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.