1. 30
  1. 24

    My parents showed me an op-ed in the Washington Post about how some ubermensch (er, entrepreneur) was proud of not hiring CS grads, and wondered what it was about. I touched on the anti-intellectualism and ageism of tech, and my dad immediately replies, “that’s just modern business culture.” I didn’t prime him or anything. This is a bit shocking to hear, because he’s pretty conservative, and it’s rare to hear him criticize these sorts of things.

    Modern business culture needs to die.

    1. 17

      Most intelligent conservatives are pretty anti-corporate and not against social justice (the right wing is a separate issue, and the religious nuts another one) as an ideal. They just distrust governmental programs as a way of attaining it, and tend to exaggerate the (non-negligible, but not so severe as to invalidate them in my view) failures of leftist social and economic policies in the 1940s-70s. I disagree with them– I think corporate threats to social justice and individual freedom are much greater than governmental threats– but I see where they’re coming from, and I make an effort to understand their arguments because I think that it’s obvious that neither classical ideology (socialism, market capitalism) has all the answers.

      Corporate capitalism is, for the masses, the worst of two systems between socialism and capitalism, and the best of both systems for a well-connected elite that is more of a social elite than an economic one (they’re rich because of their status and connections, not the reverse). Corporate workers get the downsides of socialism– having to obey the rules of a command economy– as well as of market capitalism– being laid off the minute they aren’t useful. Meanwhile, the well-connected get protected from failure by their network (upside of socialism) and enormous compensation when things go well for them (the upside of capitalism). It’s a deliberately rigged game, it’s neither left-wing nor right-wing (although people on both sides attribute it to the other). Both “sides” in this left/right Democrats vs. Republicans farce are full of crooks.

      I used to think that conservatives were being ridiculous (like Glenn Beck) when they complained of “the liberal elite”, but it makes a certain amount of sense. The corporate elite is, above all, self-interested and authoritarian. Its economic policies tend slightly to the right, but it’s mostly centrist and pragmatist and would appear to be left-wing, pro-“Big Government”, and anti-market (see: “too big to fail” and the corporate welfare of 2008) from a conservative perspective.

      As for modern business culture, I think that the anti-intellectualism is often worse in software, and the ageism definitely is. In MBA culture, you’re probably not in the running to enter CEO positions after 60 (although, if you do well, you can keep a CEO position, much later) and your earning potential probably peaks around 55, but the 60+ are still eligible for part-time advisor positions that, on a per-day basis, don’t pay so badly. (Compare this to software, where people are considered “too old” for many jobs by 30.) Software has taken the mild anti-intellectualism and ageism of the mainstream business culture and amped it up to 11. I think that this has a lot to do with the fact that most VCs are people who failed out of MBA culture: they couldn’t get hedge fund jobs or real private equity, and were sent West to manage nerds.

      1. 16

        This is fairly off-topic, but my experience as an ex-conservative is that there are many conservatives who think of themselves as socially neutral, because they don’t understand the social effects of their fiscal policies.

        I mean, I don’t give everyone professing such views the credit of genuine ignorance, but I think the feigned-ignorance position has proven highly effective strategically, and certainly there are those who believe it. (I was so naive…)

        Anyway, I agree with most of your analysis, I just wanted to recontextualize that part.

    2. 18

      sadly, there has been no political outcry from the completely unorganized IT developer industry, nor has there been any political will to step in and protect the wages of these middle-class workers.

      This is a large part of it. We’re so hostile to “unions” that we overlook the fact that there are a diverse set of collective bargaining arrangements. Professional athletes have unions, and so do actors and Hollywood writers. Does that lead to wage mediocrity and impaired performance? Nope. If anything, it allows people to perform at their highest by protecting careers. Of course, there have been bad unions as well as good, but it’s worth considering that the culture of individualism that tech bosses encourage might not exist for our benefit.

      Silicon Valley’s elite is aware of the union threat, and that’s one of the reasons why they encourage ageism, sexism, and the macho-subordinate culture in general. They want to drive out people who have the organizational skills to unite the software industry. That means kicking out the old. Stack-ranking also works to that effect: if you know that 5% of people are going to get shit-canned, possibly on a phony “performance” case that is preceded by intentional isolation and adverse project assignment of “the problem” and involves no severance, then people are going to be scared of speaking up for workers' rights, knowing that it’s a fast track to getting yourself “perfed”.

      More generally, there’s this commodity programmer culture. Instead of hiring a few people who can build software, companies hire giant teams of 50 mediocre developers with the intention that the 3 who happen to actually be good at it (either because they’re new to the industry and haven’t figured out what they’re worth yet, or because they made career mistakes and ended up in the bargain bin) will carry the other 47. This fails in the long term, but it inflates headcount and that’s what a lot of these startups are going for: acquisitions. The enterprise isn’t always better, because you have a lot of middle managers who measure themselves according to the number of people reporting to them, and not what they actually got done.

      If one takes a long-term perspective and cares about the health of the code and the organization, then good programmers are worth much, much higher salaries than what they command now. Unfortunately, very few companies and managers think long-term anymore. I can’t get on a high horse about the job-hopping economy when I’ve moved around a lot, but I do think that the negative effects are starting to make themselves known. It used to take decades before a company turned into a shell of its former self, and now that seems to happen within less than 10 years (see: Google).

