blamed because the “official” narratives get written by (no surprise) executives. Programmers and technologies have been a dumping ground for executives’ failures for decades and, as bad as that is, it’s even worse that so many programmers are stupid enough to believe these official narratives– and go on to future jobs and spout idiocies like “Python cannot scale.”

Software project failures are painful, especially for programmers. Although failure is common in our industry, we don’t really get permission to fail. Companies can’t fire everyone when a software project fails, because even the most evil companies don’t want that much turnover. Still, if a project lands in hard failure, it’s pretty much a guarantee that at least one person has to lose a job, and the manager’s going to make sure that it isn’t him. Soft failures don’t necessarily end jobs, but they stall careers, make people nervous, and push people to quit.

After a few years in this industry, everyone has enough experience with failed projects (including, again, successful projects that failed politically or that devolved into mediocrity for political reasons, especially including feature creep) to have battle scars, and that gives each of us a long list of technologies and patterns that we find ourselves hating. Don’t get me wrong, either: many of our bugbears are legitimately hideous. I can’t stand the singleton directories (e.g. “com”) of Java projects, the broken handling of loop variables in Python closures, or the monkey-patch facilities of Ruby. These are all ugly things, but I think it’s extremely rare that any one of them ever single-handedly caused a project to fail.

To me, it’s weird and inconsistent. The startup world venerates failure, but only when founders do it. A VC-backed founder who steers a business into a reef is lauded for taking the risk and either “acqui-hired” or given another company. A programmer who fails (or, more often, who has the misfortune of working on a project that fails, which is often not her fault) is just regarded as a loser. Programmers are expected to have career narratives of one success after another. This is inconsistent with the fact that about 40 percent of software projects fail totally, and another 57 percent fall into murky non-success or uninspiring mediocrity. Worse yet, programmers often don’t know (due to managerial secrecy and the pervasive cover-up culture) the real reasons why their projects failed and, even if they do know, can’t speak the truth in public or in a professional context such as a job interview (where “bad-mouthing” an ex-manager is taken to be a crime as serious as murder or rape). Thus, they come up with a myriad of faulty explanations for why things went badly on previous projects. “What we learned… is that Python cannot scale.” That’s not true at all, but it’s more socially acceptable to say that on a job interview than to say the truth for most values of “the truth” (which involve frank incompetence at executive levels).

Writ large, these non-truths get repeated often enough that they generate a cloud of tech hate. Every language, every framework, every tool, just sucks. Python “can’t scale” and Java programmers “are all morons” and C “is insecure and dangerous” and Haskell “is impossible to hire for”. That’s the narrative. Some tools do suck, and far more often a tool is inappropriate to the purpose (e.g. Java when one wants rapid development, or Python for low-latency systems) to which it’s put. However, nuance is lost in the cloud of embittered tech-bashing, and the image that it projects of our work as a whole (and of us) is that most of what we build is pure garbage. Is it any wonder, with such a culture, that programming remains a low-status profession?

Pyramid vs. obelisk

I may not be able to save the world, but I think I’ve come up with the fundamental idea that will be necessary in order to restore (and, afterward, preserve) the integrity of, at the very least, the software industry.

Software may or may not be “eating the world”, but we’re learning that the class of people who can rigorously solve problems using precise thought is one that ought to be held in high demand. Such people need not necessarily be writing software programs per se, but we’re in a world that cannot grow based on ego and bluster (the traditional traits used to select business leaders) alone. That approach has been played out, and we need competence to get any further. There are a variety of literacies that a leader needs in order to do her job well, and that set of needed capacities is too large for me to tackle right now, so let’s zero in on one important job, which is software engineering. As a society, we need it. We need it, done well. Unfortunately, as a society, we seem to be getting worse at it.

The problem is that most of the people who employ programmers have seen fit, over the past two decades, to diminish this kind of work as much as possible. There have been so many efforts to replace professional programmers with interchangeable, unqualified peons that it is, frankly, sickening. This is, of course, the real purpose of the “Agile Scrum” fad that has infested our industry, as well as the fetishism for open-plan offices. Dan Lyons’s new book, Disrupted, describes the ageist culture that emerges when we allow the industry to drive software, rather than the other way around. We’ve seen competent engineers driven out in favor of cheap, young, and (most importantly) obedient commodity-grade programmers hired to inflate headcount numbers and appease investors. It needs to stop, and now, before this industry gets so thoroughly infested with incompetence and anti-intellectualism that a generation’s worth of work and experience will need to be discarded. So how do we stop it?

Although it shouldn’t be this way, software engineering is pyramidal in shape. For every engineer who gets to work on a real project, there seem to be fifteen grunts only trusted to churn through Jira tickets. We need to reform our professional structure to be more like an obelisk, instead.

Architecturally, a pyramid is the most basic, inefficient way of achieving prominence (or, less pedantically, height). It’s imposing, it’s gigantic, and it historically required massive amounts of slave labor as well as natural resources. Ancient Egyptians built pyramids because they didn’t have the architectural know-how (namely, arches) to build much else at scale. In economics, one invokes the pyramidal shape when describing arrangements that deliver massive yield to the few (at the top of the pyramid) while exploiting the larger lower classes (at the bottom). Hence, the term “pyramid scheme”. One could argue that pyramids (of both kinds) are entropic. A pile of sand or stones will assume an approximately conical shape, and it’s likely that this inspired the (architecturally unsophisticated) pyramids of Ancient Egypt. Likewise, an ill-organized or disorganized set of people will devolve into an oligarchic arrangement, with many supporting the few.

Professional pyramids mean that positional scarcity will exist at every level in the profession (the term “profession”, here, used loosely) as the number of positions declines as an exponential function of experience. It’ll be as hard to stay in the profession as to get in. Except for sociopaths who enjoy social competition for its own sake, most people find this undesirable. Doctors and attorneys wouldn’t be happy if they had to continue fighting for fewer spots with each year of age, even 30 years after graduating. Not only would it be bad for individuals to have that degree of positional competition, but it would also be a waste for society. To push out 50-year-old doctors simply because they “failed” to arrogate managerial positions would be to discard hard-won expertise, and it would generate a culture of inexperience.

Left to their own devices, management hierarchies become pyramidal. If a company of 10,000 people decides on a 12:1 reporting ratio (as is typical, in software) then it’s going to have 9,167 grunts, 764 first-level managers, 64 directors (managers of managers), and only 5 people at the executive level as traditionally defined. Why can’t there be 100 directors instead of 64? There could be, but few companies would want to pay for them if given the choice. That pyramid seems painful, and it would be, if that’s how companies worked. At the top, they often don’t, and I’ve written before about the superior collective intelligence of MBAs as opposed to software programmers. People with elite MBAs aren’t stupid. They realize that they’re going to get screwed under the traditional pyramidal regime. Not only does the pyramid system make it unlikely for people to advance, but they also leave the people in high positions unprotected, because there are too few of them. CEOs promote loyalists not because the companies need so many executives, but because the CEOs are smart enough to realize that sharing rank and prominence is essential for their own survival.

One could argue that business executives, as a group, “conspire” against their companies by working together in order to convince their organizations that they’re more needed than they really are, and that more of them are needed than really are, and that they themselves as a class (executives) can recognize talent in a way that no one else (not shareholders, not workers) can. By doing this, they’ve managed to create massive demand for themselves and their skill set (which is perceived to be more rare than it actually is). On this topic, I’m hesitant to use the word “conspire” because I don’t consider it morally wrong. Corporate life has become a culture of resource extraction, and the executives have simply been the best players at that game. Ultimately, there are very few people who would hesitate, if offered a magical device that would imbue in their employers an extreme and superstitious overvaluation of their work, to use it for personal benefit. Executives have simply managed to do exactly that as a group, rather than as individuals, the latter being far more difficult.

Corporate executives, based on manufactured demand, as well as doctors and attorneys based on actual demand, have taken their leverage and replaced the pyramidal structure with a professional obelisk shape. An obelisk is upright, rising far higher than a pyramid of comparable mass could, until the pinnacle. With a professional obelisk, there’s plenty of room to grow until one encounters positional scarcity. Doctors don’t need to beat down other doctors and climb management hierarchies just to advance; they just need to gain more skills and deliver more value. Likewise, MBA-toting corporate executives might face stiff competition if they want to be Fortune-500 CEOs (because there are only 500 such spots) but they deal with minimal competition if they just want 7-figure incomes and fancy titles by age 50.

An obelisk structure shows that a value is placed on expertise: as long as people continue to improve themselves, there’ll be room for them at a level higher than where they are. Progress will be recognized. Why does the medical profession intentionally create an obelisk-shaped, guild structure? It doesn’t want “Agile” 17-year-olds performing surgery and driving out competent surgeons who didn’t pursue management jobs. It also doesn’t want people taking obscene risks due to an up-or-out culture that persists into one’s 40s and 50s. Finally, it doesn’t want a culture where the median practitioner has less than a decade of experience.

The pyramid is the entropic formation. Without a deliberate professional structure, it will emerge. Why so? An unprotected “profession” (note the oxymoron) will expand until it absorbs the most unqualified people, who draw barely more compensation than they’d get anywhere else, but who are able enough to convince people (unqualified buyers) to buy their services that they can stay afloat. The unqualified and minimally invested (the “quacks”) will, by sheer numbers, outvote the genuine practitioners (who’ve often dedicated their lives to becoming good at something) and dominate the culture– until their incompetence starts hurting people. In medicine and law, this outcome is considered so unacceptable that it’s not controversial for these industries to have professional structures that function as labor cartels. We need to start thinking the same way about software. We need to start driving out the charlatan brogrammers for whom the infantilizing open-plan startup culture was created.

So how do we get an obelisk-shaped, protected profession for software engineers?

Let’s focus on something that hasn’t worked, and look at why it has failed. Many companies have created “engineering ladders” that purport to measure professional development for individual contributors and allow people to grow without becoming managers. There might be a manager-equivalent title (Staff Engineer) and a Director-equivalent one (Principal Engineer, or Architect) and a VP-equivalent one (Fellow). What goes wrong? To start, the disparity in difficulty makes the whole thing extremely self-congratulatory on the part of the managers.

