A post about hobbits in engineering

The nature of belonging to a small culture is such that, when a friend of the same native language writes a blog post in English, you respond in English. Then you continue the dialogue in English, regardless of your level of fluency and comfort.

Welcome to digital colonialism. We speak English or we’re marginalized.

I’ve just read Dorin Lazăr’s “I never felt represented in C++ conferences, and that’s OK“. I also watched parts of one of the diversity inclusion panel he references, and he’s right to criticize it.

Reinventing the wheel

I’m not an engineer, but I was this close to becoming one. In school, I was on a hard sciences track, with an emphasis on physics, math and computer programming. And I was, in short, pretty damned good.

I was always encouraged by my family and teachers to pursue a career in science; or rather, it was always assumed that the only possible career I could have was math-related. I was literally unaware that you could do something that didn’t involve math. Physics? Programming? Robotics? I could follow my dreams!

But… I’m not an engineer. I’m a philologist, which nobody saw coming, least of all me. By the end of high school, I was burned out and absolutely convinced I was a failure, so I wanted to fail on my own terms. Let’s put a pin in that.

The humanities have a bad reputation; they’re considered “useless” and “a waste of time” in general, and in my family this was no different. When I gave up computer programming to study languages, I was informed that my grandparents wept in despair over my future.

I can’t blame people for thinking the humanities are useless, because I, too, thought they were. Becoming a philologist felt a bit like indulging a whim. How could it be useful, aside from teaching? And, to be fair, I didn’t realize the value of my humanistic education until after graduation, when I watched engineers discuss social issues, and found their talks naive and superficial.

The humanities help you become a deeper, better thinker, but that’s not immediately quantifiable or recognizable. You don’t feel your level of intelligence changing (and indeed it doesn’t), but one day you realize you can tackle “soft” issues in a subtler, more comprehensive manner than your non-humanist friends.

The humanities offer both an exposure to things that have previously been thought, and the tools to do some thinking of your own. Alas, just like some programmers can’t code a simple foobar if you cut their access to stack overflow, you’ll find humanists unable to think. It’s human nature that, no matter the domain, some people thrive and others lag behind; no domain’s potential is revealed by the worst examples of those who studied it.

But let’s get back to our sheep, as Dorin Lazăr likes saying in his post.

The parts of the panel I watched had little to say, aside from communicating the desire for a friendlier, less conflict-ridden environment to work in, and the desire and need for a nurturing community. All issues mentioned were broad: racism, sexism, transphobia. Solutions, on the other hand, were tailored to those who participated in the panel.

I’ve seen all of this before. The panel does not:

  • inform us about new issues – we were already aware of these topics;
  • inform us about specific issues these people have gone through – they have avoided giving details about their personal experience (understandable);
  • throw a new light on old topics – there is nothing I have heard here that I hadn’t heard before;
  • go into depth about the potential cause of these issues (“white men” is not a cause);
  • offer wide solutions for these issues.

I now know that I can call Gabriel Dos Reis either “Gabby” (not sure about the spelling, sorry), “professor Dos Reis” or “GDR”, which would be great, but this doesn’t tell me much about how I should handle new names in general. What about a Siobhain? Or, if you’re not Romanian, what on Earth are you supposed to do with my name, Chirilă?

Getting names wrong can be offensive, but what do we do so names aren’t gotten wrong? Dos Reis decided to call himself “GDR” and be rid of the issue – that’s fine, for him. But what do you do on a company-wide scale?

Here’s an idea: make greeting cards where you spell them in the international phonetic alphabet. Here’s another idea: create an internal, really basic, who’s who website, where everyone can add a short audio recording of themselves pronouncing their own name, so everyone else can practice pronunciation, if so inclined. Here’s a caveat: get used to people mispronouncing your name, because you’ll never educate the entire world about you.

I admire the fact that software engineers have set out to Make Things Better, and that they realize that things can be improved. But realizing there’s an issue and solving the issue are two very different things. And, watching the panel, it became clear to me that engineers do not have the tools necessary for enacting real change.

They’ve picked up some of the large topics discussed in the humanities today, revolving around identity politics, but not the finer points of discourse. And that’s, well, not surprising. It’s hard to find a very good software engineer. It’s hard to find a very good humanist. Finding both in the same person is going to be a struggle.

But here’s my view on the matter: some things in social life are pretty much like engineering. You can push this way or that, but you work within a set of constraints, and no matter how much you hate those constraints, no matter how deeply you wish that those constraints weren’t there, or were different, you have to work with them.

Yet you have to work with them. In my admittedly limited coding experience, crying and asking my code “WHY won’t you do the things I want, you’re SUPPOSED to” doesn’t fix things. In my wider experience with people, the same holds true.

