I have some small idea of what I’m doing

I feel partly to blame for the current minor internet shitstorm.

But first, some scene-setting. There have long been associations between the programmer community and particular subcultures, some of which have become—not monocultural—at least dominant cultures within the world of computering. When I entered the field in the early 2000s, it was the tail end of the cyberpunk subculture: electronic and rock music, long hair on men, short hair on women, often dyed, black band or logo t-shirts, combat trousers or jeans, Doctor Martens 1460 boots. Antisocial work hours, caffeine-fuelled weekend long hacks, “all your base are belong to us” memes. Obtuse, but workhorse, C and Perl code. Maybe some Scheme if you were in the Free Software Foundation.

Then toward the end of the decade the hipster subculture rose to dominance. Mac laptops. Nice clothes, worn ironically. Especially the bow tie. Dishevelled hair. Fixed-gear bicycles. Turned up trouser cuffs and no socks. Looking to be the technical cofounder, looking down on those who ask them to be the technical cofounder. Coffee, now daytime only, had to be incredibly fussy. The evening drink of choice was Pabst Blue Ribbon. If your software wasn’t in the tech stack of choice—a Ruby on Rails app, deployed to Heroku, edited in TextMate, hosted on Github—then were you crushing any code? Bro, do you even lift?

After a few years of this I noticed that one difference between these two cultures was an approach to knowledge, or more specifically its lack. It was easy to nerdsnipe a cyberpunk: if they didn’t know something they would go and find out. Usenet groups had multiple FAQ lists because many people would all try to find the answers to the questions, and wikis weren’t yet popular. In the hipster craze that followed, confidence in one’s own knowledge reigned supreme. You showed that you knew everything you know, and you showed that everything you didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing.

This came to a head in my little Apple-centric niche of the computering field in 2015, when that whole community had chased monad tutorials and half-digested chapters on category theory into every corner of the conference and mailing list ecosystem. People gave talks not to share their knowledge, but to share that they were the people who knew the knowledge. Attendees turned up to product development conferences expecting to learn how a new programming language made it easier to develop programming, and came away confused about endofunctors.

I should be clear here that not everybody in the field was like that, and there are plenty of people who can make difficult maths accessible. There are plenty of people who can make computering accessible without difficult maths. Those people were still present.

But still I determined that something we didn’t have enough of, that had been present in the cyberpunk-esque culture that came before (for all its other faults) was a willingness to say “I have no idea what I’m doing”. Not in a “har har look at me get this wrong” way, but in a “this is interesting, let’s find out more about it” way. An “I’m not the right person to ask, let’s bring in an expert” way. A “to the library!” way.

So after a bit of writing about learning things I didn’t know, I took my (then) decade of experience and position of incredibly-minor celebritydom in that niche little bit of computering, and submitted a talk called “I have no idea what I’m doing” to AltConf 2015. I think it may even have been a very last minute submission, with another speaker pulling out sick. The talk was a collection of anecdotes about things I didn’t understand when the problem came my way, and how I dealt with that. Particularly, given that Swift was a year old at the time, I admitted I had less than a year of Swift experience and knew less about it than I did about Objective-C. I even used the dog picture. The talk was recorded, but unfortunately no longer seems to be available.

My hope in delivering this talk was partly that the people in the room would learn a little about problem solving, but also that they’d learn a lot about how an experienced person can say “here are the limits of my knowledge, I can’t help you with that problem. At least, I can’t yet, but it might be fun/interesting/remunerative to discover more about it.” How it’s OK to not know what you’re doing, if you have a plan or can make one.

In retrospect, I think that what happened was simply that 2015 was too many generations in the software industry after all of the great forcing functions that led to the way computering was currently done. The Agile folks had worked out that we don’t know what the customer will want at the end of the project, so we should optimise our work for not knowing, but they’d done that at the turn of the millennium. The dot bomb had exploded at the same time, so the Lean Startup folks had worked out that there’s no money in the things the customer doesn’t want and you have to very quickly discard all of those.

Everything had shifted left, but it had done so at least a decade earlier. Now those things, Agile and Lean Startup, were the way you did computering, and you could be expert in them. There was certification. They were no longer “because that thing before wasn’t great”, they were “because this is how we do it”. There was another round of venture capitalists in town, and the money taps were starting to turn back on. There was no great need to find out that you were wrong, so it became a cultural taboo to admit it.

Anyway, if we believe DHH, I overshot. Apparently we went from “it’s professional to own up to the limits of your knowledge” to “it’s a badge of honour to not know programming as a programmer.” To be honest I find that the weak part of the post, mostly because I don’t recognise it and he doesn’t supply evidence. The rest—that we are beings capable of learning and growth and we should not revel in ignorance—is the same as what I was trying to say with my dog-meme talk in 2015.

But now the dominant non-monoculture is the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” variant. The “come on internet, you know what to do” quote tweet. Saying that you may have things to learn, and should not still be at the same level of copy-and-paste code years into your job is now the same as saying you must memorise all algorithms and programming language quirks to call yourself a real programmer. And how very DARE he say that, what does he know about programmers anyway?

Discussions of the DHH post seem to be predicated on the idea that it’s a personal attack on people who aren’t DHH-level success, when if it’s an attack at all it’s attacking a straw man identity and in fact is worded more like this non-attack: you have more potential to live up to, find it in yourself to surpass your current limits. But scrape the surface (by showing that DHH didn’t say the things that are claimed to be “ruining it for everyone”), and it seems there’s a certain amount of hating the messenger, not the message, going on.

I’m not sure the cause of this, but I suspect it may be that having learned not to punch down, folks are looking up for targets. That DHH is successful, has said things that people don’t like in the past, so it’ll be OK to not like what he says this time. And the headline is something not to like, therefore the article must just expand on why I was correct not to read it.

I’ve certainly disagreed with DHH before. When he did the “TDD is dead” thing, I went into that from a position of disagreement. But I also knew that he has experience at being successful as a programmer, and will have reflections and knowledge that are beyond my understanding. So I listened to the discussions, and I learned what each of the people involved thought. It was an interesting, and educational experience. I gained a bit more of an idea of what I’m doing.

About Graham

I make it faster and easier for you to create high-quality code.
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