Power, dissent, and bullying in software developer communities

Grassroots developer communities form around shared values in dissent against institutions and norms that dehumanize their work and diminish their efforts. They attack these orthodoxies with humor, heretical thinking, and hard work.

This benefits society when developers defy those with greater power. It harms society when developers bully people with less power.

At the ThoughtWorks sponsored Agile East, Martin Fowler spoke to his post, SmutOnRails.

Part of the community was offended by a presentation at the GoGaRuCo (Golden Gate Ruby Conference). Others fought back saying that no offense was meant, the presenter apologized, and that the tone was in the spirit of the Rails community.

(T)he view of the rails leadership seems to be this: that the objections to the presentation are yet another attempt to foist empty corporate values on the thriving Rails ecosystem… (more)

This debate is not unique to the Rails community. It reminds me of concerns my friend, Luke Melia, raised over jokes and behavior at the first Austin Alt.NET. Martin Fowler links off to a similar controversy in the Flash community.

It is also not unique to developer communities but developers in particular need to be concerned about the outcome.

Women, African Americans and Hispanics are under-represented in IT and even more so in software development. In 2001-2002 74.4% of software developers were men. 78% of those men were white.

In 1986 the percentage of women in CS programs peaked at 37%. The percentage of women in computer science programs has gone down since then.

In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent. — What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?, NY Times

There were 15,000 women in CS progreams in 1986. Riding natural cycles this number was not matched again until 2003. This latter number contains a higher percentage of non-resident aliens who will not necessarily contribute to the US workforce.

This despite higher percentages and numbers of women acquiring college educations than men. In 2007, 33% of women 25-29 held a four year degree or higher versus 26% of men. 55% of graduates with four year degrees or higher aged 25-29 were women.

Women are even receiving the majority of degrees in science and technology. They have shown steady progress in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and engineering.

Metrics can be misinterpreted but these quantitative measures support a stunningly obvious anecdotal observation. US software developers are a white male enclave.

This is a power imbalance and we developers are part of the problem.

Isolation is a key factor for a higher attrition rate among women and minorities, said Teresa Dahlberg, director of the Diversity in Information Technology Institute at UNC Charlotte. People tend to associate with “like communities,” where people have similar backgrounds and interests, she explained. — Computer science lacks women, minorities, SD Times

So when we behave in a way that marginalizes and intimidates talented women and minorities, we abuse power. We become bullies. We are oppressors.

“There is a good amount of research that shows that women are judged more harshly than men, for hiring, evaluations and promotions,” she added. “Virginia Valian [author of "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women"] shows this for women in science, technology, engineering and math faculty jobs.” Virginia Valian is a professor at Hunter College. — SD Times

Part of the problem may be a perception that software development doesn’t contribute enough to society. To the degree this perception is true it is damning. To the degree it is just a perception we have work to do as advocates.

Our actions need to be judged not by our intentions but by the outcome.

Requisite variety within our teams remains an essential enabling condition for sustained innovation.

Access to technology is growing across all tiers of class, race and gender both in the US and overseas. Diverse teams can better address our market and build software better adapted to our end users.

A more diverse workforce provides the kind of social change that will help us create a more humane workplace for developers.

Finally, anything that limits the number of able US software developers hurts our ability to compete.

When developer communities marginalize women and minorities, we conspire to isolate ourselves from the larger society. We defeat our own attempts to change the power structures around us and improve our lot and our output.

Agile software development: business value and human values

I’ve written about agile software development as an ongoing, perhaps excruciatingly gradual, conversation on the definition of value.

We need a place at the conference table. But we also need a forum and language to discuss the human values behind the way we aspire to work.

“… I’ve got to have more experience with junior [children] than a lot of the people who are telling me what I should be doing with them… I think I could help bring a lot to it and nobody ever asks…They just go ahead and proclaim and we have to follow.” -– Anonymous Teacher

This quote is from a study on the failure of education reform movements, called What’s Worth Fighting for in Your School?, by Andy Hargreaves & Michael Fullan.

Reform often fails because reformers don’t engage individual contributors in the goals. Rather, they impose practices upon them. The attempt to improve the classroom actually makes the teacher less effective and sets them against reform.

Sound familiar?

Cape Kiwanda, Pacific City, OregonThe landscape of broken agile adoptions is composed of attempts to make software development “faster, cheaper, better” without embracing the experience and creativity of our core asset, the software developer.

