Letters To A Young Programmer: 1

It was inevitable that you would come here. The Internet is vast, this is a small corner of it, but the whole is connected. Facebook? Twitter? Chasing down strange links after midnight? A word from a fellow at a party, after a drink too many? It doesn’t matter.

You remind me of myself because: I used to be you. Computer programmer just out of college. Hard working, intelligent. Middle-class American.

So this series of letters is to you. Anyone is welcome to read them. But they are for you.

This blog, and this series, is not about technology. It is about politics, which is to say it is about people. We are geeks because we’d rather deal with a computer than people. But people are important. If I did give technical advice, it would be: People are important! Organization is important. So are decisions. The ability to write clearly.

You might ask, is this a tradition? The hoary-headed engineer passes wisdom onto the neophyte? No. One reason is that the accretion of skill in our profession is not linear; if you’re a budding superstar, you’ll bud by the age of 27 or so. And of course technology changes so much. If a grizzled veteran had taken me aside in 1997 and said “I always tried to have some paperwork to do when the mainframes were taken down for preventative maintenance”: I’d appreciate the sentiment but would be able to do little with the information.

But politics is people, you say. Surely people are unchanging, you say.

It’s interesting that when we use the word politics to refer to a specific environment, it’s easy to apply the proper qualifier. “Office politics”. “Corporate politics.” The politics of your organization you will always have with you. No advice to offer on that. I’m speaking of the generic “politics”, which I shall refer to as “power politics.”

My next letter will give you advice on how to cope with the manifestation of power politics at your workplace. I believe my advice to be sound. But I admit: it does not derive from long experience. When I was in your situation, two decades past, power politics were not welcome in the office. It probably seems odd to you, but there were many situations in which your opinion on Donkey-versus-Elephant, gay rights, the inheritance tax — all were considered out of bounds and likely to lead to pointless trouble.

I shall close with a provocative statement. In Isaac Asimov’s wonderful Foundation Trilogy, Hari Seldon says during his first prerecorded posthumous speech:

Somewhere in the fifty years just past is where the historians of the future will place an arbitrary line and say: “This marks the fall of the Galactic Empire.” And they will be right, though scarcely any will recognize that fall for additional centuries.

Somewhere in the ten years just past, or the next ten years, is where historians will place an arbitrary line and say: “This marks the end of freedom in the United States of America.”

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