Who are we? A narrative

Due to personal inclination, as well as by accident, I’ve been following identity discourse on and off for some time now, and I can’t help but notice the deep US-centrism of most of it.

America has its own set of specific issues, but it also has a tendency to navel-gaze to the extreme. It is the Bucharest of the world: it is almost surprised that other places exist and have an unrelated life of their own. I was recently watching a documentary on the history of video games which mentioned The Atari International Asteroids Tournament, which was, in fact, a “nationwide event”.

To me, this is hilarious.

It’s also a good reminder that one is never outside of the world, looking in. Stepping outside your area of comfort to look at things from a different perspective is difficult; but stepping outside of all cultures to view the world in an objective manner is downright impossible. We all live somewhere. We all have experiences that shape us. We don’t exist contextless.

Our context is what we experience directly, as well as what we’re told; it’s our personality, and it’s situation. We’re mixes of all sorts of elements, and culture is definitely a big part of that, because it informs how we react to situations around us.

Dorin says he doesn’t feel represented by the white men in C++ conferences, but that as a teenager he felt a deep affinity with black culture through the music of Tupac, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. He also felt represented by women, and Star Trek’s Geordi La Forge.

I’ve had a similar experience – while I was never a fan of rap or Star Trek, my favorite childhood books were adventure novels. I didn’t bother tracking the gender of the protagonist, because gender meant little to me; whereas I was similar to adventurous spirits, and dissimilar from my non-adventurous classmates. Neither boys, nor girls were interested in fighting grizzly bears in the Wild West, but fictional characters were!

Starting out in the world, both Dorin and I were blissfully ignorant of discourse regarding race and gender. Later in life, I was discovered the hard way that boys and girls are supposed to be different and I am a Defective Girl. I do not dress properly. I do not behave properly. Is this true – am I defective? Doubtfully. Did being told that I don’t correspond have a lasting impact? Yes.

Who we are is not a stable entity, but more of a narrative. We tell stories to ourselves about who we are, what we want, why we do the things we do. Dorin discovered himself in rap music because it spoke about growing up in a bad neighborhood, not having opportunities, being poor and having the system screw you over in the favor of a small elite of bastards. Therefore he was black.

I was uninterested in being pretty at the expense of adventure, I was socially uncourteous the way no girl should be, I was not ditzy, and I was good at math – in order to not be a girl, I shunned girlish activities. I am still uncomfortable with being told I am female, because I associate it with people wanting something from me, be it free praise, sex, cleaning services, or more convenient behavior on my side. “But you’re a woman” – them’s fighting words.

And we all have some larger narratives which we’ve grown in and which we either identify with, or fight against. If Dorin’s missing something in his post, it’s the fact that his narratives are not general narratives. And just because a narrative is false, or harmful, it doesn’t mean you’re not influenced by it in some way.

Sometimes, hobbits are more human than humans

If you’ve read of watched “Lord of the Rings”, you’ll have noticed that Gandalf the wizard is awe-inspiring, Aragorn is admiringly noble, but it’s the hobbits that are somehow more human than others. If high heroism is something you can aspire to, hobbits are people who enjoy good food, a bit of fun, a lot of comfort and living the good life. They can be brave, strong and powerful in their own way, but give hobbits a choice and they’ll choose a good meal rather than burdening responsibilities, high politics and taking over the world.

Now, hobbits don’t really exist, which is why it’s so easy to empathize with them. Hobbits are not our neighbors. We don’t compare ourselves to them through difference. There’s nobody telling us that brunch is a hobbit sort of meal, not a human meal. There’s nobody telling us that, by contrast with hobbits, we are high and noble human beings who must self-sacrifice for the world, and we can’t take the day off to eat, drink, and be merry, because that would make us halflings.

In other words, we don’t have a narrative about hobbits as opposed to us. They are not truly Other, so we feel free to see ourselves in them. We’re free to choose how we relate to them and we’re free to decide whether they speak to us or not. And at the same time, hobbits are fictional, so we discover them with more openness about their culture, knowing that we don’t know it.

You might have heard that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – let me give you a larger context for that quote, which comes from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism“:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Knowing a little bit about something is dangerous, because you think you know quite a lot. You need more knowledge to supplant the impression that you know things – when, in fact, you don’t.

In Dorin’s case, he knows something of black America, but America is far away, and we probably don’t know much about it. On the other hand, Eastern Europe is far away, and Americans know next to nothing about us. They are unaware, for example, that we are what Jean Rhys called “white cockroaches” in “Wide Sargasso Sea” (I believe I’m obligated to tell you this is an affiliate link). We’re not quite white enough for the rich white, who dislike us, and not quite worthy of our cause being taken up as minorities, either. We, too, are Other. We’re too lowly for white people, too white for people of color. And that shows in our discourse about ourselves, but let’s not get distracted.

