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Programming Education

Programmer Privilege 353

Posted by Soulskill
from the overlooked-inequality dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Philip Guo, an Asst. Professor of Computer Science at the University of Rochester, has written a thoughtful article on his education in programming. Guo explains that he was no particular coding wizard while growing up, but when he jumped into a CS major when he went to college at MIT, he received all sorts of passive and active encouragement — simply because he 'looked the part.' He says, 'Instead of facing implicit bias or stereotype threat, I had the privilege of implicit endorsement. For instance, whenever I attended technical meetings, people would assume that I knew what I was doing (regardless of whether I did or not) and treat me accordingly. If I stared at someone in silence and nodded as they were talking, they would usually assume that I understood, not that I was clueless. Nobody ever talked down to me, and I always got the benefit of the doubt in technical settings.' Guo compares this to the struggles faced by other minority groups and women to succeed in a field that is often more skeptical of their abilities. 'I want those people to experience what I was privileged enough to have gotten in college and beyond – unimpeded opportunities to develop expertise in something that they find beautiful, practical, and fulfilling.'"
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Programmer Privilege

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  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:28PM (#45969027)

    If you actually didn't know what you were doing and they tasked you to accomplish something?

    Not very long.

    Frankly, this is another story about nothing.

  • More garbage (Score:4, Insightful)

    by danheskett (178529) <{danheskett} {at} {gmail.com}> on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:32PM (#45969071)

    Will the never ending garbage ever cease? The truth is he might have not felt qualified, but he was admitted to the CS program at MIT, one of the few elite CS departments that really means you are at least +1SD above average IQ, and quite likely +2SD or +3SD.

    The entire article is just naked assertion:

    [M]icro-inequities often had serious cumulative, harmful effects, resulting in hostile work environments and continued minority discrimination in public and private workplaces and organizations. What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they consist in micro-messages that are hard to recognize for victims, bystanders and perpetrators alike. When victims of micro-inequities do recognize the micro-messages it is exceedingly hard to explain to others why these small behaviors can be a huge problem.

    This is garbage. We are scientists. Quantify, describe, theorize and prove. If you can't explain it, and you can't define it, and you can't trace it back, perhaps it's not real.

    If someone came across my office for an interview talking about this vague non-specific garbage I would sent them over to copywriting or HR.

  • by jcr (53032) <.jcr. .at. .mac.com.> on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:32PM (#45969077) Journal

    Well, that depends on the organization. In better companies, bullshit artists get washed out almost immediately. At Microsoft, they can end up running the company.

    -jcr

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:35PM (#45969097) Journal
    Well, you act as though you understand, look at them and nod intelligently. You act the part. Then people take you at the face value. Is that your complaint? What do you expect? Everyone to quiz everyone and test their knowledge and understanding? Do you realize how insulted you would have felt if someone asked you, "hey, do you understand what I am talking about? or you are just standing there nodding like a dimwitted sheriff from Mayberry?".
  • by Bite The Pillow (3087109) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:37PM (#45969103)

    Body language can convey intelligence or ignorance, and explains this experience far better.
    It's actually quite interesting, if that is the explanation, because he is clueless about the real reason and attributes it to a stereotype. Projecting, in psychological terms.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:38PM (#45969125)

    This is exactly the problem with technical fields these days. People who do not know what they are doing, but look the part, are in technical positions and making horrible decisions. They are easily able to fool their equally non-technical managers.

    I'm not a greybeard by any means, but I was coding and finding bugs in TCP stacks and making web pages when the web was young back in the 90s, and because I don't have the right "look" (unattractive, not "chiseled" face), the right stature (under-aver height), the right clothing, etc., I am constantly fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously.

    I was hired full time as a "programmer" at a Fortune 100 company. My entire job involved a suite of approximately 50 ksh scripts. This alone is absurd, but I also had a coworker doing the same. However, he routinely intentionally didn't fix bugs so that he could make a big show of getting up in the middle of the night to manually run processes, and would get praise and rewards from the manager. I just made my stuff work and got no attention.

