By Christopher Pitt

How Privileged Are Programmers? Are You a John, Too?

By Christopher Pitt

John was a developer. To be specific, he was a young, white, straight, young, self-taught developer. He wasn’t rare, but he was special. John grew up with a couple parents, who paid for everything he needed. John regularly filled his belly, with the finest food his family could provide. John got every toy he asked for, once he learn that asking for 3 toys was a good way to get at least 1 toy.

A spoiled child with many toys

John got average grades, but it was ok because [according to mum]; “he’s just bored of schooling, and too clever”. He walked right out of high-school and into a programming job. The pay wasn’t great; only enough for a small apartment and modest groceries [for one]. In time he’d earn more.

Over the years, John quickly got bored of programming. He loved the thought of the career, but it was all so boring. He moved jobs every year or so, and only then when his idiot bosses stopped seeing how much he mattered to their company.

Person leaving a job happily

It was just as well, because most of the other developers he worked with were idiots too. Did they even know how to program? All they wanted to do was talk and ask questions and they weren’t as interested in John’s work as intelligent people should be. He did once work with a girl developer, though. She was so pretty for a programmer. I mean, if you can call CSS and HTML programming.

Illustration of a female web designer

I am angry.

For the longest time, I was John. I thought every boring task beneath me, every other developer mediocre at best. I was my own hero, and my mom was right (albeit annoying) that I was brilliant. If only those around me could see this.

But then I grew up a little.

I realized what an entitled, self-centered asshole I was being. How the people around me mattered and how I didn’t really matter as much as I wanted to believe I did. I don’t know if it was because I got married or had kids. I think both of those things can help someone grow up, but I like to think that I grew up because of how reprehensible I was and how appealing the alternative is to me now.

I don’t deserve a cookie. Being a decent human, and not an entirely loathsome asshole, isn’t an achievement. It’s just less common than one might think…

The problem many people like me suffer from is that we’re not forced to grow up. We are born into comfort. We never have to learn what it means to struggle. We don’t have to study to program, so we think we’re lucky, which quickly morphs into thinking we’re gifted. We never have to pay our own student loans, or learn to wake up early, to be at a job we value.

“Look at those doctors, electricians, plumbers, lawyers. They’re stuck studying some nonsense while I can work straight away. If only I could find a fun job…”

A happy, meditating, floating, hipster

We move around, because it’s easy to get hired and difficult to hire talented developers. And being talented is no guarantee that someone can speak properly to others or do a good job. We believe that we can look busy and work at most 1 or 2 hours a day.

“They’ll still pay us, and if they don’t, we can just move somewhere else”.

We hate meetings, not because they’re a distraction (from the work we’re employed to do but not busy with), but because someone’s going to ask “how we’re doing with the project”. We hate that question because we can’t answer it.

“Things are complicated, trying to figure out what the other idiots have done/are doing/still have to do”.

A boring meeting has turned people into skeletons

We project every. single. delay on others. Our work is brilliant, but we’re tied up sorting out the problems others have foisted upon us. If this carries on long enough, we’re going to get righteously upset and quit.

It’s not just the meetings, it’s constant interruptions from the other idiots around here. People asking for help and not just writing good code. “If I have to tell them to RTFM again, I swear I’m going to delete their code”.

Yelling at colleague at work

We just want to put our headphones on and finish reading this review of The Legend of Zelda (it sounds like a good game). Then we’re probably go back to reading that funny sub-reddit and soon it’s lunch. Maybe I can finish debugging that thing before the end of the day. It’s not like they need it before all the work the others need to do. Besides, the project managers always double the time things take, so I’m sure they’re just lying about the deadline at the end of the week. They think they can trick us. Idiots.

I am so angry, because I see so much of myself in this. I used to resist meetings, because they were the quickest way for someone to see that I hadn’t done the work I’d said I would do. Or worse: the work I said was done, even though it wasn’t. I didn’t want to be interrupted because they’d see I wasn’t doing anything remotely work-related at that moment.

And appearances were everything. Why admit I hadn’t worked hard enough, or didn’t know what I was doing; when I could just blame it one someone or something else?

I once spent a few days, in the office I had demanded, mostly playing World of Warcraft.

Procrastinating at work

And you know what? I was the idiot. I was childish and entitled and didn’t deserve the trust others had placed in me. I was angry when they expected me to produce the work they were paying me to produce. I was angry when they politely suggested daily meetings. I was beside myself when they told me I wasn’t working fast enough.

I was wrong.

