Technology is run by the wrong people

I have a confession to make: I have a strong tendency to “jump”, emotionally and intellectually, to the biggest problem that I see at a given time. I’ve tempered it with age, because it’s often counterproductive. In organizational or corporate life, solving the bigger problem, or jumping to the biggest problem that you have the ability to solve, often gets you fired. Most organizations demand that a person work on artificial small problems in a years-long evaluative period before he gets to solve the important problems, and I’ve personally never had the patience to play that game (and it is a political game, and recognizing it as such has been detrimental, since it would be harder to resent it had I not realized what it was) at all, much less to a win. The people who jump to the biggest problem are received as insubordinate and unreliable, not because they actually are unreliable, but because they reliably do something that those without vision tend both not to understand, and to dislike. There are too many negative things (whether there is truth or value in them, or not) that can be said, in the corporate theater, about a person who immediately jumps to the biggest problem– she only wants to work on the fun stuff, she’s over-focused and bad at multi-tasking, she’s pushy and obsessive, she wants the boss’s boss’s job and isn’t good at hiding it– and it’s only matter of time before many of them are actually said.

Organizations need people like this, if they wish to survive, and they know this; but they also don’t believe that they need very many of them. Worse yet, corporate consistency mandates that the people formally trusted (i.e. those who negotiated for explicitly-declared trust in the form of job titles) be the ones who are allowed to do that sort of work. The rest, should they self-promote to a more important task than what they’ve been assigned, are considered to be breaking rank and will usually be fired. People dislike “fixers”, especially when their work is what’s being fixed. It’s probably no surprise, then, that modern organizations, over time, become full of problems that most people can see but no one has the courage to fix.

Let’s take this impulse– attack the bigger problem or, better yet, find an even bigger one– and discuss the technology industry. Let’s jump away from debates about tools and get to the big problems. What is the biggest problem with it? Tabs versus spaces? Python versus Ruby? East Coast versus West versus Midwest? Hardly. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy debating the merits and drawbacks of various programming languages. I mean, I may not like the language Spoo as much as my favored tools, but I’d never suggest that the people promoting Spoo are anything but intelligent people with the best intentions. We may disagree, but in good faith. Except in security, discussion of bad-faith players and their activity is rare. It’s almost taboo to discuss that they exist. In fact, Hacker News now formally censors “negativity”, which includes the assertion or even the suggestion that there are many bad actors in the technology world, especially in Silicon Valley and even more especially at the top. But there are. There is a level of power, in Silicon Valley, at which malevolent players become more common than good people, and it’s people at that level of power who call the most important shots. If we ignore this, we’re missing the fucking point of everything.

There is room for this programming language and that one. That is a matter of taste and opinion, and I have a stance (static as much as possible) but there are people of equal or superior intellectual and moral quality who disagree with me. There is room for functional programming as well as imperative programming. Where there is no nuance (unless one is a syphilitic psychopath) is on this statement: technology, in general, is run by the wrong people. While this claim (“wrong people”) is technically subjective just as far as color is technically subjective, we can treat it as a working fact, just as the subjectivity of color does not excuse a person running a red light under the argument that he perceived it as green. Worse, the technology industry is run by bad people, and by bad, I don’t mean that they are merely bad at their jobs; I mean that they are unethical, culturally malignant, and belong in jail.

Why is this? And what does it mean? Before answering that, it’s important to understand what kind of bad people have managed to push themselves into the top ranks of the technology industry.

Sadly, most of the people who comprise the (rising, and justified) anti-technology contingent don’t make a distinction between me and the actual Bad Guys. To them, the $140k/year engineers and the $400k/year VP/NTWTFKs (Non-Technical Who-The-Fuck-Knows) getting handed sinecures in other peoples’ companies by their friends on Sand Hill Road are the same crowd. They perceive classism and injustice, and they’re right, but they’re oblivious to the gap between the upper-working-class engineers who create technological value (but make few decisions) and the actually upper class pedigree-mongers who capture said value (and make most of the decisions, often badly) and who are at risk of running society into the ground. (If you think this is an exaggeration, look at house prices in the Bay Area. If these fuckers can’t figure out how to solve that problem, then who in the hell can trust them to run anything bigger than techie cantrips?) Why do the anti-technology protestors fail to recognize their true enemies, and therefore lose an opportunity to forge an alliance with the true technologists whose interests have also been trampled by the software industry’s corporate elite? Because we, meaning the engineers and true technologists, have let them.

