So Many Assumptions

There was a comment at Yegge’s post about good Agile, bad Agile that caught my eye:

To the people who complained that because they have other priorities besides programming (families, hobbies, etc) they’ve been lumped in a “lesser programmers” category I can only say this: if you have other priorities besides programming, then you are, by definition, a lesser programmer.

Not that you aren’t skilled, brilliant, whatever, it just means that your footprint on the world of programming will be shallow. You won’t be of a magazine, you won’t be giving keynotes at OSCON.
To be truly outstanding in any field requires that you be obsessed. People who influence their fields don’t go home on time. The always need to stay an extra hour or eight. Not because they need money or because they have a deadline, but because they need to work out an idea.

They know going home would be pointless anyway. They might say hello to their wives and children, but their mind would be elsewhere.

Don’t take it as an insult, it’s just reality. The hour-a-day jogger isn’t going to make the Olympics. The eight-hour-a-day programmer isn’t going to write Linux. If that isn’t obvious to you then no amount of hours would be likely to make you exceptional so don’t worry about it.

There are so many assumptions associated with this comment that one wonders where to start. The fact that it’s taken as a given that all great programmers are men? That one can’t be great in one’s field unless one is obsessed? That one can’t have a life outside of technology and still obtain a respected position in the field?

I point out this comment, not because the views are unique, but because they are typical of many in the tech field–a view fostered by companies such as Google (and Yahoo! and other ‘Web 2.0′ companies), who use star treatment to make its workers feel ‘special’, as it slowly sucks them dry.

We women have seen the beast, though, and recognize it for what it is: a facade. No wonder we’re actively discouraged from being members of this profession.

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10 Responses to So Many Assumptions

  1. Phil says:

    They know going home would be pointless anyway. They might say hello to their wives and children, but their mind would be elsewhere.

    Even setting aside the casual, unthinking sexism, this is jawdroppingly arrogant stuff.

    “Hi, it’s me. Yeah, still at work. OK, look, I have just reached a natural break but there’s still a lot of stuff I need to think about. I mean, I could come home and wash up after tea and help little Stevey with his homework and give little Steph her bath and read her a story and make you a cup of coffee and let you tell me about your day – but I’d do all those things really badly, and what would be the point? I mean, my Mind would be Elsewhere, you know? So I’ll just stay here and keep out of your way and let you get on with things, OK? OK, bye…”

    Like the myth of ‘quality time’. If you’ve got kids, what they need is quantity time.

    I wonder if cwells is a single man.

  2. Audrey says:

    So that’s why I’m seeing so many job postings that insist that some kind of programmer rockstar is required. Silly me, I thought having other outside interests made me a smarter person and increased the chances of not making some horrible blunder due to severe tunnel vision. But that wouldn’t be showing the dedication to really excel, would it? I’ll have to have the wife feed and play with the kitten for me, tonight.

  3. Ian says:

    Hmmm.. I’ve seen this sort of ‘thinking’ appearing several times in the past 16-odd years that I’ve been working as a developer, predominantly from young men with — to put it charitably — somewhat limited social skills and a tendency to discount anything that happened before they started working.

    This really must be one of the first industries to have ever approached a near parity* in the gender balance and then managed to throw it all away in the pursuit of cheap, easily-abused, overly-gullible ‘resources’, most of whom are blessed with an over-developed sense of their own worth and an abundance of naivety. Oh, and who are overwhelmingly male.

    * My first position was in a department where nearly half of the programmers coding device drivers and low-level comms routines were — gasp — female. I somehow doubt I could find a similar department/company these days.

  4. Here’s the thing: You can, of course ‘work smarter not harder’ (or in this case, longer hours), and that will suffice to put you ahead of the merely mediocre, but you will always be outcompeted by those who can work harder *and* smarter.

    At least until they burn out.

    At which point they will be replaced with new young turks that you’re being measured against.

    That’s OK, I actually don’t mind being outcompeted in this way, as I can always say to myself “Self, they’re gonna burn out soon, and you’ll still be here.”

    I have my own metrics that I measure myself against, and ‘not killing myself with work’ is one of them.

    With a longer, more sustainable perspective, I have many more opportunities to ‘monetize’ my skills.

    I’m not leaving footprints, But I am wearing away a streambed. Over time, we’ll just see which ends up deeper.

  5. Doug says:

    I must’ve been away from my desk when the news came out that to be outstanding in software development one had to “leave a deep footprint”, to be “of a magazine” (WTF?), to give keynotes at OSCON (WTF again).

