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.

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