Engineer Showboating

Friday, March 9, 2018 :: Tagged under: engineering culture management. ⏰ 8 minutes.

The song for this post is Psycho Killer, by The Talking Heads.

A phrase in my post on meetings that got some reaction was "every complex system has parasites."

So when have I been a parasite? When have I gamed a system to extract value for myself at the expense of a greater ecosystem?

One example I've never been private about (but haven't written about widely) is how consciously I played the Engineer Showboating game while transitioning from a theater identity to a STEM one in undergrad, around 2008-2010. I saw and matched patterns of what "real engineers" do to gain clout with folks in the CS department.

I'll share them here, mostly to inoculate you against such tricks.

Fear, Insecurity, fooling yourself

I'd like to remind you that, like any system that involves adopting markers to game an outcome, it was motivated by fear and insecurity. It's often the fear that one really isn't good enough, the fear that one doesn't deserve it. In my case, my "outcome" was to be a respected, capable technologist, so I optimized on these fronts out of fears that I wasn't any good, or that I couldn't be in a reasonable timeframe. I wanted to be treated like a pro, so I focused my attention on these shallow indicators.

Having these fears, and this response to it (adopting markers of behavior and identity to avoid fixing or confronting said fears) is generalizable, and especially common in communities of men. Consider men who have fears of vulnerability but want to have sex, so they adopt Pick-Up Artist techniques rather than learn to be a whole, communicating person. Or men who fear they might actually not be The Hero Of A Great Story like they feel like they deserve, so they reject the ample evidence of structural inequality and become reactionaries against the equality of others.

On top of being awful, the big risk with avoiding pain and denying the existence of these fears is that you'll end up believing your lies. Getting high on your own supply is a classic dealer mistake, and many lose sight of what victory actually looks like. Turns out most people are content to merely feel like they've acquired some status, rather than actually completing the achievements that would confer it. It's a lot easier to convince yourself that you're a good technologist than to actually be one under scrutiny, so a lot of folks stop the scrutinizing themselves, point to hollow signifiers, and rest on their laurels. Don't do this. You'll be a shitty technologist and just show your ass to anyone who knows how to look (which is hopefully a few more people after this post).

Finally, a reminder: if AB, it does not follow that BA. If someone is performing these behaviors, that doesn't mean they're necessarily full of crap; just know that people who are full of crap might exhibit these behaviors.

Partial list of signals to watch out for

Here were some flexes I optimized for when I wanted to be Taken Seriously by people in computing.

Terminal-based editor and tools

The reason I learned vim wasn't because I felt particularly inhibited by my editing speed in graphical environments, it's because it conferred authority. The Cool Kids in the back row of the Sunlab never touched their mouse, there was just frantic tapping and their cursor would dance around while the screen magically produced what they willed it to. I wanted to be a cool kid too, so I learned vim.

To shallow observers, there's a bit of a heirarchy among editors:

It's all horseshit, of course; my best friend who could code circles around me did everything in Gedit without indentation support or syntax highlighting.

Do whatever works. My limited experience with VS Code has been delightful, I'd probably go with that if I were starting over. If someone gives you shit for your editor, be grateful they showed you their ass, then keep going.

Programming Book culture and how to game it

It feels a bit less prevalent now than it did in 2010, but there's a bit of a culture around programming books. This book is a must-read, that book is overrated, Real Developers have a copy of that on their desk. You get bonus points if you have some kind of exasperated reaction (sighing, groaning, or cheering) anytime one of these books gets brought up.

I bought and read a ton of them. Here are a few, plus what you need to know about them:

Mythical Man-Month

You don't have to read this: just internalize the notion that adding people to a project won't make it go faster ("you can't make 9 people have a baby in 1 month"). It spends a lot of time on 1950's minutiae ("microdot technology will change documentation culture, since the current printouts of paper stack so high!") or even advice we now consider bad (Brooks was about complete transparency of implementations, we now believe hiding that detail behind an interface to be way better). Turns out stories from 1950's OS development are largely historical in their value!

The other major takeaway is in the title of the supplemental essay "There Is No Silver Bullet." Software is hard and always will be. There, you got most of what you needed.

