Performing Technical Responsibility

I was recently introduced to the following paper on the Australian fire service, which is an absolute banger. It starts with the following quote.

The basic state of affairs is ignored, to wit, that modern society has no control center.

It's a wonderful piece on ritual and absurdity, against a backdrop of a bunch of people doing their best to save an environment that they love amidst a swirl of panicked politicians, managers, and ground staff, all struggling to balance the fundamental uncontrollable nature of the real world with the various psychological undercurrents that ripple through any large group of people. The thrust of the article is that individuals in these environments perform control, meaning that they do their best to act as if they are exercising top-down control on an unsettling situation, when in reality things like this are happening:

You've got [an analyst] looking at whether to light up this fire break or this fire break, going over the alternatives, weeks and weeks ahead … but meanwhile the ground crew have gone out and lit up the first one and not told us.

I don't have a real job, unlike those absolute units out there fighting Australian bushfires, so I can't relate to the part of this where they actually go out there and fix a problem that they care about. What I can talk about a little bit is this idea of performative rituals, and what I've observed in corporate settings around the rituals that surround a lack of capability. Today's writing is just some reflections on what causes people to flock towards running senseless rituals in offices.


Two ideas are relevant. One, the median professional seems to be reasonably bad at their job. Two, the usage of rituals and affirmation serves to help people cope with uncertainty, anxiety, and identity.

To the first point, what I mean is that when my friends see psychologists for any reason, the average psychologist seems to blunder so terribly within the first session that said friends usually decide not to continue treatment at all. The average non-tech blog reading engineer seems to struggle immensely with operating Git. The average manager seems to very sincerely struggle with how to trust their team to do anything. The average person in almost any complex field is just... well, not very good. Society would look very different if this wasn't the case.

With this lack of clear competence comes a great deal of neurosis. I just had breakfast with an extremely talented clinical neuropsychologist, a very complex healthcare discipline which can involve the nerve-wracking task of advising a surgeon on which bits of a brain to cut out. It is a fascinating area, and absolutely fraught with the kind of messy reality that doctors are plagued with. As my friend put it, "I've had many sleepless nights, waiting to head into the hospital tomorrow to find out if I made the right call and my patient can still talk post-surgery."

However, my friend went on to say that the average practitioner in the field simply refuses to engage with that messy component of the work, and rapidly flees into the safe, dry, high ground of applying psychological testing frameworks to patients, because now the framework is responsible for the final call, not them. From reading a lot of Atul Gawande, and more personally, having a father that is considered a world-class surgeon, this is simply not how one practices high-level medicine. Things are messy and that's what a professional is expected to handle. Even when some complexity leaves the field, it migrates somewhere else. I don't know a damn thing about manual memory management because I studied in the era where Python exists, but am instead asked to consider completely different categories of nonsense, and there is no responsible way to escape that.

Under conditions of both involuntary incompetence and anxiety, driven either by the domain itself or personal inability, it is only natural that many people would be driven to feel better. You can train to become more competent, but you might still be anxious, and this is probably the natural state of affairs. And if you simply don't have what it takes to be better for whatever reason or to even understand what is going wrong, the only reprieve lies in addressing the symptom, the feeling of anxiety, i.e, you begin to construct narratives and rituals to feel like you're being responsible.


Most organizations that I have observed are obsessed with documentation that no one reads and meetings that no one really benefits from. For some time, I thought this was because the people asking for them were under the impression that these things were actually important. That is, they thought that the documentation was enabling us to more effectively keep track of our decisions (despite being an unsearchable and unmaintained morass) and that the meetings were an effective means of communication information (listen, you've seen what most meetings are like).

This is partially true. But actions can serve manifold purposes, and because we're fundamentally monkeys, the underlying current to a lot of actions is simply emotion management. I have come to suspect that many of the managers I work with schedule meetings because it is what they think a responsible person does.

Consider the plight of my current team lead. They are a delightful person, but struggling desperately with not understanding how to manage an engineering team, and even if that wasn't the case, their superiors have made enough mistakes that hitting their delivery goals is essentially impossible. From both a workflow and emotional perspective, they do not understand how disruptive it is to interrupt engineers multiple times a day to ask how specific tasks are going. If they did understand those things, it wouldn't make that much difference at this point, because management is denying engineers raises for saving half a million dollars and giving them $30 gift certificates instead. That'll make someone work just hard enough to not get fired.

The team lead is limited by both his competency as a manager and circumstance. Their understanding of what is going wrong is muddled, but what they do understand is that they are falling behind their commitments to the organization with every sprint, and this is understandably very frustrating. They want to do a good job, but for whatever reason, they lack competence and the ability to handle that frustration gracefully. And listen, I get it, look at how unhinged my blog is. It has been called many things, but "graceful" is not one of them.

