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On lowering the bar

maxart2501 profile image Massimo Artizzu ・8 min read

Some of you have surely heard of the recent case of the Google's software engineer's manifesto against the search giant's practices towards inclusion in its work force. James Damore - that's his name - has argued that Google initiatives to improve the diversity of its employees is against the natural ("biological") distribution of talent among genders and ethnic groups, and are detrimental to the creation of the best possible teams in software development.

The memo went viral among Google's employees, and then publicly, causing a serious firestorm on social media.

Damore was subsequently fired on August 8th.

I must make clear that this lengthy post isn't a reply to James Damore - I don't know him and I have no interest in knowing him - but rather an invitation to every fellow developer to avoid the fallacies that are so evident in Damore's memo.

The aftermath

He then found himself in the difficult position of living in San Francisco without a salary, so he took advantage of his sudden moment of notoriety to further defend his position, de facto becoming a martyr of conservatives and "alt-right" supporters.

The things you do for a living. (Apparently it's been effective, as he's received some job proposals.)

Among his newly found political activity, he created a new Twitter account by the handle @Fired4Truth (sorry, won't link), which more or less gives the measure of how full of himself he is. It really must be a joy to work with him.

Some of his recent tweets convinced me that I needed to put down some thoughts among all the brouhaha:

James Damore's tweets

Some replied that he compared successful women to imaginary folks like Santa Claus - he didn't. To be fair, he's never excluded the possibility of exceptionally talented women, but that's not the point here.

The real point is that he still firmly thinks that all the efforts to improve diversity are towards the delusion that a equally distributed human variety is possible. In fact, that's certainly not the intended goal.

The bar

In the manifesto, one of the most controversial points speaks of "hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity candidates by decreasing the false negative rate". This makes evident that Damore imagines the world like this:
Challenge as a bar

It's simple: there's a clear challenge, you try hard, you either pass or fail it. Plain old meritocracy, the modern way to human evolution. It's fair, it's honest, it's reassuring for all the society.

But reality is different. It's unfair, it's deceptive, it's scary. It often precludes the chance of even getting to the challenge. Or in the case if you can take it, you never had the tools and the education to face it. And even in that case, you could feel the social pressure of others telling you that you just should forget it, it's not for you anyway.

In short, a real-world challenge is more like this:

Around the challenge

Many will amass in front of the bar as usual, give their best shot and deal with the response. Others won't try as hard, and some will get it completely wrong. But some might want to try, but their context doesn't allow them to. Because the challenge is tailored on a certain type of education and culture.

And that's how (most) of the industry goes. Candidates get rejected every day, but here's the catch: nobody can be certain that, in every case, it's been the right decision to take.

Exact science (not)

The reason is simple: the literature about scrutinizing a candidate does not define an exact science. There's statistic data, there are conjectures, hypothesis, but human sciences don't give you theorems and their proofs, don't give you precise, reliable formulae or well-defined methodologies to apply them. Observations and experiments are therefore limited, hard to deprive of all the possible biases and isolate in context.

And if there's an industry that can prove that, it's IT. A plethora of college dropouts - people who could hardly get the chance to be interviewed, let alone hired - have been tremendously successful in IT. I'm talking about people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell and so on.

Even when talking about developers, there's a whole lot who's been rejected for various reasons. You can find "big" names too.

In the end, companies like Google, even when adopting the best hiring practices, feel like they could be missing out some precious minds. The goal, here, isn't about lowering the bar: it's about creating a better bar.

Bars all around

Now, it's certainly true that there's less supply of candidates from certain crowds - women, but also some ethnic groups. And while there could be biological reasons for that, then again we're not talking about an exact science. So it's perfectly reasonable to explore the boundaries between what could be a natural balance, and the (possibly hugely influential) cultural context those individuals have grown in.

That's what those initiatives aim at. It's not Google's duty to provide a better educational environment and fairer opportunities for all the people (and it could in part even be not in its best interests - more on that later), but it's trying what it's in its power. Damore, a member of the privileged society that put him in the best educational system - a perfect fit for a brilliant mind - doesn't seem to grasp this.

