In my last article I wrote about why politicians rather cynically fight climate change than solve real problems. This is not just a problem of politicians but of leadership, or the lack thereof, in general. In this article, I describe some of the nonsense I have witnessed in a supposedly highly objective, technical profession. I could name companies but I am sure that anybody working in a large engineering organization in the West has had similar experiences.
Imagine you run an engineering department of a size of over 100 employees. The software this organization has produced is highly inefficient and error prone. Engineers regularly spend half their time on fixing issues ad-hoc. You could address the underlying problems by redesigning the critical parts of the system and properly implementing them. Yet, why bother with any of that when you can instead push a “diversity and inclusion” initiative? If you are a CTO, VP, or Director and the systems you are ultimately responsible for are steaming piles of garbage, then your focus should be on fixing those problems. This would lead to quite some internal conflict, and certainly it would also entail making difficult decisions. Yet, I compare this to birthing pains, not as if I know what those really feel like, but once the initial pain is over you can make significant progress.
In contrast, if you do not want to solve real problems you likely are looking for a bullshit project to occupy yourself with such as increasing the percentage of women and minorities in engineering. To make sure you succeed, do not argue why we need this but simply say that “it is the right thing”, as if you are talking to a bunch of kindergarten children. There should not be any KPIs, i.e. key performance indicators, that track how certain metrics improve as diversity goes up. Instead, you only focus on getting the percentage of women and minorities up. Of course, nobody will dare to speak up because, as a VP or Director there are very few people above you, and those below probably rather quit than pick a fight with a superior. This is good for you because the more white men leave, the lower their percentage in your organization.
The beauty of this approach is that there will never be enough diversity. You do not need to track any data, and if there are problems due to diversity, for instance a higher rate of attrition (a plus!), ethnic in-group hiring (a plus!), a reduction of software quality (a myth!), or loss of trust (this cannot be!), then you only need to give a speech about how this is all a big “learning opportunity” for the company. If this does not help, invite a diversity grifter to give a company-wide talk. At worst, you will drive out a few of your high performers because serious technical people rather solve real problems than imaginary ones.
I have noticed a similar problem also with very senior engineers, call them “staff engineers” or “principal engineers”. The exact title may differ depending on the size of the company. In any case, I am referring to people beyond the senior level, which is normally a fairly small crowd, oftentimes making up less than a few percent of the entire number of engineers at the individual contributor level. They could likewise push for technical improvements, but in more of a bottom-up manner, compared to a high-level manager. Again, this kind of work can be difficult, hairy, and political. You probably will antagonize a few people if you send out a white paper in which you outline the weaknesses of In-House System X, how it can be improved, and what the benefits of these improvements would be.
The typical engineer is a very meek creature, which is probably why it is rare that they want to challenge each other’s work. I should probably add that the best places I worked at did exactly that. You could tear apart each other’s designs and implementations, and people appreciated your input. For this, you need a particular kind of people, though. I have only ever seen this happen in small pockets in larger organizations, probably because it all depends on the hiring manager having a solid technical background and being able to spot bullshitters in the interview process.
So, assume you are a highly paid staff engineer and your job description says that you should work across teams, making an impact to the company. You do not want to upset anyone by making technical recommendations, and maybe you have been promoted due to quotas so you cannot even do that kind of work. Again, diversity and inclusion comes to the rescue! A somewhat recent fad is to add a “code of conduct” to software projects where you describe how developers should interact with each other. This requires lengthy discussions and endless waffling. Most serious people will excuse themselves from such meetings so all the staff and principal engineers who are left over can fully dedicate themselves to this highly important task.
It may take a year or two, but eventually the “code of conduct” will be done and get rolled out to the company. Maintaining it takes a bit less time than coming up with it. Hopefully, you did not tell anybody that you just took whatever you found on Github and made a few changes. On an aside, one code of conduct I had to agree on had references to a different company at a few places because the overpaid morons who promoted it did not even read the text they pulled from the net properly. I pointed this out in a public comment, which led to one of the initiators, who happened to sit close to my team, throwing me nasty glances in the office for weeks afterwards whenever he bumped into me.
Code of conducts may contain a section of language use, but oftentimes this needs to be fleshed out further. As you can see, one bullshit project leads to another, and no real world gets done anymore. Examples of problematic language use include the following terms: master/slave, blacklist, whitelist, kill, abort (a process), child process, and many more. The term “post-mortem”, for some reason, is never seen as problematic. Even though it literally means “after death”, those oh-so very concerned super-senior engineers never see a problem with that, which may have something to do with their lack of education. As you can guess, there is no shortage of terms that need to be examined for their racist, white-supremacist, or colonialist undertones.
The bottom line is that if you do not want to do any technical work in a technical field, there are currently endless opportunities. If you happen to be a “diverse” candidate yourself, opportunities come even to junior engineers. For instance, I know of recent graduates who lack both skills and experience. Instead of spending more time on getting better at their craft, their employer has them sit in three to five interviews a week where they are used for signaling how woke the company is. Of course, not all companies are like that, but, in general, I would say the larger your employer is, the more money it gets from the government, and the higher the percentage of US ownership is, the more likely it is that you will have to deal with such nonsense at work. For some of your colleagues, engaging in those tasks will be irresistible.
Did you enjoy this article? Great! If you want to read more by Aaron, check out his excellent books, the latest of which is Meditation Without Bullshit. Aaron is available for one-on-one consultation sessions if you want honest advice. Lastly, donations for the upkeep of this site are highly appreciated.