I am angry when I see these patterns in others. It’s not like I expect them to be perfect (I’m not) or that I’ve forgotten that I was once like that (I haven’t). It’s because I wasted so many career years playing at work. Failing to learn and failing to grow. And I wasted a lot of time and money of the people who trusted that I was being professional. That I was working to my fullest.

Even to this day, I interact with John. He tells me how little I know, and how hard things would be to explain to anybody I suggest to help him. How this API and that service are to blame for the bugs and delays, and it’ll be done when it’s done. I see through his resistance to daily catch-ups. I tire at his constant excuses and the promises he fails to keep.

I think of all these clever little things I could do, to force John to work. All these processes and mantras and check-lists. Then I despair. The only thing that’s going to make John realise he is wasting away is wasting away enough to fall through his safety net. He’s going to have to grow up on his own, and maybe then he’ll pay it forward to his future employers and clients.

I hope that, by this commitment to excellence, I too can be redeemed.

  • Bruno Škvorc

    Personally, I can identify with the procrastination part, but not with the privilege part. My career path has been bloody, and I’ve been through a lot of hard work (still ongoing) to get to where I am, I’m at maybe 25% of where I want to be. Nothing has been easy, and I had to work through other people’s biases, a hostility of the western world to my way-too-Balkans last name, and the generally awful tech conditions of the country I’m in. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, and I’ve taken no handouts at any stage – I pride myself in what I’ve accomplished, but at the same time judge myself for not having accomplished more. It’s never over.

    I can definitely relate with the old “John” in the hate over meetings and “idiots” but ending up in a career path that makes me interact with dozens of humans every day in all walks of life and stages of career progress definitely made me grow up and helped me look at things more objectively.

    There’s another interesting post here about tech privilege, for those interested:

    Do you know any Johns? Are you one? How do you deal with such people, or with yourself when you notice that you’re being obnoxious?

    • Chris

      Yeah, it’s true – not everyone has it as easy as this. It seems really common among the Johns I’ve worked with, though. Something about not struggling makes them think they deserve not to work hard…

    • Saša Tokić

      Oh don’t get me started on “way-too-Balkans” name :)

  • Tartare2240

    I hadn’t that kind of childhood, but everyday, I’m afraid to become a John. I just don’t want to be like that, it doesn’t looks like me. Here’s the short story of a 23 developer.

    I did 3 years of study programming, from 18 to 22, paused one year because of personal issues. Last year was half school, half work. I was in a company where I was the only developer, hired to both be the IT guy and to create a web tool. I learned Symfony during this year, mostly at work, to create a more efficient and more stable code. I was constantly working but I couldn’t focus on coding, because people was always calling me to replace a mouse or fix a `broken` not powered screen. It was a lot of work but I changed because I wanted to be a true programmer.
    I moved then 400 kilometers from my parent’s home, where I were living, to be hired in a little dev team. This lasted 3 month, where I learnt a lot about good practices, design patterns and DDD. This was very intense but I loved it. We were totally in sync with the rest of the team but I had to leave because they couldn’t hire me, it was a subsidiary company and the head quarter blindly decided `nope`. I found another job where I am for 3 month right now, but this is a lot more loose. There is no more review, no real follow from my lead dev and I feel a bit lost. Due to it I’m loosing a little the interest of the project and I’m working less and less. It looks like my motivation is gone.

    Now I am really afraid I become a John. I don’t want it, really. I want to continue improving and being good at it. I’m lost. Do you have a tip for me ?

    NB : Sorry for my rough english.

    • Chris

      I think, as long as you’re working hard and trying to improve, you’re on the right track. Sometimes you’ll end up working at a company where there is a leadership vacuum. It’s ok for you to try and lead in those situations. It doesn’t have to be part of your job description, but you can show the others around you what it means to be a professional. What it means to stick to your word. Over time you’ll learn the technical things you need to know, but you’ll enjoy learning them and others will enjoy working with you.

      • Tartare2240

        The problem is that more it goes, more my motivation goes down and less I’m really working properly. I’m already wasting time at work doing things completely different and this fears me. I really want to be productive, proud of myself, but I’m loosing myself sometimes. Completely. I’m a new developer with, I consider, 6 month of real pro experience…

        • Bruno Škvorc

          Definitely sounds like you’re “Johning” :) My advice is, if you don’t feel passion or motivation for the work you’re supposed to be doing, instead of wasting the time, use it to work on your own projects, something that interests you. That way, at least it’s only partial procrastination, and you can keep learning about things you’re passionate about. There’s a high chance that you’ll also learn something that’ll be very useful on the job, too, which might trigger an emotional / motivational revival, especially if you show it to the higher-ups and assert your leadership through knowledge that no one asked for but everyone can appreciate.

