Tech Culture: More Legos and Less Punch Buggy

Recently I was a guest on a panel podcast hosted by Cal Evans that included Laura Thomson, Beth Tucker, and Anna Filina. It was entitled “Sexism in Tech” and was a response to some of the recent goings-on in the tech community. It was a very fun podcast, and I encourage you to give it a listen. Even if you’re tired of hearing about the issue, I promise there will be something there you can take away, because we didn’t just rehash the same old conversations.

While we talked about many things related to being a woman in a male-dominated field, one of the main things we talked about was this feeling of empathy. And it got me thinking about a few things.

So, my kids love to play the Punch Buggy Game. If you don’t know the game, it goes like this: when you’re driving around, if you see a VW Beetle, you call it out and punch the person next to you in the arm. In our car, it usually goes something like this:

Kid #1: “Punch buggy red!” *punch* “No punch backs.”

Kid #2: “Ouch that hurt!”

Kid #1: “No, it didn’t.”

Kid #2: “Yes, it did!”

Kid #1: “No, it didn’t!”

Me: “Alright, no more playing Punch Buggy if you all can’t get along.”
When someone posts something controversial or “offensive” on the Internet, it’s kind of like playing a game of Punch Buggy, except it goes something like this:
Person #1: “Here’s this thing that I think is fine.”

Person #2: “Hey, that was offensive to me.”

Person #1: “No, it wasn’t.”

Person #2: “Yes, it was!”

Person #1: “No, it wasn’t!”
The thing with punching someone in the arm is, you really don’t know if you hurt them in the process. You aren’t that person, and you’re not feeling that pain. You can imagine what it would feel like for you if you were the one being punched and how you’d react. And if it’s different than how the other person reacts then clearly there is something wrong with them. But I can give the same punch in the arm to Mike Tyson and an 83 year old woman, and I can pretty much guarantee it will not feel the same to each of them. (No, I’m not advocating punching 83 year old women in the arm, for the record.)

My point is that unless you are a true empath, you can’t feel the other person’s emotions. So for you to tell me that something doesn’t offend me, or that a punch doesn’t hurt me, well, that’s kind of ridiculous, isn't it.

Just as there is a range of pain, there is a range of offensiveness. A punch from Mike Tyson will elicit a pretty similar reaction in everybody, just like there are things that happen that offend a large number of people. But generally speaking, what may be offensive to one person may or may not be offensive to another.

The farther away you are from a situation, the harder it is to empathize. If you’ve not been a minority in a group before (especially in a career-type setting), then it is hard to even imagine what that’s like. A male friend recently came to me and told me about a childcare situation he was in where he was the only male. In this group of females, he was already feeling a bit apprehensive when one of them made a joke about him being a pedofile, and why was he there, etc. etc. He didn’t think the woman meant anything malicious, but was instead just clueless. Unfortunately, her insensitivity left my friend feeling hurt and even more awkward than before. Even though he loved working with kids, it tainted his whole experience, and made him question whether or not he even wanted to continue. A few synapse connections later, my friend came to me and said “now I know what you guys must feel like in this industry. I’m really sorry on behalf of us all.” In our game of Punch Buggy, my friend realized that a punch in the arm can hurt, even if the other person didn't mean for it to.

Now, in contrast to Punch Buggy, when my kids play with Legos, it usually goes something like this:
Kid #1: “Hey look at this car I made.”

Kid #2: “Oh, that’s cool! I like the window."

Kid #1: That’s supposed to be a door.”

Kid #2: “Ohhh, yeah. I get it. Ok.”

The dynamic the kids have when putting all things aside and just being creative is completely different than the Punch Buggy game. In theory, they could argue that the car isn’t really a car, because it doesn’t really look like a car, and the door isn’t a door at all, and that it really should be used for a window. But they don’t. They just create. They don’t criticize. They don’t try and convince each other that the other person is wrong. They don’t make assumptions about what the other person’s intentions were, or how they are feeling. They just create. They encourage, they discuss, and they create.

This is the tech culture that I want. I want to remove gender bias. I want to remove age and racial discrimination. I want people to stop arguing over what programming language is better. Or platform. Or text editor. Instead, I want people to encourage, to discuss, and to just freaking create.

As I said on the panel discussion, this is our culture. It is what we make it. It is not dictated by some corporation somewhere. It’s ours to make and mold and shape into whatever we want. So I say more Legos, and less Punch Buggy.

Caring is Hard.

Today on Seth Godin’s blog, he makes an interesting observation about how caring about your product and your customers can make all the difference in your bottom line and give you a competitive advantage, because it's something a lot of companies don't do.

Like most things that are worth doing, it's not easy at first and the one who cares isn't going to get a standing ovation from those that are merely phoning it in. I think it's this lack of early positive feedback that makes caring in service businesses so rare.

I agree, Seth, and I’d like to go even further. What is it about caring that makes it so hard to do?

Caring is hard because it makes you vulnerable. Being vulnerable is scary and uncomfortable, and we humans don’t like that. Sometimes people don’t like something we’re proud of. When you care about the experience of your customer, and you’ve poured your heart and soul into something, it sucks when they aren’t happy. If we stay emotionally detached, we aren’t as adversely affected by negative feedback. It’s easier to blow it off, and not be hurt.

Caring is hard because it makes you accept responsibility. Sometimes bad things happen. Mistakes are made, things get screwed up. When we become emotional about our jobs, we take mistakes personally. It eats at us. We vow to get better, forgive ourselves, and move on. And most times we are able to do that... the end result being even better than before. But it’s not easy, and sometimes we just give up. It’s much easier to stay detached and shrug our shoulders when something goes wrong instead of taking it to heart.

Caring is hard because it takes energy and patience. I think this is especially true, as Seth said, if you’re the only one who seems to be passionate about what your organization does. It’s frustrating, draining and disheartening. Energy and patience are things that seem to be in limited supply in this human culture we’ve created for ourselves, and if you're already feeling tapped, spending them at the workplace may not be the choice you make.

Caring is hard because it takes attention. Another commodity that seems to be in limited supply is our attention. In a world where we are juggling hundreds of thoughts, tasks, and distractions, paying attention to the small details gets lost. And the small details are what add up to big details. It’s easy to let little things slide and allow our focus to become blurred on the urgent but not necessarily important.

Besides just the result on the company’s bottom line, caring is worth it because it enriches us personally. The sense of pride you feel when you know you’ve done a good job, when you’ve created something that wasn’t there the day before, when you’ve solved a problem that was particularly difficult... those are the things that make caring worth it. In short, when we care, and things are good, we feel good.

Although I’m relatively new to Engine Yard, I can say I’m thankful to work for a company who has no room for people who don’t care. The culture is to deliver beyond expectations, whatever that means for each individual’s role here, and we are given the support and space to do so. The result is an awesome place to work, and an awesome set of products. If you find yourself in an environment where people don't care about what they do, or each other, my advice to you is to get out now... while you still can.

In short, caring is hard, but so, so worth it. Better to have cared and lost than never to have cared at all.