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the benefit of the technical doubt

Who gets the benefit of the technical doubt in the tech industry and who has to go out of their way to prove they belong?

Editor’s note: Finished an published on the 30th of May, 2019.

Even Sisyphus - the mythical man condemned to push a rock up a slope - gets to the top eventually. But just as he’s reached the top of the mountain, the rock rolls back down and he has to start all over again. Or something of that sort. The precise details of this story have left me.

The reason my neural circuits sometimes conjure this image if that it strongly correlates with the feeling one sometimes gets being an underindexed (to borrow a term from Cate Huston) person in the tech industry.

Not a long time ago, I sat in the office of a professor at my university and talked about the tech industry. You have to be good, really good to make it, she said. I knew she was good and yet she’d chosen not to enter the industry. I also knew I wasn’t good. And I knew she knew I wasn’t. In another context, this might have sounded like a peptalk and perhaps it was intended as such, but now with hindsight and with my history of success or lack of thereof in many of the subjects I attempted, she was perhaps trying to give me a fair warning to not raise my expectations of success in this field too high.

The gift and curse of youth is the boundless naivete, which makes us so completely utterly convinced that ‘we know better’. The rules apply to everyone else, but not to me. I will definitely be the exception to the rule. It only takes a few good, hard disappointments to realise that while exceptions do happen, most of us probably won’t be in circumstances exceptional enough to be exceptional.

So I took my professor’s advice as a rallying cry. As long as I tried hard enough to excel in tech, I too could succeed. The zeal with which I immersed myself in everything from late night coding to meetups and giving conference talks quickly dissipated when I realised that just as I thought I’d accumulated enough of tech street cred to not have my basic technical work questioned, I’d have to start all over again. Just like that guy rolling the rock up a hill.

A few memorable moments have remained. Sitting in a meeting with the QA engineering team and talking about mocking, I get interrupted by another member of the team so that we can all make sure “I am absolutely sure I know the difference between mocks and stubs”. While geeking out about tech with the people in my graduate engineering program, one of them stops talking mid-sentence, turns to look my way and, with a concerned look on his face, says “You do know what XOR means, right?” What he means: I mean, you don’t look like you would know what XOR means.

It’s ok when it’s small things like this. They’re paper cuts, but in the big picture one can probably live with it. When it becomes real, is when my peers are promoted to managers and tech leads and retain the inkling of the same biases that made them ask those questions in the first place. It means that they will be customers of the tech company I work at and they won’t want me on site, leading the project, because I might not be technical enough. They will be the manager who sits in the meetings of the promotions committee, looking over my profile, and they will say to themselves, ‘yes, but is she really technical?’. They will be the tech lead who will choose to give the challenging engineering project to the early career engineer just because he looks like ‘he knows what he’s doing’, he has the benefit of the technical doubt.

While working at Big Co, an internal user was asking for help in my team’s technical chat. I offerred a solution and the user came back asking the exact same question, but directing it specifically to male colleague, who gave the user the exact same answer I had posted. At the same Big Co, I went downstairs to talk to an engineer from an upstream team who had introduced a bug into our codebase and thus caused a production outage. He refused to listen until my male colleague came with me.

You can have thick skin and learn not to take these things personally, even though they clearly are about nothing else than what’s in my underwear and yet you can acknowledge that pushing this rock of “technical chops” up the damn hill is a Sisyphean task. Everytime you think you’ve finally proved yourself, along comes yet another hill, the rock rolls back down and the process starts all over again.

I’m not good at tech, so it’s no surprise I’m still pushing the damn rock up the hill and will continue doing it until the end, but there are underindexed folks who are really good and they are still stuck doing the same damn routine just because they never get the “benefit of the technical doubt”. They never get assigned on the stretch assignments or the important customer meetings, because it’s important that “they prove they have the technial skills” before they can be given these challenges.