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Reader discretion advised: The following text is unscientific, lacks references and sources sometimes, and is a highly personal perspective. You a free to disagree, but take your anger elsewhere. Even if not explicitly mentioned you are instructed to do your own research if you want to dig deeper into the topic. Talk to a friend or a trusted source. If you find something technically wrong, that still does not change the author's conclusion. This article only elaborates on why they came to this conclusion, so factual inaccuracies (if present) are forgivable. You can keep them, but for the sake of the environment please do not print them.
Meritocracy. Why am I even mentioning it, in 2021?
I recently came across some reviews of my current employer and one stated:
Company X is not a meritocracy.
With the recommendation to management:
Restore meritocracy, honest company culture.
Nope. Sorry, no. Never ever do I want to see that at a place I work for. And it is probably for the best that the author of the review is not working with us anymore.
The term itself is already too fuzzy and can mean different things to people. It ranges over a plethora of meanings like worth, credit, performance, achievement, accomplishment, competence, ability, intelligence, education, credentials, talent, effort. And probably a whole lot more.
Something-something-cracy is a political system, where the leading term describes how the political power is defined and coming from. Who or what is ruling the society.
(-cracy → Ancient Greek κράτος kratos → power, strength)
And since merit comes from the Latin mereō ("earn")1, we can interpret that loosely as a system where you have to earn your position of power. Now without context that doesn't sound too bad actually, right? At least compared to systems, where lineage or heritage rules, which always have been unfair to the wider population by design. But the term alone also doesn't define what you need to earn to deserve your place. It could be intelligence, but it could be also something entirely different.
While such systems have existed in the past the term itself only got coined in the last century, and it was a dystopian satire called The Rise of the Meritocracy.2
Now I don't really know what happened, when it happened, and why apparently software developers are extremely susceptible to the mere idea of meritocracy34, but like my younger self most people probably did not know that it was not meant as a recipe or runbook to follow. Quite the opposite.
(Unless you actually do have evil intent, any dystopian novel is not meant as a guide, but more like a cautionary tale or at least only as fictional entertainment.)
Why is meritocracy bad?
Let's stick with software development/engineering here, since that's basically the only field I have remotely some experience with.
If you have to earn your position of power in an Engineering team or organization, how is that done? Who even decides if and when you have accumulated enough merit to climb the ranks?
If one check box would be education and you decided that only people with a Computer Science (CS) degree should have a say, you will exclude a lot of talented folks who do not have that background, but are potentially as capable as their studied counterparts. So do you really devalue them just because they have followed a different path in their past? And why would you do it?
Are only people who have visited a university worthy of doing the jobs you have to offer? In a field where "Software Developer/Engineer" is not even a protected title and formal education track?5 What are you standards, and why do you hold them up?
How do you see career jumpers coming from a completely different area of expertise? They might have studied even, but majored in psychology, politics, music, arts, or history. Don't they actually also have merit, but just of a different kind?
How about people who couldn't even afford any higher education and thus want to enter the market in a different way?
And more questions: what about the whole area of people management? Do engineering managers really need to have programmed in their past? I know, most did, and I appreciate that, since it makes some conversations easier. But is it required?
How do you level up, or sideways? How many lines of code do you need to write? How many successful deployments to deliver? How many code reviews to reject or approve? Or do you need to recite all algorithms, design patterns, and programming paradigms? Can you only become a CTO if you have done frontend, backend, and infrastructure work? Are these even the qualities which would qualify you for such a job?
So what is this merit you're talking about? What are the measurements and scales? And who judges if and when you stepped up or not?
In the end of the day I only have too many questions and lots of confusion.
The Geek Feminism Wiki also points out the problem of meritocracy quite well:
However, meritocracies tend to promote those who not only have the skills/experience, but are also outspoken enough to let everyone know about it. This pushiness/ego/self-aggrandisement is something that women are generally discouraged from doing.
So is the answer "the ones who scream the loudest"? Is that it?
[…] There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth. In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.
And luck does seem to play its part, even if we don't want to see it. I believe that quite some success is circumstantial at least; be there at the right time and in the right place. That has nothing to do with merit.