As I see it, the economy of the Bay Area (and, increasingly, the U.S.) has three “estates”. In the First Estate are the Sand Hill Road business people. They don’t give a damn about technology for its own sake, and they’re an offshoot of the mainstream business elite. After failing in private equity or proving themselves not to be smart enough to do statistical arbitrage, they’re sent West to manage nerds, and while they’re poor in comparison to the hedge-fund crowd, they’re paid immensely by normal-people (or even Second Estate) standards. As in the acronym “FILTH” (Failed In London, Try Hong (k)ong), they are colonial overseers who weren’t good enough for leadership positions in the colonizing culture (the mainstream business/MBA culture) so they were sent to California to wave their dicks in the air while blustering about “unicorns“. In the Second Estate are the technologists and engineers who actually write the code and build the products; their annual incomes tend to top out around $200,000 to $300,000– not bad at all, but not enough to buy a house in the Bay Area– and becoming a founder is (due to lack of “pedigree”, which is a code word for the massive class discrepancy between them and the VCs they need to pitch) is pretty much out of the question. The Third Estate are the people, of average means, who feel disenfranchised as they are priced out of the Bay Area. They (understandably) can’t quite empathize with Second-Estate complaints about the cost of housing and pathetic equity slices, because they actually live on “normal people” (non-programmer, no graduate degree) salaries. As class tensions have built in San Francisco, the First Estate has been exceptionally adept at diverting Third-Estate animosity toward the Second, hence the “Google Bus” controversies. This prevents the Second and Third Estates from realizing that their common enemy is the First Estate, and thereby getting together and doing something about their common problem.

This echoes a common problem in technology companies. If a tech-company CEO in France or Germany tried to institute engineer stack ranking, an effigy would be burned on his own front lawn, his vehicle would be vandalized if not destroyed, and the right thing would happen (i.e., he’d revert the decision) the next day. An admirable trait that the European proletariat has, and that the American one lacks, is an immunity to divide-and-conquer tactics. The actual enemies of the people of San Francisco are the billionaires who believe in stack ranking and the NIMBYs, not 26-year-old schlubs who spend 3 hours per day on a Google bus. Likewise, when software engineers bludgeon each other over Ruby versus Java, they’re missing the greater point. The enemy isn’t “other languages”. It’s the idiot executive who (not understanding technology himself, and taking bad advice from a young sociopath who is good at pretending to understand software) instituted a top-down one-language policy that was never needed in the first place.

Who are the right people to run technology, and why are the current people in charge wrong for the job? Answering the first question is relatively easy. What is technology? It’s the application of acquired knowledge to solve problems. What problems should we be solving? What are the really big problems? Fundamentally, I think that the greatest evil is scarcity. From the time of Gilgamesh to the mid-20th century, human life was dominated by famine, war, slavery, murder, rape and torture. Contrary to myths about “noble savages”, pre-industrial men faced about a 0.5%-per-year chance of death in violent conflict. Aberrations aside, most of horrible traits that we attribute to “human nature” are actually attributable to human nature under scarcity. What do we know about human nature without scarcity? Honestly, very little. Even the lives of the rich, in 2015, are still dominated by the existence of scarcity (and the need to protect an existence in which it is absent). We don’t have a good idea of what “human nature” is when human life is no longer dominated either by scarcity or the counter-measures (work, sociological ascent) taken to avoid it.

The goal of a technologist is to make everyone rich. Obviously, that won’t happen overnight, and it has to be done in the right way. It’s better to do it with clean energy sources and lab-grown meat than with petroleum and animal death. The earth can’t afford to have people eating like Americans and able to fly thousands of miles per year until certain technological problems are solved (and I, honestly, believe that they can be solved, and aren’t terribly difficult). We have a lot of work to do, and most of us aren’t doing the right work, and it’s hard to blame the individual programmer because there are so few jobs that enable a person to work on fundamental problems. Let’s, however, admit to a fundamental enemy: scarcity. Some might say that death is a fundamental enemy, especially in the Singularitarian crowd. I strongly disagree. Death is an unknown– I look forward to “the other side”, and if I am wrong and there is nothing on the other side, then I will not exist to be bothered by the fact– but I see no reason to despise it. Death will happen to me– even a technological singularity can only procrastinate it for a few billion years– and that is not a bad thing. Scarcity, on the other hand, is pretty fucking awful– far more deserving of “primal enemy” status than death. If scarcity in human life should continue indefinitely, I don’t want technological life extension. Eighty years of a mostly-charmed life in a mostly-shitty world, I can tolerate. Two hundred? Fuck that shit. If we’re not going to make major progress on scarcity in the next fifty years, I’ll be fucking glad to be making my natural exit.

