I was intrigued by this comment about Facebook’s engineers, quoted in this article about the role of women in technical organisations:
While [Mark Zuckerberg’s] net worth shot upward with each injection of venture capital into Facebook, support employees like Losse scraped by with twenty dollars an hour. Facebook’s most valued employees—software engineers—relied on customer support staff largely in order to avoid direct contact with Facebook’s users. Rather than valuing their work as vital to operations, Facebook’s technical staff looked down on the support team, as if they were not much better than users themselves. [Emphasis mine]
I think it’s fair to say this isn’t just a Facebook problem. I’ve worked in a variety of organisations, and while I don’t think I’ve seen engineers explicitly looking down on tech support everywhere, I’ve almost never heard their role admired. So it seems reasonable to ask, why is this?
I’m going to write in quite general terms in this post, for the sake of brevity. Pretty much every generalisation I’m going to make has notable exceptions, but I’m not going to bother reminding you of that at every turn. I apologise in advance if this makes for some uncomfortably sweeping statements.
I think a large part of it is that engineers look down on anyone who isn’t an engineer. Why this is would take an entire article in itself, but my current go-to explanation is that many working engineers of today grew up in the 80s or 90s, when technology businesses were immensely successful and (more so than today) success hinged on technology alone. The rise of a Microsoft or a Google was directly attributable to good engineering, so engineers were lionised. Companies enjoyed rates of growth that hadn’t been seen in living memory, and it was all (seemingly) down to the engineers. It’s easy to see how programmers growing up in this environment could end up with the unquestioned idea that engineers are a breed apart.
The article on Geek Feminism doesn’t quite spell it out, but I imagine the author of the article would contend that there is some latent sexism causing (predominantly male) engineers to be dismissive of the work of (predominantly female) tech support. While I think that possibility is worth bearing in mind, on the evidence I’ve seen I’m inclined to think it’s a weak effect. Most obviously, engineers are often dismissive of the skills of (still predominantly male) management, including senior management. I’ve also heard plenty of engineers belittle the skills of salespeople (again, at least in tech, predominantly male). Marketing people are often disparaged as well, although this is a less male-dominated part of the business. Accountants are often treated as people with some intelligence, but without the insight or creativity to make it in engineering.
Interestingly enough, I don’t recall ever hearing a developer talking down the work of a cleaner or a security guard. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the snobbery is a defensive position against the risk that other people will be credited with business success that “rightfully” belongs to the engineers.
To continue the speculation, I wonder if there is another effect influencing techies to diminish the importance of “soft skills”. There’s a pretty strong correlation that engineers have poor people skills, or at least think that they do (I draw this distinction because I wonder how many people are limiting themselves in the belief that they are “naturally” bad at this). People who struggle with a skill tend to get dismissive of that skill. The struggle to learn something challenging is all the greater to someone who is accustomed to succeeding effortlessly at working with computers. Writing code is not like poetry or playing the violin: it’s a field where it’s possible for a talented and motivated ten-year-old to reach the level of many working professionals. When you’re that good at one thing, everything else seems like too much effort.