Category: Psychology

Let’s Stop Making People Feel Stupid.

Let’s Stop Making People Feel Stupid.

(Image / comic by xkcd:

“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.


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.”


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:

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.

Unconscious Bias vs Cognitive Bias


What is the connection between unconscious bias and cognitive bias?


Unconscious bias is a term used to describe people making assumptions about sub-groups within society. They are not automatically conscious of those assumptions, or the impact they have on their own behaviour and reasoning.

So, for instance: Society – and my experience – has encouraged me to believe that women are not likely to hold senior technical roles. Therefore if I walk into a meeting of senior technologists and there is one woman present, I might assume she is there in some other capacity – eg some kind of administrative role. If you ask me whether I believe women are less capable than men of being senior technologists, I will say no, but my unconscious bias still leads me to draw unhelpful conclusions, and may cause me to treat this woman in a way I would not deliberately choose.

Cognitive bias is the phenomenon where people used flawed judgement to assess data. Those flaws are caused by the brain’s tendency to be biased according to various factors.

So, for instance, I may listen to two political arguments and assign greater validity to one than the other. I will believe that my assessment is based on rigorous logic whereas in fact, I am simply drawn towards the argument that confirms beliefs I already hold (this is called “confirmation bias”).

Another example is the gambler’s fallacy: If someone tosses a coin ten times and it comes down Heads every time, they might believe that it is more likely to land Tails on the next toss. In fact the likelihood is still 50:50, just as it always was.

Cognitive biases are a very heavily theorised & researched concept within psychology, whereas “unconscious bias” is just a description rather than a clearly defined technical term.

The two terms are related, because cognitive biases may well inform some of our unconscious biases, but they are not generally used in quite the same context.

Cognitive bias:
Unconscious bias: