Thursday, 29 August 2013

An unfit culture

Yesterday afternoon, Nitasha Tiku published a piece on Valleywag, entitled This Is Why There Aren’t Enough Women In Tech. It’s eye-opening reading, even for me (and I consider myself at least somewhat awake to the terrible ways in which women are treated in this industry). Go ahead, read it. I’ll be here. I’ve got a Scotch to keep me company. Read Shanley Kane’s February article and Ciara Byrne’s followup interview with Kane, while you’re there.

Read them? Good.

Assuming you’re a cis man… still feel good about yourself, and the developer culture in the office you work in? I hope not. Because if you’ve ever sat an interview, and were asked afterward about “cultural fit”, you’ve been on the edge of this problem. And the problem, as Kane puts it so eloquently over at Pretty Little State Machine, is that cultural fit is “a loosely coordinated social policy to ensure homogeneity in our workforce.” Cultural fit is a catch-all way of rejecting otherwise perfectly suitable job applicants, without having to flat out say that it’s because they don’t have a similar cultural background.

This also introduces design problems in your product. No, seriously. Hiring with a view to cultural fit ensures that your entire development team thinks similarly—and approaches problems similarly, allowing for slight differences in experience with the tools in use and with others. You could get an entire team of programmers who would write, structurally, almost the same code, just with different variable names. You might say, "great minds think alike," but I would suggest that fools seldom differ. Then. if you hire one person who is eminently qualified, and is largely unlike the rest of your staff (e.g. outspoken about what’s shit code and will just fix it, as opposed to the various forms of introversion you stereotypically see in programmers), you see not only significant structural differences in coding styles, but this also helps your entire team evolve as programmers. Instead of everyone already writing according to an unspoken code style, there’s discourse, improvement, and a gradual winnowing away of the chaff.

But enough about how cultural fit damages your codebase.

Cultural fit damages developer culture, and society as a whole. Reading through the anecdotes in Valleywag, I’ve seen hints of this attitude in virtually every office I’ve worked in, since I started working. My computer science program was, as in so many others, overwhelmingly dominated by men. The few women who started, and made it through the three years that I was there full-time, were either as naturally talented as some of the men, or struggled every day with it. And I can’t imagine it was made easy for any of them by the men, who alternately accused them of following their boyfriends into the program or buying answers, and incessantly hit on them.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, because it seems like every week I see another example of it: the tech industry, by and large, is an industry made up of little boys who were hurt over and over again, and never learned anything but how to hurt. They were rejected and hurt by their peers growing up, formed a tribe of comrade rejects, and grew to fear outside interest. When they were young, outsiders becoming interested in them led to pain, but now they have the means to reject and hurt those who rejected and hurt them. The bullied have become the bullies.

These hurting little boys grew up in a society of intense white male privilege. One where, even in 2003 when I began my degree, there were jokes that the women taking B.Comm. were really just being there for their “MRS”. One where the University of Waterloo was “jokingly” called the University of Waterwoo, on account of the high concentration of Asian students in the Math and Computer Science programs—almost as though they were displacing the rightful seats of (might I add, white) Ontario-raised students. A culture where, I hate to admit, I participated in jokes about final exams being either the perpetrators or victims of rape.

So these little boys, already distrustful of new people becoming interested in their interests, were raised to further distrust the motives of those others. And now that they’re creating tech companies, and doing the hiring, they’re applying that distrust to their staffing procedures, and keeping out everyone who doesn’t already think like them.

I’ve heard stories from colleagues—women who were interested in computers but hadn’t had the opportunity to try programming until they entered university—of being disregarded by the men in their program who had grown up in front of a keyboard and a CRT. That they were somehow inferior because, for whatever reason, they didn’t have the same opportunities growing up. The same men who, invariably, would describe developer culture as a welcoming meritocracy, where intelligence is fostered and output alone determines your worth. The same men who, on Slashdot (and later, Reddit) would, after receiving comments of “STFU, n00b” from their elders for asking naïve questions, would turn around and do the same to those who had naïve questions for them. A welcoming meritocracy, my ass.

Cultural fit is little more than code for “were you bullied as a kid for like computers and D&D,” when you get down it. It’s shorthand for decades of similar experiences of pain, and a similar unconscious desire to mete it out on the new kids. And it has to stop. We have to begin the difficult process of evolving past the pain and refusing to inflict it on others. Instead of demanding that people fit into our culture, we have to extend the olive branch to other cultures, and modes of thinking, and creating a brave new world where the meritocracy that we claim to exist is actually present. In private, we used to assure ourselves that, when we got older, the bullies would be working for us in the new knowledge economy. That knowledge economy seems to be here, but all the old rules of proving who’s got the bigger dick seem to still in force.

So to anyone and everyone reading who sits an interview, I call you to reject cultural fit, and reject old ways of thinking, and help create the meritocracy and the culture we all wanted our community to be.

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