Code Complete

I feel like this mostly got popular since it was Jeff Atwood's favorite book, and where he got the Coding Horror branding behind his blog. It's pretty massive and contains a lot of common-sense information, and is brave enough to even sometimes take a stance on issues largely relegated to taste (e.g. the ideal length of a method), trying its hardest to back it up with science and observation.

Overall, I didn't feel like it was critical to my development as an engineer because of the underlying assumptions of what and how you're programming: it was largely about C++ Object-Oriented programming like they did at Microsoft on desktop software for about a decade. It won't hurt to read this! But I found it's applicability less general than how it was sold.

The Pragmatic Programmer

When I was managing, I was recommended a silly book on management and leadership written by Ben Horowitz, and I said

More than trusting or believing his accounts of how it all went down, watching how he frames those events and the characters involved does a lot to illuminate how the VC class thinks of themselves, the industry, and its history. You can think a church is worshipping clearly false idols but still find value in reading their holy texts, especially if you don't have much of a choice but to have to deal with them.

And I feel The Pragmatic Programmer is a good text for understanding the mentality of Serious Programmer Culture in a similar way. It's got some concrete advice that I follow, but the major takeaway is that it implores programmers to treat programming like a craft. If there's any book that's going to show you the kind of signals you can boost and communication style you can imitate to Look Cool, it's probably this one.

The C Programming Language

This is A Classic because it's got a lot of things that provoke reactions in people:

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs

This is something of the holy text for a way of thinking about computing that even the authors recognize isn't how we program computers anymore: attempt to fully reason about composable pieces, and recognize design tradeoffs. This stuck with me more than most, but per the theme of this post, you really don't need it.

Just like The C Programming Language gets cred for being C, this gets elevated in part because it uses Scheme, another language loaded with romantic narratives.

Part of incorporating this into my identity (rather than merely being a fan) is demonstrated in my Twitch handle, sicp.

The Following Books are largely overrated and I doubt most people have read them, but are still Status-conferring

Feel free to list any books I forgot to mention in the comments.

Functional Programming

Many toxic people find a home in some Functional Programming communities. Certain FP communities amplify slavery-glorifying fascists in the name of inclusion, and torturously re-invent social science with glaring bugs to justify it. They'll also create silly ladders about how real a programmer you are.

A lot of that is metastasis of the cultural forces that give you that Credibility Boost this post is about: functional programming is a non-default way of programming for most, and makes certain operations require contortions other languages don't. A lot of practitioners make a performance of reminding non-practitioners, repeatedly, that they're not as good or smart for not programming like them.

It reminds me of a classic tweet, whose original author I think deleted their account:

Atheists are like gamers in the sense they take the least interesting aspect of themselves and make it their whole personality for no reason

I happen to love Functional Programming, but as with many communities around activities I enjoy, the fans make it awful. But! If you want cheap status, learn it, and frequently brag about it.

News Aggregators, The New Hot thing

You can pattern match against Hacker News and Reddit Programming and Lobste.rs and always know the Hot New Thing people are talking about. You can fake a lot by checking them every day and skimming comments. You get bonus points for hyperbole (e.g. saying a tech that isn't on the rise is "dead").

Unlearning

I gamed the above and some fools took me more seriously. I looked in the mirror and felt like I knew things about being a Good Engineer. I almost certainly made people along the way feel lesser for flouting the above. I feel terrible about it, and wish I hadn't.

To be clear, the above wasn't completely valueless! I did read all those books, and it's easy to take the things you already have for granted; I may very well be devaluing the knowledge I acquired in doing all the above. If you choose to investigate any of those paths, use me as a resource and/or let's chat 😄

I'll also state that my behavior was both a cause and a symptom. I hit these notes hardest because I gleaned, from my peers and the online presence at the time, that these things mattered. I wish I hand't performed that process so much, though.

Don't let anyone tell you there's a specific way to be an amazing engineer. If you came from Scheme and FP, great! If you wrote games, great! If you're coming from browser programming, awesome! iOS? Did you start with C or assembly? All fine!

I'll write a follow-up on what I think does make a strong engineer, and what I've substituted the above with in the process of unlearning. But if someone flexes a lot of the above, note that they're probably just afraid or insecure.


(if you found this interesting, you'd probably also enjoy Jenn Schiffer's Deconstruct talk from 2017).

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