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No Uncle of Mine

In August, one topic sparked a lot of debate on the internet in general, and in the Tech industry in particular: the so-called "Manifesto", written by James Damore, then engineer at Google. While this blog post won't be about the manifesto, some events that occurred after it came out prompted me to write this. But before looking into it, let's go over some of what has been said and written since then.

Damore's Manifesto and subsequent firing.

That manifesto has definitely received more attention than it deserves, to the point of even having a lengthy Wikipedia entry. Since it became public, many have discussed this in more detail than I'll be able to do here, so to keep this short, here is some interesting reading on the subject.

  • The manifesto relies on evolutionary psychology, which as a field is at least debatable.
  • Even some scientists from that field raise questions on Damore's take.
  • The manifesto does show sexism.
  • And my personal favourite: Sharing such a document to the whole company turned the author into someone people could no longer work with.

Teaching and punishing

Now, amongst the multitude of blog posts, news articles, and tweets that followed the release of the memo, one influential person within the software industry, Robert C. Martin, came out with his take on the matter. Well, actually, Robert did not focus on the content of the memo, which he acknowledged was wrong, but instead focused on Google's decision to fire Damore. According to him:

You never punish bad ideas. Instead, you counter bad ideas with better ideas.

And as such, not only was the firing a wrong decision, but it would in turn make people uncomfortable sharing their ideas, which would endanger a company as Google that relies on innovation.

While I agree that you should try to discuss things freely, and allow people and their ideas to evolve through debate, there surely is a limit on how much time and effort a company can invest into the debating process. In this particular case, it seems like Google did provide opportunities both for discussion and learning, as is mentioned in the manifesto itself. If after this, someone continues pushing on a subject with a rhetoric that hurts the company and its employees, surely the company can be forgiven for drawing a line and cutting its ties to that person.

Furthermore, it is indeed important that people feel like they can share their ideas freely. But this raises the question: what should a company do when one of its employees says half of his coworkers are less suited for the job than him? If anything, letting this kind of thinking foster inside a company would make the people targeted by that memo less confident in themselves and hence less prone to share their thoughts. And while freedom of speech is important, one should try to remember that:

The exercise of the natural rights of each [person] has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights.

– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen

Finally, while a company like Google does rely on innovation to continue its business, there was nothing new in that manifesto. The points Damore made were old ones, and you would be excused for hoping these would be considered defeated in the 21st century.

The dangers of missing the point

In an industry where heterosexual cisgender white men are over-represented, I strongly believe we could be doing a better job of denouncing, refuting, and standing up against points of view and behaviours that make our industry less inclusive or less welcoming to members of underrepresented groups. And no, the issue of diversity cannot be reduced to a pipeline problem.

Obviously, this is a personal belief, and I could not reasonably expect Robert to act accordingly. But what worries me, is that I find there is something toxic in Robert's take, that he failed to perceive, and that I believe could help him make sense of the sheer amount of negative feedback he received: he missed the point.

Putting aside the tone of his original article, which could be seen as inappropriate to the situation, but was truthful to his style of communication, his focus was to try to make a seemingly reasonable point on an adjacent topic. As someone coming from what others will perceive as a position of privilege, his attempt to address the situation in a "moderate" manner brings to mind the image of a man in more sinister times who

[...] prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

– https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Furthermore, no "thought police" were involved in the incident. The Ex-Googler did not get arrested because of what he thought, he was fired for probably many reasons including what he wrote and the subsequent publicity of that Manifesto. Giving an article the title "The Thought Police" makes it sound like its author believes persecution was at play, which would make Damore a victim. In turn, this starts to resemble Reverse Victimization, which is something that clearly appears in the Manifesto itself.

Greater than code

When trying to articulate my personal thoughts around what disturbed me in Robert's article, I also started to perceive something else about him.

His importance in the software industry is largely due to the many and great contributions he made to what we call Software Engineering today. He has spent a considerable amount of time and energy sharing his thoughts on how we write software that delivers value, that can be depended upon, and that can adapt to change. But his focus revolves primarily around personal skills, and while there is definitely value in honing one's skills -- or as Robert would say, one's craft, this is only part of our jobs. In order to deliver software, we need a team whose collective output is more than just the contribution of each member.

This is a social challenge, not a technical one. Some simple examples include:

  • Knowledge has to be shared amongst the team to prevent silos and to increase the bus factor.
  • According to Conway's Law, we need good communication structures inside an organization to produce well designed systems.
  • Diverse teams are more efficient and innovative.

As such, so-called "soft skills", such as Communication, Creativity and Collaboration, could arguably be seen as more valuable to a company. Especially since technical abilities can be taught, whereas the previous ones are harder to develop.

In conclusion, I realize I should not be surprised by, what is for me, Robert's "faux-pas". As he recognizes himself, such topics are not his strong suit. Personally, while I'll certainly continue to try and improve myself on the technical side thanks to his work and others, I will also be de-emphasizing Clean Code in favour of more Livable Code.

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