Technologists (and, at this point, I’m speaking more about a mentality and ideology than a profession, because quite a large number of programmers are anti-intellectual fuckheads just as bad as the colonial officers who employ them) are humanity’s last resort in the battle against scarcity. Scarcity has been the norm, along with the moral corrosion that comes with it, for most of human history, and if we don’t kill it soon, we’ll destroy ourselves. We learned this in the first half of the 20th century. Actual scarcity was on the wane even then, because the Industrial Revolution worked; but old, tribalistic ideas– ideas from a time when scarcity was the rule– caused a series of horrendous wars and the deployment of one of the most destructive weapons ever conceived. We ought to strive to break out of such nonsense. There will always be inequalities of social status, but we ought to aim for a world in which being “poor” means being on a two-week waiting list to go to the Moon.

Who are the right people to run technology? Positive-sum players. People who want to make everyone prosperous, and to do so while reducing or eliminating environmental degradation. I hope that this is clear. There are many major moral issues in technology around privacy, safety and security, and our citizenship in the greater world. I don’t mean to make light of those. Those are important and complicated issues, and I won’t claim that I always have the right answer. Still, I think that those are ancillary to the main issue, which is that technology is not run by positive-sum players. Instead, it’s run by people who hoard social access, damage others’ careers even when there is little to gain, and play political games against each other and against the world.

To make it clear, I don’t wish to identify as a capitalist or a socialist, or even as a liberal or conservative. The enemy is scarcity. We’ve seen that pure capitalism and pure socialism are undesirable and ineffective at eliminating it; but if it were otherwise, I’d welcome the solution that did so. It’s important to remember that scarcity itself is our adversary, and not some collection of ideas called an “ideology” and manufactured into an “other”. I don’t think that one needs to be a liberal or leftist necessarily in order to qualify as a technologist. This is about something different than the next election. This is about humanity and its long-term goals.

All of that said, there are people in society who prosper by creating scarcity. They keep powerful social organizations and groups closed, they deliberately concentrate power, and they excel at playing zero-sum games. And here’s the problem: while such people are possibly rarer than good-faith positive-sum players, they’re the ones who excel at organizational politics. They shift blame, take credit, and when they get into positions of power, they create artificial scarcity. Why? Because scarcity rarely galvanizes the have-nots against the haves; much more often, it creates chaos and distrust and divides the have-nots against each other, or (as in the case of San Francisco’s pointless conflict between the Second and Third Estates) pits the have-a-littles against the have-nothings.

Artificial scarcity is, in truth, all over the place in corporate life. Why do some people “get” good projects and creative freedom while others don’t? Why are many people (regardless of performance and the well-documented benefits of taking time off) limited to two or three weeks of vacation per year? Why is stack ranking, which has the effect of making decent standing in the organization a limited resource, considered morally acceptable? Why do people put emotional investment into silly status currencies like control over other peoples’ time? It’s easy to write these questions off as “complex” and decline to answer them, but I think that the answer’s simple. Right now, in 2015, the people who are most feared and therefore most powerful in organizational life are those who can create and manipulate the machinery of scarcity. Some of that scarcity is intrinsic. It is not an artifact of evil that salary pools and creative freedom must fall under some limit; it is the way things are. However, an alarming quantity of that scarcity is not. How often is it that missing a “deadline” has absolutely no real negative consequence on anything– other than annoyance to a man-struating executive who deserves full blame for inventing an unrealistic timeframe in his own mind? Very. How many corporations would suffer any ill effect if their stack ranking machinery were abolished? Zero, and many would find immediate cultural improvements. Artificial scarcity is all over the place because there is power to be won by creating it; and, in the corporate world, those who acquire the most power are those who learn how navigate environments of artificial scarcity, often generating it as it solidifies their power once gained.

