Welcome to the Walled Garden: When leadership is really just bullying

holes in the garden wall
holes in the garden wall (Photo credit: Badly Drawn Dad)

There is a person in tech, let’s call the person Engineer X, who thinks I am a blight on the industry of software and that my opinions deserve to be seen nowhere other than inside of a black hole.


This happened after a really awful conversation on twitter that I won’t be talking about here.  Let’s just say that it happened, and it doesn’t really matter if anyone was right or what either of us said.  For Engineer X, this culminated with blocking me from their twitter and removing the link to my blog from their much viewed blog roll.


For me, it began a genuinely awkward couple of months.  I got in trouble at work as my then-boss thought and still thinks Engineer X hung the moon.  I showed up at a small conference typically attended by Engineer X (Engineer X was away that year) and had to introduce myself, for the first time, to people who knew ALL ABOUT the whole twitter fight.  Between my boss’s anger and my own personal anxiety, there’s not much I remember from that conference that wasn’t awkward, and it was no one’s fault but my own.


Eventually, though, I moved on and realized that it didn’t matter that much because there is a whole community of people who have been left behind in the wake of Engineer X publicly denouncing them, even threatening physical violence in public against them for the opinions they have expressed about software.  One of my friends tweeted to me, “Welcome to the Walled Garden.”


In this age of extended contact through blogs, twitter and other social sites, it’s much easier for anyone to interact with someone they view as a “leader,” and we do.  I’ve actually become pretty close friends with some of the bloggers and people from twitter I followed and originally, idolized.  Sometimes, however, it can be much harder to get a real picture of the people we idolize, and sometimes that picture is vastly different in reality from what we think it will be as we build a pedestal for our uninformed perceptions of these people.


I’m a big believer in forming my own opinions about things, but when you start following people on twitter and they start following you back, not to mention having conversations with you, it can be easier than you think to relinquish control over your own thoughts and opinions.  Twitter is always on and fairly asynchronous.  Thus, while I initially thought Engineer X was amazing and a thought leader, when things went so far downhill, so quickly, it hurt even worse because here was someone I had really looked up to telling me that my opinions were worthless.


It was upsetting for a while.  Having a harsh conversation in public is unsettling, but everyone has their own personal tipping point.  When this happened to me, I went back over what happened and found that while, in some ways, I had acted rashly, there were good reasons for doing what I did, and I wouldn’t take it back today, even if I could.  There was even a point at which I tried to apologize for my part in it to Engineer X and it didn’t work out at all.  I guess there are some people in this world I’m not meant to get along with and this person is one of them.


We all have favorites on twitter and in the software industry.  We all have our false idols.  We hold them up as better versions of ourselves.  Maybe they are who we want to be “when we grow up.”  The truth is, they are all humans.  They say things they don’t mean, they talk out of turn and I’m sure that there is a time, every now and then, when they take out anger and frustration on someone undeserving, just like every human does when we are at our worst.  In this age of blending professional life with personal faults and idosyncracies, where do we draw the line and how much should we be willing to forgive?  How bad is it ok for Engineer X to be?


Personally, I’m happy to have this person out of my life, but it still hurts when I see them dump on other people I care about.  What’s even crazier is that there is this weird silently understood reaching out that happens when Engineer X dumps on someone.  This is how often and how widely the person is known for dumping on people.


I hope we’re on the edge of a polar shift in software and in social networking.  The “No Asshole” rule has been read by plenty of people and we even have industry segments such as conferences beginning to recognize the importance of emotional safety.  This stuff matters and it makes me happy that it is slowly, but surely infiltrating our culture.


It’s time to recognize that we live in a world where our personal and professional lives mix more than ever and that this usually happens in a good way.  But, also, we deserve better than to have bullies in charge of thought leadership in software (or anywhere really), (and before you hold up Steve Jobs, I’d like to remind everyone that there was exactly one Steve Jobs, he is deader than a doornail and you are not him).


This blog post comes with an ask.  My ask is that you, dear reader, commit to standing up when you see someone getting bullied on twitter, at a conference or wherever and, even if the bully is someone with influence, letting the bully know that you don’t approve and that IT IS NOT OK.  If you end up being the person who steps out of line because you’re human like the rest of us, at least make the effort of a sincere apology when you are ready.  It will be humiliating and it might not be well received, but it is important to try.


As for people like Engineer X who don’t seem to understand how to not bully others, I believe they are in a slow process of building their own walled garden because, eventually, they will block out everyone who’s opinions don’t seem as perfect as their own.

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7 thoughts on “Welcome to the Walled Garden: When leadership is really just bullying”

  1. I’ve had occasions where I became disillusioned about a software hero, though it’s important to remember, we are all complex and have good and bad qualities. There are “thought leaders” out there who don’t think well of me, for whatever reason, and I think in turn they’re jerks, but also they have smart ideas and techniques that I continue to learn and use.

    But bullying is *never* ok, thank you for the reminder to stand up for each other. And I hope I’m never guilty of bullying, if I am, please whack me!

  2. Thanks for sharing this Marlena. Bullying by any means is a horrid approach – whether or not the person bullying even realizes they’re bullying.

    Beyond the bullying, what bugs me most about Engineer X type people isn’t the self-centered attitude. I’m afraid for the people who blindly follow folks like this and assume everything they say has merit (and is true for that matter).

    Be strong, and know that by being who you are, you’ll go much farther in life than *any* Engineer X.

  3. Good on you for posting this. Every industry has its share of thought leaders who are in reality horrible bullies. Seeing them explode at people is really awful because it shows just how fearful those bullies really are: question their turf they’ve staked out as their own brand, and it turns in to a Hiroshima like experience.

    Even more good on you for your explicit call to action. It’s what’s needed. Badly.

  4. Unfortunately, we work in a society where emotion in the workplace is seen as a “weakness” and as you say the lines between out private and personal lives blurr.
    I was having an online discussion about this a few days ago and it’s amazing how words on a page/screen can scream as loud as a human voice.
    “What’s so crazy ’bout peace, love and understanding”…
    Keep up the great work – from a new supporter :)

  5. Still have the twitter brawl in memory and having experienced engineer X’s sermons first hand,I find your blog post gracious & balanced.

    Very few people realize that the core of leadership is tolerance,before anything else.

    Engineer X has lots to do, on that front

  6. I, too, am delighted to see your call for the community to stand up to bullying rather than stand by. Not so long ago, I was at a Board of Directors meeting where an Engineer X bullied the entire room out of talking about an important issue relating to their recent conference and their organization’s future. I don’t know if it was the same Engineer X or not. It doesn’t matter. With the exception of Cem Kaner, the so-called leaders of that organization stepped aside and allowed Engineer X to have his way. It was a sad thing to watch an entire Board intimidated by this overbearing blowhard. Since then, I’ve seen him lead more than one twitter pile-up. I can only hope others will have the courage you show in taking a public stand against such behavior.

  7. Marlena, I missed this post when you wrote it, but it still resonates 2 years later. I did a keynote today and one of the messages I tried to get across was personal safety. For us to work on distributed teams, and communicate and collaborate, I believe we do have to stop the ‘bullying’ or as some people call it “challenging”.. We cannot except quiet and shy cultures to come out and play when there are those type of people who like to intimidate others. There are many of us who have been called out in public, and it is not pleasant. Stop the bullying is a great message. Thank you.

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