In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.
Go read the full article, it draws a very dark and grim picture.
Furthermore it seems impossible to build even a positive meritocracy, as Rebecca pointed out already 11 years ago. So it's not news and we have not evolved.
It's also more about him and his cognitive dissonance around this topic. In the end he acknowledges that meritocracy won't work in reality. Yet he wished to live in an ideal world where it would work.
But would it though? It did not even in the book which coined the term. Why would we believe the reality would be any different?
The hacker and security scene seems to be an interesting but also strange place. I have never been really part of it, for different reasons. One of them also that the generalist in me prevents me from dedicating lots of time and focus on a singular topic to be noticeably successful. Another is that it never felt like a hugely welcoming place to me, even if individuals might be nice guys, the whole thing I perceive mostly as a hostile environment, any mistake I do will be used against me. Any well-intentioned hack is just driving me away, eating away that little self-confidence I had left, telling me "you are not good enough, go somewhere else." Not every hacker is ethical, not everyone plays nice, and quite some probably just think "it was just a joke, don't be a party pooper."
Now add also the whole merit bullshit on top of it. Yes, a meritocratic hacker culture is a toxic place. The display of merit is executed in a harmful and dangerous way. Hiding behind anonymous entities does not change anything, or it rather encourages even bad behaviour, because you as the real human being behind your avatar do not have to take responsibilities for the harm you do.
The wishful thinking of hacker communities, that meritocracy might be a good thing is probably also paired with the idea, that we should be all more like soulless machines.
»So, you are SupaHaxX0r123 who destroyed EvilCorps network? Wow!« — basically every hacker movie ever
The reality is, we are social beings, and as such, it is actually pretty important to us, who we interact with, and thus we seek to discover and know the individuals behind the pseudonym, the anonymous article, the nickname and their accomplishments. I would even say, bodyless entities scare us.
We cannot really credit merit to a name or symbol, we need to direct it to people, to real beings. This is what gives it some meaning.7 We struggle with separating the creator and their work, for the better or worse; if the author does something we disagree with, can we still view/read/use their doings, do we still acknowledge their achievements, their credibility? So if we cannot do that, can we really build a society around the fuzzy concept of merit?
And even if there was this hypothetical, magical wonderland with meritocracy, one problem everybody forgets to address: how would we transition into it? Knowing how humankind is, how changes happened in the history so far, there's probably a lot of dead and fire and wreckage on the way to utopia … or dystopia.
Diverse teams are more successful
There are plenty of researches and articles, and well-known resources like McKinsey, Forbes, and Harvard Business Review (HBR) have written about it.8 And I believe by now this is an accepted truth in the industry (which doesn't mean, everyone is actually following it): if you have a more diverse team, you will be smarter and more successful.
But to be that smart and successful, you have to let go your idea of a meritocracy, because it will not help you to even form such diverse teams. You won't be able to hire the right people for the job, because you need to broaden your view, reach into areas which would be closed to you otherwise, since you have narrowed yourself into a strange corner.
Of course, you only want to hire smart people, but you need to allow them to have different backgrounds and skills and strength, to complement each other, and thus ultimately form a truly powerful team. And you should work really hard to recognize that, because not everyone will be very outspoken about it. And no, I don't believe you will be able to achieve that with just a bunch of Stanford or MIT students. Nothing against any individual coming from those universities, yet a whole team of them is just a very like-minded homogenous mass, which won't produce the same interesting outcomes you most likely need for a well performing and successful organization.
If you only look for people who are like you — and sadly that's how many seem to understand and execute meritocracy — you get just a very boring tasting porridge, narrow and shallow, with too many blind spots, not very innovative, and most likely failing your customers.9
I also want to pick one aspect mentioned in above quoted Geek Feminism (GF) article, from the supposed principles list:
"Merit" does not include factors like gender, race, age, disability, cultural background, and hobbies.
Now why would you basically exclude all those factors?
If you say "I don't care about your race" with the justification "I don't see colors", let me tell you this: it's racism! And that also works similarly for the other factors.
