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The Programmer Skill Fetish, Contextualized

I am currently considering something of a content pivot for DaedTech.  I haven’t really decided anything for sure yet, but I’m leaning toward putting cross posts into digest format once per week and then doing fewer posts, but ones that are more focused on developer empowerment and the efficiencer dream.  Your feedback on this is entirely welcome in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere, really.  I’d honestly like to know what you think.

I mention that because I think I need to refocus a little on some hypotheses that underpin all of this.  In the time between writing Developer Hegemony and now, I’ve found myself distracted by changing my lifestyle, selling a house, starting a couple of businesses and, well, life.  But throughout that time, I’ve given some thought to what I ought to offer people with this site.  Should I continue (against the advice that I offer everyone else blogging with purpose) to keep the blog as a chronicle of my many thoughts?  Or should I orient it around a theme in which I help people solve some kind of problem.

And I’m leaning toward trying to solve a problem.

So back to the hypotheses.  First one that I’ll mention is that programmers should specialize and seek options outside of full time employment.  (Not as in immediately making it your goal to escape the rat race.  Rather, make it your goal to have options outside of serving at the pleasure of some single employer.)  The second one, following from that first, is that we focus on programmer skill to the point of fetishizing it.  And, we do this to our detriment.

The Known, But Unheeded, Career Wisdom for Programmers

Let me lay out a few points that surround the issue.  None of these will probably be especially new to you, but taken together, they’re interesting.

  • You often hear some variant of “part of being a great developer is knowing when NOT to write code.”  In other words, being really good at writing code helps no one if you code up a useless product.
  • Successful “entreprogrammer” John Sonmez, in promoting his “Soft Skills” book, often talked about how he wasn’t successful because he was the best programmer, but because he learned the material that he was communicating in the book — strategies for business and dealing with other people.
  • In most organizations, it’s not necessarily the “best” programmers that wind up with higher pay and vanity titles like “senior,” “tech lead” and “architect.”  It’s generally the longest tenured ones.  Long time readers will remember my writing on this subject.
  • Businesses and non-technical people often don’t listen to the “best” developers, often because those developers take pride in spewing jargon and being indecipherable.
  • We can’t even define “best” programmers.  Do a google search on it.  Page one alone promises more than 100 answers.  These include technical knowledge, but also things like “positive attitude” and “good communication skills.”

Put all this together, and you have an interesting picture.  The business world and the greater non-programming world in general values one thing.  Programmers, when we get together, value something different.  We’re fully aware of how outsiders value us, but we just can’t resist the impulse to compare ourselves to others with code competitions, programming challenges, data structure interviews, and claims that we’re “10x” better than others.

The Skill Fetish, Explained Indirectly

This brings me to what I think will be the fun part about writing this post.  I want to use a metaphorical story to help bring context to why we do this, and how shotgun-blast-to-our-own-feet it is.  It’s easy enough to sit there in the waiting room of GiganTech, waiting to see if they deem you better at O-notation than the other 430 applicants, and get caught up in all of this.  It becomes normal.  So I’m going to draw a parallel to a different line of work.

I did this to an extent in Developer Hegemony, but as part of a larger point about journeyman idealists.  Here, I’ll get more direct.

The teenage gym rat makes an interesting metaphor for our preoccupation with programmer skill.

Let’s Start a Business!

When I was a kid, my grandfather moved to a place called Green Valley, Arizona.  At that time, Green Valley was (and still is, for all I know) a collection of retirement communities, meaning that you had to be 55 or older to live there.  A young Erik was convinced that this had to be against the law.  An older Erik doesn’t care at all and sees a business opportunity.

Imagine it.  You have an entire town of senior citizens, many of whom will plan stays of varying duration.  Lots of moving in and moving out.  In a town consisting entirely of senior citizens.  You could probably do a pretty brisk business with a moving company there.

