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January 27th, 2018

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Sarah Kessler attacks Steve Yegge over so-called privilege

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Sarah Kessler has a post on QZ, the goal of which is left unspecified.

The title is “Writing 5,000 words about why you quit Google is the ultimate privilege”. I’m pretty sure the ultimate privilege is cheating your workers, sexually harassing 20 women, and then getting elected President Of The United States of America. There are other great privileges in this world, such as the ability to avoid paying taxes because you keep most of your assets in overseas tax shelters. In fact, there are many important privileges in this world, and writing an essay about your previous employer is fairly far down the list. One has to have a fairly skewed perspective to think of this as “the ultimate privilege”.

Kessler writes:

Yegge seems to be writing because he believes people will find his career move interesting.

Obviously some of us will find his essay interesting. Many of us were fascinated when we read his previous criticism of Amazon, where he worked for 6 years. Within the tech world, I believe his essay continues to be the most influential in terms of how we think about the relationship between Jeff Bezo’s and the computer programmers who work for Bezo. And Yegge’s Amazon essay had one great reveal:

But there’s one thing they do really really well that pretty much makes up for ALL of their political, philosophical and technical screw-ups.

His discussion of Amazon’s early commitment to SOA (Service Oriented Architecture), and therefore well-defined interfaces, is fascinating, if you are into tech at all. When my mom asks me why Amazon seems to be beating all of its competitors, I try to summarize Yegge’s essay in a way that my mom can understand. Because I think Yegge’s explanation is one of the best one’s that we, the public, have available to us.

So yes, obviously, some of us are fascinated with anything Yegge will write about a previous employer.

I don’t know him personally, but I like to read anything that Steve Yegge writes, even when I disagree with him. Search my blog for “yegge” and you can see that I’ve quoted him a few times over the years, sometimes in agreement and sometimes in disagreement. I do agree with him about many technical subjects, for instance, Yegge and I are both listed in the “Criticism” section of the Wikipedia page on Object Oriented Programming.

That Yegge tends to be public about his disagreements with Google is well known. This is from 2013:

Very few companies formally allow a manager to unilaterally fire. That’s way too much of an HR/lawsuit risk. Instead, these closed-allocation dinosaur companies define credibility in such a limited way that managers can either support or not support the employee, and then if the person is not supported, that person’s credibility is zero and the manager isn’t firing that person. “The company” does it, after “careful review” of “objective” performance statistics. On top of this, they set tight headcount limits so that for anyone to get a good project requires a special favor, allowing the company to say “no” and appear consistent on the matter.

Google is aware enough of this problem to allow engineers at above a certain level to acquire independent credibility.

At Staff, you can pull a Yegge (quit your project in public) and be OK. If you’re a SWE 3 and you try that, you’re fucked.

If Yegge has decided to quit Google, his reasons certainly need to be know. He has an audience that has followed him for many years, an audience that will be interested in his opinion about Google. I’m unclear why Kessler would be critical of this? Is anything gained when workers such as Yegge keep silent about their employers?

Kessler seems critical of Yegge because his reasons for quitting seem minor:

His reasons for writing a public explanation of Google’s shortcomings are not a rampant culture of sexual harassment or, say, because they called him an independent contractor as a way to justify stealing his pay.

…He seems unaware of the many worker places where workers actually do endure physical abuse, as opposed to a lack of inspiration.

I wonder if he’s unaware, or if explaining his political perspective would take more than 5,000 words? As a point of comparison, I used to be active with the labor movement in the USA, way back in the 1990s, and I remain a political radical on the far left, but I don’t know how I could possibly fit my political beliefs into every essay I write. Most sane people very reasonably point out that my essays are already too long, and that’s with me leaving my politics out of it!

Kessler concludes:

The blog post displays a lack of awareness for less-privileged lives (even as it also discusses how an Uber-like app might help them). And if it’s any signal of the mindset in Silicon Valley, that is a huge problem.

I do wonder if there is a culture clash happening here? Yegge participated in the original blogosphere that got going around 1999 and lasted till perhaps 2008. The original blogosphere was killed off by Facebook and Twitter, who sucked the energy away from the world of independent blogs in direct communication with one another. Rebecca Blood captured the idealism of the early blogosphere:

We are being pummeled by a deluge of data and unless we create time and spaces in which to reflect, we will be left with only our reactions. I strongly believe in the power of weblogs to transform both writers and readers from “audience” to “public” and from “consumer” to “creator.” Weblogs are no panacea for the crippling effects of a media-saturated culture, but I believe they are one antidote.

Two years later, in 2002, she came to believe that weblogs needed a standardized code of ethics. This was back when we all believed that blogs were going to continue to increase in importance. None of us, at that time, anticipated the sudden extinction event that would occur when Facebook and Twitter gained momentum in 2008.

