Category: Psychology

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. 🙂

confused-cat-7-im-confus

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 Code.org, 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: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2017/03/28/tech-skills-gap-huge-graduates-survey-says/99587888/

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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?

confused-cat-10-dafuq

Let’s Stop Making People Feel Stupid.

Let’s Stop Making People Feel Stupid.

(Image / comic by xkcd: https://xkcd.com/1053/)

“I know nothing.”

“I know less than nothing.”

“I am an impostor.”

“The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.”

These are sentences that will be familiar to the vast majority of IT professionals. But how about these?

“They know nothing about X.”

“They have no relevant experience.”

“Wow, I just discovered my colleague doesn’t understand Y. I’m shocked.”

“Can you believe, I just interviewed this dev, and they didn’t even know what a Z was?”

Over my 18-year software career, those last two have been said to me countless times. They are said derisively, scornfully, impatiently. And every time those words are said, we lose both existing and potential members of our profession. We lose them because they feel stupid; because they believe they can’t keep up; because they have given up on ever really knowing what they’re doing; because they’re terrified that people are saying the same things about them.

We work in an industry where knowledge is highly valued, and where every time we look for a new job we have to prove how much we know. We find ways of posturing to one another, of proving how well-informed we are. Sometimes we join in when others’ knowledge is criticised – relieved that we are not the target ourselves.

And yet, we know that everybody has gaps. There are a million different paths through software development, touching a million different combinations of technologies and skills. On a day-to-day level we have to specialise on one task at a time. The skills we don’t need right now are necessarily forgotten, or delegated to someone else. And that’s fine.

If somebody already feels like they don’t “fit in”, then this kind of pressure and insecurity can be the final shove that persuades them to leave the profession or not try and join in the first place. Women and non-binary people, people of colour, older people, LGBT people and many other under-represented groups are strongly impacted by intellectual elitism. But of course, ALL software professionals are impacted.

Let’s stop putting pressure on individuals to know everything, and focus instead on how teams can work together to build and provide the unique combination of skills required to deliver their current project – in the certain knowledge that whatever that combination was today, it will be different tomorrow.

Instead of knowledge, let’s focus on aptitude. Instead of judging people about what they don’t know, let’s help them to feel excited about all the new things they’re going to discover.

Instead of saying “For God’s sake, do you really not know about X?” let’s say “Fantastic, you don’t know about X! Lucky you. That means you get to learn it. What can I do to help?”

(I’m hoping to do talks on this topic at events in 2018 – let me know if you have an event you’d like me to talk at).

Fighting Procrastination (in solidarity with all teachers everywhere)

Fighting Procrastination (in solidarity with all teachers everywhere)

I used to be a high school maths teacher. It didn’t go well. I miss the energy and creativity of the young people I worked with, but apart from that I have no regrets about leaving that profession behind me.

A friend of mine has just completed his first term of teacher training, and it’s HARD. You would think that now the Christmas holiday period has started, he’d be able to have a rest. Nuh-uh. Too much work to do.

Coincidentally I’ve also been facing a giant to-do list this week, and with the festive season fast approaching I’ve struggled to stay focused. But I have various coping mechanisms, which I just shared with my teaching friend and I thought were worth preserving for my own benefit too. And if they can help anyone else (particularly teachers), so much the better:

“What you have to remember is that you’ve been working flat out for months without even the option of slowing down. Whether you like it or not, your mind and body need a rest and what’s happening right now is that your subconscious is forcing that rest on you whether you like it or not. Sadly your conscious mind knows that there isn’t really time for that rest, and that’s preventing you from enjoying it – which is a shame.

So…

1) Accept right now that the workload is impossible. Therefore it’s either not all going to get done, or some of it will have to be done to a poor standard. There’s no point lying to yourself about that. You can’t bend time. You and thousands of other teachers are in the same position and you just have to accept it.

2) Given that you’re not going to get all of it done anyway, just pick TWO OR THREE SMALL THINGS and do those. Be unambitious. Don’t tell yourself “today I’m going to do the top 50 things on my to-do list,” because that’s a lie. You’re not going to achieve that, no matter how much you hope. And you already feel shit about that, and the whole thing is so depressing that it’s preventing you from doing anything.

Instead, aim low. Tell yourself you’re going to do a small number of things. Then do them, and feel good about having achieved your goals for the day. If that glow of success gives you the energy to do a little more, fantastic. But don’t plan for that, otherwise you’re back to square one.

Baby steps. You need to get back into a rhythm. If somebody gives you a mountain to climb when you’ve just eaten ten mince pies, you’re going to tell them to sod off. But a flight of stairs? Yeah. That’s a possibility.”

POSTSCRIPT:

I just did something which I realised I often do, and may also be good advice:

I scrolled down my to-do list until I found something I could easily do. The thing in question is pretty pointless and not at all urgent. It can easily wait til after Xmas and the world wouldn’t end if I never got round to it at all. But it’s a gateway drug. It’s not only easy, it’s vaguely enjoyable. And I know that it represents an “in”, ie once I’ve done that, I’ll be in the swing of Getting Things Done and I’ll find it easier to tackle a more worthwhile item from the list.

I know from experience that if I don’t do this, I’ll just arse around on the internet and do nothing from my to-do list. So it’s better to do something slightly pointless, but knowing I’ll find it much easier to follow it with something pointful… than to do nothing at all.

Advice for women (or anyone!) starting a career in tech

(a series of tweets originally sent to @ArrieLay and stored here for posterity…)

Fake it til you make it. Always act like you know what you’re doing, cos You DO – You’re being imperfect, just like everyone else.

