2017-08-16

Since we can't challenge diversity policy, how to prevent mistakes?

The James Damore affair at Google has made it very clear that discussion of companies' diversity policy is completely off the table. When I say "discussion" here, I mean "anything other than adulation". I've seen plenty of the latter in the past week. The recent 'letter from Larry Page' in The Economist was a classic example. It was in desperate need of someone tagging it with a number of [citation needed] starting from paragraph 4:

You’re wrong. Your memo was a great example of what’s called “motivated reasoning” — seeking out only the information that supports what you already believe. It was derogatory to women in our industry and elsewhere [CN]. Despite your stated support for diversity and fairness, it demonstrated profound prejudice[CN]. Your chain of reasoning had so many missing links[CN] that it hardly mattered what you based your argument on. We try to hire people who are willing to follow where the facts lead, whatever their preconceptions [CN]. In your case we clearly got it wrong.

Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that random company employees questioning diversity policy is off the table. This is not an obviously unreasonable constraint, given the firestorm from Damore's manifesto. Then here's a question for Silicon Valley diversity (and leadership) types: since we've removed the possibility of employee criticism from your diversity policy, what is your alternative mechanism for de-risking it?

In all other aspects of engineering, we allow - nay, encourage - ideas and implementations to be tested by disinterested parties. As an example, the software engineering design review pits the software design lead against senior engineers from other development and operational teams who have no vested interest in the new software launching, but a very definite interest in the software not being a scaling or operational disaster. They will challenge the design lead with "what if..." and "how have you determined capacity for metric X..." questions, and expect robust answers backed by data. If the design lead's answers fall short, the new software will not progress to implementation without the reviewer concerns being addressed.

Testing is often an adversarial relationship: the testing team tries to figure out ways that new software might break, and craft tests to exploit those avenues. When the test reveals shortcomings in the software, the developer is not expected to say "well, that probably won't happen, we shouldn't worry about it" and blow off the test. Instead they either discuss the requirements with the tester and amend the test if appropriate, or fix their code to handle the test condition.

Netflix's Chaos Monkey subjects a software service to adverse operational conditions. The software designer might assert that the service is "robust" but if Chaos Monkey creates a reasonably foreseeable environment problem (e.g. killing 10% of backend tasks) and the service starts to throw errors at 60% of its queries, it's not Chaos Monkey which is viewed as the problem.

Even checking-in code - an activity as integral to an engineer's day as operating the coffee machine - is adversarial. For any code that hits production, the developer will have to make the code pass a barrage of pre-existing functional and syntax checks, and then still be subject to review by a human who is generally the owner of that section of code. That human expects new check-ins to improve the operational and syntactic quality of the codebase, and will challenge a check-in that falls short. If the contributing engineer asserts something like "you don't appreciate the beauty of the data structure" in reply, they're unlikely to get check-in approval.

Given all this, why should diversity plans and implementations - as a critical component of a software company - be immune to challenge? If we have decided that engineer-authored manifestos are not an appropriate way to critically analyse a company's diversity system then what is the appropriate way?

Please note that there's a good reason why the testing and development teams are different, why representatives from completely different teams are mandatory attendees of design reviews, and why the reviewer of new code should in general not be someone who reports to the person checking in the code. The diversity team - or their policy implementors - should not be the sole responders to challenges about the efficacy of their own systems.

2017-08-06

"PC considered harmful" - hand grenade thrown into Valley tech

Wow. I've not seen this amount of heat, light, sound and fury directed towards a minority group since a fat man broke wind loudly over Nagasaki. [I've heard of good taste, and want no part of it.]

Anyone in Silicon Valley tech industry who hasn't been living under a rock has seen the frothing rage on Twitter about a Google employee penning an internal-shared personal doc about their perspective on the company's hiring and training priorities relating to women and "minorities" (which in Silicon Valley almost always refers to Black and 'Latinx' - apparently, very few "woke" people are really interested in the experiences of Native Americans, Koreans, Filipinos or South Americans.) My Twitter tech timeline has exploded in the past 24 hours, almost universally with people demanding the author's head - mostly metaphorically.

