Fostering obsessive workplace behaviours causes bad outcomes, software dev edition.

I’m reminded of an encounter I had a while ago with some of my husband’s old professional acquaintances. Both male, both white, both older, both now quite senior after being in the tech sector their entire working careers. At one point in the night, the guys started telling stories that were, I think, intended to show how “badass” they were. The stories all went something like this:

“Yeah, I was totally working for Company on Big Project as the sole guy and I was exhausted and was pulling 16 hour shifts. End of project was coming up and I realised we needed Critical But Rarely Used Feature in the product. I’d started writing it but it occurred to be on Night Before Deadline that I’d done it wrong. So I stayed up until dawn rewriting it. No time for testing or anything. Handed it over. Walked away. Two years later I learnt that Company had the Big Meltdown and needed to activate the Critical But Rarely Used Feature. They pressed the button and… bam! Worked like magic.”

These stories always end with an Ain’t I a Stinker? kind of grin, and the open invitation for some kind of cooing over how awesome these dudes are. And meanwhile, I’m dying inside, because what I’m hearing is a bunch of people who coast along on a combination of being lucky and expecting other people to clean up their shitty mistakes.

The problem is, the cleaners aren’t the ones who are getting lauded. The people who are getting lauded are the assholes who can spin incompetence into confidence. The demographic data of people who can do this is not incidental, but the entire tech sector–and many other sectors,1 but I know tech best–is built on it.

Fail upwards, indeed.

  1. Example: I have a friend who used to work as a derivatives trader. When his company was recruiting, the first step in their process was to divide the stack of resumes in half, and throw one pile in the bin without even looking at it, under the “justification” that “we need people who are lucky, not just good”. If you’ve ever wondered how any industry could possibly get to the point where something like the GFC could happen, I’d instruct you to think back to this story. []