You're not blind, you're just an asshole. I'm not even sorry for the strong language here.
All sunshine here … or is it really?
So, I claimed that my current workplace is not a meritocracy. And for the most parts I would say, I'm probably right. Since no place is perfect though I will not deny that there have been meritocratic moments and movements. I'm sure some people might have climbed the ranks exactly in the way as described in the GF wiki page. And I have probably missed many opportunities by not being vocal enough, in fact I'm extremely talented in underselling myself down to professional self-harm, and only thanks to my recent managers I got promoted and leveled enough to not feel like a complete incompetent companion.
We do have a leveling system, performance reviews, and this impacts your compensation. I am not super-duper stoked about it either. This could become a whole other story on its own. Yet within a team theoretically anyone could fulfill any role if they desire and want to grow in certain directions. You want to know what it means to be an opportunity lead? For the next project you can become that and we help you figure everything out. This does not always work, but we try very hard to also accomodate your personal development goals if possible.
I also see an ever growing trend of diverse teams forming as well. We hired and hire people already from a wider range of demographics, not only are more women there, or people of color, but also with different backgrounds in education and career. We bring in seasoned folks and newcomers, we have trans and non-binaries, we have so many nationalities I lost count there. We might have some people with disabilities, though that is mostly not really visible. For example I wonder if our new office will finally be wheelchair friendly, our old one wasn't and we just got "lucky" by not having any physically impaired employee requiring an accessible environment. Currently we're all in home office, so the final answer is postponed for now. For the most parts nowadays we're doing quite fine or even better than the average tech company out there, I believe.
Final (very harsh) words
I have not a great segue into the last part here. Yet I hope you might have realized that this topic is a bit more difficult that you might have thought in the beginning. And it's very easy to say "Oh, I want that" without really knowing or understanding what "that" even means.
Anyway in case you missed it in the short version, here my concise …
So to make sure you really understand me:
If you believe in meritocracy I do not want to work with you!
I simply do not have time for your elitist and exclusionist world view.10
Usually I would encourage you to get in touch with me here, but to be honest, this time I don't want that. If it was Twitter I'd say »Don't @ me!« So feel free to discuss this wherever you like, but do not include me into the conversations. Take it to HackerNews or Reddit, but don't tell me.
Latin-Greek combos are always funny. The pure Greek version of the term would be axiocracy; axios αξιος → worthy.
But to be fair, I also don't really understand men in general. And let's be very honest here: only male software developers seems to love the concept. Never have I ever heard a woman or non-binary person say: yes, I rrrrrreally want meritocracy.
After reading the synopsis of "The Rise of the Meritocracy" I suspect that there might be even some correlation with misogynistic tendencies, but I might be wrong. Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if I was correct. If we conducted a survey and people would respond honestly, I can imagine that there is a huge overlap of these two circles.
There is sometimes discussions around if Software Development/Engineering should be a recognized trade with a formal training. I haven't formed a position around it, but it would be interesting to see how the curriculum would look like. I hope, ethics would be part of it.
This is the part where I skip the links, because there are plenty. REALLY! This is also the part where I do tell you: please, do your own research. Do not expect that people will always do the work for you and explain everything to you. You are hopefully old enough and smart enough to use the search engine of your choice and type in some search terms.
I'm truly sorry for any porridge fan. In fact I do love me some good bowl of porridge as well, but only with some flavour and seasoning. Plain oatmeal is boring though. And if you use only water … well, we might not become close friends then.11
Sorry, LiveOverflow. I don't want to pick on you specifically, but you gave me some extra food for this post. I still like your work, keep creating!
Have you ever thought: Wow, computer program XYZ is just an incredible entity, deserves a lot of merit, yay …? Yeah, me neither. Not sure if we ever will acknowledge the output of ML and AI to the producing entity, or still push it to the authors of those ML and AI programs and computers.
Even as a tolerant person I do not have to tolerate the intolerant, because that would undermine and destroy tolerance in the end anyway. So boundaries are necessary here.
This footnote section takes some interesting turns. By now it's open season, I can talk about anything. But don't worry, I won't. Yet. ;-)