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Software Is Made By Humans

I recently attended the GoTo Berlin conference, and saw many interesting talks about programming, microservices, architecture, virtual reality, and machine learning. The ones which inspired me most, however, were not the technical ones, but the more philosophical lectures.

Linda Rising gave a keynote that was especially thrilling. She was able to keep me — and her whole audience — engaged for the entire period of her talk, so much so that immediately afterwards I ordered one of her books on Amazon.

One very interesting topic that Rising brought up was the fact that everybody is affected by prejudice. I naturally found this very applicable. We all tend to categorize things, to put things in different boxes as a way to understand them. She says:

“We are fast labelers, especially each other. In the past, it meant survival: what fruits to eat, what road to take. We are hardwired to do it” — Linda Rising

She also spoke about the fact that people naturally organize themselves into small groups. We tend to be sympathetic with people from our own group, and treat people outside of our group as “the others”. We start labeling people from other groups, using the terms “us” and “them”. Us, the “developers” versus them, “the product people”, for example. We also tend to treat people from other groups as “the enemy”. Would a different programming choice bring up aggression? Us, the “Scala” devs, versus them, the “Java” devs. Would process choice do the same? We, “agile people”, versus the other kind?

Another idea from Rising’s talk: “When we label someone in some way, we actually create what we expect”. She demonstrated this statement by quoting some experiments. In one example, she talked about two groups of students from the same school to whom the teacher gave the same set of math exercises, with one difference: before the beginning of the test, the teacher told one of the groups that it was expected that female students wouldn’t perform well. Due to this signaling, the women in that group performed worse than the women in the first group: as leaders, “we are creating reality by setting expectations”.

The second talk I which inspired me was by Birgitta Böckeler, who echoed a similar idea. Her talk is called “Born for IT?”. In the 1960s when the programmer profile was not very well defined, two psychologists aimed to define a “vocational interest scale” for programmers, so that companies could better select candidates for programmer interviews. They came with characteristics, such as “crazy about puzzles”, dislikes routine and regimentation, tends to like research and risk taking, and in the end they added, “they don’t like people”.

The expectations set for us in the 60s were that programmers don’t like people. Does that myth still follow us today? If so, why? One theory is that, because we’re fast labelers, once we label something or somebody it’s hard to unlabel it, as Rising explained.

There are those who don’t want to become programmers because of these stereotypes. On top of that, we’re splitting into many smaller groups, based on language choice, or the frameworks we use, and treat others from outside of our group as “the enemy”. Even though we sometimes think these are friendly pokes between groups of programmers, and can drink a beer together the end of the day, these behaviors still fuel a stereotype.

Why does this matter?

It’s a fact that the tech industry has a diversity problem. Studies show that diverse groups are able to innovate more than homogenous groups of top performers. A diverse staff can be a driver for innovation and help organizations stay on top of their competition.

I liked these two talks because I was able to better understand some of the problems our community has. I find that raising awareness about topics like diversity is really important in order to be able to solve problems some of us might not even know they exist.

As software developers, we are a group of people having to solve really hard problems, most of them not even being technical problems, but communication problems, people problems, collaboration problems, and work environment problems. Being able to approach these different issues from various perspectives benefit us all, as a group. Let’s be more inclusive with anybody who wants to join and let’s spread the word: Software is made by humans like you!

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