Meritocracy is the software engineer’s Prince Charming (and why that’s harmful)

Meritocracy is the software engineer’s Prince Charming (and why that’s harmful).

One of the more harmful ideas peddled to women by romance novels and the older Disney movies is the concept of “Prince Charming”, the man who finds a young girl, sweeps her off her feet, and takes care of her for the rest of her days. It’s not a healthy concept, insofar as it encourages passivity as well as perfectionism in mates. But it also encourages women to make excuses for bad (and often abusive) men. Because the archetype is so unreasonable, men who can make themselves seem to fulfill it are the manipulative and sometimes abusive ones, not genuine good (but flawed) men. I’d argue that software engineers have a similar Prince Charming.

It might begin as a search for “a mentor”. Savvy software engineers take knowledge and favor from multiple people, but every Wall Street or Silicon Valley movie showcases a mentor/protege relationship as the path to success. Meet this magical person, and he’ll take care of your career from there on out. That doesn’t exist for most people, either, and most software engineers learn that around age 25. Their counterreaction is to develop a bizarre self-reliance in which they start refusing help, wanting to work alone, and denigrating those who advance their careers based on “politics” or “connections”. Having too much dignity to wait for a magical mentor to rescue them from mediocrity, they insist on their new Prince Charming, an interpersonal force that will recognize and elevate talent: meritocracy.

The problem with meritocracy is that every organization claims to be one, yet almost all organizations are deeply political. Software engineers are not a subtle breed, so I must imagine that they imagine most non-meritocracies perceive themselves as such, and admit so much, and that’s clearly not true. Oil companies, banks, startups and dysfunctional academic bureaucracies all have this in common: they believe in their own meritocracy. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be self-consistent and stable. “We’re a meritocracy” means nothing. And what is “merit”? Organizations make promotion decisions not to recognize some abstract principle of “merit”, but on what is perceived to be in the short-term, narrow interest of the organization. It’s not what software engineers mean when they use the termmerit, but one could argue that political acumen is organizational merit. The people who are promoted in and end up dominating organizations are… those most able to convince organizations to promote them, whether through delivering objective value or by trickery and intimidation. It’s a self-referential, Darwinian sense of “merit” akin to “fitness”. Darwinian fitness is neither a matter of good, bad, or anything other than the ability to self-replicate.

Of course, I know what software engineers mean when they say they want to live in a “meritocracy”. They want important decisions that affect their working lives to be made by the right people. The problem is that the ability to make good executive decisions is almost impossible to measure, reliably, especially on a timeframe that businesses would consider acceptable. Political machinations can happen, on the other hand, in split seconds. Saying something stupid in a meeting can end someone’s career, even if that person is, in general, a good decision-maker. It takes too long to select leaders based on the quality of their decisions, so organizations develop political side games that end up consuming more energy, time and attention (especially at high levels) than the actual work or purpose of the organization. Generally, this side game takes on the feeling of a war of attrition. Nonsensical pressures and busywork are added until people embarrass themselves out of contention, or their health fails, or they leave to pursue better options, leaving one person standing. Software isn’t different from that, with the long hours and posturing machismo and general disregard for health.

By believing in meritocracy, software engineers trick themselves into making excuses for awful companies and bad bosses that hurt their careers, destroy their confidence, and unapologetically exploit them. When they enter organizations, they tend (at least, when young) to want to believe in the self-professed “meritocracy”, and it’s hard to let such an idea go even in the face of adverse evidence. When these engineers are betrayed, it’s practically an ambush.

Older, savvier engineers know that few workplaces are meritocracies. In general, the claim of “meritocracy” is nothing more than a referendum on the leadership of the company. For this reason, it’s only in the midst of an open morale crisis (in which firing the obviously unhappy people isn’t viable because almost everyone is obviously unhappy) that one can admit to the organization’s non-meritocracy.

The expensiveness of it all

Software engineers’ belief in meritocracy costs them money and career advancement. By conflating their organizational position (low, usually) with personal merit, their confidence falls to zero. Computer programming, if marketed properly, ought to be “the golden skill” that allows a person unlimited mobility within industry. However, we’ve allowed the businessmen who’ve colonized us to siloize us with terms like DBA, operations, data scientist, etc., and use those to deny opportunities, e.g. “you can’t take on that project, you’re not a real NLP programmer”. As a class, we’ve let these assholes whittle our confidence down to such a low level that our professional aura is one either of clueless youth or depressive resignation. When they beat us down, we tend to blame ourselves.

