On Peers, Hiring, Social Bubbles and Management Theory

6 minute read


“In fact, one could argue that Bill’s management résumé, while less truthful on-paper, was more honest and ethical. Yes, we inflated his social status and gave him managerial titles. However, we didn’t have to inflate his technical accomplishments, or list technologies that he’d barely touched under his “Skills” section, to make a case for him.”
— Michael O. Church (2014) How the Other Half Works: an Adventure in the Low Status of Software Engineers

I’ll split this article in two: the part on the experiment quoted above is simply great. Highlights a big problem that people have in presenting themselves well and how huge can be the difference in just shifting perceptions while keeping the hard data truthful.

On the other side I think that the whole “low status” piece is superficial, both in historical terms (that social group never had its status “lowered”) and in the analysis — it’s not about low and high status, it’s about contexts, in-group bias and other social dynamics, that yes touch status as well, but that’s not all about it.

On Engaging As Peer

“By presenting himself as a manager, and looking the part, he just had an easier playing field than a lifelong engineer would ever get. Instead of being a programmer auditioning to sling code, he was already “part of the club” (management) and just engaging in a two-way discussion, as equals, on whether he was going to join that particular section of the club.”

This is another piece incredibly important: talking as a peer vs talking as a subordinate. This isn’t again much about “status” but about how you engage the conversation.

I’ve been for years a person that thought had a lower status than anyone else, and fought about it – hard. Until I realized that if I presented myself as a peer and I didn’t accept any other kind of level of discussion… I didn’t have to fight anymore. We were talking as equals.


On The Social Bubbles

Let me highlight another piece because raises another big point.

“I’ve always felt that programmers had an undeserved low social status, and the experiment above supports that claim. Obviously, these are anecdotes rather than data, but I think that we can start to give a technical definition to the low social status of ‘software engineers’.”

This isn’t about programmers or software engineers.
Nor they ‘lost’ any social status.


This very same thing happens to every social group in relation to another social group that has power over the first. It’s something quite well studied in social psychology, including the part where the lower-status group assimilates the rules of the higher-status group as its own.

When we talk about caste system, that’s pretty much the same, just crystallized to an extreme. The fact is that you don’t necessarily need a caste system to have these social bubbles to appear.


The Social Bubble Room Metaphor

Each environment has its own rules, reference points, behaviours and  baselines. These are social groups as identified in social psychology, but they are also made up of set of extrinsic properties (lifestyle, money, houses, luxuries or the lack of thereof) and not just behavioural and relational ones.

Money for example is a simplified proxy that often comes up in demagogical arguments: a social group makes more money while another is in poverty. True. But that’s a systemic problem: most of the time isn’t really about people, it’s just that certain context have different baselines. It’s like walking into a room with a soft carpet, or in another with a rough floor. To a certain extent, we can consider that the “room” you’re in happens mostly by accident.

If you manage to get your way into that room, making yourself perceived in a certain way, talking in a certain way, behaving in a certain way, and so on, you will just happen to walk in there. With all the consequences, benefits and issues, related to that.

How does this happen in practice? In cultures with no caste systems this is relatively simple… if you know how. For example it might be an introduction from a person, that connects you to friends of another social group, you start knowing them, learning their behaviour and if it happens you like it, you might make your way into that room. In social psychology these are called inter-group movements in the discipline of social conflicts. I’m not saying anything really new here, and actually probably I’m over simplifying the topic.

The injustice there isn’t that a room has a soft carpet, but that the room exists. The sub-system of the room itself is made of a complex network of relations that among them has also soft carpets. But focusing on the carpet alone would be wrong. You need to focus on the room, as a whole.

Back to the article: focusing on the status alone is wrong. The room called “management” has a specific set of rules, among which status, money, egocentrism, shallowness, and other positive and negative traits exists. Many people, including software engineers, can see the benefits, but can’t compromise themselves (in their eyes) to accept that new value system. That’s why most of the time they won’t get into that room.

The same happens for everyone. We just focus on “management” because we perceive it as a system with more power, thus inherently better — which is pretty much bulls*it. But the same happens the other way: a stereotypical manager is unlikely to accept the value system that exist in the software engineering bubble, thus the shift is unlikely.




The Management Void

The article is very rich, touches also another point but doesn’t analyze it. It’s the fact that management doesn’t have any skillset to review. Read this relevant quote:

“As a 6-foot-1, white male of better-than-average looks, Bill looked like an executive and the work we did appears to have paid off. In each of those interviews, it only took 10 minutes before Bill was the interviewer. “

“Unlike for a typical engineering position, there were no reference checks. The CEO said, “We know you’re a good guy, and we want to move fast on you”. “

Note how this isn’t just about the social bubble I mentioned above. This happens also because the “manager” is a role that isn’t defined in any pragmatic way. There’s no way to evaluate. There are no skills in the industry. No awareness. How can you ask questions to see if the person is fit for the job if your only parameter of a manager is “managed people” and/or “dealt with budgets”?

We could talk about the MBA, and we’ll get people arguing that actually we would come out better by studying philosophy. But in the end management in most business is still clueless and still works in terms of the original idea by Taylor, which:

“Yet even as Taylor’s idea of management began to catch on, a number of flaws in his approach were evident. The first thing many observers noted about scientific management was that there was almost no science to it.”

So, here we are. With people with the role of ‘managers’ that are put there in ways that resemble most of the time oracle-like decisions, or as the example above, just a shake of hands after 10 minutes of chat.

That’s precisely why among many thing I’ve been working on there’s the Hybrid Traits Model, and the idea that management should be split in two main skills:

  1. The ability to support people — soft skills, conflict resolution, etc
  2. The ability to set visions — market awareness, comms, planning, etc

Which: could be two roles, could be one. Could last a few weeks or years. Could imply leadership, but could also be void of any leadership.

Thanks to Ross Tweedie for the link.