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"Are you sure you know how to do this?"
January 9, 2014 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Silent Technical Privilege. "Even though I didn't grow up in a tech-savvy household and couldn't code my way out of a paper bag, I had one big thing going for me: I looked like I was good at programming."
posted by Memo (38 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

"Did you believe me? If so, why?"

Because I assume someone writing an article isn't straight-up lying to me. Jackass.
posted by squinty at 10:06 AM on January 9 [22 favorites]

How a Fake Beard Can Get You Hired on the Internet
posted by fings at 10:08 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]

(Look closely. My fingers aren't even in the right position.)

Yeah, they aren't on home row in that third picture, either.
posted by malocchio at 10:15 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I had the privilege of implicit endorsement. For instance, whenever I attended technical meetings, people would assume that I knew what I was doing (regardless of whether I did or not) and treat me accordingly.

In addition to being all Asian looking, this guy is a student at MIT. Having worked with a few MIT grads, I wouldn't make the assumption that an MIT student knows anything about computers or programming, but I can imagine other people might be more easily lulled into thinking that they might.
posted by three blind mice at 10:19 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]

I can (sort of) relate. I look like a Budget Officer, Level 2.
posted by mazola at 10:22 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I dunno. The article is neither here nor there for me - basically Asian guys get to benefit from privilege too (hey, who let that guy into Ring 0? HA HA) and privilege is a thing that happens even among the privileged. But it's not a terrible essay either and it's always good to remind yourself to try to have a rational basis for making decisions about people and not to fall into the trap of always giving the best work to the "best" person especially at school where the entire point is for people to learn things.

That said, the whole "my hands aren't even in the right place!" isn't exactly a huge giveaway as one of the few things learning to program at an early age gave me was an ingrained inability to touch-type. I am seriously the world's worst typist and it's really not that much of an impediment to work.
posted by GuyZero at 10:26 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

People who are truly great at programming seem to have an intuitive feel for how the various environments that come together in a computer system interact. It's almost like musical talent - you can get good, very good even, just from hard work, but there are people with something that goes beyond that, and, if you don't have it, you never will. I don't, but I somehow remain employable.
posted by thelonius at 10:32 AM on January 9

Humanities version: when I start teaching a class I can walk in and be my usual weird self and trust that the class will assume that I know what I'm talking about. I can start off being enthusiastic, comfortable and having fun. My students like this, and professionally it's helped me on my teaching evaluations.

Every female prof or graduate student I've talked to has told me stories about being disrespected by students. One told me that on the first day of class she operates on prison rules, coming in tough and hard and possibly throwing someone up against the wall if that's what she has to do to make it clear that she's not going to be screwed with. This is completely out of character for her, and it's stressful, and I can't imagine any of her students enjoy it. It's career ending stress for a lot of people. I hope it isn't for her.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:39 AM on January 9 [20 favorites]

Every female prof or graduate student I've talked to has told me stories about being disrespected by students. One told me that on the first day of class she operates on prison rules, coming in tough and hard and possibly throwing someone up against the wall if that's what she has to do to make it clear that she's not going to be screwed with. This is completely out of character for her, and it's stressful, and I can't imagine any of her students enjoy it. It's career ending stress for a lot of people. I hope it isn't for her.

Knowing this, it puts some doubt into my mind as to whether two professors were deadly dull and passively poisonous to motivation about the subject because they were bad professors or because both were women and didn't want problems from a more 'casual' style of running a classroom.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:51 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]

That said, the whole "my hands aren't even in the right place!" isn't exactly a huge giveaway as one of the few things learning to program at an early age gave me was an ingrained inability to touch-type.

Yeah, Hollywood aside, you seldom need to code that quickly. IRC and the like is where you pick up touch typing skills.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:56 AM on January 9 [8 favorites]

I thought the opening was a perfectly reasonable way to dramatize his point - being rude is certainly not an appropriate response.

It's interesting - I've been "the math prodigy" almost as long as I can remember - I remember doing a book of "new math" on my father's urging in or around 1968 and enjoying it, I was about six at the time - so this is a new perspective to me.

As for the difficulty that people without "silent technical privilege" face, it's all too real. I'm lucky that I've generally worked for squishy liberal companies that have gone out of their way to encourage diversity, but I'm quite realistic that this is the exception, not the rule.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:57 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Yup. This stuff can't be restated enough, because it is amazingly easy to be oblivious when you're young. Many CS people (myself included) don't figure out that there's a problem at all until they're well out of college.
posted by phooky at 11:17 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]

I thought that was a great article and I want to give that young man a hug!

I was discouraged out of programming and steered into account managing because I look like an account manager, not a programmer. I hated account managing and found my way back into programming but now I'm pretty old as well.

