I’m going to spoil the ending. The answer is: yes, I think so. Before I tackle that matter, though, I want to address the blog post that led me to write on this topic. It’s Tim Chevalier’s “Farewell to All That” essay about his departure from technology. He seems to have lost faith in the industry, and is taking a break from it. It’s worth reading in its entirety. Please do so, before continuing with my (more optimistic) analysis.
I’m going to analyze specific passages from Chevalier’s essay. It’s useful to describe exactly what sort of “broken culture” we’re dealing with, in order to replace a vague “I don’t like this” with a list of concrete grievances, identifiable sources and, possibly, implementable solutions.
First, he writes:
I have no love left for my job or career, although I do have it for many of my friends and colleagues in software. And that’s because I don’t see how my work helps people I care about or even people on whom I don’t wish any specific harm. Moreover, what I have to put up with in order to do my work is in danger of keeping me in a state of emotional and moral stagnation forever.
This is a common malaise in technology. By the time we’re 30, we’ve spent the better part of three decades building up potential and have refined what is supposed to be the most important skill of the 21st century. We’d like to work on clean energy or the cure for cancer or, at least, creating products that change and save lives (like smart phones, which surely have). Instead, most of us work on… helping businessmen unemploy people. Or targeting ads. Or building crappy, thoughtless games for bored office workers. That’s really what most of us do. It’s not inspiring.
Technologists are fundamentally progressive people. We build things because we want the world to be better tomorrow than it is today. We write software to solve problems forever. Yet most of what our employers actually make us do is not congruent with the progressive inclination that got us interested in technology in the first place. Non-technologists cannot adequately manage technologists because technologists value progress, while non-technologists tend to value subordination and stability.
Open source is the common emotional escape hatch for unfulfilled programmers, but a double-edged sword. In theory, open-source software advances the state of the world. In practice, it’s less clear cut. Are we making programmers (and, therefore, the world) more productive, or are we driving down the price of software and consigning a generation to work on shitty, custom, glue-code projects? This is something that I worry about, and I don’t have the answer. I would almost certainly say that open-source software is very much good for the world, were it not for the fact that programmers do need to make money, and giving our best stuff away for free just might be hurting the price for our labor. I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, it’s impossible to measure that counterfactual scenario.
If there’s a general observation that I’d make about software programmers, and technologists in general, it’s that we’re irresponsibly adding value. We create so much value that it’s ridiculous, and so much that, by rights, we ought to be calling the shots. Yet we find value-capture to be undignified and let the investors and businessmen handle that bit of the work. So they end up with the authority and walk away with the lion’s share; we’re happy if we make a semi-good living. The problem is that value (or money) becomes power, and the bulk of the value we generate accrues not to people who share our progressive values, but to next-quarter thinkers who end up making the world more ugly. We ought to fix this. By preferring ignorance over how the value we generate is distributed and employed, we’re complicit in widespread unemployment, mounting economic and political inequality, and the general moral problem of the wrong people winning.
I don’t spend much time solving abstract puzzles, at least not in comparison to the amount of time I spend doing unpaid emotional labor.
Personally, I care more about solving real-world problems and making peoples’ lives better than I do about “abstract puzzles”. It’s fun to learn about category theory, but what makes Haskell exciting is that its core ideas actually work at making quickly developed code robust beyond what is possible (within the same timeframe; JPL-style C is a different beast) in other languages. I don’t find much use in abstract puzzles for their own sake. That said, the complaint about “unpaid emotional labor” resonates with me, though I might use the term “uncompensated emotional load”. If you work in an open-plan office, you’re easily losing 10-15 hours of your supposedly free time just recovering from the pointless stress inflicted by a bad work environment. I wouldn’t call it an emotional “labor”, though. Labor implies conscious awareness. Recovering from emotional load is draining, but it’s not a conscious activity.
But the tech industry is wired with structural incentives to stay broken. Broken people work 80-hour weeks because we think we’ll get approval and validation for our technical abilities that way. Broken people burn out trying to prove ourselves as hackers because we don’t believe anyone will ever love us for who we are rather than our merit.
