Coders by Clive Thompson – Review – Part 2

September 22, 2019

I encourage every programmer to read Coders by Clive Thompson. This book captures how coders were first introduced to technology, then into a vast range of occupations, and how we got to where we are now.

I had to split this review into 2 parts because there is a lot I wanted to emphasize.

Read part 1.

Uncontrolled social problems online

I was glad to find a chapter that included the relentless harassment users can face when being involved on the web.

While some activist groups like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter were trying to make the public aware of existing issues in our society, there were some communities that were trying to use the platform to spread hatred and threaten violence. A well-known campaign was Gamergate which groups mostly comprised of men harassed women who criticized the sexism in games and worked in the game industry themselves.

Later on, Twitter regretted not taking action sooner when these hate groups were first emerging.

"The young guys of Twitter had little intuition about the scope of the problem, which made it hard, when Gamergate was ongoing, to even realize how bad it had become." (pg. 327)

I wonder if more women were engineers at Twitter at the time, would there have been more of a system in place to expect the possibility of attacks online and to deflect its impact.

I wanted to point out that someone did go out of his way to try to address the issue. Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, who previously worked as an engineer at Twitter, created Block Together. Realizing that users being attacked online were targeted by the same hate-groups, he created an app where lists of blocked accounts can be shared between those who subscribe to a user’s list. This saved time for someone to manually block the hundreds of accounts that targeted others receiving the same attacks.

I appreciate that Hoffman-Andrews sought out a way to alleviate this problem even after he already left Twitter after witnessing the uncontrollable “dogpiling” on the site. If Twitter had gotten control of the situation sooner, maybe things would not have gotten as bad as they did.

Aside from harassment, we can all agree that there are some extremely inappropriate (if not illegal) content on the internet. Online moderators is definitely a thankless job. They spend their hours purposely searching for obscene, horrific, or damaging material online just to report or remove it. Unfortunately, this is a job that we don’t expect to be able to use AI for because the data teaching machines is problematic in itself. What if the messages were filtered before posting them? Cursing would be obvious, but what about common statements initiating threats to others? It’s easier to lock the gate than to wrangle the horses once they’ve left the stable.

Standing against your company’s decisions

When Google employees found out their company was involved in building technology for the military drones for image recognition, there was strong pushback.

“’We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,’” (pg. 339)

This eventually led some developers to leave the company to go work somewhere that followed their moral code.

This reminds me of Microsoft and Amazon’s involvement in contributing to ICE. I’m glad to hear that those creating the software have a voice to say no to contribute to technology that would be involved in the military.

As long as software developers are in high demand, you should be picking up more than what’s on a job board online. Care about what the company does! Your work goes towards making them successful, not everyone has this luxury.

Coding can be considered a blue-collar job

There is a chapter that describes the notion of coding becoming a blue-color job for its common use in almost every company.

When Rusty Justice (who worked in the mining industry) decided to teach coal miners to code, he was treated with skepticism. Despite that, he took miners into an intensive program to teach them the basics of coding in order to make them technology able to find more substantial careers.

I found this story inspiring not only because of the miners learning new skills, but for battling stereotypes imposed on them from others. This can relate to being bias towards older programmers that aren’t fresh out of college and wish to change careers into a more technical role.

Another way to hire

While companies were finding developers using resumes and interviews, a Baltimore software firm called Catalyte decided to take a different approach to the hiring process. They administered an aptitude test in locations that didn’t normally have a high offer of coders to come apply to them. Those who scored well were given proper training and a guaranteed job.

I found the aptitude test in Baltimore relates to how things were done in the ‘50s and 60’s. When the hiring process was like this, more women were hired compared to men for programming jobs.

The firm’s test results resulted in a diverse group of people from different racial and working class backgrounds. This enabled the company to find more people who had experience and a different perspective.

Not all coding jobs are considered equal

It seems as coding has become more diverse in fields, so has the salary range expectations for a role. The book mentions the perspective of some developers who consider “front-end” jobs (using HTML, CSS which is what’s encouraged to learn for any newbie coder) not real coding because it’s not complex enough. I’d like to see those who say this try to get a site to look appealing and functional on Internet Explorer.

I wonder what determines the significant salary difference between front-end and back-end jobs. Could it be because women are more likely to work in front-end roles?

There are even some senior programmers that are not happy with how organizations are attempting to make the transition into learning coding easier for those with no technical experience.

One computer scientist, Edsger W. Dijkstra, expresses his scorn for higher-level languages that were easier to understand because of their English-like appearance:

“But Dijkstra’s disdain was also pure snobbishness, a sense that you shouldn’t even try to make coding easier for the beginner. For him, a central glory of coding seemed to lie precisely in its difficulty, that it chased people away, leaving only the monk-like devotees behind, to ponder their ASCII printouts in blissful silence.” (pg. 368)

I don’t understand the opinion of those who don’t want to make coding easier for beginners to learn. At one end of the spectrum, there are all these “programming 101” sites that keep it fun and simple for a newbie while encouraging the learner to challenge themselves to progress. The other end looks down on these implications and insists that coding should only be done by those who get it.

To conclude

When I first started reading this book, I did not have any inclination to write a blog post about it. But my mind changed when Thompson not only mentioned the usual traits, experiences, and stereotypes about us coders, but he mentioned opinions that challenged things differently. He included engineers from all different backgrounds and responsibilities to help educate the reader on the experience of a coder.

I would recommend this book to anyone who isn’t only a coder, but who has an interest in technology because in the end, it’s the coders who will be impacting the future.

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