I do remember lying awake at night wondering what I had to do to convince the people I worked with that I was capable.

Fortunately I have a pretty good job for now.

Screw all of you who think only teenage boys can program!
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:49 AM on January 9 [8 favorites]

I thought this was really cool to read. I was a female computer science major who didn't look the part at all, and felt like I didn't belong AT ALL, and I did write computer programs when I was a little kid (mostly choose your own adventure type things for my little brother). I liked computer science so I stuck with it, but I still felt like everyone around me belonged more than I did, and I was always surprised that I was allowed to stay in the major.

Recently at an interview for a management-type position someone said to me, 'well you don't have a technical background...' I guess he hadn't read my resume and thought it was a safe assumption. A few days later, at a progressive techie type meeting someone I don't know included me in a list of people at the meeting without technical backgrounds. I guess based on what I look like.

It is true that these slights over a career are totally demoralizing and exhausting. Sometimes you just ignore it, sometimes you point it out - embarrassed for the both of you, sometimes it makes you mad, and sometimes you realize that this is just sort of natural. Being assumed to not be a computer programmer isn't the greatest harm that has ever befallen someone, but it is hurtful and frustrating.
posted by goneill at 11:52 AM on January 9 [31 favorites]

I loved this article too. Speaking as a semi-techy female in a tech industry, who was steered away from computing as a kid, even though it was my hobby and interest. I know work alongside programmers doing the job I always wanted to do, in a different job that (luckily) I love. It makes me sad that I missed out on the opportunity because I was too easily swayed by teachers' opinions, but we can't all be single-minded bullish people who do what they want even when everyone recommends against it. And honestly that's a large majority of the people who got into programming originally.
posted by Joh at 12:02 PM on January 9 [8 favorites]

I get mistaken for a secretary all the time. It shouldn't make me angry, but it does. I go downstairs to meet with technicians and they assume I'm going to lead them to "my boss". Um, no. You're here to meet with me.
posted by domo at 12:03 PM on January 9 [11 favorites]

Oh yeah, and conferences and expos are hell. No-one talks to me, I am assumed to be the girlfriend of one of my co-workers who is just tagging along.
posted by Joh at 12:04 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

domo: It shouldn't make me angry, but it does.

It should make you angry. Shit's ridiculous.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:06 PM on January 9 [10 favorites]

My primary takeaways:

1. Sometimes people who look like geeks are really just average people with no particular natural talents.

2. Sometimes average looking people are actually geeks who blend in well.

3. Shy people with interests are easily discouraged, so it's always best to avoid discouraging anyone unless they're clearly terrible.

4. Shy people without interests or talent sometimes fake having interests and talent, so never trust anyone about anything.
posted by HappyEngineer at 12:09 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]

Oh, a number of times now I've been typing away at a coffee shop and someone I've never seen before comes up and asks me something about his computer that's been giving him trouble. (Replace "him"s with "her"s 50% of time plz.) For whatever reason, I just look like someone who can make computers dance like Mickey's broom in Fantasia. I do know a fair bit, but people shouldn't assume that just from looking at me.
posted by JHarris at 12:11 PM on January 9

I think I was at MIT the same time this guy was, and I never wrote a line of code before I took my first intro CS course. I loved the work, and I did well in my classes, but the maxim that it takes ten years to learn how to do something with true expertise certainly held for me. It wasn't until I was well out of school that I feel I reached a truly high level of proficiency. In the meantime, just like with him, opportunities to excel and try my hand at work above my level of talent were always there for the taking when I asked for them.

That wasn't true for everyone, even at MIT (which at the time already had a 50% gender ratio overall, which is great for a pure engineering school). I saw a lot of people who shouldn't have get shuffled off to the "soft" sciences through a combination of peer and academic pressure, and it wasn't until after I left that I really realized what was going on. So I have to say this post resonated with my experience quite a bit.
posted by teh_boy at 12:15 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

This guy is basically me, only without the being Asian or an MIT student bits. I look like a geek, so I'm treated as if I'm much more capable and know much more than I actually do, even amongst my usually white, usually male co-workers. This is especially noticable in companies outside the IT sector. It's not just being a white male, though that helps, it's having the beard and the glasses.

The flipside of that is that certain cow-orkers who don't fit that image like I do, can also be or appear to be much less confident, especially women. People who know just as much as I do or more, but are less eager to speak out or draw your attention to this because either they don't have that confidence I got without even having to try or who have been burned once too often by speaking out and not being listened to.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:15 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

“You know, not everyone is cut out for Computer Science ...”

Heh. I heard this more than a few times when I was early on in the EE major at university.