Our belief in meritocracy hurts us in another way, in that we justify things being unduly hard on us. We hate the idea of political promotion. Perhaps, on first principles, we should. What this means is that engineers are promoted “confirmationally” rather than “aspirationally”. In HR-speak, confirmational promotion means that they’re given formal recognition (and the organizational permission to operate at the level they have been) once they’re already working at the level signified by the title. Aspirational promotion means that people are promoted based on potential, but this opens the door for a host of clearlypolitical promotions. On paper, confirmational promotion is superior, if infuriatingly slow. (It requires people to blow off their assigned duties and to take unrequested risks.) Engineers, of course, prefer confirmational regimes. And what’s wrong with that?

Engineers don’t like to negotiate, they don’t like politics, and they’re against favoritism. Most have a proud self-reliance that would leave them uncomfortable even if personally favored. They’re also, in general, irreverent toward title as long as they believe they’re fairly paid. To them, confirmational promotion is right. The problem? Everyone but engineers is promoted aspirationally. Engineers need long, completed, successful projects to get bumped to the next level. What, pray tell, does it take to become VP of Product or Senior Manager as opposed to Manager, or to rise on just about any of the nontechnical tracks, in most tech companies? Absolutely nothing. There is no fucking magic there. You have to convince someone to “see something” in you. That is, you have to play politics.

To the engineer’s chagrin, playing politics comes easily for most ambitious people. It sure isn’t rocket science. Getting over one’s own moral objections is, for most people, the hardest part. The result of this is that nontechnical tracks, including management tracks that often cross over engineers, are characterized by easy aspirational promotion driven by favoritism and politics. The “meritocratic” engineering track is clearly much more difficult. There are people over 35, with IQs over 140, who haven’t made “senior engineer”, for fuck’s sake. (At a “mere” 125 IQ, you’re smarter than 97% of the nontechnical VPs at most tech companies.) It’s characterized by confirmational promotion, instead. And this is a point of pride for software engineers: it’s really hard to climb the ladder, because one is competing with the smartest people in the organization, and because while favoritism exists, political promotions are much rarer on the engineering track than on non-technical tracks (largely because promotions in general are rarer).

This is something that software engineers don’t really get. What do job titles actually mean in organizations? Companies will say that “Director” means one thing and “VP” means another, with some jargon about “the big picture” and a person’s responsibilities within the organization. The truth is that they mean very little, other than serving as political tokens that prove the person was able to get them. “Director” means, “he was able to negotiate a salary between $X and $Y from HR”. Not more.

Where it leads

If you ask an engineer whether he thinks he’s ready to be VP of Engineering or CTO, you’ll get a half-hearted, self-deprecating answer. “You know, I might be ready to lead a small team, but I’m not sure I’m at the VP/Eng level yet.” Cluelessly, he believes that “the VP/Eng level” exists objectively rather than politically. On the other hand, if you ask a nontech the same question, he’ll take it without hesitation. Even if he’s terrible at the job, he gets a generous severance (he’s a VP) and will fail up into a better job. The relevant concept here is the effort thermocline, or the level in an organization where jobs stop being harder with increasing rank, but become easier (although, more political). It can be politically difficult to get a job above the effort thermocline, but it’s ridiculously easy to keep it. At that point, one has power and credibility within the organization sufficient that one cannot, personally, fail due to a lack of effort.

Nontechs, except for clueless people in their 20s who haven’t figured out what they want to do, go into work with one purpose: to get promoted beyond the effort thermocline. That’s not to say that they’re all unambitious or lazy. They’re just realistic about how the game works. Even if you want to work hard, you don’t want hard work to be expected of you. If you’re an SVP and you show up for work every day and put in an honest effort, you get credit for it. If you’re a worker bee, you get nothing for your 8-or-more hours per day. It’s just what you’re expected to do.

Above the effort thermocline, promotion is political, and people stop pretending otherwise. When you get “into the club”, you’re permitted to speak frankly (and hear frank speech) about how the organization actually works. The issue with the engineer’s mind is that it clings to a belief in right and wrong. It’s moralistic. It struggles to accept what people really are. Engineers don’t want to contend with the basic fact of most organizations, which is that they’re politically corrupt and dysfunctional, because most people are lazy, greedy, and weak. I’d likewise argue that this is connected to the low levels of acquired social skills in people like software engineers. It’s not a neurological disability for most. They never learn to read cues beyond a subconscious and juvenile level, because they hate what they see, which is that humans are mostly defective and that many are horrible.

Engineers don’t like the concept of the effort thermocline, or of political promotion in general. As much as they can, they’d refuse to have it within their ranks. I’d tend to side with the engineers. Who wouldn’t, from first principles, prefer a meritocracy over a political rat’s nest? The business responds by turning off political promotions for most engineers– while the rest of the organization continues to get them. The result is that, while they start off well in terms of pay and occupational dignity, engineers are being surpassed by the nontechs (who gleefully accept political promotions and feel none the worse for it) by age30 and, by 40, are undervalued and way underpaid relative to their worth to their companies.