They’re taking the hobbits to engineering!

Back to our sheep (Dorin’s right, the sheep thing is fun in English).

The problem of inclusivity can’t be solved for everyone. I think it was Patricia Aas who said something along the lines that inclusivity is when you go to work and feel happy to be there. My question was: is the happiness a prerequisite to feeling included, or a consequence? Because the two are very different beasts. What makes Patricia Aas happy might be inclusivity, but what makes me happy is when I don’t have to fill in forms. If inclusivity is being happy, inclusivity, for me, would be a lack of forms to be filled – and that can’t be the right definition of inclusivity.

To put it in more engineering-like terms, in order to achieve change, you need to figure out what your goals and constraints are.

Let’s start with the constraints:

  • an incredibly large number of social groups
  • limited mental resources
  • limited physical resources
  • conflicting needs

So let’s start with the number of social groups to be included – you have race (America), culture (outside America), sexual minorities, illness and disability etc. Go into things a bit deeper, and you’ve got more cultures than you have countries on Earth, and many of them can come into conflict.

Politeness in America is shaking hands with collaborators; good service comes with a smile. But shaking hands is bad in Japan, and service with an American smile looks a bit deranged in Romania. Add personal preference, and it’s impossible to cater to everyone.

Aside from that, people in general have limited resources when it comes to adapting to others. For friends, we are willing to expend time and energy to learn about them in detail, but when it comes to strangers, putting in the same effort is not feasible.

You need a solution for the unknown. For the strangers you encounter for the first time. For the hobbits, as it were.

Hence, politeness.

Politeness is a way to interact with people you don’t know in such a way that everybody leaves the interaction without offence, and with possible positive feelings.

Inclusivity needs something of the same: a solution that, while not 100% universal, will work for most of those involved. What do you need as a baseline? How do you get that?

I could discern a number of problems regarding inclusivity, from that panel:

  • getting people interested in the domain
  • getting people into companies themselves (I think?)
  • getting people to stay/return
  • creating a positive environment for those involved

All of this is doable, but goals and approaches are needed.

As far as getting people into companies is concerned, I’m a fan of blind entry tests. If I assess a test and don’t know your name, and have never seen your picture, and I’m going by your initials or a randomly generated ID number, I won’t be influenced by unconscious biases.

Otherwise, remember that thing we pinned far above? About how I switched from sciences to philology?

By the end of high school, I was burned out and absolutely convinced I was a failure, so I wanted to fail on my own terms.

We’re coming back to that, and to the issue of narrative. Here it is: what do we tell ourselves? What do we believe? Looking back, knowing what I know now, I was wrong. But I didn’t see it that way at the time.

If you want to change the domain, you need to change the outlook on it, both from the outside, and the inside. You need to tune the stories, as it were.

Perhaps you can do this by having kids code and realize it’s cool. Perhaps you can create meta conferences explaining how programming how foobar leads to Facebook, so it’s all more approachable. This is not something I can decide as an outsider: it needs people more in the know to see where the story breaks down.

When it comes to people already interested in the domain and creating a positive atmosphere, you can use rules that function like politeness – or that are politeness version 1.02: find things that everyone can agree signify benevolence. You know the sort: “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, things that are carriers of social meaning. Find the problem points, eliminate them: we don’t talk about the finer points of mummifying a corpse during fancy dinners, we can probably avoid asking people how they have sex during work hours.

But this needs asking questions and deliberately establishing rules. What can everyone do for the sake of getting along? What are you willing to sacrifice in the name of others feeling comfortable? What is the common ground you can find?

I can’t answer these questions for people in software development; my context is different. But these are questions that need asking: what is important to you? How can you achieve it? Is what you are asking for feasible? What about if 100 other people ask for similar things? If it feels like it’s a bit much, is there a way to achieve better results by employing different tactics?

Solutions need to be simple and not very personalized; the office hermit should know what to do without needing to go through documentation. They need to be applicable to unknown situations. They need to be not stellar and not something that makes you happy, but something you can live with.

But to get to those solutions, you need to really look into what’s going on with you and the others in your group and stare at the issues from a bunch of different angles until they start arranging into something that you can fix. Perhaps what you want is not for Jewish and Muslim people to get their holidays off by default, allowing people to take Christmas off or not depending on inclination, but not losing anything if they don’t. Perhaps it’s less important that you’re happy and that your identity is embraced at work, and it’s more important that you work 6 hours/day in a polite environment that isn’t very stressful, so you can pursue happiness in your personal life.

There are many possible answers, but you need to formulate the questions properly first.

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