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    I found it really interesting that the current hacker culture in the US was curated rather than organically created. It really puts into perspective why the tech industry is so homogeneous today.

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      The now-celebrated hacker culture goes back to MIT, Lisp, and the legendary model railroad club; it was centered around academia, specially, MIT, and the AI Lab. Offshoots and tendrils went back and forth here and there, primarily located in academia. Linkages crept out to hobbyists and the now-legendary homebrew club. At the time where it seems to have crystallized, it seems to have been as much an individualistic hippie thing as much of a nerd thing. Not somewhere you’d expect to have IBM to have a big influence.

      To be honest, I’m not sure how much the then-hacker culture crossed into the IBM PAT and the expectations that were present there. There’s a very old American tradition of othering intellectuals. It’s certain that the ‘geeky guy’ is not unique to computers, and the ‘pencil necked geek’ is a long-standing stereotype. I read a book many years ago - name of which I do not recall - which argued that the trope of a socially awkward person preferring truth, knowledge, etc over social charm in literature dated back to the 1800s.

      So while Fowler might be arguing correctly in the stream of industrial computing and the IBM->Microsoft software developer history, I’d be exceedingly loathe to have a direct transferance to the roots of the old hacker culture. I don’t think the histories and cultural pressures line up very neatly there.


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        My first full time position was at Data General in the Boston area in 1983. A friend joined IBM in upstate New York at the same time. Anecdotally, i can say they seemed like to completely different worlds. Probably the “geek” aspect stronger at IBM, the “free thinking” aspect stronger at DG.

        I didn’t think enough at the time to compare gender, in the way we compared dress codes and other cultural differences. Looking back, my group had a large number of women. Definitely the highest percentage of any place I’ve been.

        The culture at IBM and most places i know of are visibly much more like that DG culture. My sense is though today has more of a “geek” feel to it than that “free thinking” feel at DG in 1983.

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          Would you care to elaborate on that last point? I’m curious what sorts of differences you saw.

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            At the time, IBM was a highly “stratified” culture. Someone’s position in the hierarchy would determine the kind of office and furniture that person would have. There were unwritten but well known “rules of the game” where one’s position meant that person should or should not have dinner at a certain restaurant on Friday evenings, or whether one should or should not reserve a tee time at a certain golf course on a Saturday morning. Of course there were strict dress codes and grooming requirements.

            In contrast, at Data General all the offices were primarily the same. The VP of my group routinely wore shorts and sandals. And so on. Today most software development offices are like DG than the IBM of that time. Even IBM is more like that, visibly.

            What I mean by “free thinking”… while I was at Data General there were very few constraints or expectations on the decisions of software development teams. While IBM development teams had “marching orders”. The last 15+ years seem more dominated by “marching orders” where one is expected to follow norms, even though those norms don’t always strictly come from “up above” in a hierarchical organization.

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              Others might not be aware of the Pulitzer-winning book about Data General’s culture. :) It really captured a lot of this very well, as well as giving a strong sense of what it means to have passion for engineering.

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                It’s a fantastic book. I joined the internal CAD group that developed design and simulation tools for that group not long after the book was published.

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          From the article:

          by 1962 an estimated 80% of all business used some form of aptitude test when hiring programmers

          700 programmers were employed by SDC, which was about three-fifths of the available programmers in the US at the time

          I think these stats alone make it clear that type of person who entered into the tech industry back then was curated. The culture of this homogeneous group of people could have certainly have grown to be about free thinking which turned into the hacker culture we have today, but in no way does this mean that the gender and personality makeup was organically created. The type of person who went into tech did so because the entire tech industry said they should.

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        Important issues are raised in this article and the references it introduces to us. Unfortunately, most of software companies are dealing with the issue retroactively and without any clear strategy. This is not just a hiring process issue or malfunction though. As long as our society as a whole, hasn’t got the right conscience about the natural of such issues (eg. racism, sexism, classism), we won’t find solutions to these problems. Instead we will continue trying to right the wrongs by treating the symptoms with injections of political correctness on a regular basis.

        Thanks for bringing my attention to this article, OP. Really eye-opening indeed.


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          It would be fascinating to do a general population survey and work on predicting programmer’s aptitude. Particularly one surveying global population (vs. the population of American Psych 101 students needing to take tests for credit, a disturbingly overstudied class of individuals). Last article I read linked aptitude in algebra as the only genuine predictor of programming aptitude.

          To be honest, I’ve always fit the stereotype disturbingly well, and due to a rather unusual upbringing, I didn’t have a lot of the usual stereotypes injected into me. So it’s something I’ve considered over the years: nature… or nurture…. Reading parenting books that are based on 1950-present studies and twin comparisons suggests that, contra my personal inclinations, many things are rather more nature than nurture. So perhaps I should blame my parents for my genetics. :-}

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            I really think being a good programmer is a matter of spending the hours to get good at it. The types of developers we have in the US are very different from developers and “hacker culture” in other countries. In some places like eastern europe and south asia 55% of tech workers are women.

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              In some places like eastern europe and south asia 55% of tech workers are women.

              I worked for the same company in London and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong office had a lot higher percentage of female developers than in London. There were some leavers and joiners, but I’m pretty sure that for the year I was there my team never had more men than women.

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                Hong Kong is East Asia. South Asia includes places like Indonesia, the Philippians and India. It is interesting to know though that even there more women were working in developmental. A lot of people in the US like to say that there aren’t any women or minorities in tech because they “just aren’t interested” but I think it is very clear that there is a culture in the US that, if not excluding of these groups, does not invite them to participate.