    Last time I looked, you didn’t have to be a celebrity to be outstanding in a field. And you didn’t have to be outstanding in a field to be a celebrity.

  6. Is there any truth to the idea that working longer hours will help one’s career?

  7. I think the most basic premise of his claim is incontrovertibly true. The code that I’ve seen from 9-5 coders who have no interest in programming outside their day jobs has without exception been mediocre at best. All the really good code I’ve seen has come from people who are passionate about programming and do at least some of it in their spare time. There is of course a large grey area inbetween, in that far from all the code written by the passionate is good, and there may be code written by 9-5ers which is good. But the trends speak a clear language, and it seems intuitively obvious why that would be so.

    You don’t need to be singleminded and socially isolated to excel in the field. You do need to have a passion for it, though, just like with any other field. All the people I can think of who’ve made an impact are people for whom their field was a passion and a hobby that filled a significant amount of their spare time and idle thoughts, whether they be musicians, mathematicians, writers… or programmers.

    That doesn’t excuse his mindless sexism or the lack of empathy he expresses, but please do not entangle one with the other.

    As for the mindless sexism, that is a tough one. I can see myself slipping into that as well, and not because I’m intent to. If I think about the programmish people I know in real life, there is exactly one woman among some two dozen guys. If I look at the tech category in my aggregator (which is by far the bulk of my subscriptions), it’s even more hopeless. (Whereas it’s very even among my subscriptions to non-tech or not-very-tech people; that set might actually be slightly female-dominated.) So whatever my intent, I can see myself speaking on the basis of a mental image where programmer equals male. How do I notice that I said something unwittingly sexist? (And how much should I worry? I tend to be very sensitive about gender, to the point of talking about my preferences about potential romantic/sexual partners in gender-neutral terms even though I’m so clearly straight that there’s no question it’d be a she in any case.)

    I’m not sure how to fix this. I would love more female voices in those lineups. The problem is running across any at all offline; is finding ones I have an interest in reading online. Gender alone does not capture my interest. Subject matter does. I also read a bunch of people whose predominant topics I’d otherwise have at most a passing interest in, because they manage to make it captivating. (Dorothea Salo on librarianship comes to mind.) Most tech women I read fall in this category, actually. The one I subscribed and kept subscribed solely for subject matter is Kasia Trapszo, and she hasn’t written in a long time. Now for all I know, the women computeristas that I’d want to read are out there in droves and it’s just male bias in my male-dominated subscription list that keeps me from finding them. But how do I go about finding out whether the cause of their apparent absence is actual absence or just a self-reinforcing bias?

    This isn’t an easy problem, however much one would honestly like it solved.

  8. Shelley says:

    Aristotle, I think if you have a passion for something like programming, you’re going to burn out eventually. Passion is an all consuming emotion, and I don’t think it’s necessarily compatible with programming.

    A strong interest, yes. Keeping up with the new tech, keeping one’s skills fresh, being interested — all of these could apply to any number of professions. It’s only the tech fields where we seem to assume that we have to live days with little other than coding and drinking mountain dew.

  9. Not true. Medicine is even more brutal for the first few years.

  10. A strong interest, yes. Keeping up with the new tech, keeping one’s skills fresh, being interested — all of these could apply to any number of professions.

    That’s what I meant by “passion.” You don’t need to go on frequent 14-hour coding frenzies. I can probably count on my fingers how many times I’ve done that (in 15 years of programming). Having a life does not preclude you from being world-class programmer. All the alpha geeks I know have an active social life, in fact. The essential component is curiosity and thirst for better understanding, a drive to explore and refine – a 9-to-5-only programmer just doesn’t have that.

    As for days those who sustain days of coding on Mt Dew, in my experience they don’t have much of that either. They seem more fond of just getting stuff built, whatever it takes, and will happily pile on More Stuff in order to slay the problem, even if the result is a bloody mess. (Luckily, this is generally a phase that most grow out of.) The worst of them seem prone to be overfond of their own cleverness and develop bizarre habits in their coding. Compare the many submissions of code from self-proclaimed Expert Programmers on TheDailyWTF.

    Just doing something lots does not mean you are good at it. If you have no clue about music, but a decently musical ear, and you get an instrument and doodle your favourite pop on it for hours a day for years on end, that won’t make you a great musician either. Neither will make pouring pages upon pages of stuff into your diary make you a great writer. Why people think programming somehow differs from other crafts, I don’t know.