Month: May 2018

Let’s Stop Making People Feel Stupid.

Let’s Stop Making People Feel Stupid.

Intro here.

There’s been a lot of interest in this talk, which I’m doing in various locations this year (details here). People have asked me to share slides, but I deliberately don’t put much content in my slides – particularly text – because I find it just distracts people from the delivery.

Most of the slides just contained pictures of cats!

So, instead, here are some notes. And a couple of pictures of cats. 🙂


Making people feel stupid: What does it mean?

  • People listen to what you say
    • They overhear you criticising others. They internalise it.

What’s wrong with me?

  • Maybe you’re quietly judging me already. Maybe you’re thinking, she’s probably not very clever and doesn’t like it when that gets exposed.
  • Maybe you’re right! I often think that about myself. But I have a maths degree, 18 years experience, I’m a tech lead with a major international consultancy, etc
  • I imagined you judging me just now. Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t. But the point is, I imagined that you would. Because I’m so used to people in tech judging each other for being stupid.

My story

  • I’ve always felt there was something wrong with me because I struggle to understand things unless they’re explained in simple concrete terms.
    • And yet I can do complexity.
    • I build complex systems out of simple parts.
      • If anything, my flaw is a tendency to too much complexity
      • …which is why I deliberately try to break things down into simple parts
      • …but I also don’t remember complex terminology – I remember their easier-to-remember counterparts instead.
    • I have missed out on jobs because people were bemused by my apparent lack of expertise
      • I have been told in interviews that I wasn’t competent because I couldn’t respond to the kind of question that requires you to have memorised stuff

The Impact:

Impact on the industry

  • Facts, Figures, Statistics:
    • There will be an estimated 1 million more computing jobs than applicants who can fill them by 2020, projects, based on estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on job creation and separately, estimates of college graduation rates by the National Science Foundation.
    • Only 11% of employers (US )believe higher education is “very effective” in readying graduates to meet skills needed in their organisations
    • Some 62% (US) said students were unprepared.
    • US: There are more than 500,000 open computing jobs nationwide, but less than 43,000 computer science students graduated into the workforce last year
    • Last year, the White House claimed the federal government alone needed an additional 10,000 IT and cybersecurity professionals.
    • Source, March 28th 2017:

Impostor syndrome

  • Hands up if you feel like other people are cleverer / doing things better than you?
    • Somehow they’ve failed to notice my failings
  • I hate – am almost incapable of – playing the game where everything is obfuscated and translated into a language that only the elite can understand.
    • Ironically this means that my impostor syndrome is at least partially based around the fact that I don’t seem capable of doing the things that entrench everybody else’s impostor syndrome
  • I can hit the ground running, but I keep forgetting
    • I have to prove it to myself over and over again

Scenario A: Meeting where people talk jargon & nobody understands

  • Hi, sorry I’m late
  • It’s fine, we were just talking about the ARM processor
  • Ah right, yes of course
    • Shit, ARM, I know I’ve heard of that before. ARM, um…
  • [some stuff I don’t hear cos I’m trying to remember what ARM stands for]
  • Looks guys, I’m so sorry, but I’ve forgotten what ARM stands for?
  • “Articulated retention matriculation”
    • I have NO idea what that is. I’ll work it out as I go along
  • Somebody else: Actually guys, I think we should be considering AMRM at this point
  • Me: AMRM?
  • Reply: Articulated meta-retention matriculation
  • [someone else, not me]
    • That’s a very good point! We definitely need to get meta at this juncture.
    • Oh God, I was only just following this, but now they’ve lost me. Meta? What does meta mean in this context? What does meta mean in any context? It’s one of those terms that always confuses me, I know that much
    • Oh well, I said juncture. I love saying juncture. It’s the perfect word for situations like this.
  • [some stuff that Person2 misses cos they’re worrying about what meta means]
  • Etc

Diversity and Inclusion

  • People want to fit in
    • Two effects:
      • They use jargon to fit in and create a shared identity
      • They feel bad if they feel like an outsider
    • People will leave, or not join in the first place, because they feel excluded
      • This disproportionately affects under-represented groups
    • Stereotype threat:
      • “…men in STEM subject areas overestimate their own intelligence and credentials, underestimate the abilities of female colleagues, and that as a result, women themselves doubt their abilities — even when evidence says otherwise”
      • Stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. If negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group, group members are likely to become anxiousabout their performance, which may hinder their ability to perform at their maximum level. Importantly, the individual does not need to subscribe to the stereotype for it to be activated. It is hypothesized that the mechanism through which anxiety (induced by the activation of the stereotype) decreases performance is by depleting working memory (especially the phonological aspects of the working memory system).

