Thursday, May 16, 2019

A Journey — if You Dare — Into the Minds of Silicon Valley Programmers

My responses in a NY Times comment section for the book, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the WorldCoders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson:

#1 - Link

Although I've been a software developer for 15 years, and for longer alternating between a project manager, team lead, or analyst, mostly in finance, and now with a cancer center, I found it funny that you blame the people doing the coding for not seeing the harm it could cause. First, most scientific advancement has dark elements, and it is usually not the science but how it is used and sold by business people that is the problem. This leads to the second problem, in that it is not coding that is in itself problematic, but specifically how technology is harnessed to sell. It is normal and desirable to track users, to log actions, to collect telemetry, so as to monitor systems, respond to errors, and to develop new features, but that normal engineering practice has been used to surveil users for the purpose of selling. Blaming coders for this turn is like blaming them for the 90s internet bubble. As it is now, it is a rush for profits, not the technology, that is a problem. Many famous historical innovations were driven over the edge by corruption and wealth, not by the people involved in designing and building the systems, although we are so far along in commercialization that it is now part of many developers roles to further the business model.

#2 - Link

@Ben - I completely agree. Most scientific advancement has dark elements, and it is usually not the science but how it is used and sold by business people that is the problem. This leads to the second problem, in that it is not coding that is in itself problematic, but specifically how technology is harnessed to sell.

As for its depictions of coders, I imagine many people not in tech think of coders as young bros' that make apps at cool companies, while in reality, the average is a 38-year old married male with 2 children that makes intranet website and desktop applications for mainstream businesses.

The art aspect if funny, as it is more about soft decision making where one has to weigh the value of one architecture over another, the viability of technology in the future, the ability of coworkers to support and understand the work, the aesthetics and usability of a website. All of these decisions can be made analytically or quantitatively, but more often than not, it is one's sense based on reason and experience.

As for the bug, yes, a missing character might be a problem if I was writing COBOL in 1982 (real story). Nowadays code checking built into IDEs immediately flag such errors, before compilation.

#3 - Link

@Eugene - 10x itself has gained mythical status, but mostly as a misunderstanding, then maybe usurped by an absurd culture of competition.

1 - “In one of their studies, Sackman, Erikson, and Grant were measuring performances of a group of experienced programmers. Within just this group, the ratios between best and worst performances averaged about 10:1 on productivity measurements and an amazing 5:1 on program speed and space measurements!” – The Mythical Man-Month

2 - The original study that found huge variations in individual programming productivity was conducted in the late 1960s by Sackman, Erikson, and Grant (1968). They studied professional programmers with an average of 7 years’ experience and found that the ratio of initial coding time between the best and worst programmers was about 20 to 1; the ratio of debugging times over 25 to 1; of program size 5 to 1; and of program execution speed about 10 to 1. They found no relationship between a programmer’s amount of experience and code quality or productivity.

#4 - Link

I can see that many developers chimed in to complain about the characterization of coding as something that anyone could do, or that coding is primarily syntax. As for myself, I've been in tech for over 30 years and was a CS major in the 80s, learning COBOL, PL/I, and BASIC, but over the years working with numerous scripting languages, and then progressing to using other languages and tools, VBA, SQL, VB.NET, C#, JavaScript, F#, R, Python, as well as numerous related IDEs.

That is one aspect, but behind that is lots of reading, often more articles than books, but covering design (UI/UX), patterns/architecture (GOF), algorithms, database design, best practices, management, social sciences, and operations (Deming to agile). All of this informs the decisions I make when building something for an employer. Granted I am fairly bright, so would have acquired knowledge regardless, but to define coders as simply working with syntax is demeaning. Even people that are deficient in the broader sense of the world can be deeply knowledgeable in their respective domains.

He Has Driven for Uber Since 2012. He Makes About $40,000 a Year.


This is an example of exactly why I've hated these services, except when the employees actually benefit, is that the corporation takes most of the profit and drives down cost, turning workers into wage slaves and often breaking existing laws, while serving to make the lives of affluent people easier.

At times, when I need a car for the airport I opt for car services over Lyft or taxis - I deleted Uber years ago - because the workers seem to get treated better, although I pay twice as much. Overall, I think we should be paying more for many things if we are to guarantee the welfare of the people doing the work. And it's not just that, we need to enforce labor laws, as well as tax the wealthy and corporations making profits off employees backs, those same investors that are giving little in terms of benefits.

I am not a Luddite, it is simply that that services that allow employees to be used as 'task rabbits' are harmful to workers' lives. Although older, I work as a software developer and my online profile looks like a 32-year old's according to various systems, but I've often worked as a 'contractor', and although it paid well, it provided no benefits and little security. That was fine for me. I made a decent six-figure income and was lucky enough to use my spouse's generous health benefits, but even then, one realized that it was partially a way for corporations to avoid liability.


@Frieda Vizel - It brings up an interesting point, that all of these systems are forms of control, from the review system, through the algorithms that 'incentivize' workers to be out on the street, essentially fooling them into driving down the value of their own time. The logic is such that it gives the drivers enough of a reason, or at least the illusion of one, to work, while not providing them enough to live on. Much of this can be modeled via behaviorism, with the reward system, along with the potential for punishment, forming a system of manipulation, the same type of modeling that occurs with social media, addiction, and gambling.