Who runs the technology industry? Venture capitalists. Even though many technology companies are not venture-funded, the VC-funded companies and their bosses (the VCs) set the culture and they fund the companies that set salaries. Most of them, as I’ve discussed, are people who failed in the colonizing culture (the mainstream MBA/business world) and went West to boss nerds around. Having failed in the existing “Establishment” culture, they (somewhat unintentionally) create a new one that amplifies its worst traits, much in the way that people who are ejected from an established and cool-headed (in relative terms) criminal organization will often found a more violent one. So they’ve taken the relationship-driven anti-meritocracy for which the Harvard-MBA world is notorious, and then they went off and made a world (Sand Hill Road) that’s even more oligarchical, juvenile, and chauvinistic than the MBA culture that it splintered off from. Worse than being zero-sum players, these are zero-sum players whose being rejected by the MBA culture (not all of whose people are zero-sum players; there are some genuine good-faith positive-sum players in the business world) was often due to their lack of vision. And hence, we end up with stack ranking. Stack ranking would exist except for the fact that many technology companies are run by “leftover” CEOs and VCs who couldn’t get leadership jobs anywhere else. And because of the long-standing climate of terrible leadership in this industry, we end up with Snapchat and Clinkle but scant funding for clean energy. We end up with a world in which most software engineers work on stupid products that don’t matter.

In 2015, we live in a time of broad-based and pervasive organizational decline. While Silicon Valley champions all that is “startup”, another way to perceive the accelerated birth-and-death cycle of organizations is that they’ve become shorter-lived and more disposable in general. Perhaps our society is reaching an organizational Hayflick limit. Perhaps the “macro-age” of our current mode of life is senescent and, therefore, the organizations that we are able to form undergo rapid “micro” aging. There is individual gain, for a few, to be had in this period of organizational decay. A world in which organizations (whether young startups or old corporate pillars) are dying at such a high rate is one where rapid ascent is more possible, especially for those who already possess inherited connections (because, while organizations themselves are much more volatile and short-lived, the people in charge don’t change very often) and can therefore position themselves as “serial entrepreneurs” or “visionary innovators” in Silicon Valley. What is being missed, far too often, is that this fetishized “startup bloom” is not so much an artifact of good-faith outperformance of the Establishment, but rather an opportunistic reaction to a society’s increasing inability to form and maintain organizations that are worth caring about. Wall Street and Silicon Valley both saw that mainstream Corporate America was becoming inhospitable to people with serious talent. Wall Street decided to beat it on compensation; Silicon Valley amped up the delusional rhetoric about “changing the world”, the exploitation of young, male quixotry, and the willingness to use false promises (executive in 3 years! investor contact!) to scout talent. That’s where we are now. The soul of our industry is not a driving hatred of scarcity, but the impulse to exploit the quixotry of young talent. If we can’t change that, then we shouldn’t be trusted to “change the world” because our changes shall be mostly negative.

Technology must escape its colonial overseers and bring genuine technologists into leading roles. It cannot happen fast enough. In order to do, it’s going to have to dump Sand Hill Road and the Silicon Valley economy in general. I don’t know what will replace it, but what’s in place right now is so clearly not working that nothing is lost by throwing it out wholesale.

Continuous negotiation

After reading this piece about asking for raises in software engineering, I feel compelled to share a little something about negotiation. I can’t claim to be great at it, personally. I know how it works but– I’ll be honest– negotiating can be really difficult for almost all of us, myself included. As humans, we find it hard to ask someone for a favor or consideration when the request might be received badly. We also have an aversion to direct challenge and explicit recognition of social status. It’s awkward as hell to ask, “So, what do you think of me?” Many negotiations, fundamentally, are conceived to be uncomfortably close to that question. There is one thing that I’ve learned about successful workplace negotiators: they do it continuously, persistently, and creatively.

The comic-book depiction of salary negotiation is one in which the overpaid, under-appreciated employee (with arms full of folders and papers representing “work”) goes into her office and asks her pointy-haired boss for a raise: a measly 10 percent increase that she has, no doubt, earned. In a just world, she’d get it; but in the real world, she gets a line about there being “no money in the budget”. This depiction of salary negotiation gets it completely wrong. It sets it up as an episodic all-or-nothing affair in which the request must either be immediately granted (that’s rare) or the negotiator shall slink away, defeated.

