what to do, what to do, around this larger topic i’ve been banging against recently: the extraordinary thinness of culture in geekery.
i should say at the outset, i don’t have the answer. i don’t think there maybe even is a “the answer”. and i don’t have an answer. i think there are several possible ones, but nothing in my mind at this time feels complete or well-worked out. still, fools rush in … so i would at least like to throw out a few ideas for us all to pick at and push on. others feel free to propose alternatives and variations as we go.
the first thing i want to propose, the subject of today’s muse: i propose we heighten the elements in our current trade’s practice that center around “being with” as a kind of default-go-to-first-take when we encounter problems.
that’s a vague phrase, i know, but i think i’m pointing to something real, it’s rather that our current language doesn’t make it easy to point at. let’s see if i can roll it out a little more with some explanation and examples.
by “being with”, i guess i mean a couple of things. 1) as opposed to “doing to”, and 2) as opposed to “being above or below”. being with is a kind of living together.
case: you want to change your medical billing software so that your customers develop a greater sense of delight from using your product. you want to increase its value. (most of you, i know, encounter similar problems in your product/customer experiences, just transliterate.)
thin-culture: have a sales rep meet your team once a month. gather marching orders, in the form of a priority queue full of stories. study and argue at great length about the “best” product. have a PO a few times a week interpreting all that. and so on. plan a release.
a thick-culture arrangement: find a midsized client who likes but doesn’t love your work. pay for one or more people at that client to work half-time for you. find some physical space where your team and your client persons(s) can both do their jobs at the same time. find one doable thing every week that will make that outside-inside person love your product a little more. add it. rinse, lather, repeat. free your team from every obligation except steadily building that client’s joy. this will cost money and require style & diplomacy & chemistry. but, it doesn’t cost more than the thin-culture approach, and unlike the thin-culture approach, we emerge with a great deal more. we get at least one loyal client, and almost certainly many more who work in similar ways on similar problems with some portion of our client base. we get far thicker domain knowledge. we get immediacy. we get out of the house. we get fun. we get a better system. this is “being with” your customers.
case: you want to know just what in the name of all that is holy is actually going on down on the ground floor, because you aren’t getting the feature flow you want and you aren’t getting stability and you aren’t getting any sense of actual control.
thin culture: devise an “objective” metric that has an easy acronym to remember and a slot in jira. standardize the powerpoint for showing it. hold your managers’ feet to the fire to make it better. repeatedly tell everyone far & wide you want to know the truth at all costs.
thick culture: take 8 weeks. kill off upir meetings until they’re less than 2 hours a day. join your team’s workspace w/exactly the same environment they use. SHUT UP ABOUT THE JOB FOR AT LEAST THE FIRST THREE WEEKS. revel in chatting about everything that isn’t the job… …just listen & watch. make no decisions, give no orders. just hang out. learn them. learn what they do and how they do it. learn, especially, how they feel. drink when they drink, eat when they eat, meet when they meet. this is “being with”. i know, right? crazy talk. what will happen to the rest of your org while you’re “gone”? remember the case, tho, a) prolly nothing special will happen, and b) u already don’t know what’s going on, so this isn’t worse than that. there are exactly two ways to know what is going on with a team a) live with them, or b) trust someone who lives with them. what will you get? oh, so much. you’ll get to know people way better than you did before. you’ll get to see what is really happening, not what you’re being told is happening. you’ll get a deep knowledge of where the actual controls are in the system, of which knobs matter.
case: you want stronger geeks and you want to keep them once you’ve made them stronger. you see that you have a revolving door of noobs, w/folks barely learning the domain and the house “way”, then moving on because someone offered them more money or a shorter commute.
thin culture: institute rules so that your stupid geeks can’t do stupid things cuz they’re against the rules. pay for some mandatory classes and look at everyone’s test scores and attendance. resentfully give another pay raise to people you feel are already overpaid.
thick culture: accept that the hard part of doing modern s/w is the human part: collaboration, translation, mutual priority. build excellent physical/remote space. hire collaborators w/any tech stack background instead of non-collaborators who already know your stack… …express no enterprise rules for geekery, only enterprise risk-prioritization. hire pricey professional mentors instead of pricey professional tech-teachers or price professional process-installers. introduce and emphasize the sustainable harvest of value. eliminate deadlines. this isn’t you being with, this is enabling your teams to be with, in this case, to be with each other. the price for this is actually low, except for deadline elimination, which seems scarier than it is. lemme put it this way: you aren’t hitting those deadlines anyway. (irrelevant aside: i am still surprised that so many companies will pay a contracted “tech-teacher” three or four times what they’ll pay a contracted onsite mentor. that’s a pure thin-culture thing.)
you don’t need more “experts” at coding. you need more people who can listen and talk and share and hang and “be with”.
so there’s three cases. of course, real mid-sized geekery outfits have many more opportunities to choose being with than just these three. but i hope you get a feel for what i mean by all this.
i notice my cases were aimed higher than the woman down on the floor. a forthcoming trick will be to go after some of those cases of being with, too.
stay tuned!— title: “Getting Past Impostor Syndrome” date: 2018-10-12 tags: - muse categories: - geekery
i wanna muse about roughly 17 things. but i’m gonna try to relate them to a single message. the additional challenge, some of u may be in a place where this message will sound like an attack. please please believe it is not meant to be that.
the message: you gotta get past this impostor syndrome bullshit. it is a nasty trick that you and geek culture are pulling, together, on yourself. far from being “honest” and “healthy”, it is limiting your capability and hurting your chances at becoming a great geek teammate.
the story goes like this: “being a geek means knowing all answers and not making mistakes. i am not that, so i am not a geek. but i have a geek job. so i am a fake. i get to feel simultaneously bad about being weak and bad about being dishonest. so what i will do is feel bad.”
and when you tell yourself this story, let me tell you what you are doing: you are buying in to a bogus just-so story that geek culture tells itself to explain away why it can not do the impossible things that the larger culture wants it to do. all three, the larger culture, the geek culture, and you, are agreeing to this narrative. and it is, honest to god, not remotely fair or balanced or decent or sensible or accurate or useful or valuable. it’s a lie and trick, on several levels. you gotta reach past it.
in no particular order, here are some of the gross falsehoods embedded in that story of your impostor-ness.
