I was attending That Conference when I received the news from my friend Aaron Douglas that Robin Williams had died.
I, like many others, grew up watching Robin Williams in “Hook”, “Aladdin”, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”. As I got older I remembered his performances in “Awakenings” and “Good Will Hunting.”
I know many people were shocked by the fact that he took his own life. After the four decades of joy that he brought to people all over the world, many could not comprehend why someone so universally beloved would feel he had nothing left to live for. He had a loving family, success, and universal love from billions of people who grew up watching him in movies and TV.
I get it.
Meryl Streep, among others, have called Williams ”a gentle soul.” The world is not kind to gentle souls. The programming world is especially unkind to gentle souls.
Programmers are supposed to be tough. Programmers are supposed to work eighty to a hundred hours a week and be happy to live off of Red Bull and Red Vines while keeping The Internet from crashing and burning.
Last year Ed Finkler did an amazing talk at Madison Ruby about mental illness in programming. I think it takes a special kind of person to be good at programming. I think you have to pay a lot of attention to detail and hold yourself to very high standards. I think many of the qualities that make you a great programmer also make you a rather sensitive and fragile person.
I am a very sensitive person. I recently did a talk at CocoaConf Columbus that did not go as well as I would have liked. I know it bothered me far more than it bothered anyone else. I held myself to a far higher standard than anyone else did. I admit to spending a minute in an abandoned corner crying and pulling myself together.
I have somehow established a reputation for being an extrovert. I may or may not be. I don’t know. It changes.
I know that the longer I spend around large crowds of people the harder it is for me to filter out other people’s thoughts and emotions. When I am around happy people I get slightly stoned on their positive emotions. When I am around negative emotions I can feel my soul being drained from my body.
I know that I am sensitive. I know I feel things most other people do not. I think that my ability to feel and empathize with other people could either be a strength or a weakness. I can get inside other people’s heads and create things they would love and enjoy. I also tend to be very easy to bully and people tend to enjoy crushing me because I am fully aware of what they are doing and I can do nothing to stop it.
I really wish our world valued sensitivity more. “Sensitive” is used as an insult against people we want to oppress. You didn’t like being insulted? You are being too sensitive. It was just a joke. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t funny.
We drive sensitive, introverted people out of our society. We are incredibly competitive and it is easy to crush sensitive people and step over their bodies on the way up the ladder. Sensitive people are vulnerable. Sensitive people have X-Ray vision. We see and feel things that many people do not. Predators can sense that they can use dog whistles to set us off and play dumb when no one else can hear.
Many companies want things both ways. They want incredibly talented people, but they want to abuse them and treat them like shit and have them still function perfectly. Hate to break it to you, but you really can’t have it both ways.
People are kind of like microphones. The microphones you can drop on the floor and abuse tend to not be particularly sensitive. They can record sound, but they usually can’t capture a lot of dynamics or nuance.
Really good microphones that can capture a large dynamic range tend to be super sensitive. There are ribbon microphones that can burn to pieces if you look at them funny. You can capture amazing sound from them, but you can’t drop them on the floor and expect them to work.
If you tell an employer that they can’t abuse you and expect you to perform properly, you get looked at like you are insane. If you pretend that you can be abused to get your foot in the door, things fall apart very quickly and you tend to get fired.
I watch the anime “Space Brothers.” There is a plot point in the last half of the series where Hibito has a near fatal accident on the moon and suffers from PTSD. The people at NASA have deemed him damaged and want to wash him out of the program. There are many episodes where he tries to demonstrate that he has an ability to get over his PTSD, but there are more astronauts than there are missions to send them on, so he is not cleared to go back to the moon. The top brass at NASA do not have an incentive to help Hibito clear the stress tests, so they actively work against him rather than working with him.
I feel that, in spite of our supposed shortage of programmers, we are constantly looking for reasons to exclude people from our community. We look for reasons not to hire someone rather than trying to figure out ways to work around their various quirks and idiosyncrasies. It creates an atmosphere where people are afraid to disclose very real needs they have to keep themselves healthy and productive. This is a bad situation.
As much as people talk about money and stock options, there are other ways to attract top talent. Being tolerant of the quirks that make people amazing programmers is a step in that direction. It really does not take much to work with someone so that they can remain healthy enough to keep working. We want to work. We want to be able to do what everyone else does, but sometimes we just can’t. We appreciate any accommodations that are made to allow us to work and do things that make us happy. Be flexible with working from home. Allow people to have a bad day or two. Realize we have a limited number of spoons.
There are a limited number of young white males who are willing to work for half of what they are worth. Rather than lobby Congress to let more foreign programmers over here to be abused, please try to work with the people who are here who are slightly damaged but still want to be productive members of society. Be Tom Smith.
Members of the programmer community do not remain undamaged for long. Don’t discard ones who are and hope that there is a ready supply waiting to be damaged and discarded. Experience is worth more than naiveté.
I mourn the passing of a fellow gentle soul. I hadn’t thought of Robin Williams for a very long time, but his passing due to suicide has affected me more than I thought it possibly could. Even though I never met him personally, my life was enriched by the work he did while on this Earth. I know I will never affect the multitude of people that he did, but I hope that I can do something, anything, to make life a better and more rich experience due to my participation in it. Thank you Robin. I hope that you find the peace in death that you could not find in life.