tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Compiling what I wrote in an impromptu Twitter thread:

I saw a tweet that said: "English major = 'Want fries with that?' 🍟. Pick something that will give you enough money to write what you want." (In the interest of discretion, I won't say who wrote this, but you can find out if you go to the thread.)

This is bullshit. I have a computer science degree and thus all the money I want and no emotional energy left after work for writing. If I'd majored in English (like 13-year-old me wanted) I wouldn't have gone down the path of lots of money and spiritual/artistic vacuity. (Maybe more like 10-year-old me wanted; 13-year-old me wanted to be an editorial cartoonist and major in sociology or journalism in order to get there. 10-year-old me maybe had the best plan.)

I was in debt -- student, medical, or both, at various times -- from September 1997 to January 2017. Now that I'm out of it, I can choose what to do next, so the point here isn't "cry for me". It is: Please do not pretend choosing an economically useful major while telling yourself you can do your important work "in your free time" (imagine all the finger air quotes there) doesn't have a serious, permanent cost. It does.

You can never get back the time you spent doing stuff you don't care about for people who despise you. You need money to live, but time is the most precious resource you have because when you lose money, you can get it back; when you lose time, you can never get it back.

Me, I didn't even choose computer science for the money (that came later). I thought, at the time, that I'd enjoy it more than I enjoyed writing or playing music. (I didn't enjoy playing music at all at the time, because I spent most of the first 16 years of my life playing classical music not because I wanted to, but because I had a parent who was foisting "what I didn't get to do when I was younger" onto me. I did get over that, but it took me about another 20 years. That's another story.)

Anyway, once you get into industry, you realize the real day-to-day work isn't much fun, or that there are fun things about it but not the ones you anticipated, and a whole lot of soul-sucking baggage that's the price of both the fun and the money, but by then the money has you trapped.

So if somebody had said all this to me when I was 18 (which they probably did, but I also had a parent yelling at me pretty loudly to be practical so I could support her when she got old (joke's on her, she's old now and I haven't spoken to her since 2014 and never will again)), it wouldn't have mattered -- I thought I was choosing the major that was what I wanted to do most, and I was pretty solidly on the side of telling my peers to do the same, and grieving with the ones who had parents who felt their tuition money was buying them permanent control over their children's lives.

I would hate to see someone who doesn't even like computer science, though, choose it anyway because of shaming from people using the 🍟 emoji (and by the way, there is zero shame in working in food service -- someone has to cook for the people who get to spend their time writing), because of middle-class anxiety over the psychic cost of being one of the people their parents or grandparents stepped on to achieve middle-class status. It's one thing to choose it because it seems like the most fun thing at the time, another to hide your light under the barrel of "a stable job, a practical career."

So if you're reading this and you're a teenager, choosing a major, or choosing whether to go to college at all, and you want to write or make art: write. Make your art. Put your first energies into those things, build whatever scaffolding you need to in order to keep your first energies there. (And if you change your mind later, that's cool too.) If you de-center those things in your life now, it will never get any easier to center them again. Do what it takes to survive, but never pretend that what fuels your fire is secondary and "real jobs" are primary; know it's the other way around.

If you're 28 and in a "good" job and you want to write or make art but you're afraid of losing safety, know it'll never get any easier. So you might as well do it now.

If you're 38 and you want to write or make art but you have 2 kids to support, I wish you the best.

We -- as in, we adults who've had our dreams beaten out of us -- terrorize kids with a lot of fear-mongering about starving artists and starving musicians. The truth is that artists and musicians have always found ways to survive in a world hostile to art, so long as they're lucky enough to get taught that the shame of not being affluent must be avoided at all costs. (There are a few other kinds of luck that I'll talk about a little later.)

Sometimes there's a very strong reason to pick the "I'll make a lot of money, then I'll do what I want" path: medical bills or responsibility for children or parents or both, while living in a society that is vicious towards young, old, sick, and disabled people. But ask yourself: If I'll be able to do The Thing later, when I have X amount of money, can I do it now without the money? And likewise: If I'm afraid to do The Thing now, will having X amount of money actually address the root cause of that fear? Because "I need to have X amount of savings before I do Y" tends to turn into "no, no, I was wrong, I need X*Z amount of savings first". The goalposts never stop moving. When you were 12, maybe you thought all you needed was rent money and enough food to eat. At 25, maybe that turns into a down payment on a house, and at 30, maybe a hot tub in the yard, a nice car, and a vacation home. Centering yourself on what really matters now builds a foundation on which it remains easier to not forget what mattered to you in the face of the distractions capitalism will try to sell you (especially when you spend all day in an office with people who also believe they can buy their way to personal fulfillment).

Another thing to keep in mind: even if you are a person who can put in 8+ hours a day at a professional job, then leave and spend 6+ hours on your art (and not sleep much), you don't really know how much time you have before becoming too disabled to do both. Might be 60 years. Might be 1 year. All abled people are temporarily abled, and some of the most common disabilities and chronic illnesses take your excess energy first. Not to mention that chronic stress both from toxic jobs and double-timing tends to trigger any latent predispositions to those illnesses.

Especially now, in 2017: there is only the present; stability in the future is a lie.

