Brexit gets even more insane

The developing Brexit process has reached the point now where it’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m increasingly frightened for the future of the country I live in, it would be a great thing to settle down and watch with a big bowl of popcorn.

I honestly never thought I would see such monumental, terrifying incompetence from a British government. Sure, I haven’t been the biggest fan of any of the Westminster administrations of the last few decades, I didn’t vote for any of them and I’ve disagreed with all of them on plenty of things, but up until a couple of years ago I would have grudgingly admitted that they’d kept the country functioning and reasonably stable.

Not anymore, it would seem. A few months ago when I inflicted my last Brexit blog post on the world, I still believed (as I said in that post) that a catastrophic “no deal” Brexit probably wouldn’t happen; that sanity would prevail in the end and some sort of deal would be done, even if it was just the bare minimum to prevent disruption on a huge scale. But my hopes of that happening have been fading ever since, and it’s getting hard to see how the “no deal” scenario can be avoided now.

On the face of it it seems unbelievable that a mainstream political party could be so irresponsible – just imagine how the tabloids would react if a Labour or SNP government were pressing ahead with a policy that had a significant chance of causing food and medicine shortages! But Theresa May seems determined not to negotiate in any meaningful way with the EU. Last week, after a bruising humiliation in Salzburg, she announced that it was either going to be her Chequers deal or no deal. And since the EU had already rejected Chequers, and neither side appears willing to give any ground at all, that can only mean no deal.

What’s most striking to me is how unnecessary this all is. Even if you take the view that the referendum result is sacred and can’t under any circumstances be challenged (which I don’t personally agree with, primarily due to the lying and overspending by the Leave side), there was no need for things to become such a mess. The only reason we’ve ended up here is because before the negotiations even got going, Theresa May set out a number of completely unnecessary “red lines” that effectively ruled out any of the deals the EU might have been willing to offer us, and has refused to compromise an inch on them since. She then proceeded to trigger Article 50, starting the clock counting down before even getting internal agreement on what sort of deal we should be trying for, and wasted a large chunk of the very limited negotiating time by calling an unnecessary general election (which of course backfired spectacularly when she lost her majority).

A lot of people are blaming the EU for not giving us what we want, but that’s not a view I have any sympathy with. Firstly, they’re not throwing us out, we chose to leave – Britain ultimately set this chain of events in motion itself. Secondly, it was widely predicted before the vote that the EU would hold all the cards in the negotiation and wouldn’t compromise on its “four freedoms”, so anyone whose post-Brexit plans relied on the EU rolling over and giving us everything we wanted was pretty stupid. Thirdly, the people who are now moaning about the EU being inflexible and “punishing” us are by and large the same people who would have hit the roof if the EU had bent the rules for a non-member (let’s say Turkey, for example) while we were still a member, so I find it hard to take anything they say seriously.

And fourthly, I don’t actually think the EU have behaved badly towards us under the circumstances. Despite all the antagonism from certain British politicians, they’ve offered a choice of future relationships that they would accept, giving us at least as good terms as any other “third country” enjoys. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

It’s been depressing, but at the same time strangely impressive, to see that every time someone has tried to offer a possible escape route from the impending disaster, our politicians quickly swoop in to block off that possibility and make sure there truly is no way out. It’s not even confined to the Tories: for example, John McDonnell recently stipulated that any “People’s Vote” on the Brexit deal should not include an option to remain in the EU, thus completely nullifying any point of holding such a vote in the first place.

It’s easy just to blame the “extremists” on both sides of the house for all this, but I’ve also been less than impressed by how the supposed “moderates” have conducted themselves lately. We’re constantly told that most MPs supported Remain and most of them want what’s best for the country… but where are they, and what are they doing to try to stop the no deal disaster? It seems as if, like much of the media, they are terrified of criticising Brexit in case they alienate people who voted Leave. But by not speaking out in stronger terms, they’re lending a sort of legitimacy to the process – people might reasonably think, “Well, if the majority of MPs are going along with this, and if the BBC portrays it as being just as legitimate as any other option, it can’t be that bad, can it? Those Remainers must just be scaremongering”.

Maybe most of all, though, I wonder what the hell the drivers of Brexit are hoping to get out of this at the end. I just can’t see a scenario where it ends well for them. If “no deal” does happen, and if it’s even half as bad as most of the warnings say it’s going to be, their careers are surely finished. Maybe they’re relying on being able to blame it all on the EU, but I’m not convinced that will work – for a while polls have been showing that most people already think the government is doing a bad job of handling Brexit, and that percentage is only going to increase if the country gets plunged into chaos at the end of March. Governments tend to get blamed for the bad stuff that happens on their watch even when it isn’t really their fault (e.g. New Labour and the 2008 financial crisis), and in this case it undeniably IS their fault.

