There are a few things that I think have done subtle but massive damage to the software development industry. The “software is like a building” metaphor comes to mind. Another is modeling the software workforce after the Industrial Age factory model, where the end goal seems to be turning knowledge work into 15 minute parcels that can be cranked out and billed in measured, brainless, assembly line fashion. (In fact, I find the whole concept of software “engineering” to be deeply weird, though I must cop to having picked out the title “software engineer” for people in a group I was managing because I knew it would be among the most marketable for them in their future endeavors.) Those two subtleties have done massive damage to software quality and to software development process quality, respectively, but today I’d like to talk about one that has done damage to our careers and our autonomy and that frankly I’m sick of.
The easiest way to give the phenomenon a title would be to call it “nerd stereotyping” and the easiest way to get you to understand quickly what I mean is to ask you to consider the idea that, historically, it’s always been deemed necessary to have “tech people,” “business people,” and “analysts” and “project managers” who are designated as ‘translators’ that can interpret “tech speak” for “normal people.” It’s not a wholly different metaphor than the 1800s having horses and people, with carriage drivers who could talk to the people but also manipulate the dumb, one dimensional beasts into using their one impressive attribute, their strength, to do something useful. Sometimes this manipulation meant the carrot and other times the stick. See what I did there? It’s metaphor synergy FTW!
If you’re wondering at this point why there are no cigars involved in the metaphor, don’t worry — I’ll get to that later.
The Big Bang Theory and Other Nerd Caricatures
Last week, I was on a long weekend fishing trip with my dad and
girlfriend fiancee (as of the second edit), and one night before bed, we popped the limited access cable on and were vegetating, watching what the limited selection allowed. My dad settled on the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” I’ve never watched this show because there have historically been about seven sitcoms that I’ve ever found watchable, and basically none of those have aired since I became an adult. It’s just not really my sense of humor, to be honest. But I’ve always suspected this one sitcom in particular of a specific transgression — the one about which I’m talking here. I’d never before seen the show, though, so I didn’t know for sure. Well, I know now.
In the two episodes I saw, the humor could best be summarized as, “it’s funny because that guy is so smart in one way but so dumb in another! It’s ironic and hi-larious!” The Sheldon character, who seems to be your prototypical low EQ/high IQ dweeb, decided in one episode to make every decision in life based on a dice roll, like some kind of programmer version of Harvey Dent. In another episode, he was completely unable to grasp the mechanics of haggling over price, repeatedly blurting out that he really wanted the thing even as his slightly less nerdy friend tried to play it cool. I don’t know what Sheldon does for a living, but I’ll wager he’s a programmer or mathematician or actuary or something. My money isn’t on “business analyst” or “customer support specialist” or “account manager.” But, hey, I bet that’d make for a great spin-off! Nerdy guy forced to do non-nerdy job — it’s funny because you wouldn’t expect it!
My intention here isn’t to dump on this sitcom, per se, and my apologies if it’s a favorite of yours and the characters are endearing to you. I’m really picky and hard to please when it comes to on-screen comedy (for example, I’d summarize “Everybody Loves Raymond” as “it’s funny because he’s a narcissistic, incompetent mama’s boy and she’s an insufferable harpy — hi-larious!”). So, if you’d prefer another example of this that I’ve seen in the past, consider the character on the show “Bones.” I tried watching that show for a season or two, but the main character was just absurd, notwithstanding the fact that the whole show was clearly set up to string you along, waiting for her to hook up with that FBI dude. But her whole vibe was, “I am highly intelligent and logical, but even searching my vast repository of situational knowledge and anthropological nuance and I cannot seem to deduce why there is moisture in and around your tear ducts after hearing that the woman who gave birth to you expired. Everyone expires, so it’s hardly remarkable.” She has an IQ of about 245 (and is also apparently a beautiful ninja) but hasn’t yet groked the syllogism of “people cry when they’re sad and people are sad when their parents die.” This character and Sheldon and so many others are preposterous one-dimensional caricatures of human beings, and when people in mathy-sciency fields ham it up along with them, I’m kind of reminded of this blurb from the Onion from a long time ago.
But it goes beyond just playing to the audience. As a collective, we engineers, programmers, scientists, etc., embrace and exaggerate this persona for internal cred. Because my field is programming, I’ll speak to the programmer archetype: the lone hero and iconoclast, a socially inept hacker. If Hollywood and reductionist popular culture are to be believed, it is the mediocre members of our field who are capable of social lives, normal interactions and acting like decent human beings. But the really good programmers are a mashup of Sheldon and Gregory House — lone, misanthropic, socially maladjusted weirdos whose borderline personalities and hissy fits simply have to be endured in order to bask in their prodigious, savant-like intellects and to extract social value out of them. Sheldon may be ridiculous, but he’s also probably the only one that can stop hackers or something, just as House’s felonious, unethical behavior and flaunted drug addiction are tolerated at his hospital because he’s good at his job.
Attribute Point Shaving
As humans, we like to believe in what some probably refer to as justice. I’m not really one to delve into religion on this blog, but the concept of “hell” is probably the single biggest illustrator of what I mean. It gives us the ability to answer our children’s question: “Mommy, why didn’t that evil man go to jail like in the movies?” We can simply say, “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll go to an awful place with fire and snakes and stuff after they die.” See, problem solved. Cosmic scales rebalanced. Hell is like a metaphysical answer to the real universe’s “dark energy” — it makes the balance sheet go to zero.