Being privileged is not a sin. Blinding yourself in your privilege is.

But why is diversity important?

A question could still roam among those who still feel "betrayed" by all those "diversity programs", who don't think it's fair that other "have it easier": why does it matter? There are already a myriad of good candidates, more than Google could use, so why couldn't Mountain View make at least one thing - its hiring process - fair and clear, a guiding light in an unfair and murky society?

There's another aspect to consider, indeed.

The usual drill of whiteboard interviews to board on IT companies is the unmistakable child of the company's own culture and identity. Candidates pass the test if they already fit said culture adequately. In this sense, it's the culture that replicates itself.

If that sounds especially dangerous to you, it's because it is. In an insanely fast evolving industry and society, not shifting your fundamental stances to adapt and to embrace new points of view is a deadly mistake. We see that literally every day in IT: companies that once were giants falling off the cliff, suffering long agonies, laying off employees and eventually disappearing.

Commodore. Atari. Blackberry. Nokia. Yahoo. Even giants like Apple and IBM risked a lot in the past, and survived thanks to desperate moves. The former by recalling the visionary talent of Steve Jobs; the latter by giving the wheel to a man who was leading a manufacturing industry of... biscuits, and other baked products.

So, a more diversified hiring process could potentially prevent all that. Cultural diversity is what could do the trick, offering new points of view on emerging markets, attracting users and customers from neglected segments. It's probably not a guarantee to survive - nothing can beat a bad leadership anyway - but it could help. With minimal risks and costs, at least for a company like Google.

Was the manifesto so bad?

Reading Damore's manifesto didn't shock me. To be honest, I myself am part of the privileged community I was talking about earlier, but that's not the reason. The reason is that I indeed have witnessed colleagues far and near holding positions similar to Damore's.

If Damore's points resonate among developers, what's so bad in expressing them? Was his firing justified after all? Or Google's move was just to avoid public backlash in case of inaction? In short, plain old censorship?

Let's begin by saying the manifesto's argumentation is... pretty poor. If you want to prove a point - to present what you consider the truth - your best bet is to take a scientific approach to the matter. Otherwise it's just your opinion, and while some might fall for that, others just won't buy it.

The memo doesn't follow the scientific line. Instead, it focuses on political biases, which are pretty much irrelevant since they're based on purely arbitrary assumptions, and how they led the leaders to... basically, not agreeing with him.

But that, of course, is just an interpretation. The scientific approach to an apparently unexplicable problem isn't giving an explanation that's easy for you: it's about asking "Why is that?", then collect the data and then giving an interpretation.

Damore briefly mentions that he's asked for explanations, but he hasn't received any. He doesn't report what he's inquired exactly, and how, and to whom. In case of difficulties in retrieving the data, you should stop elaborating a theory, and report the problem instead. You don't go as far as suggesting remedies and different approaches, because you don't have a road to walk on. Just a fragile, unstable rope connecting a couple of cherry-picked human science papers and your own subjective observations.

He could be correct in stating that even asking for explanations is frowned upon from higher levels, and that certainly could be a problem that Google should look into. After all, Sundar Pichai addressed that concern too, showing the impartial approach that's expected from a leader.

Silencing dissent or protecting minorities?

While allowing people to express dissent is fundamental, Damore did way more than that. Imagine if the manifesto became mainstream in your company. Imagine that you're a woman that just boarded on. How would you feel about it?

Your colleagues would think that you've been hired because it's been easier for you. Or, in case of no "diversity programs" underway in the hiring process, they would think that you took "shortcuts" of some kind because you're biologically less talented as a developer.

Yes, that's the message that would pass, don't hope otherwise. Because, as humans, we're suckers for oversimplifying things.

This is what makes a hostile workspace, and it's many levels of wrong. That is against any decent Code of Conduct. That is fair ground for a termination, and that's what James Damore deserved.

