Monday, August 7, 2017

Discriminate against me, please!

I have all the advantages - I'm a healthy able straight young-to-middle-aged white man from an educated 1st world background, etc.

I strongly support "affirmative action" including quota systems to address workplace employment balance and diversity. It's important for all of us, including the highly advantaged and privileged. The recent Google memo kerfuffle has prompted me to explain why I would support things that are seemingly contrary to my own interests. But before you read further, please read this brilliant rebuttal of the above memo. (Tolerance is not a moral precept discusses the philosophy in more depth).

Why don't you want to come first?

There are ... so many reasons.

For one thing, I have enough. I'm not struggling. I have no reason to grasp for more. I know some people may simply not understand this one, but it's important to me.

I have friends and associates who aren't so lucky, for any number of reasons. The country of their birth. The country of their present residence. Their accent, the colour of their skin. Their sex, their gender. A disability, whether from birth or more recent. Their childhood opportunities. Whatever it is, they just don't get an equal start with me in hiring processes, etc, and I don't think that's a good thing for our society, or people I care about. Most are just as capable as I am and many are more so, so why should they be marginalised? If they do have limitations in what they can do for whatever reason, does that mean they should be wholly disregarded? I think not.

So, lets talk about merit. You say you hire based on merit, and you want your colleagues to be selected and promoted based on merit.


What's merit?

If you're from an IT background, you're probably thinking about coding and software development. But what is that, anyway? Banging out a clever algorithm in an hour that nobody else can understand or maintain? No? You like readable, commented code with variable names other than 'x'? OK. So teamwork, communication, and documentation are important to you, even if you don't think of them that way. Your definition of merit is not pure coding skill.

Do you like working with people who deliver when they say they will, and can make accurate predictions of when things will be done? Do you like it when the sales team think to ask you before promising a feature to a customer? Do you like having project managers who have strong communication and organisation skills and recognise that there's life outside work too? Well, we're still widening your definition of merit.

Do you like technical arguments to be based on who shouts loudest in a meeting and uses the most capitals in their emails? Who can write the longest rants (ahem, I'm, er, not guilty of that one AT ALL...)? Or ... would you actually prefer to civilly discuss the merits of a topic with people mature enough to consider others' points of view and admit it when they're wrong? Bing! Your definition of merit just widened to encompass communication skills and emotional maturity/emotional intelligence.

Want to work with people who can interpret customer-gibberish for you into something you can act on? Who can help stop the project's requirements growing faster than you can lay down code? Yep, turns out that's a skill too.

And so on it goes.

Unfortunately, "merit based" hiring and promotion often disregards most of this and focuses on a narrow subset of coding, not even software engineering let alone management and teamwork. So you get toxic workplaces like Uber and Github, which struggle to retain talent as they grow and start experiencing increasingly serious problems managing internal change, co-ordinating work, etc. This starts to cost everyone, not just the people directly impacted by the cultural problems.

I see this in open source communities too. The Linux Kernel community has had a long, contentious history with its mailing list discussion tone and culture, and has slowly come to recognise that maybe seeing who slings the best insults is not the best way to resolve an argument.

Open source projects, mailing lists, and conferences are adopting codes of conduct. Some argue that these state the obvious, yet there's no shortage of people for whom "be a civil human being" is apparently far from obvious. Well, it's similar with hiring and employment. If you want to work with decent people, you have to select for a broader set of skills and abilities than "cracks out an amazing bubblesort on a whiteboard".

Enjoying work

Work is a big part of my life, as I spend a lot of time doing it. I'd like it to be enjoyable, or at least not actively unpleasant. This benefits greatly from most of the above characteristics. Good management needs communication and organisation skills, empathy, and lots more. I don't want the most brilliant coder available as my manager, thanks, though of course some understanding or ability to learn is important. (Brilliant developers are often wasted in management, and not necessarily going to be good at it anyway, which is why our industry has some real issues with its idea of career progression).

I also like a variety of people with a variety of experiences around me. It helps keep my life interesting and keeps me learning. So "diversity" directly serves my self-interest there too.

I don't need more stress in my work. More arguments. I really like working with people who can help provide a better workplace environment.

Equality doesn't mean being the same

The argument for meritocracy often stems from the idea that you, too, could be as meritous as the supporter if only you worked as hard and tried as hard. If you are not as good, it is because you did not try, so it's your choice and you simply experience the natural consequences of that choice.