There's no question the material was demanding, but I also had enough confidence I was entirely certain that I wasn't the problem in the educational equation. That confidence could have made me decide to tough it out, instead I chose to jump to Math, where (a) nobody implied maybe it wasn't for you if you found the material difficult (and in fact, most profs were pretty helpful) (b) what I was learning seemed equally interesting and more broadly useful and (c) I was in a major that some EEs were scared of (ok, this wasn't really a decision factor, just a nice benefit).

I sometimes think about what it would take to instill that confidence in someone who doesn't fit the white/asian male profile. I actually didn't have it for a long time as a teen -- I'd done well enough in school as a kid, but in the secondary system I was pretty much a B student. Then at the end junior year of high school I took some standardized tests and blew them out of the water, and that worked as a magic feather for a good number of years (even after my high school CS teacher, apparently shocked that I'd done quite well on the AP exam, reportedly told a classmate he thought I must just be good at gaming tests).

If I'd never had that opportunity, I wonder if I would have been stopped by the pile of negative little silent judgments and comments, which did come my way, though it may have been relatively small compared to what people who don't fit the profile get. And as I look at people I care about who don't fit, I wonder what kind of magic feather I could hand them.

I also wonder if there's an opportunity out there. There seems to be a lot of gatekeepers making choices largely on commonly accepted signals, and management that's incurious about the depth/breadth of people's talents and potential. If this is true, then it would also seem there's a chance to put together competitive teams from among the overlooked.
posted by weston at 12:23 PM on January 9 [10 favorites]

Of course what MIT started the working world finished. Even the women I knew who stuck it out with CS are no longer doing programming work. They're in project management, management consulting, ibanking, law, medicine. But not programming. It's too much of a pain to always go against it, and when you encounter less resistance in virtually every other profession at some point you just end up on a road more traveled..
posted by teh_boy at 12:29 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]

If you absolutely insist on stuffing terms for every type of advantage into the "x privilege" schema, this should be something more like "looks-like-a-geek privilege" or somesuch. I mean, I can't wait for that fad to die off...but if you're going to do it, you probably ought to be more accurate about it.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 1:01 PM on January 9

"Here was someone with a natural interest who took the initiative to learn more and was denied the opportunity to do so."

Uh-huh. Because someone with a passion for something can be stunted, deprived and pitable because they're not allowed to do it at work.
posted by Twang at 1:02 PM on January 9

When I was working as a technical writer, making sure I "looked" technical enough was a definite thing. If I dressed too nicely or wore a jacket, I was a "suit" and assumed to be hostile/nontechnical by programmers. If I wore too much makeup, it was also held against me. On the other hand, I needed to look professional enough to meet with project managers and occasionally with outside clients. It was a balancing act all the time between programmer/geek-girl casual/appearance disdaining and looking like a grownup going to work.

"Looking like a programmer" or "looking technical" is a real thing apart from the demographic privilege issue.
posted by immlass at 1:07 PM on January 9 [8 favorites]

Fists O'Fury, I didn't take "silent technical privilege" as coining a new social justice term, but just as a phrase to describe what he's talking about. He's talking about privilege, people don't talk about it, and it's in regard to technical things. Just a noun phrase. Means what it sounds like it means.
posted by edheil at 1:40 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

Yep, I can nth a lot of the experiences described in this thread and in the FPP. Back in my undergrad years, there was a strange moment where half of my academic life was medieval music history and the other half was computer sciences. As a queer Latino dude, I got the "are you sure this is for you?" treatment in both fields quite a bit, but it was much more intense and much more palpable in computer sciences at the time (around 2000-2002). I nonetheless really enjoyed coding, had exhibited some talent at writing very compact and clean code during high school, and was really excited about a potential career in IT.

I remember how we would be told to form groups for assignments in CS classes, and I would always end up in the rag-tag Siblinghood of The Vaguely Brown And/Or Ovaries-Having. And that didn't always mean that we, the not-even-geeks, supported each other in solidarity. Being constantly on the defensive doesn't make you a great team player. Things often dissolved in a complex, passive-aggressive volleys of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, etc.

More than 10 years later, I'm doing something totally different and am very happy with it (although the post-doctoral job prospects are a whole other thing). But I can imagine that I would've been very happy and productive in IT instead. Every once in a while, I still scratch that itch by teaching myself something like Max/MSP or Ruby or what have you...
posted by LMGM at 2:01 PM on January 9

You know, I could go on a tedious rant about model minorities and such, but I'll say it's about time nerdy-looking Asian dudes got to claim a form of privilege based on looks. Progress!
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 2:09 PM on January 9

If you absolutely insist on stuffing terms for every type of advantage into the "x privilege" schema, this should be something more like "looks-like-a-geek privilege" or somesuch. I mean, I can't wait for that fad to die off...but if you're going to do it, you probably ought to be more accurate about it.

