Back when I was in London I suffered from a nasty bout of food poisoning. I wound up spending a lot of time in bed hiding in my hotel room. I got bored and looked for something to watch on TV. A channel was playing the movie Moneyball.
I am not a huge baseball fan, but I am interested in data and statistics, so I started watching it not really knowing if I was going to like it or not. It wound up captivating me in a way I didn’t think it would.
It was less about the statistic and more about the story of the central protagonist, team manager Billy Beane. Billy was scouted for the major leagues as a high school student and signed to join the Mets at age 17. His career was lackluster and he never really lived up to his potential.
The movie only briefly covered this backstory, but it fascinated me. Why had he not lived up to his potential? Did he just peak too early? What happened?
I finally bit the bullet and bought the book the movie was based on and I got a better overall explanation of what happened. Billy Beane was one of the most intelligent kinesthetic learners of the century. He was capable of doing things no one else thought possible and making them look easy. His physical talent and capabilities were beyond question.
The issue was his mind.
He never learned to cope with failure. As a high school student, he was always so much better than everyone else that failure was never something he thought much about. When he started playing against people older and more experienced than he was, he would strike out and his batting average dropped. He was unable to cope with this failure, so it manifested in explosive rage and he developed an inability to perform. If his first at-bat went poorly he was done for the rest of the game. He was afraid of embarrassment. He modified his batting to try and not strike out as often, but it worked against his natural athletic gifts. The only person keeping Billy from being a super star was Billy himself.
This story really strikes a chord with me. I speak somewhat openly about having mental health issues. I have had multiple jobs over the last few years where the work environment destroyed my ability to function. I would sob because I knew the programming knowledge to do a task was locked away in a safe somewhere in my mind and I could not access it because my mental health was in shambles. It’s so hard to tell someone that this isn’t you. You know you can do better, but you just can’t right now because your mind is interfering with your ability to function.
Over the years I have learned some coping skills. I know how I work best and I try as best I can to tell people I work for how I work so that they don’t break me. Some of them respect that. A lot of them don’t. I honestly don’t understand why a company would spend so much money on programmers and then make dick moves that destroy their effectiveness. The only explanation I have is that they don’t think of programmers as people. We’re a disposable resource. We’re like race horses. They are all excited about us until we break a leg, then they take us out back and shoot us and go out and buy a new one.
There was another aspect of the book that resonated with me. I have had very bad experiences with jobs where I feel like the people who hired me are waiting for me to fail. They look for any indication that I misrepresented myself or that there is some reason I can’t do what they want and they cut their losses and let me go. I see other people who are completely incompetent who linger forever and continue to get another chance in spite of their past record of failures.
One of the points of the book was talking about how baseball scouting has always been done. A bunch of guys will travel around watching high school baseball games looking for talent. They have a preconceived notion of what a star baseball player looks like. He has to be tall and muscular and have the right look. He has to have the right tools. He has to have a presence.
There was a whole chapter about the scouts sitting down with the economist who did the statistics going over who the scouts wanted and who the economist wanted. Most of the players the economist wanted horrified the scouts. They were all too fat, or not tall enough, or they would throw funny. It didn’t matter what their past statistics said about their ability, they didn’t have the right look. The scouts couldn’t imagine them being the next big thing.
Billy Beane was allowed to languish in baseball for ten years in spite of a poor track record of success because he had the right look. Everyone was waiting for him to shake off whatever was wrong with him so that he could be the player everyone imagined he could be. Baseball scouting is less about what someone has done and more about what you can imaging them becoming.
This applies so much to technology as well. We have the myth of the 20-year-old programmer in a hoodie who writes code that changes the world. We have ingrained in ourselves what we think a programmer is and how they’re supposed to look and act. If you’re a venture capitalist, you’re not looking at a track record of past success, you’re looking for someone that feels right. You look at what you imaging that person can be rather than who they are.
Having several failed start ups is seen as a bonus, but only if you’re the right kind of person. People are willing to keep giving you chances because they have a gut feeling that you are going to become something even though you have no past track record to back it up.
If you’re black, or female, or trans, or some other underrepresented minority group, it’s harder for venture capitalists to imagine what you could become. It doesn’t matter as much if you have a solid business plan or if you’re doing something no one else is doing. If it’s something that is outside of their scope of understanding, you’re not going to sell them of the fantasy of being Peter Theil investing in Facebook.
This is a larger problem even beyond the scope of who gets funding and who doesn’t. We are sold on the idea that a programmer looks and acts a certain way. Everyone has to be a 10x programmer. Everyone has to work 80 hours a week. Everyone has to be passionate. Everyone has to keep learning the next hot thing because if you don’t you’ll be left behind. Everyone has to be under the age of 30 because young people are smarter.
No one can ever be wrong. No one can ever admit to not knowing something.
I think we make the mistake of thinking that a lot of the toxic behaviors we see come from a place of strength. It’s quite the opposite. It comes from a place of fear. We fear being displaced. We fear being wrong. We lash out at minorities because we benefit from looking like what a programmer should look like and the fewer people we have to compete with, the easier it is to be at the top of the heap (or the stack).
I have had people who are less talented than I am sabotage me at work because they see their job as a zero sum game. You are either the smartest person at the office or you are not. It’s a competition. If someone knows more than you do, then it diminishes your sense of self and you must get rid of the person who is challenging your identity.
We are limiting what people are capable of by forcing them to put on a facade that they are never wrong. We are creating a more toxic environment by conforming to these ideas of what a programmer is supposed to look like. We think we’re special unique snowflakes, but we’re not. This is a problem everywhere.
We need to stop breaking people by trying to force them to conform to a mold that was set fifteen years ago. We need to be open to people who look different and have different ideas. We need to stop making people feel inadequate if they are not the smartest person in the room. We need to stop being hostile to people who are different and waiting for them to fail while giving a pass to the people who look like us because we imaging what they could be. That’s a fantasy, not reality. They’ll never become what they’re capable of if we don’t challenge them to think differently.