Craftsmanship and Contempt

I came across Jeff Nolan’s post about Silicon Valley and DC. I loved it for a lot of reasons. It captures what’s wrong. While the valley values marketing, DC values marketing without anything to back it up. In the valley, the narrative is how you make the sale, but things have to work. In DC, only the narritive is important and the solution/engineering doesn’t just come last, it is something contemptuous that the “leadership” doesn’t want to get on them. I’m not saying something partisan here. Read the Clay Shirky post Jeff references. [1] This is the section that caught my eye, because I’ve seen it many times.

The thing that made this meeting unusual was that one of their programmers had been invited to attend, so management could outline their web strategy to him. After the executives thanked me for explaining what I’d learned from log files given me by their own employees just days before, the programmer leaned forward and said “You know, we have all that information downstairs, but nobody’s ever asked us for it.”

I remember thinking “Oh, finally!” I figured the executives would be relieved this information was in-house, delighted that their own people were on it, maybe even mad at me for charging an exorbitant markup on local knowledge. Then I saw the look on their faces as they considered the programmer’s offer. The look wasn’t delight, or even relief, but contempt. The situation suddenly came clear: I was getting paid to save management from the distasteful act of listening to their own employees. – Clay Shirky

While at New Relic, it’s common that Ceo Lew Cirne pair programs with his employees. So, in one kind of organization, the organization’s leadership has contempt for its day to day employees. The other embraces their values and tries to learn from them. Guess which one is more agile, produces better results, and has any grasp on reality.

Taking this out of the software world, we have, as a culture, encouraged the contempt for work. Popular culture often encourages people to aspire to have a life where they never actually labor, and to hold those people in contempt. Listen to Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs his experience with his highschool guidance counselor:

Mike Rowe On the High Cost of College

The poster Rowe was presented with was “Work Smarter NOT Harder.” It contrasts the fresh faced college grad and the oppressed, dirty mechanic. The message is clear, become educated because actual work is for losers. No, not losers, for rubes. And the winners don’t want to mingle with the rubes: there is nothing the winners could learn from a rube.

If you’ve read Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, he has a profound concern for the way the powerful use their power to push risk onto the weak, and he notes that in earlier societies, part of the deal of being powerful was that you accepted risk. If you wanted rank, you took on the obligations. You had skin in the game as Taleb refers to it.

But popular values have changed. Now everyone wants to be a vampire squid because to be rich and bailed out, like Goldman Sachs is better than to productive and have a lifestyle business. Those values are to be rich without obligation at the expense of others. They are the values of the company man risk manager of the industrial age, who know they have the connections to get what they want without risk. They are the values of the American politician, that windbag with no skin in the game.

Those values inform the contempt that some parts of society have for the laborers. What you don’t realize, is you’re the next generation of the manual laborer. Do you write software? Or do some other menial, eminently outsourceable task? You’ve got a “dirty job” but you don’t realize it yet.

But, you can fight against these values. You can show that being a maker doesn’t make you a rube. You can bring excellence to what you do. You can look at what you do as a craft. I build software and systems and, let me tell you, it’s craftsmanship. It requires constant study, practice, and learning. It requires being thoughtful, creative and industrious.

Do you work for yourself? If not, what’s your company culture? Does it treat you like a craftsman or craftswoman? Or do they treat you like a rube?

  1. If you’re not familiar with Clay Shirky, you should be. If you are interested in culture and the internet, you will find him humbling. His Ted profile is here.  ↩