1) that geekery is about already knowing answers. bogus nonsense on at least two levels: a) they don’t pay me to solve problems i’ve already solved. b) my ability to solve them is not remotely a matter of rote assembly or simple manipulation of concrete elements.
a casual example. i’m working on an app with about 8,000 lines of code-i-wrote. it’s not rocket science: abstractly it fetches a whole bunch of data from upstream sources, massages it, and shows it to the user interactively on a desktop. the transitive dependency tree for this app has well over a hundred libraries. a hundred libraries of code-i-didn’t-write.
it is just foolish to think that my memory can hold all that. it would take years to master the ins & outs.
and look, we’re not even ready to ship yet.
writing software is an act of translation, not assembly. one translates from amorphous vague non-deteriministic non-axiomatic human language to its exact opposite: precise deterministic axiomatic computer language. and what about the “already solved” part? well. that’s trivial, innit. i’m pricey. geeks are pricey. they absolutely would not being paying us if we only solved problems we’ve already solved. they pay us for solutions. if they have them laying around, they’ll use them, not us.
2) geekery is about not making mistakes. heh. whaddaya, kiddin’ around? just yesterday, a whole bunch of people u and i both think of as master geeks sat around right here on twitter talking about how often they do dumb things – often even the same dumb things over and over. think about your task monitor on your computer for a second. that monitor shows about a dozen meters to catch the performance of your computer. what happens when any one of those meters is pegged at 100%? wellllllll, life turns to shit, basically. all sorts of things go wrong.
human minds aren’t computers, i dislike that metaphor intensely, but here it is a useful illustration. my work calls for me at times to load my brain heavily. when any of my subsystems peg at 100%, guess what happens.
how often do i load myself down that heavily to do my job? a lot. a whole lot. there’s just too much to keep track of. (even for me, a specialist in techniques for limiting mental bandwidth.) so what happens? well, i make mistakes. lots and lots of mistakes. all the time, kids.
3) (of the trade rather than the individual) if we were competent we could satisfy our customers. oh my: it is to laugh. the demand for our services isn’t just beyond your reach or our reach, it’s beyond any industry any where in the history of civilization. and it shows.
a doubling rate of new geeks of about five years. something like 70% of all projects are documented to be behind schedule and over budget. and if you look closely, most of the rest are lying. i am sorry to be the one to tell you this, but there it is. nobody could meet this demand. nobody. and an assembly in which over half of us have less than 5 years in the game? definitely nobody with those characteristics.
so. three gigantic misrepresentations at play, and all three are fundamental to this impostor story.
where do they come from?
they come from exactly that third item’s implications: our leadership is scarcely more experienced and competent than we are. the highest bidders set the agenda, not the strongest or most important project-sources. schools suggest and promote “knowing”, and create a process based around fact-stuffing, which is not in fact what working geeks really do. but they train us to value ourselves on that basis. the larger culture just shakes its head, the classically disappointed parent. and they keep overpaying us, which to be honest, also contributes to the story.
that same demand problem forces us to skip the kind of rich and broad acculturation that normal situations permit: where the old hands can actually not just fact-stuff but richly prepare and thicken the wisdom of the noobs, not just the knowledge.
so. it’s perfectly understandable why you think you’re an impostor.
given that chain of falsehoods, with little time or access to people who actually know better, given the pressure and, yes, the money. just a tiny touch of self-doubt crystallizes the super-saturated solution.
one drop, and boom: instant impostor.
what are the consequences of all this impostor-syndrome? well they’re horrible, for individuals, for orgs, for the trade. just horrible.
individuals feel bad about themselves. they avoid risk. they exhaust themselves. they shut up and they shut down. often enough, they leave and never come back.
orgs run a revolving door of noobs, expensive, unreliable, unversed in their company’s domain. they make decisions based on powerpoint and the covers of airline magazines. they substitute standards and rules for judgment. they hurt their own people.
the trade erects faux-culture, dominated by a thin layer of white-male stereotypes. it has too few people who speak up and out, too few women and POC. it bets over and over on silly deadlines, gives projects to the highest bidder not the best, & is fundamentally a cost-center.
so? don’t buy in. if you’re an individual, and you like to geek – to be highly creative and highly technical at the same time – you are a geek.
1) assimilate what most of your hardcore masters are telling you: it is not about knowing answers. it is not about not making mistakes. the demands made of you are excessive and unfair. take deep breaths. 2) find mentors, especially mentor-mentors, who can help you not just learn more facts, but learn how to thicken our combined cultural wisdom. join together. 3) speak up and out, about everything. look, the fact is, if doing so gets you in trouble at this org, it won’t get you in trouble at all orgs. “thanks, demand, for at least one good thing.”
we can remake this trade. but only if we do it together, and only if we don’t give up and say, well, that’s just the way it is.
(apologies for such a long rambling inarticulate thread, but all of this has been building and building in me for a while, and i just had to get it out of my head.)