Keep in mind reading all of this, I don't necessarily know the answer or the plan, not even for me and certainly not for you. I'm 36 and still in a job I'm ambivalent about on the best days, and I want to buy a house and adopt kids; renting a room doesn't afford much space for musical instruments or my sewing machine or more animals, much less kids. At this point, I don't have the conviction that the writing and art I want to make are worth delaying those plans for (the plans that more closely resemble the lives of my peers, my college friends and my office co-workers, and have their own appeal).

A few months ago I was driving through Iowa and bought a new hardcover copy of Bruce Springsteen's autobiography on impulse. When I started reading it, I loved the writing but I had to set it aside because some uncomfortable feeling overwhelmed me, and a little later I realized it was envy: of people like him and his friends who got to spend their time, from early teens onwards, playing the kind of music they wanted to play. I was playing music when I was a teenager, too, but I hated it, and stopped as soon as I had the freedom to. It took me my entire adult life so far to want to do it again. My other musical hero, John Darnielle, worked day jobs for most of his career. Envy, as well, because I can't seem to find work that isn't primarily emotional labor (even when my business card says "engineer") and that doesn't leave me with much at the end of the day to put into art.

So while part of me knows it's not too late, part of me is too busy grieving over all the time I lost to be able to make a new plan. If you're younger, and don't have as many sunk costs, maybe listen to whatever inside you makes you feel the most alive. And if you're older than me, do it too so I'll have more examples to look to.

Another reason why the original advice is garbage: yes, Wallace Stevens was an insurance agent. But I suspect that if you look at the writers you like, you'll find more people who can write because they have a partner who financially supports them than you'll find full-time engineers or lawyers who are part-time writers. This is sort of a dirty little secret. The best thing you can do to be a successful artist is major in whatever you want, then marry rich.

This doesn't mean you should marry for money. It does mean that "bust your ass doing 2-3 jobs if you want to earn the right to be an artist" is toxic victim-blaming capitalist pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps bullshit, because a lot of the artists you admire got there because someone else worked full-time to support them, not because they moonlighted. The good luck of being loved by someone with money should not be confused with hard work.

Aside from economics, something I think stops a lot of younger people from following their vision is belief in scarcity: there are a lot of people who want to be musicians and writers, and many who are more talented than you, so why bother? Even if you make a living off it, you won't be famous. There are too many novels and no one will read yours; too many bands and no one will go to your shows. Sound familiar? It does for me.

The more time passes, the more I think that's a seductive lie, too, not because you will get famous, but because that probably isn't what you want anyway. What you do want is time to spend doing the work that makes you feel whole.

'You hold onto Berryman’s line – “It is idle to reply to critics” – and understand that the actual work isn’t the thing you make, but the process that makes it, whose inherent value and dignity is well beyond any debate, because it is an expression of your self and therefore nobody can really judge it.' -- John Darnielle
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
alt

As long as I continue to work as a software engineer, I'll have a second job. I can't quit this second job except by quitting the job I get paid for, yet I don't get paid for the second job and I probably never will.

Emotional labor has been a topic of discussion lately, and I actually wrote much of this piece before the MetaFilter discussion on it came out. I hope, though, that I have something to add as it relates to working rather than personal relationships.

As an example of what I mean by teaching people how to take other people's subjective experience into account -- that is, teaching people to practice the skill of empathy, which they usually already have but apply only selectively -- I present some comments from this thread on the Haskell subreddit. I did not participate in it, but since I've spent much of my professional life as part of the Haskell community, it's a good example of what I've had to deal with over the years.

"The gender inequality might be caused by men being socialized to be less risk averse." -- someone who has not bothered to familiarize themself with women's accounts of their subjective experience in male-dominated communities, but nonetheless feels comfortable speculating about the reasons why male domination is self-reinforcing.

"Bits of useful advice used as a vehicle to force through the author's politics..." -- reflecting an assumption that marginalized people's opinions are political whereas one's own opinions are not -- that is to say, that interactions that reinforce existing power dynamics are apolitical, whereas interactions that challenge those power dynamics are political.

Many comments have been deleted by the moderators (to the moderators' credit!), but that doesn't change that as a community, we still consider it up for discussion whether it's worth effort to welcome marginalized people. In fact, we still consider it up for discussion whether the community drives marginalized people away -- hence the speculation here about whether people in gender minorities are "less risk averse", or (elsewhere) just less interested in writing code. The very fact that this is a topic of discussion drives more people away.

Those who aren't driven away are tasked with an unpaid job: teaching people to listen to the views of those whose experience departs from their own; teaching people that experiences they haven't personally lived through can be real. There are two parts to this job: the practical work of teaching people how to take others' subjective experience into account, and the persuasive work of teaching them why it's important and helpful to do so. Both are essential to social change.

A marginalized person in tech who declines to do this job is given a different task: to defend, over and over, their position as an expert on their own lived experience. As Rebecca Solnit put it, "to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being." I write as someone who has chosen to do the job rather than to internalize a lot of anger and hurt. Either way is a valid choice.

Emotional work steals our time and attention



It's not that privileged people (I'm using this as a shorthand for people with relative privilege -- someone who enjoys privilege along multiple axes, including but not limited to gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, neuro(a)typicality...) can't empathize; it's that they've been taught to empathize with people like themselves, and disbelieve people who are unlike themselves.

