15 min read

It’s well known that there’s a toxic element to tech culture. And although it isn’t new, it has nevertheless surfaced and become more visible thanks to the increasing maturity of the platforms that are today shaping public discourse.

As those platforms empower new voices to speak and allow new communities to organize, the very fabric of the culture on which many of them were built – hyper-masculine, competitive, and with scant disregard for the wider implications of their decisions on users – becomes the target of critique.

But while everything from sexual harassment cover-ups to content moderation crises signal deep rooted issues inside the tech industry, substantially transforming tech’s cultural problems is a problem that’s more difficult to solve. It’s also one that many leading organizations and individuals seem to be unwilling to properly engage with.

This is where April Wensel comes in. She’s made it her mission to help tackle issues of toxicity and ultimately transform tech culture with her organization, Compassionate Coding.

What is Compassionate Coding?

Compassionate Coding was launched in 2016 as a “response to a lot of the problems I saw in the tech industry with culture,” Wensel tells me when we spoke recently over Skype. “The common thread,” she explains, “was a lack of concern for human beings that are involved in technology or affected by technology.”

This is particularly significant for Wensel. While it might be tempting to see the Google Walkout, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the controversy around Rekognition as nothing more than a collection of troubling but ultimately unrelated issues, it’s vital that we understand them together.

April Wensel, CEO of Compassionate Coding
via compassionatecoding.com

“For things to really change – we can’t approach each issue as one problem,” Wensel says. “They really have the same root problem, which is this lack of compassion.”

Compassion is an important and very deliberate word. It wasn’t chosen purely for its alliterative impact.

“I chose compassion because I see compassion as a really rational thing; not just an intangible thing.” Compassion is, Wensel continues, “a more active form of empathy. Empathy allows you to feel what others are feeling, compassion allows you to see suffering, and – the important piece – to want to alleviate suffering.”

Compassion as an antidote to toxic tech culture

To talk about compassion in the tech industry is provocative. She tells me she recalls someone on Reddit describing the idea of compassionate coding as ‘girly ‘. But she tries to “tune out” online resistance, adopting a measured attitude: “whenever you have new, challenging ideas people get defensive.”

Even if people aren’t aggressively opposed to her ideas, initially there was a distinct unwillingness to really engage with the ideas she was putting forward. “I… saw that it wasn’t cool to talk about these things. If you started talking about humans or whatnot, people are like oh, you must be a designer or you must be in product… No, I’m a developer. I just care about the people we’re impacting.”

Crucial to this attitude is Wensel’s point that compassionate coding is something that can have real effects at every level. She describes it as “a new way of weighing decisions on a daily basis… it goes from high level things like what are we building? to low level things – what should I name this variable to make it easier for somebody in the future to understand?

Distributing power through diversity

The context into which Compassionate Coding has entered the world is complex. High profile scandals need attention and action, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. They are symptomatic of low-lying problems that often pass unnoticed.

Diversity is a good example of this. Although it’s often framed in the somewhat prosaic context of equal opportunities, it’s actually a powerful way of breaking apart privilege and the concentration of power that allows harmful products to be released and discrimination to find its way into organizational practices.

By bringing people from a diverse range of backgrounds with different experiences into positions of authority and influence, the decisions that are made at all levels are supported by a greater awareness of context. In effect, decision making becomes more rigorous.

Similarly, organizations themselves become safer and more welcoming places for employees from minority backgrounds because networks of support can form, making challenging malpractice or even abuse less of a risk professionally.

This is something Wensel is well aware of. She takes umbrage with the concept of ‘diversity of thought’ which she sees as a way to mask a lack of genuine diversity. “A lot of companies claim they have diversity of thought…” she says, “that are all white men.”

“You can’t really have true diversity of thought if everybody has come from the same background and hasn’t had any of the challenges that people from minority backgrounds might face.”

The barriers to diversity are largely structural problems that can be felt far beyond tech. But according to Wensel, there are nevertheless cultural issues unique to the industry that are compounding the problem:

“If you say you value diversity but really one of your values is the efficiency or perceived efficiency that comes when everyone thinks the same way then you have to realise that you’re gonna have to make some concessions in terms of creating a bit of discomfort when people are debating issues… because there is going to be some conflict when you create these diverse spaces.”

Put another way, in an industry where you’re expected to move quickly and adapt, where you’re constantly looking for efficiency, diversity is always going to be an issue. It brings friction.