He has some strong points here: the venture-funded tech industry is designed to give a halfway-house environment for emotionally stunted (I wouldn’t use the word “broken”, because immaturity is very much fixable) fresh college grads. That said, he’s losing me on any expectation of “love” at the workplace. I don’t want to be “loved” by my colleagues. I want to be respected. And respect has to be earned (ideally, based on merit). If he wants unconditional love, he’s not going to find that in any job under the sun; he should get a dog, or a cat. That particular one isn’t the tech industry’s fault.
Broken people believe pretty lies like “meritocracy” and “show me the code” because it’s easier than confronting difficult truths; it’s as easy as it is because the tech industry is structured around denial.
Meritocracy is a useless word and I think that it’s time for it to die, because even the most corrupt work cultures are going to present themselves as meritocracies. The claim of meritocracy is disgustingly self-serving for the people at the top.
“Show me the code” (or data) can be irksome, because there are insights for which coming up with data is next to impossible, but that any experienced person would share. That said, data- (or code-)driven decision making is better than running on hunches, or based on whoever has the most political clout. What I can’t stand is when I have to provide proof but someone else doesn’t. Or when someone decides that every opinion other than his is “being political” while his is self-evident truth. Or when someone in authority demands more data or code before making a ruling, then goes on to punish you for getting less done on your assigned work (because he really doesn’t want you to prove him wrong). Now those are some shitty behaviors.
I generally agree that not all disputes can be resolved with code or data, because some cases require a human touch and experience; that said, there are many decisions that should be handled in exactly that way: quantitatively. What irks me is not a principled insistence on data-driven decisions, but when people with power acquire the right to make everyone else provide data (which may be impossible to come by) while remaining unaccountable, themselves, to do the same. And many of the macho jerks who overplay the “show me the code” card (because they’ve acquired undeserved political power), when code or data are too costly to acquire. are doing just that.
A culture that considers “too sensitive” an insult is a culture that eats its young. Similarly, it’s popular in tech to decry “drama” when no one is ever sure what the consensus is on this word’s meaning, but as far as I can tell it means other people expressing feelings that you would prefer they stay silent about.
I dislike this behavior pattern. I wouldn’t use the word “drama” so much as political. Politically powerful bad actors are remarkably good at creating a consensus that their political behaviors are apolitical and “meritocratic”, whereas people who disagree with or oppose them are “playing politics” and “stirring up drama”. False objectivity is more dangerous than admitted subjectivity. The first suits liars, the second suits people who have the courage to admit that they are fallible and human.
Personally, I tend to disclose my biases. I can be very political. While I don’t value emotional drama for its own sake, I dislike those who discount emotion. Emotions are important. We all have them, and they carry information. It’s up to us to decide what to do with that information, and how far we should listen to emotions, because they’re not always wise in what they tell us to do. There is, however, nothing wrong with having strong emotions. It’s when people are impulsive, arrogant, and narcissistic enough to let their emotions trample on other people that there is a problem.
Consequently, attempting to shut one’s opponent down by accusing him of being “emotional” is a tactic I’d call dirty, and it should be banned. We’re humans. We have emotions. We also have the ability (most of the time) to put them in place.
“Suck it up and deal” is an assertion of dominance that disregards the emotional labor needed to tolerate oppression. It’s also a reflection of the culture of narcissism in tech that values grandstanding and credit-taking over listening and empathizing.
This is very true. “Suck it up and deal” is also dishonest in the same way that false objectivity and meritocracy are. The person saying it is implicitly suggesting that she suffered similar travails in the past. At the same time, it’s a brush-off that indicates that the other person is of too low status for it to be worthwhile to assess why the person is complaining. It says, “I’ve had worse” followed by “well, I don’t actually know that, because you’re too low on the food chain for me to actually care what you’re going through.” It may still be abrasive to say “I don’t care”, but at least it’s honest.
Oddly enough, most people who have truly suffered fight hard to prevent others from having similar experiences. I’ve dealt with a lot of shit coming up in the tech world, and the last thing I would do is inflict it on someone else, because I know just how discouraging this game can be.
if you had a good early life, you wouldn’t be in tech in the first place.