I think denial of empathy is so pervasive in software is that it's such a monoculture. It's dominated by men -- relatively privileged men, at that. From early in their lives, white men get taught that they are special and important and deserve to be heard above all else, and that thinking about other people's feelings is a sign of weakness. This is truer the fewer intersecting oppressions a given white man experiences.

It's harder for people experiencing multiple intersecting oppressions to be a software engineer for reasons having nothing to do with our ability to write code. Being a software engineer is about more than just doing work for the company that writes your paychecks. It's also about being part of a community, being visible in a community. If you are going to advance in your career, you generally have to participate in discussions online -- which is where much of the community-of-practice around tech. "Don't read the comments" is not an option. In these discussions, even ones that start out as seemingly something totally esoteric and technical, conflicts arise that essentially come down to who is going to be seen as a person with feelings that are worth respecting, and who is not. The Haskell discussion that I linked to is a relatively mild example of that.

And whenever one of those conflicts happens in my sphere, I have to put down whatever else I wanted to do today and explain to somebody, again, why other people's feelings matter and are real and cannot be made to go away by any amount of talking that he believes is logical and rational. I would rather not be doing this. I chose to become a software engineer because, at least at the time when I made that choice, I liked writing code, not helping people learn to apply interpersonal skills consistently.

I don't want to overstate how hard things are for me, either, because when I write about my experience, people listen. And being treated as a man, while also actually being one, helps. But I want to write about the second job anyway because I think a lot of other people have it too, and are not necessarily believed when they talk about having it.

For example, look at what [twitter.com profile] kf writes in another Haskell Reddit thread -- both in the linked-to comment, and the follow-ups to it. She exhibits an immense amount of patience while explaining things that we adult professionals shouldn't be having to explain to each other. And she shouldn't have to spend her time doing that, ever.

But she does, I'm guessing, for the same reason I do: in the hopes that it will make it easier for her, and her friends, to survive in software, which is one of the few remaining lines of work that has a reasonable chance at eliminating economic insecurity for somebody starting from nothing.

(By the way, I'm picking on the Haskell community in this post not because it's especially bad as far as tech communities go, but because it's my technical home and I have higher expectations for it than for, e.g., the Linux kernel community.)

The rage of the privileged manifests itself in denial of empathy



For me, at least, it's not an option to just put my head down and do the work and leave those explanations to other people. The price of trying to do that would be such intense cognitive dissonance that I wouldn't be able to maintain mental stability. I can't stand by and let the discourse be impoverished by refusal to listen, refusal to believe others' reports of their own experience, refusal to care about whether others' suffering. I can't be in a professional field where that stuff, the narcissistic rage of the white hetero cis male ego -- outraged he might feel shame or doubt and desperate for someone to blame those feelings on, someone he can hurt further in the hopes of destroying those feelings, destroying those unsightly parts of himself -- rages on, unchecked. "White fragility" is one term for this narcissistic rage, but whatever you call it, its existence constitutes violence in defense of the feeling of innocence experienced by those who would rather attribute their unearned privilege to their merit.

I want to emphasize that when I use the term "narcissistic", I'm not referring to a psychological diagnostic term, or to anybody's basic neural wiring. I'm referring to a particular kind of behavior that people are taught and rewarded for; the rewards increase with the number of intersecting privileges someone experiences. You can see the process of people being rewarded for their narcissistic behavior in action by reading those Reddit threads (and, of course, comment threads on many other parts of the Internet.)

So the options for me are exit and voice; loyalty, which is to say silence, isn't an option for me. As you know if you've read my blog post about wanting to leave tech, I've been strongly considering exit. But economics might be ruling out that option for me, leaving the option of continuing to speak out. That is: of doing a second job, unpaid, on top of the job I'll be getting paid for. I wonder about whether I could just switch to a job where it's my explicit task, rather than my tacit one, to teach people to be emotionally competent -- like therapy, or education. I'd get paid less, but at least I'd only have one job. For the time being, though, writing software pays more, and I have student loans. It pays more, but not enough.

False dismissal limits speech



Conversations about diversity in tech, when hosted on technical fora, consistently draw huge numbers of comments compared to technical discussions on the same fora, which some people think are more on-topic. If diversity is off-topic for technical fora, why are forum participants so interested in it, when we measure interest by volume of comments? The Haskell reddit thread about Sarah Sharp's community post had 152 comments. The Haskell reddit thread about functional programming and condescension had 141 comments. When I posted on the Haskell subreddit announcing the ally skills workshop that was held at ICFP this past September, my two posts (several months apart) drew a total of 70 comments. And the Haskell Reddit thread discussing the original version of my blog post "How To Exclude Women From Your Community Without Really Trying" had 342 comments, three years ago. If the Haskell community is a representative example, people want to talk about diversity and inclusion with other people in their technical communities.

So why do people keep saying "this is boring" or "this is off-topic", when the way to discourage discussion of a boring subject is to decline to comment on that discussion? I think it's an example of false dismissal, which I talked about in my Model View Culture article "Gendered Language: Feature or Bug in Software Documentation?".

What false dismissal looks like: "I would prefer that an OSS community be a discussion about software, not about non-technical issues," from the Haskell thread on "what makes a good community". If "non-technical issues" are what people comment on the most, what conclusion are we to draw?