      So long as this industry is willing to run itself on the efforts of mediocre, commodity programmers, we will see salary stagnation. I would love to see the commodity-programmer approach (along with its associated props like open-plan offices and “Agile”/Scrum micromanagement) fail in a public way and die forever, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin when it comes to forecasting whether it’ll actually happen.

      1. 10

        I personally think people need to equate themselves to the difference between unions and guilds because guilds are often better aligned with what people want from such an organization (I’m looking at you, writer’s guild). They still get the bad rap that unions do, but not usually from their own members. Usually.

        1. 4

          Fair point. Also, one thing worth keeping in mind about unions is that the workers can vote the union out or replace it with another one. Maybe it doesn’t happen often enough, for the same reason that lousy politicians stay in office, but the option is at least there in theory.

          1. 3

            Another option is to keep the union itself, but vote out the leadership. There are typically regular elections, and sometimes they’re contested by rival slates of candidates. Doesn’t happen as often as it could, but more often than, say, a shareholder vote will actually succeed in changing the board of directors of a company, so at least the union side of the table is somewhat more democratic than the management side of the table. One recent one I can think of is that Actors' Equity had a contested leadership election a few months ago, with each candidate having a fairly well developed platform representing meaningful disagreements over the positions the union should take (so it wasn’t just a personality contest).

            There’s also an activist group within the labor movement trying to improve the functioning of internal union democracy, Association for Union Democracy. It tends to be supported more by people on the left, in part because the incumbent leadership at a lot of unions is perceived as very establishment, and too in bed with politicians and even corporate management (a sort of de facto company unionism). Finally, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, one of the few significant unions not part of the AFL-CIO, is sometimes held up as an example of a very democratically organized union.

            1. 2

              I agree it exists in theory, and maybe the interesting question there is why it isn’t done more often. I think there’s plenty of examples of times it would have been in the workers' best interests.

          2. 3

            Silicon Valley’s elite is aware of the union threat, and that’s one of the reasons why they encourage ageism, sexism, and the macho-subordinate culture in general.

            Is this hyperbole, or do you really believe this?

            1. 12

              I said “one of the reasons”, not “the main reason”. I think the main reason is simple greed.

              In general, they’re against diversity because it’s easier to take advantage of the quixotic, spoiled, middle-class white males (like me, some years ago) who haven’t had to learn self-preservation, than it is to take advantage of anyone else, except for those on H1-B visas. Throwing out the people who’ve learned that the game is rigged, lest they “poison” the next crop of incoming meat, is intentional.

              The hostile culture is deliberate, but I don’t think you need to invoke union fear to explain why Silicon Valley’s elite would want it to exist. That said, Silicon Valley’s elite is also terrified of unions, so the linkage isn’t unreasonable.

              1. 1

                I could be misreading entirely, but I don’t see SV’s elite as that terrified of unions, at least not of software developer’s unions, in part because engineers have typically been so union-averse that getting a union off the ground would be difficult. At least in the U.S., engineers tend not to be unionized even when they work at unionized companies in heavily unionized industries. At a typical refinery, for example, the plant operators have a union, the truckers have a union, the welders have a union, etc., but the petroleum engineers and chemical engineers are grouped on the management side of the management/worker split, and not unionized. I suspect part of why it’s hard to unionize engineers is that many self-identify that way too, as a high-end corporate professional who doesn’t need these “working-class” organizations.

                1. 1

                  I suspect part of why it’s hard to unionize engineers is that many self-identify that way too, as a high-end corporate professional who doesn’t need these “working-class” organizations.

                  It’s probably convenient to envision those who oppose unions as self righteous snobs only out to “get theirs”, but here are some more charitable interpretations:

                  1. Some might perceive unions as causing more problems than they solve, even for “working-class” organizations. Some might even have personal experience through having worked for a union previously or who have people close to them that must suffer at the hands of a union.
                  2. Some might perceive unions as unethical depending on the laws that govern their interaction with employers.
                  1. 1

                    Sure, some people oppose unions for different reasons. I’m looking for reasons why interest in unionization seems to be lower among engineers than welders or plant operators, though. The latter also typically have personal experience with a union, and hold opinions on ethics, but overall are much more likely to support one than engineers are. Class seems to be the most likely explanation of the difference.

                    1. 1

                      I don’t see any reason why one should believe that engineers oppose unions more strongly than welders.

                      1. 1

                        Unionization rates are very low among engineers, even in otherwise quite unionized industries, which is the anomaly I’m interested in an explanation for. Why do plant operators consistently vote for unionization, while engineers don’t, at the very same plants? One explanation is that engineers don’t feel like they need a union to the same extent, due to their different class position. (Alternately, do labor laws make it harder for engineers to unionize somehow, e.g. by classifying them as management?)

                        1. 1

                          I don’t accept your conclusions as following from your observations. If plant operators unionized several decades ago—perhaps when the employer and culture landscapes were very different—then there could very well be a strong bias in favor of continuing that unionization irrespective of anything else.

                          Voting in favor of something that already exists and voting in favor of something that doesn’t exist are two different animals. Notably, both groups are voting to continue with the status quo, which could be explained by a variety of factors that don’t have anything to do with class.

          3. 6

            This certainly has not been my experience. I was on an H1-b when I started working in tech 10 years ago and I was paid reasonably well. And I’m paid much more now than I was then.

            The cost of living (i.e. housing) really is insane in the SF Bay Area though, so I’m glad I don’t live there any more.