    Maybe I'm the dope for not playing the game, but I can't make myself be mediocre on purpose. But that's usually what I end up having to do a lot of the time anyway. I've made my way in this world by being a contractor, which allows me to avoid the politics and bullshit to a large degree. I'm aware that my life would be a lot easier if I had a lot less ego.

    Yes, this is sour grapes. Once upon a time I was respected for knowing what I was doing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:39PM (#45969145)

    Well, that depends on the organization. In better companies, bullshit artists get washed out almost immediately. At Microsoft, they can end up running the company.

    -jcr

    The government is staffed by bullshit artists. They thrive and get ahead. The truly productive people wash-out due to the terrible co-workers and lack of support from management. I lived it and suffered the consequences.

  • Re:More garbage (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lgw (121541) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:47PM (#45969215) Journal

    "Privilege" is a term used by those who feel they didn't earn what they have, that really offends those who have earned what they have. Sure, no one earned their IQ, and in that sense any direct benefits you get from IQ are a sort of privilege, but you really can't get very far on IQ alone, any more than you can on natural good looks or physical strength.

    You have to actually go do something useful and productive with you gifts to be rewarded once you leave school (and you'll discover there's far more to a programming job than abstract problem-solving) - at which point, if you're contributing more than the next guy, it's only just that you get more in return.

  • by QuietLagoon (813062) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:48PM (#45969225)
    ... people think he knows what he is talking about.
  • Re:More garbage (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:48PM (#45969229)

    Will the never ending garbage ever cease? The truth is he might have not felt qualified, but he was admitted to the CS program at MIT, one of the few elite CS departments that really means you are at least +1SD above average IQ, and quite likely +2SD or +3SD.

    The entire article is just naked assertion:

    [M]icro-inequities often had serious cumulative, harmful effects, resulting in hostile work environments and continued minority discrimination in public and private workplaces and organizations. What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they consist in micro-messages that are hard to recognize for victims, bystanders and perpetrators alike. When victims of micro-inequities do recognize the micro-messages it is exceedingly hard to explain to others why these small behaviors can be a huge problem.

    This is garbage. We are scientists. Quantify, describe, theorize and prove. If you can't explain it, and you can't define it, and you can't trace it back, perhaps it's not real.

    If someone came across my office for an interview talking about this vague non-specific garbage I would sent them over to copywriting or HR.

    As the 6'3" black guy with should length dreadlocs and a beard, I would respectfully disagree. I'm sitting here in a comfortable network engineer position that I worked hard to get. I started as an intern, worked at help desk, then desktop support, then finally beat 10 other applicants after working at the same company for 6 years, with an additonal 8 years experience outside the company to be where I am today. I've applied for the position multiple times over the course of 6 years, and finally got it. I have a Computer Science degree and relevant certs, but it does not matter. I sit here and see other people *start* out of school with no certs with the position I worked hard to get and cherish. I have friends (mostly black, or women) who applied for the same position year after year and do not get it. Why? They "look" the part; eg: white or asian. It does exist, but unless you are on the other side of it, you will never know.

  • by preaction (1526109) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:53PM (#45969287)

    Sometimes it's getting tasked to do something that teaches you how to do it. If you appear incompetent to the eyes of the taskmaster, you won't get the chance to even try.

    In an old retail job, a boss of mine told me he got where he was by saying "Yes, I know how to do that" to everything that was ever asked of him, and basically learning how to do it on the spot (driving a forklift, for example).

    If you can do a passable job while learning, you can do it better next time.

  • by polyphemus (473112) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:58PM (#45969335)

    I think he's trying to say that not everyone gets the benefit of the doubt. Sure, he was pretty much qualified, but a lot of people don't have the chance. He's not blaming anyone for his privilege, he's not saying he is wrong to have this privilege, he's saying it's wrong that so many other people don't.

  • by ahoffer0 (1372847) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @04:59PM (#45969339)

    This is a specific example of a more general phenomenon. Why do people where business suits? It is so they look the part. Why do kings hold an orb and scepter? ... so they look the part.

    Why do I say 'I have some experience with that.' When what I really mean is 'I read a Slashdot post about that.'? It is so I sound the part.