  • Shahroze Nawaz

    I think most of the coders have the same story. every body has done a great struggle to become what they want to be. But somewhere we are still loosing and reacting like a John despite knowing it all that we are wasting our time in stupid things. The solution for this is stop and collect yourself again start from the basics and move on.

  • Chris

    I was describing myself, in case that wasn’t obvious in the post. I am white and straight. And I was once young.

  • Chris

    I was describing myself, in case that wasn’t obvious in the post. I am white and straight. If I was asian or east Indian, I sure would have described myself as that. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  • Chris

    Relax, friend. I don’t approve or disapprove of any comments. I’ve only just got back from my day job (heh, timezones). How blissfully unaware I was of the drama awaiting me.

  • The story here smacks not of “privilege,” but of “entitlement” — which is quite a different thing.

    • Chris

      Seems like both to me, but then I didn’t pick the title. :)

      • Bruno Škvorc

        Mmm, indeed, my bad. Should have picked a better title keyword.

  • solostyle

    Thanks for writing this, Chris. Sorry you have to field comments from people about the story being about a straight young white male. As a pansexual, Indian, middle-aged woman dev (which is irrelevant), it’s a bit refreshing to read that you grew up, but also a bit sickening to know that there are devs who just play games during the work day. Fuck them. And thanks for sharing.

  • story of mostly all the developers.

  • I am sorry but I don’t see the point of this article. At all.

    There are “assholes” (sic) everywhere right? I am sorry you were one. I am sorry you didn’t think at all about the companies you were working in. I am sorry you speak only about you in this article and try to generalize the concept (in a weird way… I won’t speak about the male white stuff but god this is really awkward).

    I think we are not living in the same world. Obviously a lot of developers don’t care about what they do but it is very obvious when you work with them.
    It is the company who has to decide what to do with them… and it is for the other companies to be careful when they recruit people. I am not sure this article will open the eyes of egocentric people, if it is the aim of it.

    Now I met a lot of developers and the interested and careful type (about what they are doing / where they are working) are more common to me than the guys (or is it just about you?) you try to describe.

    Plus I don’t really want that every developer who think they don’t do enough feel like an “asshole”. I feel like an impostor myself sometimes because I don’t perform as much as I would to. Since companies exploit as well developers (which is I think much more dangerous for everybody) this kind of article can just grow the impostor feeling even more.
    Like: “My boss just yelled at me because I didn’t develop the new company internal super Facebook in two weeks, I am really an asshole to work only 10 hours a day. I will work more, this article is so right!”
    I am exaggerating but you see the point.

    Now I have a question, but more to the Sitepoint team: what is the point of this article? What do we learn from this? Why is this interesting? What its aim?

    Those are innocent questions. I am very curious.

    • Chris

      Hi Matthieu,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I think you’re fortunate to have known more “good” developers than “bad” developers. It’s very much the opposite of my experience. The point of this article was to share my personal experience (I describe myself) so that other developers – who have seen the same patterns in their lives and careers – may come to realise they are not alone. Or that they are wasting their time and the resources of their company enough that it’s a problem.

      If you, as the reader, do not see such patterns in yourself; if you have not seen such patterns in those you work with: then all is well. You shouldn’t feel bad. You are awesome and hireable and all that. But if you, as the reader, come to realise that you’re wasting your employers’ time then it’s a wake-up call to do better. As I said, I have known may developers (more than half I’ve worked with, and how I used to be) like this. We need the wake-up call!

      Since writing this, I’ve had private messages for quite a few people I’ve worked with, saying how timely and meaningful the post is to them. It may not speak to everyone, but it does speak to these people. Their messages alone validate the importance of this post to me. If I can save just one developer the hard lessons I went through, it is worth it for me. :)

      Kind regards

      • I understand better the aim but still the article looks a bit aggresive. I understand you are angry and all but I am not sure this approach is the best.

        Maybe I didn’t meet enough John. Even if I think about it I can’t see this pattern in any developer I met in 6 years. I saw discouraged developers, developers with the “impostor syndrom”, developer who wanted to change company (and therefore not really motivated, I can definitely understand that) but nobody like you describe.
        My case is not exceptionnal. I asked around and I had the same response. Maybe they don’t exists in France / Germany? Maybe we are John ourselves? :D

  • Sa ph

    the story started with .. “amm nice but How it works ..”

  • Frank Zappa

    Brilliantly written and refreshingly honest. You’ve always been a grown up :-)

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