Pay attention to people. Focus on empathy. Learn to pair. Learn to collaborate. Celebrate and enable your fellow team members.

Always come to work as yourself. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerabilities, and give others space to show theirs too.

Take risks. Relish your uncomfort zone.

Remember that EVERYBODY feels insecure about their knowledge levels. It’s impossible to know everything, and everybody thinks they are disadvantaged because others know more than them.

Learn to embrace your knowledge gaps. See them as exciting opportunities to learn more. Never be ashamed of them.

Have a questioning attitude, be open about your excitement about learning more. People respond well to it and will help you learn.

Question everything.

Love people. Even the annoying ones. People are great. People are useful. People will help you, whether they mean to or not. 🙂

And for the older amongst us… Age is an advantage, not a curse. Find the wisdom you forgot you had. Age is money in the bank.

Here are some links to some helpful resources for women arriving at or returning to careers in tech: https://insimpleterms.blog/2017/10/13/resources-for-women-arriving-at-or-returning-to-it/

How to Establish a Culture of Learning

I’ve pulled this out of a larger discussion. The detail of that discussion is not important, but a thing happened there which often happens in many discussions in IT: The possibility was raised that some people might be less well informed than they ought to be.

It’s a bugbear of mine. I think it’s a hidden menace in the software industry so I wanted to put something here.

And no, I do NOT think the menace is that people in IT are ill-informed. Quite the opposite: I think the menace is that we constantly judge one another for being (we believe) ill-informed.

I am often reluctant to admit that I don’t recognise a piece of IT terminology, because I think I might be judged for that. I think it might lead to people taking me less seriously in the context of whatever the discussion is.

But here’s the thing: There are thousands of books out there. Thousands of principles and phrases which encapsulate software development principles. Every single one of us will have books that we have not read and yet which some of our fellow colleagues believe are crucial to a good understanding of software development. Every single one of us will have phrases and terminology we have, by whatever chance, not come across before, even though they may seem crucial to a particular colleague.

There is a temptation sometimes to judge one another for not having knowledge of a particular thing. This attitude feeds strongly into impostor syndrome and the insecurities we all feel about how well equipped we are to do our jobs. The solutions to this are:

a) To rejoice whenever we encounter somebody who doesn’t have knowledge of one of our favourite things. It means we get to introduce it to somebody new! Hurrah!

b) To not assume that just because somebody has not come across a particular way of framing a problem or solution, does not mean they do not have knowledge and understanding of the underlying principles.

c) To always always feel safe to admit any gaps we might have, as that encourages others to do the same. This means we all get to learn more and foster a culture of continual learning and experimentation, which is crucial to good software development.

d) To have faith in the fact that we are part of a larger community of seasoned experts. This compensates for the fact that there is NO SUCH THING as a fully informed individual. We all have gaps. But together we can inform one another and create a powerful force.

Machine-Learnt Algorithms and Unconscious Bias

I attended a web foundation lunch a couple of weeks ago, around many issues related to data and ethics. I have to confess a lot of it went over my head. Since then I attended a talk by Cathy O’Neill which made some things a lot clearer to me. I’ve bought her book Weapons of Math Destruction, so hopefully I’ll have some more cogent notes after I’ve read that.

But in the meantime, here’s one small thought I had about algorithms and patterns:

As human beings we’re very good at identifying patterns, without thinking about it. So, if my experience is that the vast majority of women I see in technical meetings are admin staff, then whenever I encounter a woman in that context, I will guess that she is non-technical.

In a similar way, the machine-learnt algorithms are making assumptions and developing decision-making processes based on patterns identified in existing data. As human beings, we can train ourselves and each other not to make assumptions based on previous experience, and to be open to new possibilities. Is this also something which is / should be / can be built into machine-learnt algorithms?

Beyond Two Genders

Beyond Two Genders

I have just finished reading CN Lester‘s book Trans Like Me, which I highly highly recommend. Really interesting and gives some useful insights into the experiences of those who don’t fit gender norms, in all the different subtle ways that can manifest.

I met CN Lester / saw them perform in London a few weeks ago and they were great (they don’t identify wholly with either male or female).

If you’re new to these concepts, it can seem quite confusing. Somebody I know asked the following question:

“Does ‘not identifying as wholly male or female’ mean that they reject the whole premise of male/female archetypes, or that they accept it but don’t identify with either of them particularly?”

My response, as I understand it:

It’s not about archetypes so much as simply not believing yourself to be fundamentally one or the other.

It goes beyond gender stereotyping and coding. You can reject gender stereotypes but still co-exist peacefully with your body and happily define yourself as “a woman” (or man).

But the important thing to understand is that there are no clear dividing lines. There are people who are 100% clear that they were born in the wrong body. There are people who refuse to conform to gender stereotypes. But there are also all shades between, and the distinction between sex (physical sex organs) and gender (socialised traits) is by no means as clear cut as people believe.

One of the many interesting things about CN Lester’s book is their examination of all the different ways people have sat outside the gender norms historically. There are so many different ways this can happen! Some accepted to some extent or other (eunuchs and castrati for instance), some not.

CN Lester has suffered significant bodily dysphoria (not to be understated – causes actual pain, both physical and mental) but does not see themself as either a woman or a man.

I really do recommend you read the book. I can’t do it justice here.

It really made me think about my own gender identity. I do not fit gender stereotypes in so many ways, and I absolutely reject them on several levels, but I still do identify as a woman.