But I don’t want to be a jerk! – Software development and Foo camp

One of the sessions I went to at Foo camp was about being a jerk. It seems we in software development land have a real habit of being jerks to each other and to our customers. The question the session discussed was - does it have to be so? I think the answer is actually, given how we run companies, probably. So let’s change things!
The session was convened by William Henderson and also attended by Greg Brockman. Most of the session was spent trading war stories but the issue that got my attention the most was the issue of how we treat each other in the software industry. Which is often, badly. I think there are two key reasons for this.

Culture matters

First is culture.
I learned the most about the importance of culture at one of the startups I worked for. Maybe it was the pressure of being in a start up, maybe it was the inexperience of everyone (myself included) but I’ve compared working at that start up to Lord of the Flies. Screaming, yelling, double crossing, cabals, we had it all. The companies I worked for later were such a relief after that. Across the board all the companies I worked for later (and it became something I checked for) were passionate but respectful. So I do think culture can play a huge role in how we treat each other. Toxic cultures, unsurprisingly, produce jerks. Positive cultures can help to produce positive results. So really, culture matters.


Second is hierarchy.
Every company I’ve ever worked for has been a hierarchy. And the nature of hierarchy seems to breed jerky behavior.
Hierarchy inherently means that those higher up are considered more important, more valuable, more intelligent, more able and more worthy as human beings. This inherently means that those lower down the hierarchy are less important, less valuable, less intelligent, less able and less worthy as human beings. We can try to claim it isn’t true but just look at the interaction between say a CEO and a leaf level employee and in most (not all) cases you will see how the imbalance works out.
Hierarchy is naturally isolating and re-inforcing. If you are on the top then you must be the best because, well, you are on the top! Furthermore because all power in a hierarchy is more or less given to the people who are higher up than others this strongly encourages people further down the hierarchy to ’groom’ those above them and thus reinforce the higher level folk’s sense of worth and entitlement. All of which leads to some really jerky behavior. Arguing from authority, giving orders and generally being jerky is all but seen as a birth right of those higher up the hierarchy.

So now what?

I think hierarchy is naturally toxic and so inherently bad. We need to explore different ways of organizing ourselves that don’t involve concentrations of power. Can a purely cooperative environment work? Do we have to wait until society gets rich enough that work is truly optional and therefore people will only work together because they want to, not because the alternative is losing their possessions and social status? I honestly don’t know. But whatever the answer to jerkiness is, I’m pretty sure it involves a good culture and getting rid of hierarchy.

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