But we believe this sort of thing on a microscale as well, particularly when it comes to intelligence. “She’s not book smart, but she’s street smart.” “He may be book smart, but he has low EQ.” “She’s good at math, so don’t expect her to read any classic literature.” At some basic level, we tend to believe that those with one form of favorable trait have to pay the piper by sucking at something else, and those who lack a favorable trait must be good at something else. After all, if they had nothing but good traits, the only way to sort that out would be to send them directly to hell. And this RPG-like (or Madden Football-like, if you prefer), zero-sum system of points allocation for individual skills is how we perceive the world. Average people have a 5 out of 10 in all attributes. But since “math geniuses” have a 10 out of 10 in “good at math,” they must have a 0 out of 10 in “going out on dates.” The scales must balance.
This sword weirdly cuts the other way too. Maybe I’m only a 6 out of 10 at math and I really wish I were a 9 out of 10. I could try to get better, but that’s hard. What’s a lot easier to do is act like a 2 out of 10 in “going out on dates” instead of a 5 out of 10. People will then assume those 3 points I’m giving up must go toward math or some other dorky pursuit. If I want to hit a perfect 10 out of 10, I can watch Star Trek and begin most of my sentences with “so.” That’s gotta hurt me in some social category or another, and now I’m a math genius. Think this concept of personality point-shaving is BS? Ask yourself if you can remember anyone in junior high trying to get out of honors classes and into the mainstream so as not to seem geeky. Why do that? Shaving smart points for “street smart” points.
If you’re Hollywood, this is the best thing ever for portraying smart people. It’s hard to convey “extremely high IQ” in the medium of television to the masses. I mean, you can have other characters routinely talk about their intellect, but that’s a little trite. So what do you do? You can have them spout lots of trivia or show them beating grandmasters at chess or something… or you can shave points from everything else they do. You can make them woefully, comically inept at everything else, but most especially any form of social interaction. So you make them insufferable, low-EQ, dysfunctional d-bags in order to really drive home that they have high IQs.
In the lines of work that I mentioned earlier, there’s natural pressure to point shave as a measure of status. I think that this hits a feedback loop and accelerates into weird monocultures and that having low scores in things like “not getting food on yourself while you eat” and “not looking at your feet while you talk” actually starts to up your cred in this weird, insular world. Some of us maybe grew up liking Star Trek while others who didn’t pretend to, since that shaves some points off of your social abilities. In turn, in the zero-sum game of personal attributes, it makes you a better STEM practitioner.
What’s the Harm?
So we might exaggerate our social awkwardness or affect some kind of speech impediment or write weird, cryptic code to augment the perception of our skills… so what? No big deal, right? And, yeah, maybe we go to work and delight in telling a bunch of suits that we don’t understand all of their BS talk about profits and other nonsense and to just leave us alone to write code. Awesome, right? In one fell swoop, we point shave for social grace in favor of intelligence and we also stick it to the man. Pretty sweet, right?
I guess, in the moment, maybe. But macroscopically, this is a disaster. And it’s a disaster that’s spawned an entire industry of people that collect larger salaries than a lot of middle managers and even some executives but have almost no real voice in any non-software-based organization. It’s a disaster that’s left us in charge of the software that operates stock exchanges, nuclear plants and spaceships, but apparently not qualified enough to talk directly to users or manage our own schedules and budgets without detailed status reports. Instead of emerging into being self-sufficient, highly-paid, autonomous knowledge workers like doctors and lawyers, we’re lorded over by whip-cracking, Gantt-chart-waving middle managers as if we were assembling widgets on the factory floor and doing it too slowly. And we’ve done it almost entirely voluntarily.
So what am I advocating, exactly? Simply that you refuse to buy into the notion that you’re just a “code slinger” and that all that “business stuff” is someone else’s problem. It’s not. It’s your problem. And it’s really not that hard if you pay attention. I’m not suggesting that you trade in your IDE for Microsoft Project and Visio, but I am suggesting that you spend a bit of time learning enough about the way business is conducted to speak intelligently. Understand how to make a business case for things. Understand the lingo that analysts and project managers use well enough to filter out all of the signaling-oriented buzzwords and grasp that they are communicating some ideas. Understand enough to listen, understand and critique those ideas. In short, understand enough to do away with this layer of ‘translators’ the world thinks that we need, reclaim some autonomy, and go from “slinging code” to solving problems with technology and being rewarded with freedom and appropriate compensation for doing so.
I’ll close with one last thought, hopefully to drive my point home. How many times (this is kind of programmer-specific) have people approached you and said something like, “let’s make an app; you write the code and get it into the app store and I’ll do, like, the business stuff.” And how many times, when you hear this, is it proposed that you run the show? And how many times is it proposed that you’ll do it for pay or for 49% equity or something? They had the idea, they’ll do business things, and you’re the code-monkey, who, you know, just makes the entire product.
Consider this lyric from the Pink Floyd:
Everybody else is just green, have you seen the chart?
It’s a helluva start, it could be made into a monster
If we all pull together as a team.
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy?
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.
It’s from a song called, “Have a Cigar,” and it spoke to the corporate record industry who essentially brokered its position to “team up” with musicians to control their careers and passively profiteer (from the cynical songwriter’s perspective, anyway — I’m not interested in debating the role of the record industry in creating 70’s rock stars since it’s pretty easy to argue that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of money for anyone without the record labels). “If we all pull together as a team,” is the height of irony in the song, the same way it is in the pitches you hear where the “idea guy” tells you that he’ll be the CEO, since it was his idea, and Bill will be in charge of marketing and Sue will be the CFO, and you can handle the small detail of writing the entire application that you’re going into business to make.
Is this heads-down, workhorse role worth having the most geek cred? I don’t think so, personally. And if you also don’t, I’d encourage you to get a little outside of your comfort zone and start managing your career, your talent and your intellectual property like a business. If we all do that — if we all stop with the point shaving — I think we can change the nature of the tech game.