Friday, April 8, 2016

career advice 1

I went to see a book presentation by Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack on career advice for women in technology. And I think it's all bad advice. It's not that everything she said is wrong but even when she starts with something that makes sense (like "always negotiate"), the details end up as a bad advice. If women really follow the advice like this, no wonder that it would create the "gender gap".

I also have another story on the subject with another book, "Friend & Foe" which I think was also giving weird career advice. I wrote a letter to its authors, and after some editing of the personal details, it might be entertaining to publish at some point, as an example of what I see as the good career advice.

But getting back to this one, I've got a couple of interesting points that are completely separate from the advice as such.

The first one is that she was talking a lot about the "nerd culture": board games, videogames, cosplay, comics books and what not. She seems to imply a strong connection between the nerd culture and the engineering. Which I don't think is true. If someone is into the nerd culture, it doesn't necessarily mean that they would be good at the technical jobs, and if someone is good at technical jobs, it doesn't mean that they would be into the nerd culture. For the sake of the point, I don't think I'm into the nerd culture as described. I'm more into the real books, cooking, racecars, and lots of other small hobbies. Well, there are different opinions about this, as one of the girls I dated said that I'm so nerdy, but her reference point was different, she was really from a redneck background. I like to play sometimes at pretending being a redneck (you could say that it's my cosplay) but I really am not one by a wide margin and I know it.

Let me tell you an old Russian parable by Kozma Prutkov (a collective pen name of a group of writers): Once upon a time there was a gunsmith who had built a wonderful new rifle with great many features. With it you could clean a game, cook it, unfold the rifle into a table and utensils and have a very nice dinner. An absolutely great experience. This rifle had only one drawback to it: it couldn't shoot.

I really like applying this parable to everything. If we call something a rifle, the extra features might be nice to have with other things being equal, but first and foremost it must shoot. And to be a good rifle, it must shoot well.

Let's now apply this parable to the nerd culture. There seems to be a lot of pressure saying that if you're into the nerd culture, you should look for a job in engineering. And that to look for a job in engineering, you have to subscribe to the nerd culture. But in reality to look for a job in engineering and make a good career out of it, first and foremost you should be good at engineering. The nerd culture doesn't really matter: you can like it or dislike it or whatever, it won't affect anything. (And that's by the way is the real meaning of diversity in the good sense: as long as you do the job well, what kind of culture you belong to doesn't matter). This pressure causes the people who are into the nerd culture to go into the engineering. And some turn out to be no good at it and fail. And become very frustrated, they feel that they've done everything right, as told that they should do, and still failed (or succeeded only very moderately) for no explainable reason. There must be some evil forces at work!

But the real reason is that they've been given bad advice and the wrong kind of pressure. If you're good at drawing the comic books, or playing video games, it doesn't mean that you're any good at engineering. You might be good at both but there is no guarantee whatsoever. I'm fairly decent at engineering but I'm not any good at drawing comic books. If you enjoy drawing comic books and don't feel any particular attachment to actual engineering, perhaps a better career choice would be to go into something connected with the drawing of comic books, or with the drawing in general. If you're good at action videogames, this skill might be connected to being good at driving a racecar or flying a fighter plane but not much with the engineering. And the same bad advice works the other way around: some people would feel that if they're not into the nerd culture, they shouldn't even try engineering.

Another related thing is that there is a big difference between being interested in something and being good at something. I like racing cars but I understand than I'm no Michael Schumacher, so I don't even try to make it into a career. It's a hobby where I waste money, not make money. You don't get paid for being interested, you get paid for being good at something that is useful for someone. Being interested is something that gives you a push towards trying something, and stimulates you to spend time and effort on improving, but by itself it doesn't make you good. In reality when people get good at something they become less interested: after the skill gets learned it becomes "same old, same old", and the time comes to find some next interesting thing (or at least the higher more difficult level of the previous thing). And, well, the people who keep being interested but never become good, tend to try being around things they're interested in. And there is a big difference between doing things and just being around them. I think I've read a good rant by Steve Yegge about it a few years ago. But people who are around things don't really understand the difference, in their view they're in the very midst of activity. And when they're not appreciated that much compared to the people who do things, they don't understand why and feel frustrated. There must be some evil forces at work! I've learned from Tarah the new phrase "officewife", which describes someone who contributes to the social dynamics of a workgroup and say brings donuts but is not taken seriously for the work contribution. Which I think is a salient example for this paragraph. Of course, people can be labeled unjustly and incorrectly by social inertia, but this I think is where the phrase grows from. It's not limited to any gender, I've seen plenty of men in the same role.

The second point is that Tarah said that she is not afraid to be a bitch, and well, she really comes across as one. Or I better like a gender-neutral term she also used, as an asshole. No big deal by itself but there is an interesting connection: there is this widespread moaning (including in the book "Friend & Foe") that "if women try to be assertive, they're seen as bitches, while the men aren't". Or I'd rather say assholes because I don't see any gender difference. I mean, assholes are assholes, and there are plenty among men. There is a difference between being assertive and being an asshole.

What's this difference between "assertive" and "asshole"? I think a lot of it is about being analytical versus being blind to the world.  One thing is when someone builds the plans from the experience, then pushes to implement these plans, recognizes the feedback when something goes not up to the plan, and does the corrections. Another thing is when someone comes up with a load of crap and unloads it unto the wold, often being mean for no good reason along the way.

This is by the way the communist tradition of management by assoholism (for all I can gather, still popular in the former USSR, and also in the Arab world): if you're the boss, scream, make tantrums and abuse the underlings until they do something.

All kinds of prophets and proselytizers also tend to be major assholes. If someone had come up with The Great Truth and decides to blindly spread this Great Truth throughout the world, he is an asshole. But if he (or she) pauses sometimes to listen to the reasonable comments and objections, and think about this Great Truth, and give a reasonable response, and maybe sometimes modify the Great Truth, then perhaps this he or she becomes merely assertive.

To give another example, "I want this done because I said so" is an asshole, "I want this done because I see such and such good reason" is assertive. Or as yet another example, when you see a blog where the commenters get banned simply for disagreeing with the author, you can say for sure that the author is an asshole.

Circling back, to the second point,  it could be that the reson for "if women try to be assertive, they're seen as bitches" might be because they try to follow the bad examples, and there seem to be quite a few bad examples abound spreading bad advice. If someone follows the advice on how to become an asshole, they can successfully become an asshole and not even know it.

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