Undoubtedly, these conversations will continue to flourish. But there is work, genuine work, that needs to happen to make them productive. Some of that work is getting performed, for example, by the moderators of the Haskell subreddit. Yet in the threads I linked to, you can also see commenters devaluating the work that the moderators and others do to try to make those conversations with productive. They are uncomfortable with discussions about feelings, and channel their discomfort outward by shaming others for daring to talk about how they feel. To engage with this type of discomfort is work.

Shouldn't we credit people for the emotional work they do in discussions like this, and make them feel like mentoring others emotionally is an asset and not a liability?

Ideally, learning to empathize with a wider range of people and learning to be more comfortable talking about feelings wouldn't happen in these discussion threads. It would happen in individuals' therapy sessions, or maybe in support groups that don't yet exist. But those therapy sessions aren't happening, so we voluntarily offer help in these threads. It's hard work. People tend to prefer to go on with however they're doing things, even if what they're doing is hurting themselves or others, rather than changing. Encouraging change ought to be acknowledged. False dismissal of emotional or interpersonal subjects contributes to the devaluation of this work.

Community work is technical work



If we can't trust each other, we can't work together. If we can't work together, then I'm sorry to break it to you, but we can't do jack. The "lone male hero" archetype of scientists and engineers, the one that elevates individual male scientists as "legends" and individual male engineers as "rockstars" is a fairy tale. Technical progress is made, awesome new things are invented, by groups of people pooling their resources to build something that's better than anything any one of them could have made on their own.

Trust can't occur without willingness, on everyone's part, to believe others' reporting on their own subjective experience. Teaching people how to do that is technical work, because community work is technical work. It is essential to any technical project or goal that matters. It is not off-topic. It is central to the topic.

How will companies and open-source projects change in order to reward community work the same way they reward code contributions?

Acknowledgments



Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Work that has contributed to my thinking on this topic (not an exhaustive list):


Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.
tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
It's so great to be able to go out to lunch with a couple of white guys between ages 22-39 and talk about nothing but compilers the entire time. I don't even mind that nobody ever seems to stop to breathe long enough for me to ask a question about something I don't understand. Really, I can just learn about this by osmosis.

I'm here at my desk at 8:30 PM on a Friday night because of my passion for my work.

I'm here at my desk at 8:30 PM on a Friday night because I'm even doing work at all.

// TODO: Fix this later.

I can totally listen to this meeting and isolate this bug at the same time.

It's so liberating that I can have a beer at 5 PM without even leaving the office. Or have one with lunch. Or have one when I come in at noon and lunch is the first meal I'm having that day.

I know I came in at noon, took a long lunch, and now I'm leaving at 4:30, but I'll just do some more work on Caltrain.

I'll just move to the South Bay to be closer to work even though most of my co-workers are hundreds of miles away anyway. It can't be that bad.

I'll just move to San Francisco to be closer to work, I mean, 50% of my take-home pay is a small price to pay for living in paradise.

I can totally commute from Berkeley to Alameda without a car.

Working in San Mateo? That'll be great! It's the heart of Silicon Valley (would Po Bronson lie to me?)

Living in Monterey will be great, I can go to the beach every day after work and it certainly won't be mainly for staring at the sunset and crying.

I guess I'll just live in Salinas because I can't find an apartment in Monterey that I can afford, because how bad can it be to share a house in a cul-de-sac with an ex-Marine?

Erlang is pretty similar to Haskell, after all.

I can cope with listening to the most senior engineer on my team have slapfights with the management every single time he's in the office. I mean, it's not like he's yelling at me.

Continuing to work in the same office with someone who I know sent anonymous threats directed at me will be totally fine. I mean, it's still better here than anyplace else in Silicon Valley.

Working support will be great -- I'll finally have the emotional energy to work on open-source projects after hours, which is absolutely what I want to do with my free time.

Nah, I don't mind walking to the mailbox to mail these CD-ROMs to the customer. It'll be a nice chance to stretch my legs. What, you say the customer never even uses the CDs so I can just send them blank discs? Great, even easier!

You say your company doesn't need to care about diversity because it's a meritocracy? That's a totally valid point of view. Can you tell me about the stock options again?

Fly to Japan because the customer refuses to open up a port so we can ssh into their machine to figure out what's going on? Sure, I wouldn't mind doing that.

I think it's totally cute and funny that you start conversations with all your employees about sex work and porn at the lunch place next to work, but explicitly say the conversation is ending now so you don't get sued for sexual harassment as soon as we walk back into the office. I mean, I know you're doing it to make your Muslim employees uncomfortable rather than to make me uncomfortable even though you think I'm a woman, so it's all good.

I don't mind reimbursing you $30 for the "business lunch" at Buca's that you assumed you would be able to expense even though your team is only 3 people and the company is a worker-owned collective that's losing money.

You don't need me to do that task either because you can do it yourself? All right, cool, I'll just spend this internship writing on LiveJournal and staring blankly at papers on logic programming. It's what I wanted!

Sure, I'll totally work on that PLDI paper with you.

Yeah, I definitely want to write the second version of a package manager whose first version was an abject failure, that'll be a good way to save my career.

Yeah, I can certainly write an entire package manager from scratch in three months, especially since it's pretty clear that your plan is to fire me if I fail to do that.

Sure, I'll be in at 10 AM tomorrow.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Michael Church wrote a thoughtful response to my post joining tableflip.club -- quotes I liked:
"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."
....
"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."