Or maybe they don’t care about their own popularity. One theory is that they just want out of the EU so that they can implement their dream of a Britain closely aligned with the USA, with regulations slashed and the NHS sold off to American healthcare providers. I wouldn’t put it past them, but I’m still not convinced it’s going to work – unless they plan to let things get so bad that they actually suspend democracy, there’s going to be an election at some point, and the party that brought on the chaos will surely be annihilated. Will they have enough time to get their plan past the point of no return before that happens? Would they even have enough support in the current parliament for it? Who knows.

Another theory is that no-one has a clue what to do because no-one (including the leading Leave campaigners) ever expected Leave to win, so they’re just making it up as they go along right now. After the shambles of the last few weeks, this seems by far the most likely explanation.

My take on “Codes of Conduct” for software projects

The news that the Linux kernel development project has adopted a new code of conduct has prompted a lot of comment. As someone who’s been a software developer for all my working life and who’s written about vaguely related stuff before, I thought I would stick my oar in as well, at least to address what I think are some widespread misconceptions.

First off, I’ll say a bit about myself and my own experience. I’ve been a software professional for 16 years. During that time I seem to have impressed a lot of the people I’ve worked with. I have more than once “rescued” projects that were previously thought to be doomed and turned them into success stories. Collaborators who have worked with me in the past have frequently requested to work with me specifically when they approach my organisation for further consultancy. Last year I was promoted to a fairly senior technical position, and also last year I did my first paid freelance project, receiving glowing praise from the client for the way I handled it.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m normally a pretty modest person and believe me, talking about myself in those terms doesn’t come easily. I’m saying it because it’s going to be relevant to what I say next.

I’m also, by pretty much any definition, a snowflake. (That’s the term these days, isn’t it?). I don’t like confrontation and I tend to avoid it as much as I can. I find it hurtful being on the receiving end of harsh words or blunt criticism and I also tend to avoid situations where this is likely to happen. When it does happen I find I need to retreat and lick my wounds for a while before I feel ready to face the world again.

I didn’t choose to be this way, and if I’d been given the choice I wouldn’t have chosen it, because to be honest it’s pretty damned inconvenient. But it’s the way I am, the way I’ve always been for as long as I can remember. (Again, this may not seem relevant yet, but trust me, I’m bringing it up for a reason).

It’s maybe not surprising, then, that I’m broadly supportive of any initiative that tries to make software development a friendlier place. I don’t follow Linux kernel development closely enough to have a strong opinion on it, but some open source communities certainly have acquired reputations for being quite harsh and unpleasant working environments. This probably is a factor in my choosing not to contribute to them – although I have contributed a bit to open source in the past, these days if I want to code for fun I prefer to just tinker with my own solo projects and avoid all that potential drama and discomfort.

Not everyone agrees, of course, and sites like Slashdot are awash with comments about how this is a disaster, how it’s going to destroy software quality, and how it’s the beginning of the end of Linux now that the Social Justice Warriors have started to take over. I’m not going to attempt to address every point made, but I would like to pick up on a few common themes that jumped out at me from reading people’s reactions.

Fear of harsh criticism makes people deliver

The main justification put forward for keeping the status quo seems to be that people will up their game and produce better code if they’re afraid of being flamed or ridiculed. I don’t believe this works in practice, at least not for everyone.

I remember years ago when I was learning to drive, my first instructor started acting increasingly like a bully. When I made mistakes (as everyone does when they’re learning something new), he would shout at me, swear at me and taunt me by bringing up mistakes I’d made weeks before. But far from spurring me on to improve my driving, this just wound me up and made me stressed and flustered, causing me to make even more mistakes, in turn causing him to throw more abuse my way, and so on. It got so bad that I started to dread my driving lessons and when I was out in the car with him I lost all confidence and became terrified of making even the tiniest mistake.

After a few weeks I got fed up with this so I phoned the driving school and told them I wanted a different instructor, someone who would build up my confidence rather than destroy it. They assigned me to a great instructor, an experienced and patient older man who I got on very well with, and the contrast was dramatic. My driving improved straight away and I started to actually look forward to my lessons. Within a few weeks I was ready to take my test, which I passed on the first attempt. I always remember this experience when I hear someone express the opinion that abuse will make people perform better.

Of course, everyone responds differently to these situations. I knew someone who said he was glad his driving instructor shouted at him because, after all, it was potentially a life-or-death situation and this would help him to take it seriously. So I’m not saying everyone’s experience will be the same as mine, just pointing out that not everyone responds positively under that sort of pressure.