For Wensel, the role Compassionate Coding can play in supporting diversity and inclusion is one where it helps to shift the industry mindset away from one that is scared of friction, to one where friction is vital if we’re to build better, safer, and more secure software.

She points out that diversity isn’t just an initiative, it must be something that is constantly practiced: “Inclusion has to be a daily practice and so you need somebody who is in a position of power who can help establish inclusive practices,” she says. But it also needs to be something organizations need to invest in: “companies need to be paying people to do this because a lot of times the burden falls on underrepresented groups in the company and that’s not right.”

Read next: Github Sponsors: Could corporate strategy eat FOSS culture for dinner?

The problem with meritocracy

If diversity can help unlock a better way of working in the tech industry, there are still other industry shibboleths that need to be slayed. According to Wensel, one of these is meritocracy. It is, she argues, often used as cover by those that are resistant to genuine diversity.

“A lot of time in tech people want to talk about a meritocracy… [Recode co-founder] Kara Swisher says tech is more like a mirrortocracy because the people who succeed look like the ones who are already in the industry.”

But what makes this problem worse is the fact that tech’s meritocracy is haunted by stereotypes and assumptions about what it means to be a developer. She points to a study done by IBM in the sixties that aimed to find out “what makes a good, strong programmer.”

“They found among other things that programmers like puzzles, and they don’t like people… So it created a stereotype of what it means to be a good developer, and part of that was not liking people. And the reason that was so important – even though it was back in the sixties – is that IBM was a very influential company in terms of establishing tech culture,” Wensel says.

Stack Overflow’s negative impact on tech culture

What has further exacerbated this issue is how influential figures have helped to reinforce these stereotypes, effectively buying into the image of a programmer put forward in IBM’s research.

In particular, Wensel calls out Stack Overflow and its founders Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood.

“If you read through some of their old blogs from the early 2000s,” she says, “you can see a lot of the elements of the toxic culture that I talk about in so much of my work. Things like… hyper-competition… an over focus on aggressive competition… things like zero sum thinking. There’s an elitism – there’s not enough for everybody and some people are better than others.”

Wensel suggests the attitudes of Atwood and Spolsky have been instrumental in forming the worst elements of the website “where the focus is not on helping people, but on accumulating points in the game of stack overflow.”

Wensel detailed her experiences of Stack Overflow and offered an incisive critique of the website in a post on Medium in 2018. She reveals that although she has used Stack Overflow since its launch in 2008 (the year she graduated from her Computer Science class) “the condescending and blatantly rude responses on the site” have dissuaded her from ever actually creating an account.

Although the Compassionate Code founder can see that the site is trying to change things, she believes it can still do a lot more (in her post she adds this response from Stack overflow employee Joe Friend). The problem, however, is that this would be a risk for the company.

“They really have to be willing to alienate their audience – the ones who are contributing to the toxic culture.” Ultimately this highlights the problem facing many companies and communities in the tech industry – inclusivity and diversity aren’t things that can simply be integrated into established patterns and beliefs. Those beliefs and values need to change too. Which can, of course be painful.

Dismantling the hierarchy of tech skills

Again, it’s important to note that Wensel’s criticisms aren’t just on the grounds of civility or accessibility. It’s ultimately bad for the industry as a whole and bad for users. It helps to cultivate an engineering culture where certain skills are overvalued while others are excluded. This has consequences for how we view ourselves in the industry (we’re never good enough, and we constantly have to compete), but it also means the sort of work and thought that should go into building and delivering software is viewed as less important.

“None of this is productive and none of this is creating value. We need people doing all of these roles, and so which one of these has more prestige shouldn’t be an issue” Wensel argues. “That’s why one of very clear indications that there’s a problem in the culture is the fact that we are obsessed with the need to rank skills… software projects are failing for people reasons. And yet people who are good with people and technology are seen as too soft… they’re put in a box of not being technical.”

Wensel argues that we need to stop worrying about who is and who isn’t a developer. “There’s no such thing as a real developer. If you write code you’re a developer… that’s enough… Developers are no better than designers, or product managers, or salespeople… that hierarchy is even more entrenched because it’s often reflected in salaries – so developers get paid disproportionately more than all these other roles.”

The myth of scarcity and the tech skills gap

What’s more, Wensel believes this hierarchy of programming skills is actually helping to perpetuate the notion of a tech skills gap. She believes the idea that there is a scarcity of “tech talent” is a “myth.”

