Humor me for a moment, and suppose an industry is like a country. Every country is different; there are different terrains, different food sources, different dangers. The native people who have lived there for many generations know its quirks well and are able to survive by being well-adapted to them.
But life can’t be that simple, can it? Someone’s gotta come along and ruin the party. We’ll call them invaders and subjugators as we flesh this out.
Each industry presents its own challenges, and demands certain skills to face them, before anyone shows up to complicate it more than that. Medicine, law, technology — these all require their own skill sets, knowledge, and aptitudes to do no-frills, baseline work, and nothing else will do.
So, what does medicine look like? What happens when a hospital admin tries to tell a doctor how to practice medicine on a patient? The admin gets told to stuff it by the medical expert. Who is the most esteemed person in the room, the admin or the physician? Right again, the physician. And doctors don’t seem to have much trouble starting their own practices and hiring people who answer to them. And, finally, when a part of your body you didn’t even know existed starts to hurt, you interact with the doctor on his terms when you get care.
What does the law industry look like? For starters, almost every–if not just every–law firm is owned by lawyers. Non-lawyers in a law firm are strictly subordinate to lawyers. They’re paralegals, secretaries, assistants, process servers; not managers. What happens if a non-lawyer tries to tell a lawyer how to practice law? Right, they get told to shut it, too. And when someone needs to stay out of jail, they interact with the lawyer on his terms to get their best outcome.
Here’s the part we’re all waiting for. What about tech?
A Subjugated Industry
In technology, the script is flipped. The luggage flies the plane while the pilot sits in the cargo hold. I’ll exposit in excruciating detail.
Engineers are always answering to someone who’s borderline computer-illiterate; in the best case, highly indirectly, through a chain of engineering managers up to the CTO, who answers to a salesy CEO. In the worst case, directly. In the common case, your functional manager is an engineer, but you get told what to do by a product manager (PM) who knows more about The Office than basic first-year computer science.
A good test for who is more esteemed in a company is who will get fired if the other complains about them enough. By this test, the PM is by far more esteemed, despite adding nothing to the bottom line, and generally multiplying the engineering team’s productivity by a factor less than one. Imagine a medical practice where the office manager is more valued than the doctors, and try to tell me this isn’t backwards.
Now, if your skin is made of stone and being told what to do like some assembly line worker by an illiterate doesn’t get to you, it doesn’t always stop there. Entirely too often — because the correct frequency is never — PMs like to dictate HOW to do it, too. It’s always an idiotic suggestion, so all they’ve really done is cost the entire team time and energy spent fighting to keep an imbecile from steering the car they’re riding into a brick wall. You may have been lucky enough to have never encountered this, but I think we can agree that it’s unacceptable.
Now, this isn’t just a rant about bad PMs. I know current year is the “year of the PM”, and everyone is choking on PM dick. PM as a job description is the height of foolishness, and purely the product of technology being a subjugated industry ruled largely by people incompetent to do the work themselves.
The problem goes straight to the top. Recall the comparison to law and medicine before — they are respected experts in their domain and their services are solicited on their own terms. Our profession is not afforded this respect at any level.
When clients seek the services of an engineer, they don’t want to interact with an engineer. That’s why PMs exist at all — to sit between the engineers and the client after the salesman has moved on to the next wallet. This is analogous to a patient with a bullet wound insisting that a “people person” be a communication middleman between them and the doctor. And the outcome is not dissimilar: the patient’s liver gets taken out, then needs to be put back in, then the patient develops lead poisoning and goes to another hospital, leaving the doctor to get blamed for losing them business. It’s not the doctor who lost the patient.
Having someone who knows nothing about tech be a middleman in communication with the client makes about as much sense as having me be a middleman in a tense diplomatic exchange in Asia. I don’t speak the language, and in my attempts to mimic the sounds I heard the last guy pass on to me, I’ll insult both sides’ mothers and start a war. It’s not even just tech jargon; the concepts we regularly wrangle on the job are so far beyond a PM’s grasp that they are reduced to repeating mouth-sounds like I had to do in my misadventure into Asian diplomacy.