To become a Director- or VP-equivalent engineer, you have to compete against some of the smartest people in the company. It’s legitimately difficult. There are smart, qualified people who don’t make it. If anything, these dual-track systems serve the interests of management by allowing the executives to overstate their value and capability relative to engineers; if one has to be a genuinely great engineer to become Director-equivalent, the thinking is, then engineers will hold Directors and VPs on the much-easier-to-climb managerial tracks in higher regard.

Ultimately, these systems don’t work. Rather, they serve to document and justify an existing pyramidal scarcity. The organization will only allow a small number of engineers to climb into positions with the credibility and compensation afforded to senior managers, because engineers lack the collective organizational skill to thwart the penny-pinching game being played against them. Thus, a pyramid forms, and little is solved, because positional scarcity persists at each level.

I’ve been around for long enough to know that trusting employers is not a strategy. In the long term, it always fails. Don’t get me wrong: there are good companies out there, and there are managerial strategies (e.g. open allocation) that can improve the odds of creating one. Some individual employers probably can be trusted, but this doesn’t scale, because most organizations become pathological and self-serving at some point. So, if we can’t trust employers, then we can’t put stock in employer-assigned titles as a way to insure the credibility of the individual programmer. That means that we need an employer-independent system for doing so. We need a source of credibility for the individual that no employer can touch.

Doctors and attorneys have employer-independent credibility, being vouched-for by their professional associations (in the U.S., the AMA and the ABA). That’s necessary because the core of a profession is that one’s ethical obligations supersede managerial authority. That is, a doctor can’t use the superior orders defense to justify killing a patient. Of course, that only works if the professional has some sort of employer-independent credibility– in which case, losing a job is a transient financial annoyance rather than a possible career killer. If the individual lives entirely on his reputation as made by prior managers, his lack of leverage becomes a lack of moral agency. That is, of course, the problem that most programmers face. We lack moral or even creative autonomy, because we lack employer-independent credibility; once we leave school, our value is derived from the titles and recognitions given to us by profit-seeking corporations.

Some programmers hoped that the open-source world would fill this gap. It can’t. That’s not its job. Evaluating a programmer’s Github profile is a subjective task, and the only objective way of measuring one’s open-source contributions is based on how many people use the software. Here’s the issue, though. Few engineers have the time and resources available not only to build usable open-source projects, but to market their work to the global programming community enough that it actually used, and then to support it once it is. The positional scarcity and power-law distribution of open-source prominence emerge not because the open-source community is full of mean people (it’s not) but because (a) there’s no barrier to entry when it comes to just putting code out there, while (b) most of this code will never be used, because people have an entirely understandable (and, in fact, prudent) aversion to using unproven software.

How do we create an employer-independent credibility for software engineers? As far as I can tell, there are two solutions. The first is one that I hate: to require formal, institutional education. I hate it because it’s hostile to career-switchers, astronomically expensive, and can generate a culture of anti-intellectual credentialism. This leaves the second, which is to create an exam-based system, similar to what the actuarial sciences use. As programmers pass more exams, their professional credibility can grow in an employer-independent way. This would not only give us job security, but the improvement in our general leverage would enable us to negotiate for better working conditions and launch better projects, to the benefit of society as a whole.

Are there problems with exams? Of course there are. For one thing, I happen to believe that “bad test taker” is a real thing. (I was always a good test taker, but I’ve met intelligent people who aren’t.) We’d have to adapt our system to legitimate learning disabilities and to allow project-based alternatives for great programmers who struggle with traditional exams. We’d need to decide what to charge for the exams (as well as the presumably more expensive project evaluation) and how to offer financial aid. We’d have to decide what would be on the exams, and how many there would be. (I, personally, doubt that I’d be qualified to design such a curriculum.) What is an Associate-level programmer, and what’s a Fellow-level engineer, and what do we expect each to know? What are the continuing education requirements going to look like? These aren’t easy problems to solve. On the contrary, they’re quite difficult and organizationally complex.

Here’s the thing, about that. Designing a curriculum and exam track for software engineers is a massive amount of work, much of it ugly. I doubt I’m up to it, personally, because I’d rather have it built by experts in their respective fields of computer science. However, the core idea is here is one that will actually work. Blindly trusting employers hasn’t worked, and fetishizing startups has been a hilarious failure. Over the past twenty years, the programming profession has lost ground. We’ve been infantilized with open-plan offices and “Agile Scrum” practices that senior engineers don’t need. We’ve been left without any form of employer-independent credibility, which is what we’ll need if we want to become a true profession. We’re in a state of squalid failure. Our professional shape is a pyramid rather than an obelisk, making the job painfully political at every level. I’d rather see an imperfect solution (such as a professional curriculum and an employer-independent, exam-based advancement system) that fixes this than no solution at all. This problem won’t be solved by one person and it certainly won’t be solved within a year, but I’m confident that I know, at least, where to start.