The contrast could not have been more stark. Known rather combatively in the tech industry as the ‘Chuck Norris’ of software engineering, Jon Skeet took to the stage in a pair of baggy pink floral trousers and described himself proudly as a ‘feminist’.
To the amusement of delegates, he also hummed The Song of Orpheus – a track from Hadestown the musical, talked of his lack of prowess for drumming and tap dancing, and made reference to the stage play adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was an unusual but compelling start to the day for ScotSoft – the annual developers and leadership conference hosted by Scotland’s tech trade body, ScotlandIS.
Skeet, who has been named among the world’s 15 top programmers, works as a Senior Software Engineer at Google, maintaining NodaTime and DotNet libraries – among other things. He is also the highest rated contributor to the worldwide developers’ resource StackOverflow, and is described as ‘untouchable’ in terms of his prolific rate of answering questions by users. As the keynote speaker at ScotlandIS’s 22nd annual event at the EICC in Edinburgh, his talk moved through various strands but – even for the non-technical – had something to offer, part philosophical, part preacher and part political, with a small ‘p’. But it all threaded together and somehow made sense at the end.
Skeet, a Methodist preacher in his spare time, set off on his journey by characterising the challenges facing programmers as trying to understand ‘the world as it is’ versus ‘the world as it could be’ – to convey the idea that a full and rich understanding of the former would help guide you to make better and more informed decisions, with sensitivity to others, about the latter. In Hadestown, Orpheus is a poor boy who has a ‘gift’ in that he could make you see how the world could be and in To Kill a Mockingbird, Skeet said, the lawyer Atticus Finch, by trying to defend the African-American Tom Robinson from sexual assault charges, saw the world for how it ‘is’, yet glimpsed how it could be.
“When you’re looking at how the world is, try to look at it graciously, assuming good faith and that the way the world is doesn’t necessarily require criticism,” Skeet told delegates. “Sometimes it absolutely does, I’m just saying we need to understand before we judge. When we’re trying to see the way the world is…we need some scope. Good projects and in particular good design docs are well scoped. It doesn’t matter how good the idea is, if the scope is either poorly defined or poorly expressed, stuff goes wrong, because people try to do too much or they don’t do enough.”
In making the choice between whether to make a change or not, or unify code or not, Skeet talked about the importance of retaining differences (in terms of coding languages) and considering alternative perspectives. Advocating an intersectional approach – trying to understand how different prejudices overlap – he strongly urged teams to not be driven by white, usually male, privilege and especially at leadership level for greater diversity of experience and background.
“If you treat a perspective that is different from your own as a gift then that can take away that initial, ’I’m going to answer you back; I’m going to put you in your place; I’m going to tell you the way the world really is because my perspective is more valid than yours,'” he said.
He added: “Once we’ve seen how the world is with as many perspectives as we can and seeing that things aren’t always problems and seeing that there can be context that’s implicit and explicit and seeing that we want to focus on research of a particular area, and a little bit more if we’re going to focus in a bit. And maybe we can stop seeing the way the world is because sometimes there’s nothing to change, not necessarily because everything’s great but because it may be too hard to change or there may be too much risk in changing it.”
Skeet emphasised the need for conferences and forums to be better at exchanging skills; at the moment, he said, events are usually focused on the exchange of knowledge, but that being able more readily to transfer skills would help the tech industry address critical gaps.
“One of the most important skills that all new software engineers or people learning to code for fun, or whatever it is, one of the skills that appears to be going into decline – or maybe it’s just never been very good – is diagnosing problems, with the skills that we have learnt. Knowledge sharing is common but not skills,” he added.
When FutureScot spoke to Skeet after his conference address – which was the highlight of a packed morning of breakout sesssions, on subjects as diverse as robotic process automation and cyber security – we asked him how much more considered the tech industry should be when making huge changes to the way people interact with the world around them. And also whether we should revisit Mark Zuckerberg’s now famous motto: “Move fast and break things.”
He said: “I’m a believer in not changing things if they don’t need to be changed and being aware of what you’re going to break, if you are going to break things. I’m not quite one to advocate that, [the Zuckerberg motto]; it’s more ‘move carefully and break things where you need to having ideally got as far as you can in working out the impact of that’. This isn’t just software; there are all kinds of scenarios where whole communities are depending on – maybe they’re dependent on the Post Office – so you need to consider should the Post Office shut down, diversify, whatever it is and sometimes try to understand what the impacts will be and sometimes it’s impossible to predict because something else will happen that will enable that community to do other things.”
Google’s famous slogan was once ‘Don’t be Evil’ (it has since been updated to the rather banal ‘Do the right thing’) but listening to Skeet – a proud intersectional feminist, sensitive to the world around him, one wonders whether Be Kind, the backdrop to his own talk, might actually be a more positive expression of an accountable tech industry as it moves from one epoch to the next.
He said: “If I can have any influence I would love to move the needle on people being kind just a tiny, tiny bit, and it’s not because I’m saying I’m better than other people and you need to be told to be kind, it’s just we could all do with a reminder. Just the act of being reminded, ‘hey it’s nice to be nice to people’ and that’s good for everyone and can help even make the kindest of people a tiny, tiny bit kinder. And maybe you have one conversation that you handle a little more graciously than you would otherwise. We all have the responsibility to do it in all our interactions.”