I agree with you, and I agree with the author as well. The only part he got wrong was needlessly inventing "silent privilege": the concept of privilege already includes both unearned advantage as well as conferred dominance. His personal experiences are exactly of the second type. It is wrong to make it sound like it's another kind of privilege, as if he's found something new.

The other thing he gets wrong is his own story. If you are good at mathematics, CS comes much easier (an MIT professor wrote an article about this in the context of CS education and the need for more mathematics for their undergrads). So this author failed to rule out the case that even though he didn't grow up with computers, he probably did receive very good quality mathematics training, or something effectively like that. And that's the former kind of privilege, the "real technical privilege" using his vocabulary—both kinds are at work, yet he omits this obvious fact. I'd argue that nearly all privilege is a mixture of both kinds.

But everything else he said—about women in computing, especially compared to the advantages conferred onto the fact that you're an Asian guy at an elite college, are spot on.
posted by polymodus at 2:22 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Loving this blog post! Both what it has to say and how it says it. Discussions of this kind of privilege often remind me of the classic Bad Doctor sketch from Kids In The Hall and the way Philip Guo sets up his point wouldn't sound out of place alongside that.

For instance, whenever I attended technical meetings, people would assume that I knew what I was doing (regardless of whether I did or not) and treat me accordingly. If I stared at someone in silence and nodded as they were talking, they would usually assume that I understood, not that I was clueless.

How far can you coast on charm? Well, pretty far actually.
posted by comealongpole at 3:37 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

I should really get back into Codecademy.
posted by limeonaire at 3:52 PM on January 9

I remember a comment from a woman Mefite on her good experience in mathematics (compared to experiences others had had in other fields) due to the lack of room maths leaves for this kind of toxic second-guessing BS.

This is very anecdotal, but I feel like a closely related dynamic might be at play in the community around certain programming languages like Haskell and (the quite recent and experimental) Idris, i.e. functional programming languages with advanced type systems that facilitate and favor methods of programming where showing the correctness of programs (very strongly especially in the case of Idris) is fairly straightforward, as are the reasons for preferring one practice over another -- where once again you have less room for second-guessing BS that you might have in other languages with more ad-hoc methods.

Of course, the wonderfully polite and friendly and helpful culture I've found around these languages could just be a happy coincidence :).

If someone's curiosity gets sparked, I suggest reading Learn You a Haskell for Great Good, with some additional hints from this page, and if you feel particularly courageous, take the Idris tutorial alongside it (the documentation for Idris is relatively sparse at the moment, but existing literature on Haskell will be useful for studying Idris as well due to their close relationship), and go hang out on #Haskell and #Idris on Freenode.
posted by Anything at 7:24 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]

Note to above: I myself am a dude, but this is an issue I try to keep a close eye on, and I like to imagine I'm not entirely crappy at it.
posted by Anything at 7:28 PM on January 9

Yeah, I'm a woman who's been trying to shift sideways into the computational area of my field for a few years now. I keep getting interviews, but I get passed over for dudes every time. I don't know for sure that it is gender bullshit - they might really always be better than me, but I always wonder whether I'd be taken more seriously if I looked like a stereotypical computer geek.

The most recent occasion was one where I interviewed for a programming job, and the interviewers ended up mainly interviewing me for the non-programming job that they were also advertising, and which I hadn't applied for. In the end they offered the programming job to a dude, and when he turned it down they decided to readvertise the position to "get the sort of person they had in mind".

They told me that my interview performance was great, and presumably they only interviewed me because my skills on paper looked like they would be sufficient, but in the end they said they just weren't sure I would be up to the computational side of things. This was (supposedly) because I haven't published in the computational journals in my field and it hasn't been my main academic focus before, although I've done a bunch of contract work in IT and can point to projects that showcase solid programming skills. Basically the committee just couldn't be sure that I really had those skills and/or that I could translate them into the academic sphere (the job would require me to apply the computational stuff to my current thematic research focus that I do have a strong academic portfolio on). Since believing I could do it was basically a matter of imagining me in the job, I just can't help wondering if it would have been an easier sell if I had looked the part.
posted by lollusc at 11:33 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty sure a lot of this has to do with "MIT Privilege" as well.
posted by zscore at 8:18 AM on January 10

zscore, if you read the actual article, you'll see that the author also gives a specific example of problems faced by a female fellow MIT student of his.
posted by Anything at 9:37 PM on January 10

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