That said, I feel my point about love was totally missed and that it's gratuitous to say "that's not always true" about my claim "if you had a good early life, you wouldn't be working in tech" when my very next sentence began, "I'm exaggerating..." I feel like the last paragraph is so accurate that he fundamentally got it, though.

I am genuinely moved and amazed by the quantity and quality of thoughtful replies to my post on MetaFilter, where it made the front page. I've been peripherally aware of MeFi almost since it existed, but I've now joined and will have to keep paying attention to it.

At its peak (Friday), my post was also on the Hacker News front page at #16, but I haven't read the comments there and don't intend to.

When I write a piece like this, I'm always afraid no one will pay attention to or understand it. The amount of response I've gotten this time was beyond my wildest dreams and is informing my thoughts about what I'm doing next with my career (once my next 3 or 4 months of mostly not leaving my apartment is over). Thanks, everybody -- you don't know how happy it makes me to know that I hit a nerve, even if that process is painful for everyone involved!
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
“There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

 -- Mario Savio

Love is the only motivating force, and while love can motivate some pretty awful things, it’s nonetheless impossible to do any good without it. 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.

I don’t necessarily need to work on anything that helps people: some people love abstract puzzle-solving, and I'm one of those people. But when I’m at work as a programmer, 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. Maybe other programmers are different (they spend their time shifting their unpaid emotional labor onto others instead? I don’t know.) I just know that’s how it is for me. Puzzly tinkering was one of my original motivations to work as a programmer, but it’s not a big enough part of the job to continue to be a good motivator.

Not only was I wrong about the degree to which puzzly tinkering would be part of my future life as a software engineer, I also failed to predict how hard it would be for me to keep my head above water in tech’s endless stream of macro- and microaggressions. Rapidly, getting up in the morning and going to work at my computer job became a source of frustration and the mornings became afternoons. I started to need coping mechanisms to cope with my coping mechanism.

I wrote the rest of this essay to wrestle with the question: “Given the many advantages of having a comfortable, high-paying, flexible desk job, are the frustrations I feel really bad enough to justify taking the risky path of searching for something more grounding? In the absence of pure intellectual pleasure and in the absence of the feeling of social benefit, will continuing to work in the software industry help me more than it hurts?” The short answers are “yes” and “no”. Here’s the long answer.

Flawed Coping Mechanisms

“All of y’all’s gold mines
They wanna deplete you.”
 -- The Coup

Programming thrilled me when I was 14 and needed a world to dive into that I controlled completely. I had had no control over my life up until then. The feeling of control that writing code -- making things out of pure ideas -- gave me was intoxicating in every sense that word has. Twenty years later, I don’t know if I’m wiser, but I don't want that escape valve so much anymore. I can give living in this world, with all of its messiness and blood, a trial period. I can try to dwell with that which I can't control.

I've thought about all of this for a while but this week I met the enemy and realized he was me. It's easy to bemoan brogrammers, it comes naturally to lambast gaters, but -- and by the way, in this paragraph I am addressing only my beloved fellow SADISTIGs (Sweet And Delightfully Introspective Sensitive Tech Industry Guys) -- that's because it's easy to find fault with somebody else for what lies in your own heart. I don't know about you, but I came here because I liked making machines bend to my will; because I wished I could figure out how to do that with people, but until I did, I was dead set on avoiding them. It's a hard thing to admit, but it's true. My past self wasn't a bad little dude, but the demons he ran away from into the twists of the compiler pipeline are dead. All of this personal bullshit makes me fundamentally not different from those concerned with ethics in video game journalism or with bro-ing down and crushing code, just more apologetic about it.

Ah, the persistent myth of the meritocracy. You know what? I want to be judged for more than the code I write.”

-- Coraline Ada Ehmke

I am far from the only emotionally stalled guy who works in tech, which is the point. If it was just that there were a lot of other folks like me in this field, that would be tolerable and maybe even a plus. 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. Broken people put up with toxic, dangerous co-workers and bosses because we’ve never experienced healthy relationships. Broken people sometimes even defend toxicity not because we want to do harm but because it’s simply what we’re used to. 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. Why is it so compelling for some people to participate in a world where, ostensibly, they will never be seen as their entire selves and will be judged solely on some putatively objective numerical ranking within a total ordering of all hackers from best to worse? Since “some people” includes “me”, I have to guess that it’s because they’re terrified to be seen as their entire selves, since I know I am.

You Don’t Have to Have Complex PTSD to Work Here, But It Helps

“They say I’m running blind to a love of my own
But I’ll be walking proud
I’m saving what I still own” 

-- Indigo Girls

edited, 2015-04-14: If you don't like this section heading, please read the Clarifications section at the end of this post.

If you want a concrete example of how tech culture discourages us growing and being vulnerable, just read through the list of silencing tactics on the Geek Feminism Wiki. (I think it especially discourages us men from growing and being vulnerable. The culture is a bit less subtle about what it does to women and non-binary people.) I’m going to point out a couple that I’ve felt burnt by on the job:

  •  “You’re too sensitive”. This accusation gets used primarily against women, but sometimes against men who fall short of from commonly accepted masculinity ideals. 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.
  • The tone argument. is commonly deployed against political and technical disagreement, and its use reflects an underlying assumption in tech culture that emotional conviction makes an argument less valid rather than more.
  •  “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.