Because free speech doesn't mean being free of consequences. And since there's always a relevant xkcd strip for everything, here's one:

xkcd strip 1327

Discussion (21)

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

This is brilliantly stated. There are some people out their doing mental gymnastics to deny the necessary evolution in the inclusivity of our industry.

The analogy I keep running Through my mind when I hear about "lowering the bar" is a Major League Baseball team that wants to win by signing top players from non-US markets like Dominican Republic and Japan. In order to attract these players and help them fit in, a team has to jump through a lot of hoops to provide translators, train the players on the nuances of the American game and wait for them to get accustomed to the shocking culture. Does that mean the bar is being "lowered"? In a very naive sense, yes. An American college kid from Florida is going to be prepped to fit right in and know how to contribute from day one. But as we've seen, teams capable of being welcoming and leverage the capabilities of foreign-born players are the ones succeeding. At this point it would be considered moronic to not bend to the specific needs of a player who comes from a "different" culture and language.

So when people complain that companies need to go out of their way to support candidates and employees from diverse backgrounds and think of it as "lowering the bar", I think "Okay, you go start the company that lets 5% of the world's population do their best work, and I'll go start one that shoots for 100% and goes out of its way to do so."

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maxart2501 profile image
Massimo Artizzu Author

That's a great analogy, Ben!

Gonna steal it for my next conversations on the subject. 👮

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern • Edited

Here's one last thing that's been on my mind: It seems like me that the same people railing on Google for firing an employee for dissenting in this way over free speech are the same general crowd that backed Yelp's right to fire an employee for writing about her crappy pay/treatment. That's completely anecdotal, but it's what I've observed.

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davejs profile image
David Leger

Good analogy Ben! I think that makes a lot of sense. The way I see it is I t's not about lowering the bar, it's about bringing the bar as many people as possible.

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prodigalknight profile image
RevanProdigalKnight

Disclaimer: I haven't been able to find a copy of the actual manifesto to read myself (for some reason nobody seems to want to link to a copy), so some of my information may not be accurate. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

From what I've read, the manifesto never said that women are "biologically less talented" than men. While this may have been implied, I don't think that was what Damore intended.

I think what Damore intended to state was that in general, men and women have different strengths, e.g.: most men may be better at building objects with sharp corners, but most women are better at building objects with more curves. Both men and women can build things, it's just that in general, men are better at building one type of thing where women are better at building another. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and there is a percentage of men that's better at building objects with curves, as well as a percentage of women who are better at building objects with sharp corners. Within these populations, there's an even smaller percentage of the whole that is able to build the other sex's "strong point" objects better than those of the opposite sex, i.e.: men who are even better than women at building curved objects, and women who are even better than men at building sharp objects.

The analogy of building sharp vs. curved objects, of course, could carry over to any skill in life, so when a woman is hired for "a man's job" (or vice versa), she should never, ever be worried that her colleagues think she had an easier time of it, or she took shortcuts to get where she is. If any of her new colleagues believe anything of that sort, they are the ones bringing down the company's ability to learn and grow.

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msmiel profile image
Mavreen Smiel

I did read the original manifesto and he concluded women are less logical (and by extension make poor engineers) because of biological differences. The old myth that women are too emotional, anxious, and unable to cope with the intellectual stress was presented as scientific fact.

I don't buy the men and women have different intellectual strengths because of biology, because it ignores the impact of society and culture has on such things. When I was a little girl, I heard "Video games and computers are for boys. Go play house." I ignored that (mostly) but it has a profound impact. Here's some more history on the subject.

Ultimately, I am worried that my colleagues think I've taken shortcuts or have been let off easy, or slept my way to the top because they do think that. I know they do because I've been told that, repeatedly, throughout my career. The last time I received a comment like that was about 3 weeks ago.

I remember a few weeks ago I saw that Google and a few other big tech companies wanted to "solve" death. I laughed. I laughed because they'd figure out immortality before treating women and minorities like people. Cynical, perhaps, but for the vast majority of people there, diversity is a non-issue. They simply don't care.

And if you're horrified and wondering what you can do, I'll tell you. It's easy and it requires no code or internet connection. Are you ready?

