Why the cruel culture of coding is damaging society

People sitting behind way too many monitors

When a former Google engineer’s ill-informed anti-diversity essay became news during the summer, it shone a light on problems with the the tech industry’s makeup. I am not just talking about a lack of diversity, although that is a big problem.

The diversity issue is just the tip of the iceberg. A host of cultural problems face the tech scene.

I am not an expert on the scientific claims made by James Damore in his memo, which essentially contended that the abilities of men and women differ for biological reasons. So I am not about to add my ill-informed views to the pile of commentary that surrounded Damore’s memo.

But I did enjoy the Economist’s imaginary rebuttal from Larry Page.

Your memo was a triumph of motivated reasoning: heads men win; tails women lose. Here are a few psychological differences between the sexes that you didn’t mention. Men score higher on measures of anger, and lower on co-operation and self-discipline. If it had been the other way round, I’m betting you would have cited these differences as indicating lack of suitability for the job of coder. You lean on measures of interest and personality, rather than ability and achievement, presumably because the latter don’t support your hypothesis.

Engineering is about people too

The main problem with James Damore’s essay is not that it is sexist (although it is). It is written from a limited perspective of what the job of an engineer is (or should be).

Yonatan Zunger’s response nailed this.

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems… Fixing problems means first of all understanding them — and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system…

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers.

Fundamentally, to be a good engineer, you need to work with people and be happy doing so.

Some coders would like to be let off the hook on that. They are the people who hide behind their six monitors (which are only there to make them feel more important than they are). They’re the ones who insist you must not interrupt them when they have headphones on. They would like not to be disturbed because coding requires deep concentration for several hours at a time, don’t you know?

People sitting behind way too many monitors

Look at these people with their important monitors

The implication these people make is that other jobs aren’t as important, because they think they don’t require deep concentration. They want you to stop bothering them with their frivolous request. They have important work to do, unlike you.

This is crap, by the way. Most people would benefit (in a narrow sense) from having uninterrupted concentration time in their work. But that’s not how the world works, because you do not exist in isolation.

What people like this don’t realise is that often collaborating with people is the most important work.

Of course, the vast majority of coders and engineers are not like that. I am lucky to have worked with some very talented and compassionate people in all kinds of roles.

But there are just enough of people with a bad enough attitude that it can sometimes create a cruel culture in technology.

Open source needs open minds

I was struck by Scott Hanselman’s article Bring kindness back to open source because it rings so true:

When you’re rude/crisp/sharp/whatever to someone… your meanness may have turned off the next generation of open source committer. It’s that simple.

I have often tried to get WordPress help through the official support channels, or searched for something and found a Stack Overflow thread. These interactions are often unnecessarily frosty. It is amazing how intimidating it can be just reading threads that other people have posted. Sometimes they may as well close these places down and replace them with huge text simply saying “RTFM”.

I know that people supporting open source projects are doing so in their spare time. But these really could be more welcoming environments. Open source is supposed to be, you know, open.

Stop telling people they have to code

There are some developers who insist that other people need to learn how to code. These developers do this to belittle non-coders. They know full well that a lot of people find the idea of coding intimidating, and will never learn to code. They are trying to say, “I can code, you can’t, therefore I am better than you.”

Yes, learning to code probably will make most people better at their jobs.

But there are lots of skills that make people better at their jobs. You should learn to write better. You should learn about business. You might even want to develop your people skills.

Skills like this are often called “soft skills”. Some people take this to mean “easy skills”, or even “not skills”. In fact, people skills are the among the hardest to develop.

Develop your people skills

Like Yonatan Zunger, I am an introvert. Dealing with people is fun. But it also makes me anxious before I do it, and tired after I do it.

During the interview for my first big job, I was asked what my greatest weakness was. I said interpersonal skills. It was true. I was nervous with people, and poor at dealing with a lot of interactions.

When I started the job, it gave me the opportunity to develop those interpersonal skills. I quickly realised that I was improving in those areas. Doing so has furthered my career more than anything else. Improving my people skills remains my main focus for improvement.