So, why are simpletons being thrust into our affairs? Because they speak management’s language. That’s what a subjugated industry is: an industry ruled by non-natives. And it doesn’t even stop there.
Have you ever watched Shark Tank or seen an interview with a venture capitalist (VC)? Their decision making process is hype-driven. They’re supposed to decide what company to invest in based on what good or service it’s providing, not under-the-hood details. But, instead, they’re camp-followers after a host of hype. They’ll invest in an AI that identifies asscracks just because it’s AI, and AI is hyped beyond recognition. If that doesn’t get you funded, involve VR in some way; problem solved! And if you want to take them for a real spin, work “blockchain” into each sentence somehow.
Decisions in tech, going up to how people gamble with other people’s money, are being made with no real understanding of what’s going on.
Most engineers I’ve worked with don’t really care about this or changing it. However, there’s still tension. The lunatics running the asylum know that things are backwards, and this leads to feelings of insecurity. They know very well that a tech company can tank in days if there’s an engineer exodus.
Like any foreign subjugator, they fear the natives. As they should. And, as foreign subjugators do in statecraft, they dilute the natives with other outsiders. These are our invaders.
Invaders are outsiders who either don’t want to subjugate because they’re content to have a cushy high-paying job, or because they are unable to at the moment. Invaders make our subjugators more secure by denying engineering the sense of unity necessary to bargain with a strong hand.
Who these invaders are won’t surprise you. They’re the entryists who have been calling tech racist, sexist — every word in the dictionary, and some not, with a negative definition, connotation, or just a bad sound to it. This clamoring is far from sufficient to actually get in — if that’s how they act outside, how will they be inside?
These invaders didn’t invade on their own; they were invited in by our subjugators to sow discord and keep the natives under control.
That is the state of tech at the present moment. Where do we go from here?
The answer is simple for me. Tech is our industry. We will reclaim it, we will own it, and we will build a wall to keep those animals out.
I’ll lean on medicine and law one more time for signs to know when we have reclaimed tech and can call it our industry:
- Engineers are recognized as experts and deferred to on all matters of technology more complex than a door lock.
- Engineers are valued as the backbone of the company, and if any non-engineer has a conflict with an engineer, they take initiative to make things right and regain the engineer’s favor.
- If this sounds unreasonable, try clashing with a salesman at your employer.
- A majority of tech companies are headed by engineers.
- Engineers have a chain of command up to the CEO that is made up entirely of engineers.
- Clients understand they are interacting with a tech company, and that will have its own unique flavor. If they can take their clothes off in a doctor’s office, they can work with us on our terms.
- This means they come to us with the problem and constraints, and leave the solution to the experts.
Out of the list above, all but one has a lot of momentum stacked against it. I don’t think anyone is going to be able to get an engineer appointed CEO, change the occupational status hierarchy, or retrain the clients in a subjugated company.
There is one domino that is not only the easiest to knock over, but that knocks over the rest for free: bootstrap your own tech company. Bootstrapping is critical, as starting your own company just to compromise your ownership and start answering to a hype-chasing VC will just create another pathological tech company.
The key bit is to start a SaaS company. SaaS lets you dream up the product, create it, and sell its usage. This, in itself, is training clients to respect the experts. The next step is saying no. Pathological clients will bankrupt you with feature requests if you let them. Keep your pimp hand strong and say no by default. This may sound extreme; pathological clients congregate around yes, and saying yes out of fear of losing clients will get you surrounded by them. You are the owner, you control your vision, and you’re responsible for the outcome.
Natives are the people who can start a company from scratch alone. In tech, that means engineer. You can learn to market, you can learn to sell, you can learn to hire; it’s all easier than learning to code. Likewise for doctors starting practices and lawyers starting law firms.
Subjugators are outsiders who enter an industry and take over the decision-making. Like foreign subjugators, they are unable to earn their own keep in the territory, and subsist by parasitizing the natives. The perfect example is the salesman who sells product by promising features without consulting the engineers.
Invaders are outsiders who enter an industry to coast at its expense, or are merely not yet able to be subjugators. Invaders are invited in by subjugators to secure their continued control of the industry.