You believe them.

Believe them when they say DudeBro said something inappropriate because the only thing I've heard more than sexist comments are "Are you sure? He's such a nice guy. I've known him for years and he'd never do anything like that."

And if you see or hear inappropriate comments being made, say something.

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jess profile image
Jess Lee (she/her)

YES, default to believing them.

"Are you sure? He's such a nice guy. I've known him for years and he'd never do anything like that."

This isn't a workplace experience, but its the same fundamental issue and hits close to home:

One time, my neighbor grabbed my face and tried to kiss me. He didn't succeed because I pushed him away, and he literally ran out of the room. My boyfriend didn't believe me and thought I must have 'misinterpreted' my neighbors actions. He's such a nice guy, and he's my friend. The next day, my neighbor apologized to my boyfriend (not to me, might I add), and that's when he finally believed me.

I really hope it doesn't take experiences like this for the 'good guys' to finally 'get it.'

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davejs profile image
David Leger

I don't think being less logical makes a poor engineer. It makes a different engineer. For example I am terrible at writing algorithms and mediocre at math (logical skills) and despite that I'm still a good engineer. My skills are just different. My product designer says she loves to work with me because I don't just think logically, but I'm empathetic to the needs of the end user. Engineering requires both logical and creative skills which are often hard to find in a single person. That is why non-logical thinkers (both men and women) can and do make great engineers.

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msmiel profile image
Mavreen Smiel

Correct. I was paraphrasing Demore's argument.

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cptsarcazmo profile image
Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community. View Code of Conduct
Капитан Сарказмо

And why is that a myth, not a fact?
Explain to me then why women and men playing chess in different leagues?
There are numbers if you want to search, proving that in a serious intellectual game women cant compete with men.

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andy profile image
Andy Zhao (he/him)

In case of difficulties in retrieving the data, you should stop elaborating a theory, and report the problem instead. You don't go as far as suggesting remedies and different approaches, because you don't have a road to walk on. Just a fragile, unstable rope connecting a couple of cherry-picked human science papers and your own subjective observations.

I think that's a really important message that is easily forgotten, whether it's because of blindness by privilege or letting our biases get in the way of reasoning.

Also, when seen through the perspective of evolution, diversity is exactly what's necessary for advancement. Shows how ironic it is to try to replicate and homogenize company culture. Although I may have gone on the deep end of generalizing evolution (oops).

You really struck the right tone addressing the past events in this article.

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m1pko profile image
Miguel Barba

Great article!

Because free speech doesn't mean being free of consequences.

This is something that an amazingly high number of people don't seem understand clearly and somewhere along the road they'll surely end up crashing...

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davejs profile image
David Leger • Edited

So before I make this comment, I want to make my political views clear. I am a leftist who believes in equality and disersity of all kinds. I think it makes us stronger to see other perspectives and helps us to challenge our own biases. Over the past few weeks I've been struggling to develop a firm opinion on this story.
Part of your post says the Damore presented his misconceptions poorly, that he should have provided strong scientific evidence to support his points. I am unsure of the accuracy of Damores sources or the concensus of the scientific community on this issue, but I've heard experts defending both sides and I do not have the time to look deeper into the reputability of the sources. However, my point is, I don't think Damore should be fired for presenting his perceptions (however misguided they may be). He presented what he thought were facts and Google disagreed with him on the truthfulness of those facts. He started the memo stating that he feels Google is an echo chamber where he is afraid to express his views and when he expressed them Google proved him correct.
In an interview, Damore started that he wrote the memo in the hopes that coworkers could tell him why he is wrong in thinking this way, he hoped the memo would spark a conversation about diversity in which he could learn about why Google's policies are the way they are, or if they could be better then it would reveal ways to improve them.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I am a leftist and I believe strongly in diversity of all kinds, and that includes diversity of ideas.
Damore had ideas, and he was fired before he even knew why those ideas were bad. I really believe he wrote the memo because he was looking for an explanation on his own for the company's policies but couldn't find one. I think this could have been an opportunity to have an internal conversation at Google about why gender and ethnic diversity is a thing to strive for and instead it was taken as a chance to fire someone who asked questions. Damore said that a large amount of Google employees privately expressed support for him and now the opportunity to educate those misguided employees is gone because they are now even more afraid to state their beliefs and we will never be able to have an open conversation with them about why their views are incorrect. These people who agree with Damore will instead maintain their misconceptions and quietly reaffirm them and potentially erode the diversity culture Google tried to protect in firing him.

PS - Like Damore, I am merely stating what I know from what I've seen. I am presenting my ideas in the hopes of having them proven wrong or if they are strong enough, challenge the misconceptions of others.
Thanks for the post! It helped me gain a bit more perspective on the issue and come closer to figuring out where I stand on it. :)

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perpetual_education profile image
perpetual . education

People should be able to say what they think. Then we can all think about it and come to our own temporary conclusions - and continue to have conversations and see things from different (often ephemeral) points of view. That's also diversity.

That being said... the whole idea of "The bar" is nuts. There is no bar. In the end - this job, this industry - is (should be) about Design and humanity and empathy. Most of the jobs have nothing to do with jumping high. The fanciest code in the world (assuming Google has it... right?) CLEARLY doesn't add up to the best products. Maybe if they had a wide variety of people working on them - someone would be honest enough to say "Google: you're getting worse all the time... this stuff sucks..." - this "bar" is just keeping the right people out / which is a very silly business decision - and that's great - because businesses that are silly should probably fail and leave room for good ones. We don't need to "fix Nike" and hail these corporations for "Treating people with decency" - when we really have the power to build our own companies.

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emojitronics profile image
abababb

I think the commonly expressed view that free speech is only that "the government can't arrest you for speech" is too reductionist. if you get fired, loose all your friends, are banned from every internet community, and are made to feel like a bad person, then it is pretty clear your ability to speak freely is being, at least hampered.

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maxart2501 profile image
Massimo Artizzu Author • Edited

Technically, you can still speak. And freely. But that's all you can get: you'd speak on your own, with nobody listening or offering you a stage to speak from.

After all, you can't expect to get any sympathy from the others if you say things nobody likes. Nothing gets hampered just because you don't have access to things you've been giving for granted before.

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damcosset profile image
Damien Cosset • Edited

The first step to solve our problem is to acknowledge that we have that problem. Hopefully, events like this one will bring people together and we will realise that we must do better.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald • Edited

Fantastic article! Thank you for restoring sanity and reason to the whole topic.

Also, this is the first I heard that jerk was sacked, and as a lead developer and administrator at a programming company, I'm glad to hear it. The sort of vitriol Damore spouted is a disgrace, not just to the industry, but to intelligent humanity altogether, and worthy of this:

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privateryan1984 profile image
Master of masters #GreyLivesMatterALittle

It’s very simple, if you have the smarts then you’re allowed through the door, if you don’t go somewhere else. It’s worked that way for centuries for a reason.

Can’t believe I wasted my time reading this.

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maxart2501 profile image
Massimo Artizzu Author

And yet you took the time to write this comment too.

I think I've addressed this very point of view in details. It's not "very simple", just as life isn't. If you think it is, you should explain why instead.

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BillStephenson

When I was in my early 20s I complained to a mentor about someone who would come over and look at my work and offer all kinds of what I considered to be not so helpful advice. They'd never actually done the work I was doing but they opined on how to do it often.

The mentor listened to me for a bit and then said "You know, you can learn something from anyone if you listen to them." That shut me up and humbled me and after getting over the hurt and pondering it I decided to look for the truth in it.

Not more than a week later the same guy who'd been bothering me came over and looked at what I was making and offered a suggestion that ended up making me a lot of money. He couldn't make what he suggested, he didn't know how or have the skills, but he knew I did and could.

How do you measure that in a job interview?

I don't know the answer to that but I could easily measure how much faster, easier, and more profitable that one suggestion was before I even implemented it.