Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Can Jeff Atwood Do...

Alternative title: John McG Mansplains that Sexual Harassment is What Makes Tech Awesome!

Kidding aside, as with my previous post on this topic, this is meant more to be an identification of stumbling blocks that I see than an airtight case that nothing should be done.  

Jeff Atwood bravely wades into the minefield that is addressing the gender gap in tech employment.  He does not emerge unscathed, in part due to his decision to echo the title and structure (but not tone) of a Shirley Kane post without acknowledgement.

He ends with a list of guidelines, which start with, basically, don't be an asshole, and then walks back a step from assholish behavior and sets up stop-points there.  So, no dating co-workers, and no drinking at company events, no "well, actually...", etc.

I think it is unlikely that his suggestions will be adopted because, other than presumptuous and likely ill-informed nod toward Asperger's Syndrome, Atwood doesn't address the roots of what he thinks are problematic behaviors.

The narrative arc of successful big-time tech companies seems to roughly be this:

  1. Company's founders have the right idea at the right time.
  2. Founders and like-minded individuals work like hell to make this idea a reality, likely catching some breaks along the way.
  3. Company brings product to market, goes public, makes founders and others rich along the way.
  4. Company attracts lots of attention, gradually becomes less special, retreats into defending its turf.
  5. Company now sucks.*
This is the story of Microsoft.  This is the story of IBM.  This was the first story of Apple, and may be again. This may turn out to be the story of Google and Facebook, though they are trying to figure out ways to prevent it.

One part of this story is that steps 4 and 5 tend to coincide with the company acquiring all the trappings of a Big Company.  HR Departments are established, and the company starts looking like every other company with diversity panels, etc. There is the sense that the company has lost a sense of who it was.  The key people spend their days making sure they're just like everybody else instead of kicking ass and being different.  Microsoft is probably a nicer place to work than it was 25 years ago; it's also no longer kicking as much tail.

There's a good chance this narrative is bullshit.  Step 1 of this is having the right idea at the right time, which involves skill, but also a good deal of luck.  It's unlikely the hits will keep on coming, even if everyone involved preserves the culture that created the first hit.  It's also likely that once the founders get rich, they stop working so hard.  The Boston Red Sox won the World Series last year mainly because they have a lot of players who are good at baseball, not because they grew beards.**  We like to fit events into narratives, and they're fun to talk about, but not always valid.

But it may be useful bullshit, and not just for preserving privilege.  Maybe the beards didn't turn the Red Sox from a bad team to a good team, but it seems like it made it more fun for the players to endure the grind of the 162 game season.  And maybe that means that some players wanted to play for the Red Sox rather than another team.  Many successful teams have an identifiable culture and and leaders that maintain it. Think of the San Antonio Spurs. Last year's Seattle Seahawks.  It's certainly possible that a company may think that part of its "secret sauce" is getting a keg every Friday afternoon, or hiring a mix of young single people (of all genders) who try to impress each other, or having free and lively debates about technical topics, or indulging special interests like sci-fi or other "geek culture."  Some may think it's hiring people who work around the clock, others that stress balance and send everyone home at 5.

If I were in charge of a tech company, I would be reluctant to adopt Atwood's guidelines.  Not because I'm eager to keep women out of tech, but because I'd be concerned that I was being asked to conform my company to the lowest common denominator of the surrounding culture, and accelerating its path to suckitude.  Diversity can be good, but it can also compromise a unique culture.

Please note what I am not saying -- I am not saying that including women makes a company suck.  What I am saying is that company insiders may be concerned that the proposed remedy to addressing the problem of women in tech may also lead to dulling their culture.  I am also not saying that abuse, cruelty and harassment are ever a legitimate part of an organization's culture.

A big problem with this is if all these companies have the same culture, and essentially form a monolith of hostility.  The Red Sox's beards may have attracted some players, but likely repelled others.  And this is OK, since there are 30 major league teams, so nobody's going to tell the Red Sox they have to knock it off with the beards.  This is the ongoing tension between diversity of individuals and pluralism of organizations.

But if all 30 teams had a beard culture, that would be a problem, even more so if it was something less innocuous than beards -- a particular religion or lack thereof, having or not having children -- that was disproportionately hostile to certain populations, and being OK with this was essentially a gateway to having a job in major league baseball.    The color line wasn't official Major League Baseball policy, but a convention each team followed, believing it was in their own best interest.

Of course, there are things that have to be part of an entire industry's culture.  A baseball player who doesn't hustle or regularly swings at bad pitches wouldn't be welcome in any locker room, beard or no beard.

Which brings me to by second concern -- Atwood mentions rules from the Hacker School, which may be good for a school, but counter-productive to delivering a product on a deadline.  This doesn't mean that meeting a deadline requires being a jerk, but there are times when corrections need to be delivered with more consideration for speed than tact, and tolerating this is a skill of an effective engineer, regardless of gender. Is the craft served by making this not so?

To summarize, I think these are the different zones of behaviors to consider:
  1. Behaviors that are never tolerated by any organizations -- harassment, abuse, crime, etc.
  2. Behaviors that are legitimate points of cultural difference between organizations.
  3. Behaviors that are inherent parts of the culture of the industry and base requirements -- love of code, respect for others, technical acumen, etc.
Personally, I favor a wider Zone 2, and narrower Zones 1 and 3.

But that may be informed by limited experience with hostile environments (i.e. privilege).

What happens is that things that oppressive parts of Zone 3 are defended as being in Zone 2.  Then to solve that, we move them to Zone 1, and conflict ensues.  Not sure how we'll move forward.

* I'm using "sucks" here somewhat figuratively. It's not that these companies don't have good people are keep producing good products, but they lose their cultural currency.

** I'm sure that some will note (assuming anyone ever reads this)  that using sports analogies as I am doing here is yet another example of male privilege behavior.  Sorry.
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