Too often, we focus on the wrong thing. Matt LeMay outlined how the skill profile of product managers needs to be rethought.

When I meet a technical PM candidate who tells me that they would much rather be writing code than sitting in meetings all day, my next question is inevitably, “Then why would you want to be a product manager?”

Diversity matters

All the while, we are beginning to understand more about the importance of having a diverse team. Even if all the best people for the job were privileged white bros, you wouldn’t want your team to consist only of privileged white bros.

Diverse teams are smarter, and they are more likely to be more successful.

That is why it is so concerning that perceptions about the tech industry seem to be putting people off getting involved. The pool of people wanting to work in tech is narrowing.

To take one current example, girls make up only 20% of entrants to the new computer science GCSE in England.

Prof Rose Luckin says the subject has an image problem…

“Many girls believe computer science and coding is ‘for boys’ and they do not see desirable career options that appeal to them.”

There’s more. While gender discrimination has been the hot topic over the summer, it is clear that ethnic minorities are also underrepresented in the tech industry.

According to a recent report, the proportion of black and Hispanic people working in Silicon Valley is decreasing. The situation is even worse than it is for white women.

This stuff matters if you don’t want photo recognition algorithms to label black people as gorillas. Or if you want black people to be able to use an automatic soap dispenser.

Or if you don’t think your babysitter needs to change sex.

AI programs exhibit racial and gender biases, research reveals.

Tech’s wake-up call

There is an increasing awareness that what we need to take care when designing and building products. Recent events have been a wake-up call. People wonder if Twitter may have unintentionally propelled Donald Trump to power.

Jon Snow’s powerful MacTaggart lecture about the Grenfell tower tragedy underlined how disconnected journalists have become from the people they are supposed to be serving and representing. He is scathing about the role of the tech giants in the current media landscape.

Keep it human

David Byrne has written a fascinating essay about the pathway technology is taking us down. All of the recent major tech developments seem to be about eliminating human interaction.

There may be many advantages to this. But it is interesting to consider what might really be going on here:

Engineers and coders as people are often less than comfortable with human interaction, so naturally they are making a world that is more accommodating to themselves…

This… might be a bit contentious, but hear me out. My theory is that much tech was coded and created by folks somewhere on the spectrum (I should know—I’m different now, but I used to find most social interactions terrifying). Therefore, for those of us who used to or who do find human interactions awkward and uncomfortable, there would naturally be an unconscious drive to make our own lives more comfortable—why wouldn’t we?

In the design and tech industry, we affect society. When you think about it, that should go without saying. If you don’t make a difference, even at the margin, your work has no value.

We need to take that responsibility seriously. That begins by looking at ourselves, fixing our culture and ensuring we have a diverse community that can reflect the true needs of society.

6 comments

  1. I am in a non-coding area of IT and see this attitude sometimes also. This despite deliberate efforts from management to squash such poor attitudes whenever they are seen. Newcomers who don’t take to the job like a duck to water experience backbiting and snappish comments from many of the more experienced colleagues, as well as attempts to get the newcomer sacked before they could reasonably have learned their trade. None of which is helpful to people who are perhaps in their first jobs ever, and almost invariably in the first job of their type (for complicated reasons, people with experience tend not to join my department).

    I found the comment about the norms being established by people who were probably on the spectrum interesting. Yes, that is historically true. However, since the advent of social media, the tendency has been for neurotypical snappiness to predominate over autistic snappiness, with the result that my company has noticed people on the spectrum are significantly under-represented among new (last 10 years’) hires in IT. They’ve even launched a hiring campaign specifically targeting autistic people because they are otherwise often being excluded.

    And how is my department trying to sort out the newcomer training issue? The last two newcomers who had issues with their original trainers for personality reasons have ended up finishing their training under me. I have autism, but apparently I have the necessary people skills. (That I also have a basic adult teaching certificate – an experience my colleagues don’t have – probably doesn’t hurt either). There are ways of making IT processes autism-friendly that help neurotypicals too. We need to find and use them.

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