The only thing that is immediately apparent to this lead is that for some reason the team only hits half its sprint points every week, which means we fall a little bit further behind our commitments to the organization with every passing week. Things are spiraling, and I suspect that arranging all these meetings and documents feels responsible as the reaction to what feels like a disaster.

That is, the majority of our leadership has never shipped something that unambiguously made money for the organization, let alone enough money to pay their own salaries, and I suspect they don't actually know what it takes to generate $200K in revenue. In the most pathological cases, the average career corporate manager seems to be unable to disentangle real business value from the fabricated kind on their CV. For example, a very common move I've seen is to predict that a project could have cost a million dollars, and when those costs never materialize, say that some work you did is what prevented it from happening. I suspect this is either a non-trivial deception for the CFO to see through, because sometimes preemptive cost-saving is a real thing, or that it isn't worth the political effort to contest these analyses because it would require some sort of technical audit. In any case, some people literally have no experience delivering results that aren't of this entirely fake variety, but also believe what they're saying about their previous performance - it is easier to lie about results than to get results, and it is easier to appear confident when you believe your own lies, and confidence is well-regarded in interviews, so we select for self-deception.

Can you imagine how stressful it would be to try deliver results in a field where you have no idea what the hell you're doing? Like literally no idea? I remember my first day as an engineer, where I was sat in front of a horrendously structured Oracle database and told to try to produce a report. I was well-supported, but I was anxious. I hadn't written any SQL in a real codebase, I didn't understand the domain, I didn't know what information was useful to the stakeholder, and I had no idea how to tell if the dashboard looked good. At least as a fresh engineer, people had patience for me. A lot of our directors never moved beyond that level of understanding, and that is why they're shipping GPT chatbots.

When you've built a whole career out of this, they've got no idea what they're doing, much like the psychologists who drive away their patients during the first session, but they've been told what a responsible manager superficially does. So they do that.

They've heard that modern teams run standups, so they run standups with no ability to judge if it is actually producing the outcomes they want. Huge volumes of documentation are produced, with no intuition or understanding of what documentation would actually be useful to day-to-day operations. While there are no operational improvements from doing all of the above badly, it at least produces the feeling of doing something, and in particular, something a manager is supposed to do, whatever that means.


I haven't prepared a punchy takeaway or useful intervention here. The truth is, I have basically no ability to make these people see what they're doing, as per that old saying around not relying on people to understand things when their income relies on their continued incomprehension. The only thing I can do is determine whether I'm actually being responsible myself, then try to behave accordingly. I have two very simple litmus tests for this.

The first one is whether I'm getting the results I want. If I'm getting good results, I'm probably being responsible.

The more interesting case is when I'm not getting results, and I want to be sure that I'm actually doing my best. My test here, in accordance to the above, is literally whether I'm not doing what everyone else is doing. Doing something weird means I'm actually being responsible.

By way of example, when I graduated, I desperately needed a job in the first world so that I wouldn't have to return to my home country. I had seen a lot of people try and fail to find work, because Australian companies largely just throw your CV out as soon as they see you aren't a permanent resident. This really isn't that big a deal, as a good engineer is worth handling a little bit of visa drama if you want them around when their temporary visa expires in two years, but HR doesn't care about that.

I'd spent a long time watching international students send out application after application, only to get rejected every single time. They would then complain for ages about how discriminatory the country is, so on, so forth. I mean, all fair points, but it was also clear that they were simply applying so that it wasn't their fault they couldn't find work. They did what they were supposed to, right? I got my first job in 24 hours, starting at about AUD 100,000, and frankly not actually being a very good engineer - I was still in the can't-use-Git phase of my career, thank you academia!

How? I bypassed HR. I started digging up the names of the most senior engineer (someone who would suffer from an incompetent hire), cold contacting them, and talking about the job before applying. This was enough to get me interviews, and took me about a day.

Of course, the typical person turns up to an interview and wings it, especially as a fresh graduate. I hired a professional interview coach for two hours at the recommendation of a family member, and I have absolutely dominated the competition in every interview I've sat since then, at least on the behavioral components. It was weird, but it worked. Hell, here's the coach, buy this for your kids when they graduate. Nothing revolutionary to an industry veteran, but this prevents young people from wasting their first few valuable interview opportunities.

This stuff feels weird. I felt like a weirdo sending those cold contacts out into the world - couldn't I just send CVs comfortably into the void? It felt even weirder spending like $300 for an hour of interview practice, even though it was super obvious. At an Australian engineer's salary, the interview would only have to save me one day of job searching to be a net positive. Is there any universe where a graduate wouldn't benefit from even mediocre interview preparation?

I just trusted my model of the world and took action, and it turns out that in many domains, that action is weird. People ask me all the time how I do anomalously well in some domains (you'll just have to trust that I'm not being an immodest jerk here), and I link them to the resources I use, and then they proceed to not read or do any of them, because actually reading on salary negotiation or psychology is unusual.

I take it back, I do have a punchy takeaway. Being weird is a sign of life.