This article is more than 1 year old

Machismo is ruining the tech industry for all of us. Equally

Why can't we all just get along?

Good evening, monsters

The cardinal sin of tech is to not know something that someone else knows. More than any other profession, techies do not tolerate a lack of knowledge.

Don't know what $buzzword is, or how to format a floppy disk? Do not, under any circumstances, ask that online! Instead of help you'll get an endless torrent of abuse questioning everything from your genetics and lineage to your education and yes, sadly, even your race/gender/other irrelevant demographic.

Being offline doesn't help much. Daring to demonstrate ignorance of a topic at a convention will earn you sneering disregard from entire rooms full of people you've never met. We in tech expect everyone to know what we know, and since our position in the social hierarchy is largely determined by how much information we can cram into our brains, we advance ourselves by publicly demeaning and belittling others for what they don't know.

Jibbers help you if you have actually put your ignorance into practice and made a mistake. That's worth at least a dozen blog posts by "community managers" and "thought influencers" who stand atop their digital soapboxes broadcasting hatred and disdain to the world.

We're monsters. And I myself am absolutely as guilty as anyone else.

Imposter syndrome

One thing techies are fascinated with is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is where people are too inexperienced or lacking in knowledge to accurately gauge how inexperienced or lacking in knowledge they are. In essence: they don't know how much they don't know, so they think they know more than they actually do.

Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect does not make you immune to the Dunning-Kruger effect. What this knowledge can do, especially when coupled with the absolutely relentless hyper-competitive machismo culture of tech, is lead to the exact opposite problem: imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is where people of high capability or achievement live in fear of being exposed as a "fraud." They know enough to know how much they don't know and they operate in a culture where reputation and status are important factors in determining concrete employment outcomes, such as remuneration, opportunity or ability to obtain funding for startup ventures.

If you dig around in the studies done on imposter syndrome, you'll find some that say it primarily affects women and some that say men get it just as bad. A little bit of filtering and a pattern emerges.

In industries where outright chauvinism is a real problem (where a woman's successes are dismissed as luck, cheating, the result of favouritism, etc) then women suffer disproportionately from imposter syndrome. In industries where we're universally awful to one another, imposter syndrome seems to apply pretty equally to everyone.

Real world impacts

Over the years I've talked to hundreds of executives and thousands of architect-level techies. Eventually, I try to get them into a real conversation and I always ask about imposter syndrome. What I learned surprised me.

There are innumerable achievements I have been trained since birth to view as barometers of personal success; I have achieved none of them. What's interesting? With very few exceptions, all those executives, architects, thought influences and other "important people" I have talked to over the years feel the exact same way.

They don't view themselves are particularly important, or successful. They feel they got where they are as much by sheer luck, being in the right place at the right time and making the right investments (monetarily or in training) as by any concerted effort or planning.

Many of the most important people in our industry live day-to-day, terrified someone will come along and point out that they don't deserve the status or position that they have. That many of them got there on their own merits, through hard work and the accumulation of expertise, doesn't really matter. They are as subject to the hate parade of unrestrained hypercompetitive machismo as the most entry-level support staff, and it has had very real effects on their psyches.

Like the Dunning-Kruger effect, knowing about imposter syndrome does not prevent it from affecting you. What knowing about all of the above can hopefully do, however, is cause us to stop and think about how we treat others.

Are we arguing because of a legitimate technical beef, or lashing out to protect our perceived status in some ephemeral social hierarchy? Are we dismissing criticism legitimately, or because we irrationally fear exposure as a fraud?

Other industries are slowly overcoming deeply ingrained chauvinism and making real inroads in restraining or eliminating machoism. We need to be doing the same if we want the top minds to choose our field.

Tech simply isn't going to get better until we can move beyond cliques, tribes and fretting about hierarchies, and that starts with admitting that we – all of us – have a problem. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like