Tuesday, August 08, 2017

On the Perils of Remaining a Nerd

A Google engineer, let's call him X, wrote a now infamous memo on the diversity programs in Google, and was fired for it.  Yonathan Zunger wrote a good analysis of this memo, and what he recommended happened - X was fired.  So most of my commentary ought to be superfluous.

Let's note that Google is a business, not a university, think-tank, research institute or public forum.   It is incumbent on every employee not to embarrass their employer, and that too, on the employer's dime, if the employer is not doing anything illegitimate.   X violated this rule in spades, and no matter what the content of his memo, that alone justifies his being fired.

When I first read X's memo, the thing that was important that I latched on to is something Zunger latched on to as well (I read Zunger much later) and that is maybe why I like Zunger's analysis.
One very important true statement which this manifesto makes is that male gender roles remain highly inflexible.
A second thing to note is that as a business, Google would want to keep a good work environment for all its employees.   A senior engineer mouthing off that an entire section of the Google workforce - the women employees - are where they are because of Google's affirmative actions, does not contribute to that work environment.   That too is a good cause for being fired.

A third thing to note is that if you think that X was saying something original, or speaking truth to power or some such, about the nature of men and women, is that no, he wasn't.  It isn't original; it isn't the truth If you think that the scientific literature supports what X says, do remember, most of the research that is relevant is on WEIRD people (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic, acronym via Jonathan Haidt),  i.e., a peculiar and biased sample of the human race.  Taking these to be the way things are is unscientific.

Another issue causing debate, this not from X, but from Zunger is this:
Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. 
If you doubt it, think GNU & Linux,  and all the open source that's out there; the collaborations that produce standards, the engineering and scientific collaborations that produce things like the CERN collider, and so on.  Or cities, and power grids and such.  Google is into producing things of this scale.
If you’re a professional, especially one working on systems that can use terms like “planet-scale” and “carrier-class” without the slightest exaggeration, then you’ll quickly find that the large bulk of your job is about coordinating and cooperating with other groups.
Also note that Zunger does explicitly state that one's technical competence comes first, and is a given for his analysis.  

What about an abrasive personality like Steve Jobs?  Well, first, he had an uncanny ability to get into the mind of the customer and figure out what would appeal to them; and second, if you read about Apple culture, abrasive though Jobs was, he built effective collaborations.  Third, Jobs didn't build a lot that was "planet-scale" or "carrier-class".  The brilliant loner engineer certainly can have something to offer - but probably in a different sort of business than Google.