@Jonathan - Uber lies and misrepresents its viability to workers, and the idea of starting a business is, in fact, a road to failure unless you are already well-placed...


@EB - A friend in LA, unable to drive my spouse and me to the airport, ordered us a ride via Uber. I like to chat, at least sometimes, and he was bright, but found out that he had a Master in Computer Science that was not being used in his regular work, checked on houses along the coast for foreign owners, and was thinking of selling insurance, all the while working doing logistics for a shipping company. He even brought over his parents from China to reduce his costs. Yes, he drove Uber as a side-gig, and some might laud his ambition, but I couldn't help but see someone that was struggling to make a decent living.


@MHB - It's also an issue of security, and increased women bear to avoid mass transit. Ride services allow women to bypass subways and buses, and for many, the cost is an issue.


@Vanessa Moses - It's also an issue of security, as well as an increased cost women bear to avoid mass transit and to stay safe. Ride services allow women to bypass subways and buses, as well as avid standing alone on a street.

Universal Health Care Might Cost You Less Than You Think


The facts behind this idea are persuasive, but the biggest resistance will come from business interests determined to destroy the possibility, medical device manufacturers, pharmaceuticals, insurers, hospitals, and the AMA. Then there is the distrust of government held by many, sown by the same business interests. Although overall costs would be lowered, conservative media would gladly push 'testimonials', created and supported by industry groups, attesting to the increased costs on middle Americans. It is possible that most Americans would be for universal health care (UHC?) in some form, but there will be a barrage of propaganda, along with historically business-tilted laws and courts, that would make this a tough proposition.


Although costs to business would be reduced from health care, and from the HR costs of managing benefits, businesses would lose the leash that ties many to their jobs. Americans would be free to leave employers to find better companies irrespective of insurance, not stuck with bad employers. Sounds like a win for employees, but it would change the degree of control that business has over employees. This would be good for us, but there might be some disgruntled employers as turnover increased.


@Karekin - Debatable win-win, since although costs might decrease, many industries would see increased turnover, and that is expensive. No longer tied to an employer, many will leave for better environments, and companies might then need to do more to retain employees, maybe even including enhanced medical services beyond UHC. Additionally, the higher income people would pay more in taxes, and that tied with their freedom to move might push up wages. Just some thoughts...


@EWood - I assume you are not responding to what I wrote unless you misread it, but you can see that the response from others is that it will cost business. My posts in this forum have been about the political realities, so although I strongly profess advancing human welfare, and argue against the culture of work, it would be foolish to not consider the hurdles and roadblocks hindering a better society.


@Bethannm - Capitalism isn't about competition, and never has been. I best remember that capitalism is about rewarding the owners of capital, nothing more. It is the essence of our plutocracy. Market systems, at least in theory, are about competition and/or the lack of it. Just my view...

Honest, I'd like a better world, free from corporate and plutocratic control, focused on human welfare, but I was looking at the complexities down the road. There are many self-interested groups, and some backlash will come from corporations themselves. I am not advocating an employment 'tether'.


@EWood - Obviously, I am not advocating for serfdom, since I stated that this "would be good for us, but there might be some disgruntled employers as turnover increased." On the other hand, one just has to look at our system of employment to realize that the US promotes a modern-day indenture, and is titled toward employers over employees. Again, not justifying it, but it is naive to not consider the potential blockers. Also, it is naive to not realize that many serfs are indoctrinated in their serfdom.

Work in America Is Greedy. But It Doesn’t Have to Be.


Over the years - yes I am a somewhat jaded older worker - the idea of being a good highly productive employee has really turned. I am still highly productive, creating quality software products for people, or leading people to positive outcomes, but I am much more aware that companies don't matter. Few corporations have a mission that is worth devoting one's energies to. They are just business entities that don't deserve our commitment.

I am much more likely to ask, how good is that employer, and how good is that employer for me. After 25 years in the financial sector, I took a role with a major cancer center, and part of the reason behind that was its high rating as an employer. Compared to finance, which is harmful to our collective welfare, my new employer devotes resources to human development and provides a better quality of life, besides having a mission one does not feel ashamed about.

Sadly, the US will never be a country concerned about human welfare - at least in the near future - where life matters more than work.


Generally, businesses don't deserve our commitment. Yes, there are entities that combine business with nobler aims, e.g., environmental concerns, healthcare, human welfare, etc., but my sense is that people are fooled into the notion of work as being redemptive and uplifting. It isn't. Across the developed world, more work is associated with less human welfare outcomes and a tendency toward higher inequality. Although Americans might get a little smarter and realize that the US has a huge deficit in social welfare for our cultural tendency toward work, enforced and enshrined in laws and policies that benefit corporations, it is not likely to change significantly.

They are just business entities that don't deserve our commitment.


Flexibility sounds good in principle, but for many, it will only mean time devoted to work and irregular scheduling. For myself, I enjoy being able to work remotely a couple of days a week and limited management flexibility on my hours, but for many Slack-like apps on their phones, remote dial-ins and links, and remote work itself will mean more work and more work off-hours. It can reduce stress in one form, e.g., the conflict between one's personal life demands while increasing it overall or off hours. Yes, if managed correctly, it does not have to encroach on one's life and can enhance it, but in many ways, it will only be a way to extract more work from people.

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