I say that these tactics are particularly injurious to men not because I think we have it worse but because they get employed differently against women and I have less firsthand experience with that. From what I can tell, being a woman in tech means being judged and found wanting no matter what you do, while being a man in tech means (at least the chance of) success at the price of following an extremely restrictive set of rules that are corrosive to emotional well-being for many of us. I know which set of problems I’d choose, and in a way, I did choose. But the choice between bad and worse doesn’t make bad good.

Moreover, I don’t think tech toxicity bothers people who are used to being listened to and acknowledged as much as it does people like me. (I wouldn’t know, since I don’t come from one of those places.) But if you had a good early life, you wouldn’t be in tech in the first place. Yes, I'm exaggerating, but I do think there’s a toxic feedback loop between the kinds of trauma that cause many people to flee into the world of things-made-out-of-ideas, and the kinds of trauma that some of us will encounter in that world when we least expect it. For example, if you are a person who has never had your own subjectivity and feelings systematically erased, I imagine you will probably just laugh when someone tells you “you’re too sensitive”. (I wouldn’t know, again, since I’m not like you.) I’m hurt by that accusation because I believed it about myself in the first place; that statement and all manner of other little loops of gaslighting are woven into me like tapeworms. If we can blame ourselves for being too sensitive, we don’t have to confront something that is too difficult for most kids and a lot of adults to confront: that someone who loves you can hurt you. If you know what “triggering” means: it’s triggering. If you don’t know what “triggering” means, then now you know.

Being Right Vs. Doing Right

So many think they're good guys. But they're so invested in a culture that depends on proving they're right they don't see the damage done.” -- Jen Myers

Here are some other tendencies that are both worse in tech than in other fields due to the way in which it attracts lost boys, and get reinforced by tech management in a toxic feedback loop of dysfunction and self-deception:

  • Mansplaining arises from the desire to position oneself as an authority rather than to talk as equals. A related pathology is social pressure to perform having an opinion on everything that’s not important (sometimes called “bikeshedding”: as well as not caring about anything that matters. The latter tendency is what I explored in my first Model View Culture article  under the name “false dismissal”.
  • Relatedly, “well-actually”-ism is a verbal habit of interrupting conversations to make factually true but irrelevant corrections, in a way that prioritizes intellectual self-aggrandizement over shared understanding. Like mansplaining, well-actually-ism is rooted in fear and insecurity and I should know, because I’ve done these things all the time, and I know that’s why.
  • Tech culture elevates heroes and “cowboy coders” who sacrifice everything to get all the work done themselves, gaining individual recognition and jettisoning healthy teamwork as well as their own long-term well-being. The “cowboy coder” -- the sort of guy who complains that code reviews slow down his workflow (which is true, in the same way that brakes slow down a car) is a stereotype, but one that you can observe in more or less any workplace. What’s more, you will observe that cowboy coders (often young, usually male, usually without sources of meaning in their lives outside of work) get praised just for fitting this pattern, regardless of the quality of their work. (My now-former colleague Jacob Kaplan-Moss illustrated this point quite aptly in his “who is Mark Zuckerburg?” slides in his 2015 PyCon keynote.  )
  • 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. Even in places where people pay lip service to the value of documenting and of training new hires, their behavior belies it -- they fail to document because “there’s not enough time”, fail to mentor because they’d rather just hire senior engineers, and fail to listen because that entails the risk of finding out you’re wrong about something.
  • Invulnerability to criticism. There was a famous Linux kernel bug report about a bug that would reformat your hard drive when you didn’t want it to. The software maintainers responded by saying “you should have known better”. This is a particularly extreme example of a general tendency to accept technical bug reports as attacks on one’s most cherished self, to be defended against to the death. I’m not even talking about cultural bug reports here, which I once wrote about in Model View Culture. If you take criticism of your project as an attack rather than as helpful feedback, what does that say about how you will take criticism of your personal behavior?

I understand the reasons why all of these failures happen, and I’ve lived most of the reasons. I’m a very critical person; I’d like to get better at balancing doing the Right Thing(™) with validating and embracing commonalities. I’m not going to find very many incentives to do that, or role models to look to for how to do it, if I stay in tech.

Nobody sets out on purpose to make any workplace a pit of despair. 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.

“There’s No Crying in Startups”

"It takes mighty big courage to pack up and go
'Cause even a bad life is still a life that you know.”
 -- Brooks Williams

I have found that the more I try to curb my own antisocial and self-defeating tendencies, the less I succeed in tech. Being sensitive makes you suspect. Approaching technical discussions as collaborative efforts rather than cage matches gets you frozen out. Performance gets assessed on rough approximations to individual “impact”, without regard to how much you helped your colleagues do their jobs. I think that I’m capable of continuing to work in tech, as long as I force myself to be continue to be the person I’m tired of being. No stock options are worth as much to me as the still, small voice inside is; no amount of money and benefits is going to get me to tell that voice to shut up now after 14 years with my hand over its mouth. All the tendencies I’ve criticized in this essay are ones I’ve seen in my own mirror. To be in tech is to be in permanent adolescence or at least to maintain dual personalities, one for work and one for home. The latter is way too much effort and as for the former, who in the world would actually choose that? I wouldn’t, because being a teen can be fun (at 16, at 27, and at 34), but not as fun as having been one.