Engineering tracks in organizations are notoriously title-deflating, in comparison to the rest of the business world. Most software engineers would be appalled by how little talent and work ethic are required to become a non-technical VP at even the most esteemed tech companies. Many of these people are lazy (11-to-3 with 90-minute lunches) and just plain dumb. And by dumb, I don’t mean programmer dumb (understands the theory behind neural networks, but has never put one in production) but actual shame-to-the-family, village-idiot stupid. You know how towns in the Midwest used to bus their “defectives” to San Francisco in the mid-20th century? Well, so does the corporate world, and they end up as nontechs and upper management in tech companies.

Conclusion?

Meritocracy is the Prince Charming of the software engineer. It doesn’t exist. It never has, and it never will. Some have asked me to comment on recent HR issues occurring at open-allocation technology companies. The only thing I can say is that, yes, open-allocation companies have serious political issues; but closed-allocation companies have those same issues and more. Open allocation is strictly superior, but not a panacea. When there are people, there is politics. The best an organization can do is to be fair and open about what is going on, and hope to achieve eventual consistency.

Every organization defines itself as a meritocracy, and most engineers (at first, until they are disillusioned with a company) will tend to believe it. They aren’t stupid, so they don’t believe their companies to be perfect in that regard, but they (cluelessly) tend to believe that meritocracy is a core value of the leadership. Almost never is that the case. “We’re a meritocracy” is code for, “don’t question promotions around here”.

The Prince Charming delusion of meritocracy is dangerous because it leads people to make excuses for bad actors. Every company has to lay off or fire people, and frequently these choices are made with imperfect information and under time pressure (one large layoff isless damaging to morale than several small, measured, layoffs) so often the wrong peopleare let go. A self-aware organization understands this and lets them go gracefully: with severance, outplacement assistance, and positive reference. A delusional “meritocracy” has to cook the books, create psychotic policies that impede internal mobility for everyone, and generate useless process in order to build phony performance cases. In practice, just as many people are let go as in established (and less delusional companies) but their reputations have to be demolished first, with bad project assignments and hilariously disingenuous “performance improvement plans“. Personally, I’d rather see the honest, times-are-tough, layoff than the tech company’s dishonest “low performer initiatives”, much less the permanent (and destructive) rolling layoff of stack ranking.

The biggest casualty, however, of the typical engineer’s head-in-sand attitude toward political promotion is that they never stop happening to everyone else. Engineers just make themselves ineligible. Engineers want promotion to be confirmational (that is, resulting from demonstrated merit) rather than aspirational (that is, based on potential and, therefore, subjective, personal, and political). The problem with this is that, after 10 to 20 years, most engineers haven’t been able to demonstrate even 20% of what they’re capable of. They kept getting crappy projects, were never allowed to finish anything, were rushed to produce work that broke under strain, and their lack of finished accomplishment (due to political forces often not their fault) left them ineligible for promotion to more senior roles, but too old to even pretend in the junior roles (hence, the age discrimination problem). After that gauntlet of false starts and misery, they’re still answering to nontechnical people and executives who had the benefit of aspirational, political promotion. By refusing to play politics and believing in the false god of meritocracy, they deprived themselves of the full spectrum of causes for advancement. Politics, however, went on regardless of whether they believed in it.

This false meritocracy is very clever when it comes to reinventing itself. Few expect a large company like, say, Alcoa or Exxon-Mobil to be a meritocracy. Engineers have figured out, as a group, that “big companies” become political. The response? Startups! Venture capital! The actual result of this has been to replace well-oiled and stable (if inefficient) corporate non-meritocracies with the mean-spirited and psychotic non-meritocracy of the VC-funded ecosystem and the feudalistic reputation economy that the leading investors, through collusion, self-dealing, and note-sharing, have created. The cheerleading of intellectually charismatic figures like Paul Graham and Marc Andreessen has managed to create a sense of meritocracy in that world, but belief in those idols also seems to be waning, and I’m proud to say that I contributed to that loss of faith.

If meritocracy is impossible, what should we do? As individuals, we need to learn to fight for ourselves. It’s not undignified or desperate or “pushy” to look out for our own interests. It’s what everyone else is doing, and we should get on board. As a collective, we need to have honest introspection on what we value and how best to achieve it. Perfect meritocracy within any organization is impossible. It is good to strive for that, but bad to believe it has been achieved anywhere. Eventual consistency and technical excellence are achievable, and we should aim for those.

Before we do anything, though, we need to learn how to fight for ourselves. Bringing frank knowledge to the good, in that fight, is what I’ve been striving to do all along.

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