The problem is that it's complete nonsense. It stems from the false assumption that everybody has an equal start in life and no knocks along the way through no fault of their own. This belief is trivially demolished. If your mum drank heavily while she was pregnant with you, is the foetal alcohol syndrome you were born with your fault? What if she took a medication that unknown to anyone at the time caused developmental problems? What if one parent was severely injured in a workplace accident shortly before you were born and was unable to get further work so you grew up with little money and had less access to books and extra educational opportunities? If someone's parents are themselves not educated and are working two jobs to pay their basic living expenses, so they don't have time to read to the kids and teach them, are those kids getting an equal start with ones who have multiple available and engaged educators? If you're told you can't study maths because "girls don't do maths" is it reasonable to say that you're not as good at maths because you're a girl? Or is it that you were denied opportunities by a social structure that worked against you? The list goes on...

So... do you believe that you were just born to be better for a narrow definition of "better" that corresponds with things like higher pay and greater employment opportunities in our society? Do you just deserve it by right of birth and upbringing? Or do you maybe think everyone deserves a fair chance, even if that involves them getting more help than you do, more support than you do, etc? I don't think my friends should have to work 2x as hard as me to get half the pay and should have to constantly prove their basic worth for things people just assume I can do. Do you?

Affirmative action and quotas

If we accept that the common tech-company definition of merit is myopic and rather harmful, then how do we change it? There's a strong, entrenched culture supporting it, and culture takes a long time to change.

We can introduce people with broader experiences into the company and get them involved in decision making including hiring and promotion. But where do we find them? We can't promote from within, because we long ago drove out the people we wanted with our abusive, toxic culture.

We have to hire them from "outside", bumping them past our usual hiring processes and the roadblocks they place directly in the path of hiring the people we need. That is affirmative action. One such method is hiring quotas. They can be directly counterproductive to a company's performance (in terms of product dev rates, delivery timelines, etc) in the short term. But that's actually OK, because in the long term they'll hopefully help stop us becoming an Uber and imploding in ball of quitting employees and fleeing customers.

Cost and performance

Employee retention is money saved in formal induction/training costs and in the wages paid while bringing people up to speed. It's money saved in the time of the other staff who're taking time out to informally train them as they work, too. You can also save money avoiding legal disputes or extended internal resolution processes with HR. You save money by improving employee happiness and reducing stress, so you lower your sick-rates and improve productivity. So addressing toxic workplace culture can have a real benefit to your ability to hire and retain people, which can improve company performance.

You can also gain competitive advantage and access new pools of skilled candidates for difficult to fill positions by disregarding invalid criteria, implicit or explicit, from your selection processes. Candidate pools like "women". Let's pretend that 5% of all people in the world who could fill your SuperCoderSupreme job are women. Competition for candidates is fierce in your industry. Your competitors are completely ignoring them because they're women.... do you want to make the same mistake?

Sadly, you'll probably also land up paying them less because they're not being bidded-up by your competitors as they contest for candidates. But you could even try matching their salaries and providing a civil, harrassment-free workplace culture. Crazy, I know, it's like women are people too. (</s<>> for the tone deaf).

What about your wife/daughter/...

I find this trope annoying. "What if you had a daughter this happened to" etc. Don't you care about anyone you don't have a close family relationship with? But if it reaches people nothing else will, it's a tool I'll resort to. Do you want your close family member to have different opportunities just because of gender/sexuality/appearance/etc? Do you love them less? Do you think they are less capable? Why, then, would you support a system that actively pushes them down and restricts what they can do?


When discussing this with a friend, he related his partner's experience of being regularly asked at workshops for kids at wealthy schools: "why are poor people so dirty?"

She'd ask how many taps they had in their household, and for how many people? The usual answer would be four, six, etc. So she'd point out that people in poor areas are lucky to have one cold tap for 50 people, and it's often a long walk away. It's not that they're lazy or don't want to be clean, it's that they cannot afford the time and effort required to be clean and do not have access to the basic resources required.

The wealthy kids just didn't know. Never thought about it. They only saw the results.

Missing out on some of your special perks or feeling like you're not getting the best possible deal ... does it really matter that much? Yes, experience is relative, and hard for you is still hard, even if others' lives are much harder, so I'm not playing the "others have it worse" card here. Rather, consider ... things that for you are inconveniences and irritations can be for others around you matters of basic personal safety and wellbeing. Someone complaining about harassment probably isn't just "too sensitive" - there's just way more going on than you see from your perspective.

So please discriminate in favour of others

Discrimination is really important. It's not bad. Discrimination is how we hire. Hiring is discriminating between candidates, that's why we don't use a random numbers generator.

The problem is unfair discrimination. And to me it's clear that weighing your choices in favour of others, giving them advantage at the cost of a disadvantage to me, just offsets imbalances elsewhere in society. It's the right thing to do, and it even benefits me in the long run. It's fair discrimination.

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