Techie in the Headlights

I have an impression that people who work in the technology sector tend to skew liberal, with a certain disdain for politics. The tech world, largely in line with the scientific community, is populated by science geeks and nerds*, with strong emphasis on reason and intellect; highschool popularity be damned. Both contribute to a strong belief in meritocracy and egalitarianism, that everyone should be judged according to their achievements regardless of race / gender / sexual orientation / nationality. The superstars of tech world today are mostly self made billionaires, from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

Brendan Eich was carving his way to be one of these superstars – he was the inventor of JavaScript, cofounder and CTO of Mozilla, and for about 11 days he was the CEO of the company he helped to create. The disclosure of his past donations to anti-gay campaign in California and other right wing politicians have resulted in public relations disaster, employees calling for his resignation and more than half board members resigned over his promotion. On the aftermath of Eich’s resignation, opinions abound on whether he should not have been lynched for his personal views or he should not have been appointed in the first place.

I call this a techie in the headlights problem – much like a deer caught offguard in front of a fast approaching car, we (speaking from experience here) don’t always comprehend the treacherous field of human relations. With utopian ideals of a workplace like Google campuses or ideosyncratic one like Mozilla, techies often regard having difference in publicly held opinions and privately held ones as a fatal flaw in integrity. Eich offered a reserved apology but did not recant his views, writing blog entries reassurancing inclusiveness but granted media interviews reiterating his freedom of opinion and that Indonesian mozilla developers with “different opinions” that supported him didn’t have “megaphones“. Geez, thanks for namedropping us Indonesians, Brendan, but it didn’t sound like your charm offensive would’ve worked anyway. Moreover, if your employees decide to revolt in full media glare and none of the other board members backed your selection, it’s likely that you didn’t have enough political capital to become the CEO in the first place.

In the ideologically meritocratic world of tech, people often forget that the CEO is a political role, not simply the best engineer in the company or the most influential contributor for the community. The CTO’s candid remark about product naming being “a marketing scam” may be overlooked, but the CEO’s may not. Aside from being the most powerful person in the organization, the CEO also represents it to the outside world. A brand ambassador and also a lightning rod*, if you will, because the job also includes deflecting undue distractions from outside the company. This should be a lesson for techies who aspire to play the game of thrones : acquire the dark art of so-called people skills. If people don’t want to work for you it’s a dead end, no matter how brilliant you are technically. Offer an unreserved apology when it is required of you. Sure, self righteously holding on to your beliefs felt like standing on higher moral ground. You might, however, lose your head over it – but you know that already, don’t you?

 

(* exception that proves the rule

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