Tech site Gizmodo today obtained the text of the document in question. I've read through it, and assuming it's an accurate representation of the original, I can understand the furore - but it has been flagrantly misrepresented. A summary of the author's points is:

  1. Google is big on removing unconscious bias, but a lot of Google has a strong leftwards political bias;
  2. Left and right political leanings have their own biases; neither are correct, you need both to make a company work well;
  3. If you're not a leftist, expressing your opinions at work can be a severely career-limiting move;
  4. On average, men and women have behavioural differences which are (list); but these are only averages and don't tell you squat about an individual person;
  5. Given those average women's interest, you're going to struggle to get a 50% representation of women in tech, particularly in the higher career and stress levels because of (reasons based on the above list)
  6. Doing arbitrary social engineering to achieve this 50% as an end in itself is a bad idea;
  7. Google does various things to improve gender and race representation, some of which I think aren't appropriate and might lower the bar [Ed: this was the point I thought least well argued in this doc]
  8. Overcoming inbuilt biases is hard; this applies to both sides of the spectrum;
  9. The internal climate alienates and suppresses viewpoints of people of a conservative political nature, and this is a bad thing;
  10. We should have a more open discussion about what our diversity programs achieve and what do they cost (in a wide sense); make it less uncomfortable to hold and express opinions against the orthodoxy;
  11. Indoctrinating people who determine promotion about bias might not have unalloyed benefit for the firm's long-term interests.
Very little of this seems, on the face of it, obviously incorrect or sociopathic. I think the author strayed into moderately unjustified territory on point 7, but otherwise they seemed to be quite reasonable in their arguments and moderate in their conclusions.

I've particularly enjoyed reading tweets and posts from tech woman flaming the original poster for blatant sexism. Really ladies, you should read the post more carefully. He described a contrast of the average male and female behaviors, and took particular pains to point out that this did not say anything about any particular woman's (or man's) effectiveness in a tech role. The behavior biases he described seemed bang on in my experience - and I've met women matching the male biases, and men matching the female biases, but on average the skew is as he has described.

It's almost as if many of the women responding to his post have more bias towards describing their feelings about the ideas, rather than ideas themselves; looking at the "big picture" rather than carefully analysing the detail of what he said. Perish the thought that this reflects the gender biases he described...

Of course, if you challenge the Silicon Valley orthodoxy like this - even if you originally intended for it to be for an internal-only debate - you can expect a certain amount of kick-back. And oh boy, did they get it. I've seen public calls for them to be fired and beaten up, and that was from people using social media accounts associated with their real names. The prevailing theme seemed to be that anyone expressing - or even holding - opinions like this in Silicon Valley was inherently poisonous to the work environment and should be fired forthwith. For goodness' sake, this was one person's opinion, quite mildly expressed. Alphabet (Google's parent company) has 75,000 people. You'd think that an isolated instance of crimethink would not be a big deal, but apparently you'd be very wrong.

Google has just acquired a new Head of Diversity, Danielle Brown from Intel. I don't know if they had one previously, or if this is a new slot, but my goodness this is quite the baptism of fire. She's posted an internal memo which has, inevitably, leaked:

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.
But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.
This probably wasn't a bad holding action - it would piss off the conservatives defending every point that the original poster made (because it was hinted as contradictory to equal employment), and it would piss off the outraged mob because it wasn't along the lines of "we threw this person out of the company so fast that his backside made scorch marks along Amphitheater Parkway". You could reasonably call it even-handed. The difference is that the conservatives within Google won't be calling publicly for Ms Brown to reconsider her approach or risk riots in the streets.

I asked a San Francisco based Google engineer buddy what he thought about this. "Are you [censored] kidding me? I wouldn't touch this with a ten foot pole" was a reasonable summary of his reaction. He did note that the author's name was widely known internally and that he viewed it as inevitable that their name would leak, but he'd be damned if he was going to be the one to leak it.

It's also not a little ironic that this comes on the heels of the US Department of Labor accusing Google of discriminating by gender in salaries. If the original author's claims are taken at face value - which is a big "if", to be fair - Google is actually trying to discriminate in favour of women.

For extra points, it's instructive to note the reaction to this in conjunction with President Trump's proposed ban on transgendered troops serving in the military. [Bear with me, I have a point I promise.] One of the grounds for this ban was transgender people having a much higher rate of mental instability (depression, self-harm, suicide attempts) which is not what you want in a front-line military unit where there are plenty of intrinsic causes of instability. We see one bloke in Google writes a document, and every trans blogger I know of explodes in a frenzy of rage and demands for his head - despite the fact that he didn't mention transgender issues at all in the manifesto. One can only imagine what would happen if the author had drawn attention to the relatively high proportion of male-to-female trans people among the female engineering population and ask what it meant...

The modern day lynch mob is alive and well, and it seems to be driven by dyed-in-the-wool Democratic voters against anyone daring to express an opinion contrary to today's right-think on gender and racial issues. Plus ça change, plus la même chose.