Furthermore, someone who goes to pieces in the face of abuse might still be perfectly capable in other circumstances. I was able to drive just fine once I got away from that first instructor, and since then I’ve driven all over the country, driven minibuses and towed caravans without incident.

People will use the code of conduct to blow grievances out of all proportion and seek attention

Personally, as someone who hates conflict and hates being the centre of attention, I can’t imagine anything I’d be less likely to do than go out of my way to draw attention and publicity to myself. If anything I think I’d more likely be far too reticent about seeking help if someone was violating a code of conduct, and I imagine it would be the same for most of the people who would actually benefit the most from the code.

That’s not to say everyone would be the same, of course. There might well be a vocal minority who would act in this way, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to improve things for people who genuinely do need it. In any case, whether a given behaviour really constitutes gratuitous “attention seeking” or whether it’s out of proportion is very much a subjective judgement.

Emotionally fragile people have nothing to offer anyway

I hope my description above of my own working life has shown that we do have something to offer. I think this belief is due to confusion between “people who are good at software development” and “people who are good at being loud and obnoxious”. If you create a working environment so toxic that 70% of people can’t cope with it and leave, that doesn’t mean you’ve retained the 30% best developers, it means you’ve retained the 30% of people best equipped to thrive in an abusive environment. I see no reason to think there’s going to be much correlation there.

I think a similar argument can be made about the contentious “safe spaces” I’ve written about before. Many of their opponents argue that it’s healthier to be exposed to a diverse range of different points of view rather than living in a bubble. I completely agree, but I disagree about how best to achieve that. A complete free-for-all isn’t necessarily a reliable way to foster open debate – you can easily end up with a situation where the loudest, most abrasive people come to dominate and everyone else is reluctant to express a contrary opinion for fear of being abused and ridiculed. If you genuinely want (and I’m not convinced many of the detractors actually do want this) to hear as wide range a of opinions as possible, you need an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves.

Maybe if there were unlimited good software developers in the world you could make a case for only working with the emotionally hardy ones and avoiding the possible difficulties of dealing with us “snowflakes”. But there aren’t. In most places developers are highly in demand, so it makes no sense to dismiss people who might actually be able to make a valuable contribution.

It’s not up to us to accommodate your emotional frailties, it’s up to you to get over them

Of all the views expressed in these discussions, I think this is the one that irks me the most. It implies that anyone who reacts badly to harsh words and insults could easily “get over it” if they chose to do so, and that just doesn’t tally with my experience at all.

I’ve spent many decades trying to “get over” the problems I’ve had. I’ve spent a five figure sum of money on therapy. I’ve read more self help books than I care to remember and filled notebooks cover-to-cover with the exercises from them. I’ve forced myself into numerous situations that terrified me in the hope that they would be good for me. I’ve practised mindfulness, attended support groups, taken medication, taken up exercise, talked things over with friends and family, spent long hours in painful introspection. You name it, I’ve probably tried it.

And you know what? I’m a lot better than I was. At the start of the process I could barely even hold a conversation with someone unless I knew them well, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold down a job. Now I function reasonably well most days, I do pretty well at work and I have a decent social life as well. But despite all this progress, I’m still pretty emotionally sensitive, and I still don’t cope well with insults and intimidation. Maybe I’ll get even better in the future (I certainly hope to and intend to), but I suspect I will always find that kind of situation unpleasant enough to want to avoid it when possible, even if I no longer find it as debilitating as I once did.

So it makes me pretty angry when people who don’t even know me assume that, because I still get upset more easily than most, I obviously just haven’t tried hard enough. It’s noticable that these people almost never mention how you should “get over it”. Some of them seem to just assume that if you keep putting yourself in the situation that upsets you then you’ll eventually adjust and be OK with it, but this has never worked particularly well for me – as with the driving lessons example I gave above, it typically just leads to me feeling more stressed and harassed.

Basically, I think this one is an example of the just-world fallacy. It’s uncomfortable to realise that some people might struggle with certain situations through no fault of their own and that there might not be any easy solution open to them. It raises all kinds of awkward questions about whether we should be making adjustments to help them and so on, not to mention the fear of “maybe this could happen to me too some day”. It’s much neater to pretend that those people must have done something to deserve their problems, or at the very least that they must be “choosing” to forego a perfectly good solution.

Whilst I do have a tiny bit of sympathy for some of the objections to the way things are going (I wouldn’t personally relish software development becoming yet another field where social skills and confidence are valued over actual technical ability, for example), overall I find it really hard to take most of the objectors seriously. They moan and whinge about what a disaster it would be to have to treat others with basic civility, then go on to accuse the other side of being over-sensitive and blowing things out of proportion. They heap disdain on people for having problems they never asked for and almost certainly don’t want, but fail to put forward any useful suggestions on how to deal with those problems.