So let’s say that you do just that.  You incorporate, get a bank loan and a bunch of equipment, advertise, and start booking business.  Now, you just need some young, able-bodied folks to do the labor.  Why not head to the gym in a nearby town?

Movers and Their Wages

Teenagers that haul furniture in and out of moving trucks probably don’t make a lot of money.  At least, not normally.  But you have a bit of an issue with your fledgling business in that labor supplies are low and in high demand.  So you scour the local gyms, hoping against hope that $10 per hour will suffice.  Mercifully, it does, and you have your employees!

As they show up and start to work, a culture of sorts develops.  These guys came from the gym, so they have this kind of competitive fixation on how much weight they can bench press and leg press and, just generally press in various fashions.  They come to work in tank tops, drink protein shakes, and say “bro” a lot.  And they’re really into inventing competitions around lifting stuff.

Who can carry the most coffee tables in a 10 minute window?  Who can lift a couch all by himself?  And which pathetic excuse for a mover can’t even carry an office chair one-handed?

You worried about not paying these guys enough, but they don’t actually seem to care terribly about making money at all.  As it turns out, you’re paying them to do something they do on weekends anyway: go places, lift things, and boast about their prowess.

A Career Status Bro-erarchy Emerges

Things go well for you, and you earn nice margin.  Business booms, your bro-movers show up and do their work for $10 per hour.  So you start hiring more of them, doing this yourself at first, but then delegating to your movers.

When you delegate, you notice something interesting.  You’d historically hired on the basis of things like punctuality, references, and recommendations.  But when you turned it over to your movers, they started doing something a lot different.  They started having candidates do curls and military presses, recording how much they could lift.  Some candidates they disqualify altogether, some they hire, and some they come to you about.  “Excuse me, Owner, but you should probably only pay this guy $8 per hour.  Dude can’t even curl 200 pounds.”

Okie, dokie you think.  The candidate seems to accept this line of reasoning, given his inferior curling abilities, so far be it from you to argue.  $8 per hour it is!

As your moving company gets even bigger, you recognize the need to delegate, so you appoint your most organized employee to manage the team and give him a $2 per hour raise.  But you’re a little blown away by everyone’s reaction.  The manager himself seems sheepish, and you start to hear rumbling that nobody who needs two hands to carry a three-seater sofa should make $12 per hour, let alone be in charge.  Clueless management and all that. They probably don’t even own any creatine powder.

A Culture Then Follows

Business keeps booming, and life is good.  The rank and file grumbling over management not following the obvious mover meritocracy is, at worst, a minor problem.  Nobody quits over it or even shirks their duty.  And the culture remains the same — the large group of movers overwhelmingly believes in the meritocracy of physical might.

This works perfectly for you.  It’s important for your movers to be able-bodied and spry, but after a certain minimum threshold, it actually matters very little to you or to the business.  But they create a culture entirely focused on and obsessed with the margins.  To you, a mover that can bench 300 and one that can bench 400 are the same thing, for all intents and purposes.  But to them, there’s a world of difference.  And this matters because they view it as perfectly reasonable for bench press alpha dog to earn the prevailing wage while everyone sitting below him in the meritocracy earns less.

“If you want to earn the big money, you need to push yourself, dude!”

Eventually, and probably without really thinking about it, you solidify this culture and codify it into your practices.  Interviews now formally involve feats of strength.  When outsiders point out that this doesn’t have much bearing on how effective a mover someone is, particularly given the existence of tools of the trade, you now have an official policy pooh-poohing such objections.  Look, the interview is the interview, and if you can’t bulk up for a few months ahead of the feats of strength, you must not even care about this job, brah.

The Anatomy of Labor Market Dominance

This becomes the labor market reality.

As the owner of this now burgeoning business, you have certain worries.  Chief among these involves competition from departing staff or others that figure out the game.  One of your employees could branch out and compete with you, say by specializing.  He could offer to handle moves with a large number of antiques or with medical equipment.  More generally, this would involve the realization that, while physical strength mattered for the performance of the job, it doesn’t translate meaningfully to any outcome that buyers care about.