I don’t buy this one. Some people are passionate about software quality, or about human issues that can be solved by technology. Not everyone who’s in this game is broken.
There certainly are a lot of damaged people working in private-sector tech, and the culture of the VC-funded world attracts broken people. What’s being said here is probably 80 or 90 percent true, but there are a lot of people in technology (especially outside of the VC-funded private sector tech that’s getting all the attention right now) who don’t seem more ill-adjusted than anyone else.
I do think that the Damaso Effect requires mention. On the business side of tech (which we report into) there are a lot of people who really don’t want to be there. Venture capital is a sub-sector of private equity and considered disreputable within that crowd: it’s a sideshow to them. Their mentality is that winners work on billion-dollar private equity deals in New York and losers go to California and boss nerds around. And for a Harvard MBA to end up as a tech executive (not even an investor!) is downright embarrassing. So that Columbia MBA who’s a VP of HR at a 80-person ed-tech startup is not exactly going to be attending reunions. This explains the malaise that programmers often face as they get older: we rise through the ranks and see that, if not immediately, we eventually report up into a set of people who really don’t want to be here. They view being in tech as a mark of failure, like being relegated to a colonial outpost. They were supposed to be MDs at Goldman Sachs, not pitching business plans to clueless VCs and trying to run a one-product company on a shoestring (relative to the level of risk and ambition that it takes to keep investors interested) budget.
That said, there are plenty of programmers who do want to be here. They’re usually older and quite capable and they don’t want to be investors or executives, though they often could get invited to those ranks if they wished. They just love solving hard problems. I’ve met such people; many, in fact. This is a fundamental reason why the technology industry ought to be run by technologists and not businessmen. The management failed into it and would jump back into MBA-Land Proper if the option were extended, and they’re here because they’re the second or third tier that got stuck in tech; but the programmers in tech actually, in many cases, like being here and value what technology can do.
Failure to listen, failure to document, and failure to mentor. Toxic individualism — the attitude that a person is solely responsible for their own success, and if they find your code hard to understand, it’s their fault — is tightly woven through the fabric of tech.
This is spot-on, and it’s a terrible fact. It holds the industry back. We have a strong belief in progress when it comes to improving tools, adding features to a code base, and acquiring more data. Yet the human behaviors that enable progress, we tend to undervalue.
But in tech, the failures are self-reinforcing because failure often has no material consequences (especially in venture-capital-funded startups) and because the status quo is so profitable — for the people already on the inside — that the desire to maintain it exceeds the desire to work better together.
This is an interesting observation, and quite true. The upside goes mostly to the well-connected. Most of the Sand Hill Road game is about taking strategies (e.g. insider trading, market manipulation) that would be illegal on public markets and applying them to microcap private equities over which there are fewer rules. The downside is borne by the programmers, who suffer extreme costs of living and a culture of age discrimination on a promise of riches that will usually never come. As of now, the Valley has been booming for so long that many people have forgotten that crashes and actual career-rupturing failures even exist. In the future… who knows?
As for venture capital, it delivers private prosperity, but its returns to passive investors (e.g. the ones whose money is being invested, as opposed to the VCs collecting management fees) are dreadful. This industry is not succeeding, except according to the needs of the well-connected few. What’s happening is not “so profitable” at all. It’s not actually very successful. It’s just well-marketed, and “sexy”, to people under 30 who haven’t figured out what they want to do with their lives.
I remember being pleasantly amazed at hearing that kind of communication from anybody in a corporate conference room, although it was a bit less nice when the CTO literally replied with, “I don’t care about hurt feelings. This is a startup.”
That one landed. I have seen so many startup executives and founders justify bad behavior with “this is a startup” or “we’re running lean”. It’s disgusting. It’s the False Poverty Effect: people who consider themselves poor based on peer comparison will tend to believe themselves entitled to behave badly or harm others because they feel like it’s necessary in order to catch up, or that their behavior doesn’t matter because they’re powerless compared to where they should be. It usually comes with a bit of self-righteousness, as well: “I’m suffering (by only taking a $250k salary) for my belief in this company.”The false-poverty behavior is common in startup executives, because (as I already discussed) they’d much rather be elsewhere– executives in much larger companies, or in private equity.