We need to focus a little less on specific practices and a little more on building consensus among our peers over a shared set of values which despite human fallibility and economic necessity inspire us to do good work.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is an attempt by thought leaders to capture these principles. As with all documents, it is an artifact of a moment created to address that moment’s opportunities and constraints.

If we take the “Manifesto” as terms and conditions, something to read and sign before we advance to practice then we glide over the surface of things. It’s not what was written but why people felt the need to write it.

If we take the “Manifesto” as a complete expression, then as happens with codes of ethics, we will use its silence on certain concerns and nuance in the interpretation words themselves to excuse actions by others and even justify the harm we do ourselves.

The “Manifesto”, as with any other artifact in agile, is simply a reminder to have a conversation.

Martin Fowler discussing gender disparities in the industry:

How about a community where women are valued for their ability to program and not by the thickness of their skin? How about a community that edgily pushes new boundaries without reinforcing long running evils?

Bob Martin lobbying to add a fifth principle to the Manifesto itself:

“We value craftsmanship over execution” (or “craftsmanship over crap”)

But the discussion isn’t between thought leaders. It involves every practitioner.

We are here to create long-term value. To build businesses, careers and an industry. This is a labor of years not the current iteration.

If your concerns are entirely short term, then there are less disingenuous ways to extract wealth from people’s effort than to claim you are “agile”.

If you are agile, then you are accountable to the creativity and well-being of the teams with whom you collaborate. You are accountable for the security of end users and the benefit they derive from the software you create.

We are not tools. We are knowledge workers. What we create carries with it the way it was created. What we create is in some profound way us.

Antidote to hostile workplaces and the alpha geek

These are notes from my presentation at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) #45.

I’ll link to my full paper when it is available and to subsequent posts as I publish them.

Agile values, product innovation and the shortage of women software developers Part 5 of 7


(29) Antidote to hostile workplace and the alpha geek

“Alpha male techies have minimal social skills and can be awkward around women, but this awkwardness coexists with enormous arrogance[45].”

(30) Problem statement

As an example, at a recent Ruby on Rails conference, a presenter contrasted using particular document oriented database to performing like a porn star: In reaction to the controversy Martin Fowler wrote: “The nub is that whatever the presenter may think, people were offended… It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the slides were pornographic. The question is does the presenter, and the wider community, care that women feel disturbed, uncomfortable, marginalized and a little scared.” 63% of women in tech report they experience sexual harassment

(31) Value statement

Agilists should be a voice in opposition to the alpha male in their midst and here’s why: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” Not chest thumping individuals.

(32) Description of self organization

Self-organization is a fundamental value in Agile. A performing Agile team organizes itself around the work collaborating in high trust according to a set of mutually arrived at expectations and norms of behavior.

(33) What does self-organization feel like?

Another quote from Jeff Sutherland: “Team members share a sense of purpose, vision, and passion for their work. Teams that recognize that we are not simply individuals working in close proximity, but a team where we must all be engaged with one another’s work. (Jeff wrote He) tells teams looking to achieve amazing results that each member of the team must care as much about their neighbor’s work as they do their own.”

(34) Enterprise support for self-organization is also an Agile value

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

(35) Practices that support self-organization

In emphasizing Agile values, I’m not saying the practices are not important. They support the values. A company instilled with the value of self-organization should: keep team size between 5-9 people, provide communal workspace, rely on the team to do its own estimates and form it’s own iteration commitments. The team must frequently and consistently reflect on what it can do and what it must ask of the organization to make itself more effective. They must drive incremental improvements into the organization based on this.

(36) How is self-organization an antidote to alpha geeks?

A self-organized team will not tolerate a hostile or demeaning attitude towards co-workers or the business people upon which it depends for work. They will deal with each other with respect and a great deal of honesty. They have difficult conversations with each other and they address their own bad behaviors in order to fit into the norms of the team in order to maximize team performance. So, the ultimate answer for the alpha male who breaks the cohesion of the team, is he either modifies his behavior based on frequent and regular feedback from his peers and coaching from his leads or he is off the team.


Next: Antidote the diving catch culture of heroics and privileged roles…

Previous: What Agile principles demand we confront this problem?

All slides published to date.

There is abundant research on the problems women face in our field. I would love researchers to jump in on whether Agile principles and Agile practioners can really make a difference.

I’d also love any suggestions of organizations, institutions and individuals I might reach out to for more information, collaboration, or to take up the cause.

The full citation list for my paper.