But this doesn’t turn out to be a serious concern or one that’s hard to address.  You intuitively understand the minds of competitive teens hanging out at the gym, and you reinforce those tendencies.  You hold public tournaments with cash prizes for the person that can move a dining room table the furthest in 60 seconds.  And you even generously pay for your employees to have gym memberships and to take courses in lifting and flexing techniques.

You do all of this because of a subconscious understanding of your own interests.  A town in which all able-bodied young people compete for a generic, muddy, and not particularly marketable designation of “strongest” is good for you.  A town where they think this strength is valuable on the market is even better for you.  But a town where they compete instead for providing the most value to those in need of moving help is really, really not good for you.

So you foster and reinforce this value theater of strength.  Or, more accurately, you just let the journeyman idealist gym bros do it for you.

Back in the World of Programming

I’ve always loved Hanlon’s Razor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

For tying the gym bro as mover analogy back to programming, I’ll offer a slight variant on that.  I’ll say that we shouldn’t attribute to conscious conspiracy that which is adequately explained by inertia.  Big tech companies aren’t twisting their mustaches evilly while devising hackathons and stupid interview processes to deprive you of higher wages.  In the programming world, we’ve been steeped in misdirected, bro-style competition for so long that nobody really consciously thinks of it anymore.  We just participate as if it couldn’t be any other way.

We all recognize that programming skill is a murky-at-best concept without a ton of direct correlation with market value (after basic competence).  Yet we fetishize it anyway.  We love competitions and the illusion of meritocracy.  We celebrate the generalist and a labor market that forces pointless competition instead of specialty and expertise.  Get really good at moving medical equipment?  Scrimshaw!  A true mover should be good at moving everything.  So let’s have a 10,000 person weight lifting competition!

So, Go Specialize

My message here is a pretty simple one, at least in terms of a call to action.  I mostly wrote this post to leave it here and link to it later as I evolve the thesis of DaedTech to help developers own their labor.  So here it will stay, and I’ll leave you with a simple message for now.

Stop metaphorically bench pressing in the hopes that you’ll become the strongest person in the town.  You won’t be.  In the game of “good at Java” or “good at algorithms” in which you compete against roughly 18 million people, you’re going to lose badly and then you’re going to sheepishly infer that anyone who tells you that you don’t deserve more money is right.  But that isn’t right.  It’s self-defeating and arbitrary.

So find your thing, and don’t let it be the generalist thing.  There are 18 million people pushing gently but firmly downward on your earning when you do that.  Tell them to save their feats of strength and go find your own corner of the world to excel in.

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Phil
Guest

Hey bro…I was thinkin like that we could all learn project management skills. You know, stuff like analyzing project risk and stuff. Oh and learning about like productive cultures and stuff. Just seems like that kind of managey stuff would help us in business and stuff. If we could really help our clients with analysis…that would be awesome.

Erik Dietrich
Guest
For all of their buzzword-y-ness, I don’t think the rent seeking project managers and generic “business people” of the world would dive into the same pragmatist culture as the programmers on more than a superficial level. (It’s a little weird to talk about this in the context of the gym metaphor, since generic business people are generally more likely to come from heavy bro culture than programmers obsessed with skill.) In this metaphor, I think the BS bingo PM would talk about applying lean principles to weight machines or something. But, more broadly, I’d say that the programmer skill fetish… Read more »
Phil
Guest

That’s just what I mean – humor aside. It’s time to step up the PM skills as much as the tech skills and start taking back some aspects of the business. Not to mention the work that’s been shoved off to rent-seeking BAs. I’ve heard there are some decent ones out there, but TBH I’ve seen lack of technical skill and system knowledge lead to proposals of sub-optimal solutions just too many times. By business people, “specialists”, and consultants. It’s a tragedy.

Jonathan Stark
Guest

The moving company analogy is a work of art. Well done, sir!

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