I am neither proud of nor sorry for any of these lapses, because ultimately it’s capitalism’s responsibility to make me produce for it, and within the scope of my career, capitalism failed. I don’t pity the ownership of any of my former employers for not having been able to squeeze more value out of me, because that’s on them.
I have nothing to say other than that I loved this. Ultimately, corporate capitalism fails to be properly capitalistic because of its command-economy emphasis on subordination. When people are treated as subordinates, they slack and fade. This hurts the capitalist more than anyone else.
Answering the question
I provided commentary on Tim Chevalier’s post because not only is he taking on the tech industry, but he’s giving proof to his objection by leaving it. Tech has a broken culture, but it’s not enough to issue vague complaints as many do. It’s not just about sexism and classism and Agile and Java Shop politics in isolation. It’s about all of that shit, taken together. It’s about the fact that we have a shitty hand-me-down culture from those who failed out of the business mainstream (“MBA Culture”) and ended up acquiring its worst traits (e.g. sexism, ageism, anti-intellectualism). It’s about the fact that we have this incredible skill in being able to program, and yet 99 percent of our work is reduced to a total fucking joke because the wrong people are in charge. If we care about the future at all, we have to fight this.
Fixing one problem in isolation, I’ll note, will do no good. This is why I can’t stand that “lean in” nonsense that is sold to unimaginative women who want some corporate executive to solve their problems. You cannot defeat the systemic problems that disproportionately harm women, and maintain the status quo at the same time. You can’t take an unfair, abusive system designed to concentrate power and “fix” it so that it is more fair in one specific way, but otherwise operates under the same rules. You can’t have a world where it is career suicide to take a year off of work for any reason except to have a baby. If you maintain that cosmetic obsession with recency, you will hurt women who wish to have children. You have to pick: either accept the sexism and ageism and anti-intellectualism and the crushing mediocrity of what is produced… or overthrow the status quo and change a bunch of things at the same time. I know which one I would vote for.
Technology is special in two ways, and both of these are good news, at least insofar as they bear on what is possible if we get our act together. The first is that it’s flamingly obvious that the wrong people are calling the shots. Look at many of the established tech giants. In spite of having some of the best software engineers in the world, many of these places use stack ranking. Why? They have an attitude that software engineering is “smart people work” and that everything else– product management, people management, HR– is “stupid people work” and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get some of the best C++ engineers in the world, but you get stupid shit like stack ranking and “OKRs” and “the 18-month rule” from your management.
It would be a worse situation to have important shots called by idiots and not have sufficient talent within our ranks to replace them. But we do have it. We can push them aside, and take back our industry, if we learn how to work together rather than against each other.
The second thing to observe about technology is that it’s so powerful as to admit a high degree of mismanagement. If we were a low-margin business, Scrum would kill rather than merely retard companies. Put simply, successful applications of technology generate more wealth than anyone knows what to do with. This could be disbursed to employees, but that’s rare: for most people in startups, their equity slices are a sad joke. Some of it will be remitted to investors and to management. A great deal of that surplus, however, is spent on management slack: tolerating mismanagement at levels that would be untenable in an industry with a lower margin. For example, stack-ranking fell out of favor after it caused the calamitous meltdown of Enron, and “Agile”/”Scrum” is a resurrection of Taylorist pseudo-science that was debunked decades ago. Management approaches that don’t work, as their proponents desperately scramble for a place to park them, end up in tech. This leaves our industry, as a whole, running below quarter speed and still profitable. Just fucking imagine how much there would be to go around, if the right people were calling the shots.
In light of the untapped economic potential that would accrue to the world if the tech industry were better run, and had a better culture, it seems obvious that technology can fix the culture. That said, it won’t be easy. We’ve been under colonial rule (by the business mainstream) for a long time. Fixing this game, and eradicating the bad behaviors that we’ve inherited from our colonizing culture (which is more sexist, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, classist and ageist than any of our natural tendencies) will not happen overnight. We’ve let ourselves be defined, from above, as arrogant and socially inept and narcissistic, and therefore incapable of running our own affairs. That, however, doesn’t reflect what we really are, nor what we can be.