  • I'll disagree. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:00PM (#45969357)

    The truth is he might have not felt qualified, but he was admitted to the CS program at MIT, one of the few elite CS departments that really means you are at least +1SD above average IQ, and quite likely +2SD or +3SD.

    Possibly. But the point is that because he looked the part he was able to more effectively utilize his intelligence than someone who did not look the part.

    If his appearence had been different then there would be obstacles to overcome that he did not have to face.

  • Re:More garbage (Score:4, Insightful)

    by oodaloop (1229816) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:02PM (#45969377)

    Will the never ending garbage ever cease?

    Um, by definition, I guess that's a no.

  • by johnlcallaway (165670) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:03PM (#45969381)

    This has happened to me when I've talked in a 'stream of consciousness' about something I didn't know, but was guessing, and had people ask me questions later about the subject matter. When we sort things out that I'm not the expert they think, I've been told that I sounded very confident about what I was saying, which is why they thought I knew what I was talking about. I've since learned to interject comments like "I'm not sure" or "it might be something like this" to make sure people don't take things I say as facts when I'm only guessing.

    I'm just an old, overweight white guy so it can't be an Asian thing for me.

    I don't know where I heard it, but it seems to apply far too often: An expert is just someone who you think knows more than you do about something.

  • Re:More garbage (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jythie (914043) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:04PM (#45969389)
    Though more commonly, it offends people who have their self image tied up in the idea that they fully earned what they have with no inherent advantages. Bring up the idea that some particular factor made things easier for them somehow invalidates everything else they have done in their minds.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:10PM (#45969449)

    >When I meet a programmer who is ... a much older person ... my automatic thought is "really?" despite my conscious mind knowing better.

    Your subconscious isn't very bright, then. Real Programmers have been hacking since WWII. There are people in their 50-90s who have more knowledge about programming than you could ever hope to approach.

  • by Crudely_Indecent (739699) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:31PM (#45969647) Journal

    Not very long.

    Um...22 years next Tuesday.

    Part of the beauty of a software development career is that you're constantly asked to do things that you don't necessarily know how to do. When has a customer ever contacted a developer and asked "Can you do this very common thing that everybody can do in their sleep?" - Never! The question is always "We have this incredibly technical thing we want done, and nobody here knows how to do it - can you figure it out?" (paraphrasing, of course)

    It's always new and refreshing. I find the challenges invigorating - and often I find myself up until all hours because I've come to an understanding of something new and I want to see it to completion (or a good stopping point).

    Every task, every day, every job is a triumph.

    I even find it enjoyable to explain to my customers that I don't know how to do something. Part of the explanation includes my excitement to learn how to accomplish it. If I've explained it right, they're as excited for me to do the work as I am. They have a desire to see the job done - and so do I, but for entirely different reasons.

    One of the greatest joys is learning how many developers before me declined to try, or tried and failed. For my last contract, my customer explained that I was the 5th developer they contacted - and the only one to submit a proposal.

    The software went live Monday, and I couldn't be happier. My customer is in a pretty good mood too.

  • Re:More garbage (Score:4, Insightful)

    by lgw (121541) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:40PM (#45969747) Journal

    I find the opposite. It's the pampered well-to-do who most often sound off in Universities about "privilege" and its evils. And, hey, the concept probably applies to such.

    Its the false logic of "some people gain success through an unearned advantage, therefore all success is unearned" that is quite offensive to those who worked hard and sacrificed significantly to get where they are.

    We can recognize that some have an unearned advantage while also recognizing that success comes to others in a very deserved way.

  • Re:More garbage (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lgw (121541) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:49PM (#45969819) Journal

    Sure, in principle that's cool, but the idea of "inherent advantages" so oversimplifies people that it is itself an offensive stereotype IMO.

    Almost everyone has a mix of some above-average qualities and some below-average qualities. Realizing that success lies in doing what you're good at, instead of what you enjoy, is the first of many sacrifices needed for earned success. If you happen to love what you happen to be good at, hey, nice for you: people should feel good about that sort of thing. Long term, I think most of us come around to enjoying what we're good at, eventually, in any case.

