9 Jul 2012

Curious Perversions

When I was just starting my career, in between uni classes, I worked in the IT department of a major New Zealand bank a couple of days a week. It's long gone now, lost in a churn of takeovers, mergers and the endless appetite of the money markets. We had some shiny toys back then: Borland Delphi hadn't been released yet, but I called someone in the local office and somehow convinced them to send me a copy. I spent a lot of time installing OS/2, feeding disk after disk into a row of IBM PS/2 Model 80s. I learned a lot about life in an office, from the cubicles of the IT department, where mother boards and ribbon cable splayed across the desks like an autopsy, to the cubicles of the COBOL programmers, always silent except for the clacking of heavy keys and stacks of perfectly-balanced piles of dot matrix printouts that reached to the perforated ceiling tiles like the pillars of a cathedral, to the clean open area of the Operations department, working through the night in the service of their mainframe gods.

I learned something else too - to avoid walking past that glassed-in office, the one with the pictures of women taped up on every wall. Not Swimsuit posters. Not even page 3 girls. I can't remember the name of the guy who lurked in that office. Can't even remember what he did - something with databases. But I remember the look on his face when he saw you coming up the hallway. I remember the way he'd beckon you in and close the door. Then he'd open his draw and show you where he kept his private stash - hundreds of CD-ROMS, every one packed with 700MB of hardcore pornography.

This was the same place where, when one of my colleagues resigned, her leaving gift was a gay porn magazine and a carrot. This was presented to her in front of the whole team. Everyone thought it was hilarious. Ha ha.

But that was eighteen years ago. Everything's different now: OS/2 is dead and buried. My phone has more processing power than every PS/2 in the department. Delphi still lurks like a revenant, though everyone has long since moved to Java or .NET or Ruby/Python/Scala/JavaScript. We threw out the waterfall and replaced it with Agile, covered the walls with burndown charts, then pulled those down and replaced them with Kanban boards. Every day brings some shiny new API to play with. Everything's different now.


For an industry that's so keen on reenginering ourselves and our processes, some of us still don't get that other humans are actually people. The IT industry in 2012 is a place where Brogrammers are a thing.

The Daily WTF is a site that's been in my RSS reader for years. The site ("Curious Perversions in Information Technology") posts examples of terrible code. Sometimes antipatterns can be a great learning tool. Sometimes the comments on the article are informative and funny.

Sometimes they're not.

It's funny how you can visit a site for years and not notice what's really going on. When I saw the protagonist of this story was female, I wondered how many comments it would take. First few posts weren't too bad, just a couple of "you crazy lady". It didn't get to the oral sex until comment #13. After that the whole thing descended into the usual boring misogyny. After that it's the same all the way down, except for a few people commenting about the actual article.

So I got mad. I made a post: "The casual mysogyny of some of the commenters here is pathetic. The irony that, on a site that exists to make fun of people's broken code, your broken personality is the real WTF."

Harsh? Perhaps. I was mad.

The comments continued, much as before. And to a certain extend, they didn't seem that bad to me. Certainly not when compared to the stuff that Anita Sarkeesian has faced. So I figured maybe I'd just email the owner of the site, see if he couldn't do something. Maybe he didn't know what was going on. Maybe he'd post something into the thread along the lines of "keep it down, you kids".

Here's what I sent:


I've been watching the comments on this article http://thedailywtf.com/Articles/Tale-of-the-Cryptic-Encoding.aspx and frankly, I'm disgusted. Are you OK with this sort of stuff being posted on your site? According to your advertising page, you reach half a million IT professionals every month. What is remotely professional about this?

You don't have any facility to filter comments by offensive posters, or to flag abuse. You don't even have a forum code of conduct. But your name (and your copyright) is at the bottom of every one of these pages.

I know this isn't the largest site on the web and there are plenty of examples far worse elsewhere. But isn't that kind of the point? Sexism and racism are rife in the IT industry and in giving these bullies free reign on your site, you're endorsing it. Are you OK with this?

And here's what I received back:


I'm guessing by your accusatory tone and your faux disgust that you're the type who screams "racist" when someone mentions monkeys, who avoids uttering "bagels" in front of Jews, and who accuses anyone using a gender-specific pronoun of being misogynist.

As TDWTF is a hobby of mine, I hardly have enough time keeping up with content, let alone reading comments, let alone patrolling them with a fine-toothed comb to ensure that people who think people will get offended by certain words won't get offended because those words are there... not to mention adding features to allow people to flag comments as such. And as it so happens, I did not read the comments on this article... and don't plan to, as I'm sure the only "sexist" thing is someone mentioning some stereotypical behavior by either men or women (but most likely women, since this is faux disgust, after all). But I could be wrong...

You're right though, there is a lot of sexism and racism in the industry: certain people think that women and non-whites need to be treated like children and mollycoddled to make sure their precious little feelings don't get hurt. Turns out these folks aren't any lesser than white men, and actually, they prefer to be treated equally.

The Pragmatic Programmers talk about software entropy using the metaphor of "Broken Windows":

In inner cities, some buildings are beautiful and clean, while others are rotting hulks. Why? Researchers in the field of crime and urban decay discovered a fascinating trigger mechanism, one that very quickly turns a clean, intact, inhabited building into a smashed and abandoned derelict .

A broken window.

One broken window, left unrepaired for any substantial length of time, instills in the inhabitants of the building a sense of abandonment—a sense that the powers that be don’t care about the building. So another window gets broken. People start littering. Graffiti appears. Serious structural damage begins. In a relatively short space of time, the building becomes damaged beyond the owner’s desire to fix it, and the sense of abandonment becomes reality.

Perhaps the behavior of the posters and editor of the Daily WTF aren't as bad as the examples I posted at the top of this article. But if we saw that behavior in a program, we'd tear it out and write it again properly. We'd write a bunch of unit tests to ensure the bug didn't come back. We might even post part of it to The Daily WTF. 

If someone wrote some code, then, when it was discovered to be full of bugs, disclaimed all responsibility for fixing it, we'd say they were a bad programmer. We might even  post some of it to The Daily WTF.

We don't live with broken windows in our code. Why do we accept them in our industry?

How is a blog disowned by its editor different to code disowned by its programmer?

 Comments are closed on this post because they're going to be so predictable I could just write them myself. But don't worry - if you've really got something to say about any of this, I know a place where you can comment all day if you like. Maybe use small words though, huh?

Long post, huh? Guess it must be my time of the month.