Here’s why that scenario plays out so badly. Sure, she deserves a raise; but at that moment in time, the boss is presented with the unattractive proposition of paying more (or, worse yet, justifying higher payment to someone else) for the same work, rejects it, and the employee slinks away defeated and bitter. If this scenario plays out as described, it’s often a case where she failed to recognize the continually occurring opportunities for micro-negotiations.

First of all, if someone asks for a raise in good faith and is declined, that’s an opportunity to ask for something else: a better title, improved project allocation, a conference budget, and possibly the capacity to delegate undesirable work. Even if “there’s no money in the budget” is a flat-out lie, there’s nowhere to proceed on the money front– you can’t call your boss a liar and say, “I think there is” or “Have you checked?”– so you look for something else that might be non-monetary, like a better working space. Titles are a good place to start. People tend to think that they “don’t matter”, but they actually matter a great deal, as public statements about how much trust the organization has placed in a person’s competence. They’re also given away liberally when managers aren’t able to give salary increases to people who “obviously deserve” them. Don’t get me wrong: I’d take a 75% pay raise over a fancy title; but if a raise isn’t in the question, then I’d prefer to ask for something else that I might actually get. When cash is tight, titles are cheap. As things improve, who gets first pick of the green-field, new projects that emerge? The people with the strongest reputations, of which titles are an important and formal component. When cash is abundant, it usually flows to the people on or near those high-profile projects.

Many things that we do, as humans, are negotiations, often subtle. Take a status meeting (as in project status, of course). Standup is like Scrabble. Bad players focus on the 100-point words. Good players try not to open up the board. Giving elaborate status updates is to focus on the 100-point words at the expense of strategic play. A terse, effective, update is a much better play. If you open yourself up to a follow-on question about project status (e.g. why something took a certain length of time, or needed to be done in a certain way) then you’ve done it wrong. You put something on the board that should have never gone there. The right status (here meaning social status) stance to take when giving (project) status is: “I will tell you what I am doing, but I decide how much visibility others get into my work, because there are people who are audited and people who are implicitly trusted and the decision has already been made that I’m in the second category… and I’m pretty sure we agree on this already but if you disagree, we’re gonna fucking dance.” When you give a complete but terse status update, you’re saying, “I’m willing to keep you appraised of what I’m up to, because I’m proud of my work, but I refuse to justify time because I work too hard and I’m simply too valuable to be treated as one who has to justify his own working time.”

Timeliness is another area of micronegotiation, and around meetings one sees a fair amount of status lateness (mixed with “good faith” random lateness that happens to everyone). The person who shows up late to a status meeting is saying, “I have the privilege of spending less time giving status (a subordinate activity) than the rest of you”. The boss who makes the uncomfortable joke-that-isn’t about that person being habitually late is saying, “you’re asking for too much; try being the 4th-latest a couple of times”. As it were, I think that status lateness is an extremely ineffective form of micronegotation– unless you can establish that the lateness is because you’re performing an important task. Some “power moves” enhance status capital by exploiting the human aversion to cognitive dissonance (he’s acting like an alpha, so he must be an alpha) but others spend it, and status lateness tends to be one that spends it, because lateness is just as often a sign of sloppiness as of high value. Any asshole can be late, and the signature behavior of a true high-status person is not habitual minor lateness. In fact, actual high-power people, in general, are punctual and loyal and willing to do the grungiest of the grunge work for an important project or mission, but become magically unavailable for the unimportant stuff. If you’re looking to ape the signature of a high-power person (and I wouldn’t recommend achieving it via status lateness, because there are better ways) you shouldn’t do it by being 10 minutes late for every standup. That just looks sloppy. You do it by being early or on time, most of the time, and missing a few such meetings completely for an important reason. (“Sorry that I missed the meeting. I was busy with <something that actually matters.>”) Of course, you have to do this in a way that doesn’t offend, humiliate, or annoy the rest of the team, and it’s so hard to pull that off with status lateness that I’d suspect that anyone with the social skills to do it does not need to take negotiation advice from the likes of me.