“Aren’t you being melodramatic here, Tim? Aren’t you applying concepts to tech companies that are really for describing family structures?” I would have thought so too until during my first week at a new job (disclaimer: not my current job), I watched a grown man and father of four literally stomp out of an office at 3:21 PM on a Thursday, not to return until the next day, because the company’s CTO was making him feel unheard during a meeting. At the time I wasn’t sure if he was going to come back on Friday. (He did.) To be clear, neither man in that interaction was behaving particularly laudably, and at the same time both had valid points. A third man, my boss at the time, stepped in to explain to the CTO, “I think when you said [whatever] to [REDACTED], the way it made him feel was…” 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.” I also remember thinking that because this company was small, I was finally getting to see behavior acted out explicitly that usually takes place just below the surface in bigger companies. So no, I don’t think I am being melodramatic. If anything, my former colleague (the most senior back-end engineer at this company) who stomped out of the office was, but I wouldn’t even say that, because I sympathize with the pressure that led him to act the way he did at the breaking point. This was actually a pretty reassuring experience for me because up until then, I’d wondered if I was projecting. That day I realized that I wasn’t, any more than the overhead projector in your average office is in 2015. I actually prefer daily screaming matches to ever-present rage repressed at high pressure (one of which, at least once, made me cry in the bathroom at a previous office), but I would kind of prefer to have neither of those things in my workplace. When I worked at another one of my past employers, I took to watching a lot of episodes of “House, M.D.” because I really needed to see examples of people modelling exemplary professionalism and respect for others’ boundaries… by comparison.

There’s a reason why it’s become a cliché for startups to describe themselves as being like a family: because a lot of us come from families defined by abuse, neglect, multigenerational trauma, addiction, lying, leaving, coming back, leaving again, and conspiracies of silence about it all. We bring all of that into our work “families”. Sometimes we need more than free kombucha on tap in order to cope and heal; when we don’t get it, we take it out on each other because that’s easier than confronting those who have power over us.

Voice

I'm gonna K. I. L. L. one of us, baby. Give me time to decide on which.” -- Tonio K.

The person I would like to be is also someone who acknowledges fear and pain and doesn’t always retreat into fury at injustice. I love my fellow tech SJWs, but for me -- and in this paragraph I am calling out no one but myself -- the siren song of righteous anger always lies in wait to take away the small soft things inside and leave me alone on the floor with a rage hangover. There is an infinite amount of injustice in the world and an infinite amount of completely justified anger that can well up from any of us who take the time to think about it. Anger is a very useful strategy for activism; I try my best to never coerce people who are marginalized -- especially by groups I'm in -- into suppressing it. But maybe it's time for me to be a bit more liberal in what I accept and conservative in what I send out, Postel’s-Law-style. For lots of people, alcohol is a useful tool for making social situations a little more manageable; a minority get consumed by it. Maybe anger is a little like that for me. I wouldn't work in a bar if I was recovering from alcoholism, so I'm not going to work in tech while I'm trying to integrate the parts of myself that aren't angry. There are too many temptations.

Exit

“I want to leave
You will not miss me.”
 -- The Smiths

So that's why I have to quit tech for somewhere between a little while and forever (inclusive). It's not just that I don't want to, but that, in a very literal sense, I can't. I'm not doing any favors by sticking around when I'm unable to pull my weight. I don't know what's going to be next for me, but it won't be this. If I can find a job doing something involving comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, or even both, that would be neat.

I also don’t think it’s any great loss for tech that I won’t be in it, since I’m neither particularly bad nor particularly good at the work I do; I’m proudest of my minor contributions to tech culture criticism, not any code I’ve ever written. In 14 years including grad school, I doubt I’ve earned the invisible “valued contributor” merit badge anywhere. I’ve job-hopped, quit jobs when I could have stayed and resolved interpersonal conflicts, taken unannounced PTO, checked Facebook and Twitter for literally entire work days at a time. 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. What’s on me is how I spend my time, and I don’t want to spend any more of it pretending I don’t know what I want.

Not everybody can turn their coping mechanism in a career, but I had the chance, and it was an offer I couldn't refuse. After a year or two of being in the tech industry, programming became a less effective coping mechanism and anger became a more compelling one, since the tech industry has so much cause for anger to provide. Over time, the second one replaced the first one almost totally, taking away my original reason to even like programming at all and demoralizing any remaining scraps of work-ethic out of me. It’s sad to have to report that this is true, but it would be sadder to pretend none of it happened.

Loyalty

“And I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You'd stay the hell out of my way."
 -- The Mountain Goats

I tried leaning in, which for me means some combination of “just work harder” and spending a ton of non-work time developing complicated structuring and coping mechanisms to make me feel OK about doing something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing. RescueTime, Todoist, Google Calendar, Trello, weekly schedules, written to-do lists, eugeroics, SSRIs, caffeine, cannabis, fancy drinks, spending too much money in coffee shops, knitting during meetings, big headphones, Twitter, IRC, Slack, post-it notes, text files with lists of questions to ask, animated .gifs, playing 2048 on my phone in the men’s room at work for 30 minutes or longer at a stretch, repeatedly reloading Fucks On Back Order. None of these things are intrinsically bad and many are pretty damn good, but when I invest a lot of my time structuring my work hours with some of them and recovering during my non-work hours with others, all in the service of something I fundamentally don’t want to be doing, I have to start asking why. It’s a lot of effort, largely performed during non-work hours, for a relatively low yield in terms of actual productive work that helped my employer. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s found that leaning in tends to mean leaning into a black hole. The rise of the lifehacking industry, as well as meditation and mindfulness programs for temporarily calming down workers so they can be productive while experiencing abuse, suggest that capitalism does well when it can simultaneously hurt people and sell them palliative care for that hurt.

