Sunday, February 15, 2009


In cleaning out my bookmarks, I came across a link to Joel Spolsky's column at Inc, "How Hard Could It Be?" His latest article is about rewarding employees for great ideas.

The article touches on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, which is always something to keep in mind as a teacher. At my school (as in many K-12 schools), we're very aware of wanting to develop life-long learners. That means developing intrinsic motivation. Yet our effect on the children is inherently extrinsic. A dilemma, for sure. 

The very interesting part of the article for me was on page 2:
Human beings, by their nature, tend to think of themselves as, how can I put this politely, a bit more wonderful than they really are. All of your B performers think they are A performers. The C performers think they are B performers. (A couple of your A performers think they are F performers, because they are crazy perfectionists or just clinically depressed. But they are the exceptions.)

My first reaction to this was, "I wonder how many women Joel has working at Fog Creek." My second thought was, "I bet not that many." It completely ignores imposter syndrome and all the studies showing that women with higher grades will drop out. In CS, for women, B performers tend to think they're not good enough. 

Now, it's also possible that the difference is I'm looking at education while he's looking at the post-education working world. That the skills which make you get through and get hired increase your self-confidence out of proportion to your performance and that the people who drop out as described wouldn't ever get hired by Fog Creek. 

I see the low-self-esteem side of the curve all the time. All my students are capable of programming. Many, many of them think they're not. It's hard, it's unfamiliar, they aren't sure they're doing it right, they get syntax errors they can't interpret... they think they're not good enough. On the first assignment, which happened on the second day of programming, one of the students was very, very worried that she didn't understand it well enough. She wrote a perfectly good program, but relied on the class notes and example program to do it. She didn't think she really understood it since she couldn't have done it without the notes and examples. On the second day. 

I don't disagree with Spolsky's idea of human nature and I'm sure he's an excellent manager. But not everyone has an overinflated sense of self-worth. 

On a related tangent, I heard a thought-provoking story last week. A group at a high tech company had a meeting. The engineers were talking about a Spolsky article. The manager had never heard of Joel Spolsky. "Who is this Joel guy?" One of the engineers actually looked at the manager in disbelief and said, "You've never heard of Joel Spolsky??" The engineers reportedly felt this was further proof that their manager is out of touch. (The manager did rise through the technical ranks, not that it's relevant.)

The story made me angry. Sure, Joel is well known in certain circles. Knowing about his blog is a cultural marker. Not knowing about his blog probably means you have a different set of cultural references. Not knowing the "right" cultural markers means you don't fit in. And the response isn't to try to help you acclimate and learn the markers of the group you're in, it's to ridicule you and use that lack of knowledge as proof that you don't belong and ought to go somewhere else and do something else. After all, you can't possibly be a competent programmer or good manager if you don't know who Joel Spolsky is. 

It might be different if the person didn't know something that was directly relevant to the job at hand. Yet I frequently see or hear stories where someone who is up on the culture doesn't know required information and isn't shunned for it. Either the lack of knowledge is ignored or the idea is explained to the person who needs to know, informal mentoring. "Oh, you need to use a McKenzie-Shlimit algorithm here. It will make the fizzits go into the slobnots efficiently."

I think this kind of thing happens more frequently in high tech than it does in other professions. It's one of the reasons why we have the leaky pipeline problem. It reminds me of middle school girls - if you don't already know how to be popular, the popular group certainly isn't going to tell you! And they're going to laugh at you and tell you your epidermis is showing, too.


  1. Right now we have five women working at Fog Creek, although none of them are developers. Currently women are half our sales team and women comprise 100% of our QA team.
    Anecdotally I'd say about 1% of our applicants for developer positions are female.

    Each summer we have a programming intern class, and for some reason we've received a lot more applications from women this year. But to put that in perspective, that means we've gotten maybe a dozen applications from women out of many hundreds of applicants--again, a very low percentage.

    At least one of them has been accepted into our class this summer, which is good news!

    Fog Creek Software

    P.S. We have absolutely nothing against people who have not heard of Joel. :)

  2. I saw a recent case outside of software development but related to it when someone I know was given a bit of a hard time for not knowing who a "famous" social networking expert was. I do think that sort of thing happens in other fields though. I see it as a sign of insecurity though. People come up with artificial standards to prove that they are "in the know" or "special." It is an easy trap to fall into.