“I think there’s tons of talent in tech that’s being overlooked for reasons of unconscious bias, stereotypes…” she explains. “Once we start to bring in these people to the table who are out there already – very talented, very skilled – it will start to melt away this whole putting developers on a pedestal… developers don’t belong on a pedestal, they’re just doing a job like anybody else.”

Wensel believes we will – and need to – move towards a world where programming skills lose their “prestige”. Having Python or React on your CV, for example, should really be no different to saying you know how to use Excel.

“As these skills become seen for what they are, which is just something that anybody can learn if they put in the time, then I think that the prestige around them will be reduced.”

How Agile is changing what it means to be a developer

We’re moving towards a world where the solipsism of the valorization of technical skill becomes outdated thanks to broader industry trends. With DevOps forcing developers to become accountable for the full lifecycle of their code, and distributed systems engineering requiring a holistic awareness of a complex network of dependencies, it’s clear that more sensitivity about how your code is interacting with and impacting users in the real world is more important in software engineering than it ever has.

“Over and over again I see both in formal studies and anecdotally… what’s causing software projects to fail or to be delayed… are people problems. Coordination problems, planning problems resourcing, all of that – not purely technical problems,” says Wensel.

That said, Wensel nevertheless views Agile as a trend that’s positive for the industry. “A lot of the ideas behind agile software development are really positive in a lot of ways I see it as the first step in bringing emotional intelligence to the software team because you’re asked to consider the end user…”

Read next: DevOps Engineering and Full-Stack Development – 2 Sides of the Same Agile Coin

However, she also says that software engineering practices and philosophies like Agile only go so far. “The problem is that they [proponents of Agile] didn’t bring in the ethics there. So you can still create a lot of value very efficiently with agile development without considering the long term impact.” Agile is a good context for Wensel to drive her mission forward – but it can’t improve things on it own.

Read next: Honeycomb CEO Charity Majors discusses observability and dealing with “the coming armageddon of complexity” [Interview]

Putting Compassionate Coding into practice

It’s clear that Compassionate Coding is needed in today’s software industry. Yes, tech culture’s toxicity is damaging and dangerous for everyone, but it’s also not fit for purpose. It’s stopping us from evolving and building the software people actually need.

Think of it this way: it’s stopping us from putting users first at a time when the very idea of the individual feels vulnerable, thanks to a whirlwind of reactionary politics and rampant, unsustainable capitalism.

However, it’s important that we actually see Compassionate Coding as something that can be practiced, both by individuals and organizations.

The 4 levels of compassionate coding

Wensel explained compassionate coding as involving 4 key ‘levels’. These levels turn the concept into something practical, that every individual and team can actually go and do themselves.

“It’s how you treat yourself with compassion, how you treat your coworkers, your collaborators with compassion, how you treat your direct users of the software you’re creating… and how you treat the community at large who may or may not be people who use your product,” she says.

Wensel is not only continuing to deliver training sessions and keynotes for her clients, but is also writing a book which will make her ideas more accessible.

I asked her what advice she would offer individuals and businesses that want to follow her lead now.

“The biggest thing people can do,” she says, “is to analyze their own thinking… Do a bit of meta-cognition to understand how do I think? Where do I have biases?

At an organizational level, businesses should be “prioritizing talking about these issues, making it safe to talk about these issues, hiring people who understand these issues and can improve your company in these ways” she says.

The importance of the individual in tackling tech’s toxicity

But Wensel still believes in the importance of individuals in enacting change. “It’s humans all the way down and all the way up… Leadership in a company and [the issue of] who makes decisions is just… another set of humans, and so I think changing individuals is really powerful.”

Her approach is ultimately one that espouses the values of Compassionate Coding. “You can’t control the outcome but you can control the actions you take. So I have a lot of faith in the change that motivated individuals can make.”

If everyone in the industry could adopt that attitude we’d surely be some way towards not better professional lives and better experiences and products for users.

Follow April on Twitter: @aprilwensel 

Other projects that are making the tech industry better

April cited a number of organizations that she believes are doing great and important work across the tech industry:

  • Project Include, an organization that wants to accelerate diversity in the industry.
  • Black Girls Code, which aims to improve the number of women of color in the digital sector.
  • Elephant in the Valley, which is tackling gender disparity in Silicon Valley.
  • Kapor Center, removing barriers for underrepresented groups in tech.

Learn more about the issues they’re helping to solve, and support them if you can.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.