“Just work harder” always sounds appealing to me too, because in fact I love working, I feel uncomfortable when I’m doing something that I can’t characterize as work, and I can work way harder than is good for me. But that’s only when I feel like there’s a reason to do it: whether the reason is making a software system better in a way that I can see and get tangible feedback on from others, or making other people feel like they’re less alone, or just having clean dishes. When I don’t see the reason why I should work harder, I can’t work at all. So I don’t think leaning in is helping me or helping my employer.

I’m leaning out, because to be a better person than the one I am now, I have no other choice. I'm not saying I'll never come back, but I am saying I'll probably never come back. This is my choice; it doesn’t have to be yours. I’m not taking a moral stance that I would prescribe to others, or in fact, making this decision based on abstractions at all. I don’t aspire to sainthood and I would happily stay in a sweet desk job with flexible hours if it wasn’t destroying me from the inside. The question I tried to answer in this essay is: “destroying me from the inside? Really? Is it doing that?” And I believe the answer is yes.

I don’t know if the alternatives I’m considering are going to be better or not, but I’m at a point where all I can do is find out for myself. I know that every single field of employment has its own unique blend of coffee and bullshit to offer, and choosing a career is a matter of picking which one you don’t mind sipping. I don’t know whether other fields will be worse or better, I just know that tech’s tainted tonic interacts badly with the poison that’s already in me. If what works for you is staying in tech, great! Try to leave it a little better than you found it.

Postscript to Herokai

I hope I’ve made it clear that while it’s not me, it’s also not you. I had to realize all this stuff sometime, and it’s probably not a coincidence that it happened while I was in the comparatively safe and supportive culture that Heroku has. To Leigh, Jake, Evan, Fred, Tristan, Omar, Jamu, Charles, Mary, Ari, Daed, Courtney, Joy, Liz, Jacob, Meagan, Tef, Matt, Geoff, Greg, and Mark: Thanks for the laughs, lunches, and corgi GIFs. Don’t be a stranger. If I forgot anyone there who I should have included, it’s because a week straight of less than 4 hours of sleep a night has rendered my brain into a chia pod.

Clarifications

  • 2015-04-14: Yes, I actually do have complex PTSD (beginning with experiences at age 5 or younger, so, pretty well before I ever got paid to touch a computer) and today is actually the first day I've ever said that in public. I'm feeling a little raw about that and the way I usually deal with those feelings is jokes, hence the section heading. I also see how it could be seen as trivializing. I feel like there's no point in suffering if you can't make jokes about it later, but I should probably have included this clarification in the first place.

Acknowledgments

“Code reviews slow you down like brakes slow down a car” is something I saw on Twitter once. I don’t remember who tweeted it. If you know, or if it was you, please tell me!

“Lean Out” is the title of issue 3 of Model View Culture, for which Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane deserve credit.

Edited to add: The term "well, actually" was coined by Miguel de Icaza, and I learned about it from the Recurse Center social rules.

Edited to add: While I originally learned about the concept of emotional labor from the writing of Barbara Ehrenreich and Laura Kipnis, I also owe one to Lauren Bacon for her article "Women in Tech and Empathy Work".

Edited to add: I first saw the Mario Savio quote on an office door in Soda Hall at the University of California in 1999. It took me the past sixteen years to understand it.

Edited to add: I owe much to Julie Pagano's article "I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community" -- arguably I never would have had any of the thoughts expressed in this piece without reading hers a year and a half ago.

Edited to add: I alluded in this piece to the chorus of Stephen Fearing's song "The Bells of Morning", which was written about the École Polytechnique massacre and which I wrote about previously in reference to Gamergate.

Edited to add: If you happen to live in (or can travel to) Portland, Oregon, and need a therapist, call Cat Pivetti at 503-740-9555. (nb. the initial phone number I put there is incorrect, as is the number on the page linked to, currently.) I don't credit her with me becoming the person who wrote this article, but I do credit her for helping me find what was in me that I put into it, and I think she does that for other people too.

In this piece I’ve drawn on insights from conversations with many different people and from writing by many different people. Nothing I’m saying is new, but I hope that this particular presentation may find itself useful to somebody else. Because there are too many influences to name, for the sake of not privileging any one of them unduly I’m not listing most of them. But know that if you think I made a good point anywhere in this essay, it’s more likely than not to be a point that a woman made me think about. A number of friends and current and former colleagues of mine read and commented on drafts of this essay; for prudence’s sake, I won't enumerate or name them. But if you are one of the people who proofread for me: my gratitude to you symbolizes why I didn’t quit this industry ages ago. I’ll miss y’all.

Soundtrack

That's a thing that there is.

Outro

Vienna Teng, “Level Up” (s/o to [personal profile] brainwane via [personal profile] yatima for turning me on to this one):

"Call it your day number one in the rest of forever."

Profile

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

August 2017

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