Most negotiation theory is focused on large, episodic negotiations as if those were the way that progress in business is made. To be sure, those episodic meetings matter quite a bit. There’s probably a good 10-40 percent of swing space (at upper levels, much more!) in terms of the salary available to a person at a specific career juncture. However, what matters just as much is the preparation through micronegotations. Someone with the track record of a 10-years-and-still-junior engineer isn’t isn’t in the running for $250,000/year jobs no matter how good he is at episodic salary negotiations. It’s hard to back up one’s demand for a raise if one is not perceived as a high performer, and that has as much to do with project allocation as with talent and raw exertion, and getting the best projects usually comes down to skilled micronegotiations (“hey, I’d like to help out”). In the workplace, when it comes to higher pay or status, the episodic negotations usually come far too late– after a series of missed micronegotiation opportunities. One shouldn’t wait until one is underpaid, underappreciated, under-challenged, or overwhelmed with uninteresting work, because “the breaking point” is too late. The micronegotiations have to occur over time, and they must happen so fluently that most people aren’t even aware that the micronegotiations exist.

One upside of micronegotiation over episodic negotiation is that it’s rarely zero-sum. When you ask for a $20,000 raise directly (instead of something that doesn’t cost anything, like an improved title or more autonomy or a special project) you are marking a spot on a zero-sum spectrum, and that’s not a good strategy because you want your negotiating partner to be, well, a partner rather than an adversary. Micronegotiations are usually not zero-sum, because they usually pertain to matters that have unequal value to the parties involved. Let’s say that you work in an open-plan office. For programmers, they’re suboptimal and it’s probably not wise to ask for a private office; but some seats are better than others. Noise can be tuned out; visibility from behind is humiliating, stress-inducing, and depicts a person as having low social status. If you say to your boss, “I think we agree that I have a lot of important stuff on my plate, and I want the next seat in row A that becomes available”, getting a wall at your back, you’re not marking a spot on a zero-sum spectrum, because the people who make the decision as to whether you get a Row-A seat are generally not competing with you for that spot. So it’s no big deal for them to grant it to you. Instead, you’re finding a mutually beneficial solution where everyone wins: you get a better working space, and you’re no longer seen from behind (bringing a subtle improvement to the perception of your status, character, and competency, because the wall at your back depicts you as one who doesn’t fully belong in an open-plan office, but is “taking one for the team” by working in the pit) while your boss gets more output and is being asked for a favor (cf. Ben Franklin) that will demand less from him than a pay raise under a budget freeze.

The problem with software engineers isn’t that they’re bad at episodic salary negotiations. No one is good at those. If you’ve let yourself become undervalued by such a substantial amount that it “comes to a head”, you’re in a position that takes a lot of social acumen to talk one’s way out of. It’s that they aren’t aware of the micronegotiations that are constantly happening around them. To be fair, many micronegotiations seem like the opposite: humility. When you hold the elevator for someone, you’re not self-effacingly representing your time as unimportant; instead, you’re showing that you understand the other person’s value and importance, which is a way of encouraging the other person to likewise value you. The best micronegotiators never seem to be out for themselves, but looking out for the group. It’s not “let’s get this shitty task off my plate and throw it into some dark corner of the company” but, “let’s get together and discuss how to remove some recurring commitments from the team”.

What does good negotiation look like? Well, I’m at 1,700 words, and it would take another 17,000 to scratch the surface, and I’m far from being an expert on that topic. What it isn’t, most of the time, is formal and episodic. It’s continuous, and long-term-oriented, and often positive-sum. When you ask for something, whether it’s a pay raise or a better seat in the office, it’s OK to walk away without it. What you can’t leave on the table is your own status; you can leave as one who didn’t get X, but you can’t leave as a person who didn’t deserve X. If your boss can’t raise your pay, get a title bump and better projects, and thank him in advance for keeping you in mind when the budget’s more open. If a wall at your back or a private office isn’t in the cards, then get a day per week of WFH and make damn sure that it’s your most productive day. This way, even if you’re not getting exactly the X that you asked for, you’re allowing a public statement to stand that, once an X becomes available, you deserve it.

Underappreciated workers don’t need to read more about episodic negotiations and BATNA and “tactics”. They need to learn how to play the long game. Long-game negotiation advice doesn’t sell as well because, well, it takes years before results are achieved; but, I would surmise, it’s a lot more effective.