    But saying that someone's success is unearned because of some "inherent advantages" is a very overused idea because of this. Take up a line of work where one's normal distribution of (dis)advantages gives a net benefit is normal, not privilege. And there are very few lines of work where you can get by merely on one thing that you were born with (like IQ, or very high natural testosterone levels, or whatever) without also needing a bunch of other qualities, which often are below normal.

    Sure, there people with a very rare collection of "happened to be good at"s that all line up to give them a real advantage, but then by definition that's a very small pool of people, and not a useful stereotype.

  • Re:More garbage (Score:3, Insightful)

    by danheskett (178529) <{danheskett} {at} {gmail.com}> on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @05:50PM (#45969839)

    . I've applied for the position multiple times over the course of 6 years, and finally got it. I have a Computer Science degree and relevant certs, but it does not matter. I sit here and see other people *start* out of school with no certs with the position I worked hard to get and cherish. I

    Did they paid equally to you? I have seen this scenario, and the proposed implications. People fresh out of college are cheap. People with no certs are cheap. As an existing employee who was good at the job, it would be expensive to replace you.

    It does exist, but unless you are on the other side of it, you will never know.

    Why did HR say you didn't get the job? What was different when you got it?

    As the 6'3" black guy with should length dreadlocs and a beard

    I am not disputing that this happens. I am dispute that it's because of privilege. Yes, a large black man with unusual hair and a beard is unusual. It is unusual for any position. There are pretty much no jobs where it's normal to see you. Because you are not average. You have unusual hair, unusual facial hair, unusual high, and unusual race.

    It doesn't mean that you have been victimized.

  • Re:More garbage (Score:4, Insightful)

    by brit74 (831798) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @06:43PM (#45970369)
    No, it's offensive because it suggests that people are where they are *simply* because of societal bias. It's a way for people who have not achieved something to explain away their lack of success (and other people's success) by reference to societal barriers and advantages. I consider it to be another variation of "everybody who is rich got there by exploiting other people (possibly illegally)." It's a way to hate on other people while coddling the underdog's feelings.

    I recognize that we aren't all exactly identical in the way other people perceive us. I also recognize that there is a bias against (say) women and minorities in computing. I think it's fair to attempt to change that. Using loaded words like "privilege" however, is really just an exercise in giving the have-nots an excuse to hate the people who have. It's also worth pointing out that words like "privilege" are actually simplistic explanations for what's going on. You'll generally find that people (white, black, male, female) have a variety of different advantages and disadvantages in comparison to other people. As a white person, if I say I'm going to be a rapper or a pro-athlete, people will be more skeptical than if I were black and saying that. Based on the way "privilege" is being used, we could say that black people are "privileged" in that narrow area. I'm sure we're also well aware of the fact that women are "privileged" in the fact that men want them and they have easy access to sex. That's the other reason I hate the word "privilege" because it's used like it's some kind of widely-valid general statement about a group of people, when it's actually a statement about some very narrow aspect of their lives. It's more accurate to say that this or that person has an advantage in aspectd x,y,z of their lives while having disadvantages in aspects a,b,c of their lives.
  • Re:More garbage (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Eskarel (565631) on Thursday January 16, 2014 @02:34AM (#45973537)

    The interesting thing about this sort of privilege is that people who have it don't notice it, because it isn't overt.

    As a white, heterosexual, middle class male in pretty much any western nation, if you're reasonably intelligent and work hard, you're pretty much guaranteed to succeed. Hell even if you don't work hard you're pretty much guaranteed to at least reach mediocrity. The deck is stacked in your favor in a truly fundamental way, you will be given opportunities and second chances just as a matter of course, people will pretty much expect that you're capable of doing things and any confidence in your abilities will be treated as confidence and not as arrogance. For the most part you can substitute "part of the majority ethnic group" for white and apply the same rule to any country, though not always. Those same opportunities aren't available to everyone. Doors aren't necessarily locked, but they aren't wide open either. It's not impossible to succeed, but it's nowhere near as easy.

    It's one of the reasons why libertarians are almost exclusively white middle class males. The belief that hard work will be rewarded requires a life where that actually happens.

Receiving a million dollars tax free will make you feel better than being flat broke and having a stomach ache. -- Dolph Sharp, "I'm O.K., You're Not So Hot"

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