Talking in jargon

  • These insecurities cause people to increase the amount of jargon they use
    • They want to prove how clever they are.
    • Their colleagues struggle to understand them, but they pretend they do, to avoid looking stupid…
  • Complex impenetrable language is what people deploy as a kind of force field
  • Weird vicious cycle: everybody obfuscates to protect themselves from potential exposure as somebody who doesn’t fully understand
    • In the process they confuse everybody around them, who in turn become terrified that somebody is going to notice that they don’t fully understand what’s going on, so they join in the game, make everything they say sound complicated, and so the cycle continues.
  • There does come a point where you’ve been immersed in it for long enough that only some of it is confusing, and some of it does make sense.
    • That’s quite a kick!
    • You have to pay your dues to get to that point, and it feels good. You feel special.
    • So you pull the ladder up behind you.
    • You had to go up it, and so should everybody else.
    • You’re in the club now, and you want to savour that.
    • So you join with your new comrades in mocking those who still haven’t arrived.
    • You make no concessions in your language.
    • You’ve learnt what it means! It was hard! Why would you waste all that hard work and abandon your hard-won vocabulary by explaining things in simple terms?
    • Explaining things in simple terms takes twice as long anyway
  • Giving the answer you think people want to hear
    • The hairdresser asked me whether I had straighteners and I answered Yes. Why? Because I felt like it was the “right answer”. I don’t have straighteners. I’m never going to manage this labour-intensive haircut I’ve been given.

Scenario E: When talking jargon feels good

  • I felt all pleased with myself recently when I worked out how to join in with a hangouts conversation by using words like “discoverability” and “distinguishable”. I felt less insecure, and like I was now a proper grownup, a member of the club. But meanwhile there may well be somebody somewhere hearing nothing but “blah blah blah”…

Reasonable reasons

  • Is it sometimes ok?
    • “I can’t spend my whole time teaching people, I need people who can hit the ground running”

Unreasonable reasons

  • Many people project a sheen of knowledge
  • Many limit themselves by seeking to preserve knowledge once they find it.
  • People focus on their own experience – making themselves look good.
    • When they look at someone else they have a different agenda
    • They don’t stop to wonder whether they have ever said anything “stupid” like that themselves – and if they did, WHY?
    • Or they remember it full well and don’t want anyone else to remember, so distract attention by joining in with the attackers
  • We identify the things we CAN remember, then we fetishise them
    • We push them over alternatives
    • Not necessarily because they are better – just because we feel more comfortable there

Definition of competent

  • What really impacts on you and your team?
    • Is it lack of knowledge?
  • What does it actually take to be good at your job?
    • What is the definition of competent?
    • What is the definition of intelligent?
    • “Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.” – Aaron Schwartz

People who are not techies are impacted too

  • Examples of support staff, stakeholders, non-technical people… being made to feel stupid

My personal experience – the happy story

  • How I learnt to attack new knowledge outside my comfort zone.
    • The irony is that my career – and my enjoyment of it – has improved dramatically since I started admitting ignorance

First principle questioning

  • Elon Musk – ancient Greek teaching around logic – simplest possible question about most complex problem


Why Empathy is so Important

  • “They only care about making themselves look good”
    • This in itself is judgmental
    • Think about how it feels like to be them!
  • You can find yourself alienating others without ever having conscious malicious intentions.
  • Other people know other stuff
    • Two effects:
      • One: when they know stuff you don’t, you feel insecure
      • Two: When you know stuff they don’t, you can get impatient

Conclusions / Advice

  • Maybe you see me as an idealist. Or maybe I’m a pragmatist. Over the years I’ve paid attention to what works in life and what doesn’t. What makes people ill, what doesn’t. These are all practical hints for survival.
  • Does it actually matter how much people know? Industry constantly moving, people forget stuff
  • Some of the most important moments in my career have been the times I’ve realised that my colleagues are also confused.
    • Eternal thanks to those that admitted it
    • People are often scared to admit confusion
    • I often don’t know what I’m doing
  • The range of knowledge in our industry is VERY WIDE
    • Don’t expect other people to know what you know, and vice versa
  • People forget things they once knew
  • If people don’t know enough, WHY is that? What’s deterring them?
  • What would happen if we changed the rules?