Sunday, July 11, 2010

Modern Technology and Transparency

So the first question you may have is, “what does he mean by modern technology?” For those of us that grew up in the ‘80s or before, we know that pretty much anything that has to do with computers is “modern technology.” But I am referring to the new toolset of the on-demand generation: Twitter, Facebook, My Space and so on – social networking.

You see, to my kids, computers are as basic to their lives as color televisions were when I grew up – every household had at least one and eyebrows were raised if your family didn’t. My youngest daughter was better with a mouse at 3 years-old than anyone else in my family – including me! They’ve grown up with Windows and Office and, for the most part, the Internet. And while those of us that had a hand in creating the modern computing culture are proud that we’ve brought the world within a few keystrokes, there is an unfortunate side-effect that is becoming more and more apparent as a result of these advances: e-narcissism.

Having two teenage daughters at home, it was a common dinner-time joke to ask one of them if they truly thought anyone cared that after school they were “doing homework then movie time with Jake” as she had posted to Twitter. But when my teenage son took over the texting championship and has maintained his lead over my daughters every month for over a year now, I had to stop and ask myself what our kids were really learning and how the always connected technology we were handing them was shaping their values, beliefs and personalities.

If you haven’t read “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement”, I strongly suggest doing so; especially if you are a parent of younger kids. I’ve lived what the authors describe and have battled for the past few years to keep my kids’ heads in the right place despite a generation that is falling victim to the narcissism of social networking and cloud computing.

But, as much as I could go on and on, it is another side-effect of this technology that has drawn my attention recently. With the proliferation of electronic communication mediums such as blogs, tweets, social networking sites and hardware that supports these tools such as cell phones, access to individuals has been greatly enhanced. And while this is awesome when we want answers or to learn something new or stay on top of what’s happening in the world, there is a flip-side. Access also leads to transparency. And by this I mean that we get a chance to learn more about someone than ever before.

Psychiatrists don’t analyze a person by reading a medical history – they listen as the person talks. This is how they get to know that person, learn about them and get inside their head. The more they talk, the more the doctor learns. This holds true in general as well. You walk up to an attractive person at a party and it is through dialogue that you determine if a real connection exists. But there is a difference when speaking to someone in a chair across the room or standing in front of you at a party versus sharing your thoughts to a faceless, nameless entity on the Internet.

Sociologists, Human Resources personnel and business managers recognized this problem as e-mail became more and more commonplace in our culture. So often someone will stick their chest out a little farther in an e-mail than they ever would if in front of their target audience. And so we also see the same trend in today’s social networking. Where it crosses a line is when the target audience is known and the authors seem to forget that the Internet is open for anyone to see.

No longer is workplace gossip spread at the water cooler. Rumors fly across the Internet via tweets, comments and wall posts at the speed of light. And unless we are diligent, they are out there for everyone, including the target of the rumor or comment, to see.

I just left a position that, on paper, was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. The group was already using Visual Studio 2010, Team Foundation Server 2010, Silverlight 4 and so on. I was programming some pretty cool applications and the people I was working with were, for the most part, excellent. I can truly say that in nearly 30 years of developing software I’ve never worked with a more intelligent group of developers as part of one team. And while the position was a step-backwards on my career path and only used about 25% of what I brought to the table, the latter could have easily changed over time and the former was an acceptable trade-off to be part of a cutting-edge team. It was getting to know several of the people on the team that pushed me out the door.

I didn’t get to know them over lunch or while working on projects. It was during those times that I found them to be very intelligent and competent developers. No, it was what I learned about their true personalities online that shaped my decision to move on.

I don’t know if they didn’t realize, forgot or simply don’t care that their conversations on Twitter were visible to anyone. But it certainly gave me the opportunity to see their true colors.

I actually stumbled upon the conversations accidentally when I started to follow one of their blogs. Alongside the list of recent posts was a list of recent tweets. One of them caught my eye and motivated me to look farther. It was a harsh criticism, full of expletives, about another of my co-workers and a task he had chosen to take on in the hopes of improving the user experience of several of our applications. Now it isn’t easy to follow a Twitter conversation if you aren’t a follower of everyone involved, but you can put the dialogue together if you review each person’s tweets.

As it turns out, four of the developers on the team have been having extensive conversations about the other team members, including their opinions of those members and the work they do, etc. “behind their backs”. Unfortunately, it really isn’t a private conversation when you hold it via Twitter. Suggesting that the other developers, myself included, are “kids” that “don’t know WTF they are doing” were probably not intended for my eyes – or anyone else on the team. But, social networking provides this level of transparency and, unless you are careful, your inner thoughts may become public with the click of a mouse.

Through the arrogance and disrespect, I learned that these individuals were truly ignorant and could not be trusted. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most tenured developers in the group and the most influential with management. And while they refer to their teammates as “kids, er, architects” tongue-in-cheek, I’ve seen the fruits of their labor and they have nothing to warrant the feather in their caps. I worked with a team 1/3 the size of theirs which produced a production-ready, mission-critical application for the U.S. Army in ¼ the time these so-called “code ninjas” generated some of the most hacked up, spaghetti code I’ve ever seen that doesn’t even come close to meeting the requirements for the project. They blame their poor coding on the time crunch and pressure they were under “over the holidays” but any developer worth his salt knows that good developers will write good code under any circumstance. Bad developers will make excuses. Arrogant developers will make fun of and blame others.

The bottom line is that I would have known none of this, been oblivious to the true feelings of these former co-workers had it not been for the transparency that social networking provides. Depending on how you view my story, you may feel this is good or bad. I would hope the developers that made those comments on Twitter will be ashamed and see this as a negative, but I suspect that I’m an a** for writing this. I guess I’ll know when they tweet about it later, eh?

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