I am curious if Kessler is aware of that culture and history? Because it seems to me that Yegge’s post is a fairly normal post from the blogosphere of 2000-2008. It is authentic and personal according to the norms that we were celebrating a bit more than a decade ago. I’m sure he thought he was writing a normal blog post, given the history of his blogging.

And, of course, I believe in the norms of the original blogosphere. I continue to try to celebrate them here on my own blog. I continue to believe we would live in a better and more just world if people tried to share their personal experiences as honestly as possible. Loyalty to those norms of honesty and authenticity are why I wrote How To Destroy A Tech Startup In Three Easy Steps. I wonder what Kessler would think of my actions? If writing a 5,000 word essay about a former employer is somehow a faux pas, then what would she think of a 50,000 word book that does the same?

Modern social media tends to be full of careerists, doing what they can to promote their brand. We expect Kim Kardashian to be deliberate in her use of social media, even if much of her media productions work hard to facilitate a spontaneous and unplanned ambience. But I’m fairly sure Yegge’s essay fits more into the model of sincerely spontaneous utterance that was common on the blogosphere 10 or more years ago, rather than the fake spontaneous action of modern social media — that fake spontaneous action which is really as carefully planned as any corporate announcement.

I’m troubled by Kessler’s essay, but especially this part:

And if it’s any signal of the mindset in Silicon Valley, that is a huge problem.

I agree that the tech titans have now gained a worrisome amount of power, but why is Kessler directing this criticism at Yegge, instead of Sergey Brin and Larry Page? If Kessler is worried about the power of the tech titans, she would be wise to criticize the leadership of the tech titans. Yegge is simply a worker who quit because he no long felt inspired. He is setting a good example for all of us workers. We should all try to find jobs that inspire us. That might take us many years, and some of us certainly are privileged with more freedom than others, but as a goal, it is certainly something that all workers should aspire to: find work that inspires you.

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2 COMMENTS

January 27, 2018
8:23 pm

By Josh Rehman

Kessler hints at her goal with this line in the last paragraph: “The blog post displays a lack of awareness for less-privileged lives…” So, she is calling out someone for complaining about their lot when others have it far worse.

There is striking resemblance to Claire Landsbaum’s attack on Steve Martin for his tweet about Carrie Fisher after her death. More and more I see people being attacked for their speaking their mind. It seems to be mostly left-leaning people attacking other left-leaning people for not being left-leaning enough.

My impression is that a certain type of person likes to be outraged, especially about things like “lack of awareness”. They also like it when their target cares and responds to them, in turn making them feel important, involved, and potentially powerful. It may be that the motive is more calculating in Kessler’s case, as expressing outrage at someone’s lack of awareness is a great way to get attention, clicks, and ultimately money and more influence.

Of course, it is a dirty trick. It is always possible to pick some level of zoom on which someone’s thoughts are petty, self-centered, and meaningless. Kessler never pauses to wonder about herself. What sort of privilege and lack of awareness does it show for her to be wasting her time on a piece of internet criticism rather than working at a soup kitchen? Or fighting to improve the lives of those she claims to care about? No doubt she would rationalize her writing as being the best she can do for them, to call out injustice where she sees it, and no-one can solve all the worlds problems. But then, why does this not apply to Yegge? It does, but she cannot allow herself to see it.

And what a sad state! To attempt to police the acts of others, to distinguish between trivial and important for them, this must be both futile and maddening for her (assuming it is not economically motivated, of course). But it is much easier to police the thoughts of others, to set their priorities straight, than to act on those priorities yourself. It gives the impression of a good deed without all the messy work involved with actually doing one.

January 29, 2018
12:09 am

By lawrence

Josh Rehman, thank you for writing. What you write is interesting.

Kessler is not explicit about what she wants from Yegge, but one of the more obvious ways to read Kessler is to assume that she wants some expression of guilt from Yegge. The underlying impulse seems to be a religious one. For some centuries now it has been noted that the Christian religion defines itself in terms of faith, whereas the Jewish religion defines itself in terms of practice. For instance, one must practice halal to be a member in good standing with the religious community. I wonder if a similar movement is emerging for a certain kind of progressive? One has to practice a kind of halal to be a member in good standing. The halal, in this case, seems to involve an expression of guilt. Or maybe this is a secular manifestation of the old Protestant tradition of giving Testimony in public places: “I was a sinner, but now I have seen the light!”

Progressive religions have contributed a lot to the progressive movement in the USA, so I am not critical of all attitudes arising from religious traditions, but in the case of Kessler’s essay, I’m curious what the goal is? If Yegge expressed guilt regarding his privileged status, how would the progressive movement benefit?

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