I was at a hackday recently. During one of the talks, a speaker from a small company made a fairly stinging criticism of a large tech firm. As it happened, one of the audience members was an employee of said behemoth and heckled the speaker. After the presenter told him to shut up, he spent the rest of the session snarkily subtweeting his objections to her arguments.
Geeks are people who run on dissent. We see the world is broken, refuse to accept it, and try to fix things. Then other geeks try to fix our mistakes, and then we fix theirs, until we either asymptotically climb towards perfection or tear the whole thing down and start again.
There’s a peculiar type of geek however, like the chap I mentioned above, who is convinced about the purity of their vision. For those of us who haven’t created world-changing software, this usually manifests as completely drinking a company’s (or product’s) kool-aid. These geeks can sing the company song, recite the company’s 7 core principles, rattle off every stat about the most trivial of accomplishments, and can’t stand to hear any criticism of their employer or industry.
Once a geek adopts a patriotic mindset, they become useless. They’re just a “fan” – whether it’s for Apple/Android/BlackBerry/ or Ruby/Python/PHP or Catan/Munchkin/Monopoly – their undying devotion makes them little more than a North Korean peon singing the praises of the Dear Leader. They mistake personal gratification for objective correctness.
This is poisonous – not just to the individual, but to our entire community. If you won’t hear “this aspect of your product sucks” then you’ll never be able to improve it.
I’ve been lucky enough to work in two big industries which get a fair amount of flack at technical conferences – Mobile Operators and Mobile Advertisers. I can safely say that at every hackday, conference, and BarCamp I’ve been to, I’ve attended a talk where someone has cursed my profession, slandered our behaviour, and – in some cases – personally blamed me for all the ills of the world!
Naturally, I became defensive. Who wouldn’t?! Most people’s sense of identity is predicated on the belief that they are one of the “goodies”. When you tell them they work for someone evil, it directly challenges their ego. That produces a visceral reaction.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
If you find yourself reacting violently to criticism of your employer, favourite TV show, or lifestyle choice – you have a problem. A serious problem which blinds you to the harsh realities which govern our lives.
Make no mistake – every employer you work for is flawed. We all do bad things – and only sometimes accidentally. Every industry has its cess-pits, to pretend otherwise is foolish.
Even though the status quo may enrich us personally, that’s no reason to leave it unchallenged.
So, back to me being told that “mobile operators are the scum of the earth and their employees are all jack-booted thugs who are simultaneously evil, incompetent, dastardly, and corrupt” (seriously – I have heard each of those statements verbatim from both conference speakers and attendees.)
I took the criticism on board. Where it was unjustified, I either ignored it or sought to privately correct the record. More interestingly, where it was justified, I sought to improve both myself and my industry. Isn’t that what we want? To improve the world? How can we do that if we ignore and belittle those who criticise us?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a painful process. That doesn’t make it any less necessary. This may all sound a little “hair-shirted” – but I promise you that it’s about more than masochism. Just as all software has bugs, so too do all people, companies, and products. You know what? Some bits of Linux are hard to use. Some Mobile Operator policies are dumb. My hair is ridiculously long. For a geek to say “my country, right or wrong” makes them little better than football hooligans.
Here’s what I’m belatedly getting at. If you work at a large company, or in a powerful industry, you must listen to your critics. You don’t have to believe everything they say about you, nor do you have to accept their arguments. But if you can’t listen, you’ve lost. For everyone brave enough to stand on stage and voice their displeasure, there are many more silently nodding in agreement.
Most billion dollar Internet companies were started by a small team of people who looked around and said, “The status quo sucks! Lets fix it!” For a geek to turn around and say “No! You’re wrong! Everything is perfect! You are the one who sucks!” is an abdication of common sense and courtesy.
Finally, if you work for a large corporation and find yourself loudly slagging off the upstarts who dare challenge your hegemony, please remember that – to the rest of us geeks – you look like you’re scared. And that no one respects people who are punching down.