Sarah Adams

@sadams.codes

Tech Narcissism

Why do techies in power think they know so much?

This guy has set me off. So today I want to talk to you about my musings around Tech Narcissism.

We all want to believe we got where we are purely based on “merit” — the idea that we really did earn our position, fair and square, by being the best candidate. For one, this is how we as engineers are taught to reason about problems — logically — and this is an easy, logical conclusion.

But deep down I think we all know, in part, we love to think we got to where we are solely based on “merit” because it means we are more brilliant, more noteworthy, and more glorious.

So, we need to straighten out a few things:

None of us got to where we are today because of our “merit”.

All of us got here riding on a great deal of chance.

I’m gonna try to ‘prove’ this to you.

The way in which individual techies rise to power is entirely circumstantial.

All techies in power are in power by luck. Not only luck, of course; but without luck, they would have no power.

I’m just going to enumerate a bunch of biases off the top of my head that could get in the way of securing a job position to help create a visual. Arguably, there are infinite nodes of ‘chance’ in a particular decision tree for a particular hire, but anyway..

First of all, there are a great deal of factors that may affect the survival of a tech company as a whole — from start-up to tech giant. I won’t dive into these. But let’s keep in mind the volatility of our industry and how it affects who has power (a lot more chance).

Each tech hire and role change is opportunistic. We have an opening, we look at the candidate pool available and pick the ‘best one’. This already introduces a great deal of happenstance into our quest to find the ‘best candidate’.

There is a ‘right place in the right time’ bias for each position you take — the right place physically, the right place in your life, and all the moments leading up to you being present and ready for this job (the butterfly effect).

The interview itself is wrought with bias and chance — the particular interviewers’ biases, your biases and how they manifest in the interview, environmental factors, visa application results, sleep the night before, health issues.

Then there’s the amply obvious gender, racial, disability, sexuality-based discrimination — degree depending on your interviewer, your boss, your peers, and your own privilege (all chance).

Then, there’s whether or not you receive a tech interview question that is ‘up your alley’, how good your are at the interviewer’s particular style of question.

See also Harvard Busniess Review’s ‘How to Take the Bias out of Interviews’, https://hbr.org/2016/04/how-to-take-the-bias-out-of-interviews, which explains the very low correlation between tech interview score and job performance.

So anyway, there is a good amount of chance that goes into us landing each tech job, landing each promotion, as well as our product/company/sector’s success.

Now let’s think about all the people in power at your company, and how much of the above applies to them as well. Or, if you yourself have any kind of leadership role, please use yourself as an example in these musings.

We are in power due to chance.

Perhaps, for a visual, we can think about the amount of chance that’s gone into our career position like:

(hire chance factors)^(number of job hops) * (volatility of our industry)

The hire chance factors are arguably infinite, as I said. But for reasoning’s sake, let’s say they are finite and equally weighted, even perhaps just my list above. You can imagine, as your career has progressed, that much of it was thanks to chance.

If we can understand that all techies with power have it thanks to a great deal of luck, we can also understand that all tech leaders are surrounded by their equals and superiors, but with much smaller titles, who chance just did not treat as well.

Please try to accept this before reading on.

Ignorance + Power

Software Engineers are the worst at making decisions. Engineers must fully understand a concept or new idea in order to move forward with it.

Think about the ramifications of that for one second.

How many ideas, great ideas, do you think are shot down every day? Every hour? Either because the employee couldn’t explain an idea in a way the leader could understand, or because the leader is incapable of understanding the power of the idea in the given moment.

Techies also still believe wholeheartedly in “merit”, the idea that we really did earn our position, fair and square, by being the best candidate.

Our hook on “merit” shuts down our empathy and thoughtfulness, and blinds us to it. We become so entrenched in our personal glory, in our wunderkind-ness, our unicornness, that we forget ourselves. We forget that “life is not fair”, because chance has often treated us “fairly”.

So, when we put this stubborn self-righteousness in a leader alongside an inability to see past what they themselves can understand, what do we get?

Jack Dorsey: CEO, Twitter

We get closed-minded leaders who think they are being open-minded.

We get ignorant CEOs who think they know what’s best for the public.

We get narcissistic project leads who think they know what’s best for a user they’ve never met.

So here is my concluding ask:

If you are in tech, you are in power. If you are in power, know that you are not in power because you are the smartest. You are not in power because you are the most knowledgeable. You are not in power because you are the best.

You are in power largely due to circumstance.

Please try to internalize this and keep it with you as you make your daily decisions.

Try to see beyond “logic” and “reason” and endorse ideas that you yourself do not fully understand because they were proposed by your employees, people you trust.

Stay humble. ❤ With love, Sarah

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