This blog is about technical topics and being a technical lead. Understanding architecture is part of it, but if you don’t reflect on understanding people then you will never be a leader. I don’t have all the answers but it starts with accepting you can learn from others, and some of what they share will not fit with your current world view. Be ready to tear down and rebuild some foundations if you’re a technical person willing to become a leader. In the spirit of learning I’ve included the original tweets at the bottom for context so you can see the rest of the conversation.
Data needs the right questions
I trust science, so data beats anecdotes, but once I started to listen to people’s stories, I realized the people collecting the data weren’t asking important questions. “How many women applied for this job?” “How many targets of violent crime are gay?” “Are black men targeted by stop and search?” Some of these questions now have better answers, but there’s still a lot of questions that don’t even occur to people to ask.
I learned a lot from my wife in that respect – the importance of qualitative research to make sure you’re asking the right questions. But qualitative is “soft science” so isn’t as well respected, despite being fundamental to getting it right. Sound familiar?
And then you have to ask why the data isn’t collected? Is it a blind spot, or do people earnestly not want to know because then they’d have to face up to uncomfortable truths that their image of themselves does not match how others see them? Our egos are fragile, which is why I have to work hard and compassionately with new developers to understand ego-less code and collective ownership. Vulnerability is hard, especially for men in tech, and that manifests itself in many defensive micro-agressions.
I’m not going to talk about toxic masculinity here, but please go watch The Mask You Live In to hear a US perspective on how “manning up” is creating a toxic environment.
Code needs the right questions
Yeah, code is for solving the problems you know about, but how do you solve the problems you don’t know about?
If someone calls you a snowflake, or an sjw, just for asking a question, there’s a very important reason they don’t want you to ask that question : they’re scared of the answer.
Let’s be clear, science and data matter, otherwise the opinion of some white guy who can’t keep his job at Google is worth as much as someone who has collected, reviewed and summarised all the data. But we all need to be sure that the right data is collected and the right questions are asked.
To be honest, I started down this path because I saw my friends were hurting, and they helped me understand homophobia, and then I started seeing where everyone else was disadvantaged. Having a friend to guide you is the best way to open your eyes.
Why should you change? Because “we’ve always done it this way” is the worst justification for anything. Because if you find out something is broken, it should make you uncomfortable. And if you think nothing is broken then you shouldn’t be writing software and fixing problems.
This isn’t about feelings, or political correctness or any of that. This is about you doing your job, understanding the domain that the technology you create sits within. It’s about bringing your full self to work, and making sure everyone else on the team has that opportunity too. And if they don’t want to talk about what they did at the weekend, that’s their choice too.
If you can’t make space to accept that other points of view are valid, that technology mediates access and knowledge, and your code will directly impact someone’s ability to access that, you should not be in this industry. Make space for someone who gives a shit about the users, and the wider community affected by every decision you make in every line of code you write and review, and every interaction associated with that code.
Is it exhausting? It can be. Especially at first. But you know what’s really exhausting? Fighting… technology…
Don’t accept the status quo
Don’t be the developer that makes their colleagues rage quit. Or makes the users curse their every day stuck because you didn’t ask the right questions.
Did you test your facial recognition on black faces?
Can blind people order pizza on your website?
Is every woman on your team made of regular polygons and has regular periods?
Question everything. The truth is out there if you care to look. Other people should not be alien to you.