The Complex Problem Of Lying For Jobs

A few weeks ago, friend of the blog Nat Bennett wrote this article on lying to get jobs. It is strongly against lying, and the central thesis is that habitually lying is going to put you into a world where everyone is lying all the time, and every morning you wake up and think "Why am I surrounded by malevolent grifters that do nothing but backstab each other every day? Why is everything in the tech stack Excel? Why is standup an hour long? Why, dear God, why, why, why?"

I'm somewhat sympathetic to the "man I need the job" line but this "well a manager lied to me first?" thing – just play the fucking tape forward. Just put your anti-capitalist self-righteousness on hold for one goddamned second and think. If your model is "it's okay to lie if I've been lied to" then we're all knee deep in bullshit forever and can never escape Transaction Cost Hell.

It's not that I think this is easy or fair. And I don't mean "adopt a rigid and expansive definition of 'lie' that stops you from engaging in normal human social interactions."

But lying deliberately, as a strategy, will fuck you up, and it will fuck you up in ways that you don't even see. You will live in a world where everyone lies, all the time – because people who value integrity won't work with you. You will lose track of your self.

I like Transaction Cost Hell, but that's a little bit dry for most audiences - you can lie for non-technical roles too. How about The Infinite Lie Vortex?

Nat's piece is the first serious treatment of the implications of lying as a general strategy on your life and society that I've seen. The majority of this stuff is trite bullshit from major publications that must be seen to be against lying - is the Harvard Business Review at liberty to admit that lying is fine, and if not, is there any useful signal in their blathering? - or trite bullshit from Redditors about how lying should be done without a second thought. And you know what's crazy? The demented Reddit post is more realistic than the Harvard Business Review piece.

The HBR piece says things like, if you had a boss that Wikipedia describes as the primordial archetype of a workplace bully from The Devil Wears Prada, the savvy response is:

While there were times we disagreed, I loved how she challenged the team and expected a lot out of us. I’m excited to take what I learned from her and help my own team be more resilient and adaptive in the future.

This reads like a fucking robot wrote it. I suddenly realize, to my own dismay, that I live in the timeline where a robot probably did write it, but my point stands. It's corporate piffle, it's soulless nonsense, and I'd happily slam a pint of hemlock to wash the taste of this particular bland of flaccid uncharisma and drooling dullspeak from my mouth. And to make it worse, it is still lying, which I will elaborate on below.

The Redditor says things like:

Oh, and companies lie to you all the time. They lie about you getting fair pay, they'll pretend you're getting a big raise when they're about to go bankrupt, they'll act like you're a great employee even though they plan to fire you, they'll lie about you being able to move up in the company.

In my opinion, they absolutely deserve to be lied to. If they want to play dirty, you should play dirtier.

Do I agree that entering The Infinite Lie Vortex is wise or good for you spiritually? No, not at all, just look at what it's called. But at least this fellow is saying what he really thinks and acknowledging ugly truths about the world. I haven't been working that many years and I see employers do this all the time.

In any case, Nat has presented a strong reason not to lie. And while Nat has the dual virtues of being concise and articulate, we find ourselves in the unfortunate position where the only person willing to write something defending the nuance around lying1 is me, and I have neither of these qualities.

I am going to make strong claims around how many applicants are already lying, the brutal reality of the job market and how this influences your decision to be truthful (or not), and finally something approximating a pathway out of the Infinite Lie Vortex.

I. Most People Are Already Lying

When the topic of lying on a job interview comes up, the first thing that typically happens is whoever I am talking to reacts with heartfelt disgust or shock. Lying! Boldfaced lying! What sort of person would lie outright during a job interview? And I must admit, a few years ago, the idea of lying would have shocked me too - it seemed to me that looking someone in the eye and then distorting their view of the world is profound epistemic violence. It erodes social trust, it diminishes you as a person, and to make up for using a word like epistemic, we'll say it's yucky to boot.

But over the years, I have broadened my definition of a lie, and I have realized that most of my interlocutors (including my younger self) had actually narrowed our definition of lie into uselessness in an attempt to feel better about our behavior in the job market.

If we set aside pedantic obsession over the technicalities of whether the exact words you said were a lie, as if we're all capricious djinn trying to trick employers into wishing for a billion gold pieces so we can bury them alive in coins, it is very common practice on the job market to have a CV that obfuscates the reality of your contribution at previous workplaces. Putting aside whether you're a professional web developer because you got paid $20 by your uncle to fix some HTML, the issue with lying lies in the intent behind it. If you have a good idea of what impression you are leaving your interlocutor with, and you are crafting statements such that the image in their head does not map to reality, then you are lying.

For example, consider this (obfuscated) line from the CV of someone I regrettably know:

Data Governance and AI Governance policies successfully designed and implemented.

It is true, this person attended a lot of meetings and talked a lot about these things. Unfortunately, the documents are horribly confused messes, they were extremely incompetent, and left after driving several staff from the organization, plus I personally think it is very likely there was bullying involved. Because the success of a governance policy is hard to define, they are arguably not lying under a strict definition, but they're about to leave and absolutely fuck up some other team's lives. They're so bad that they couldn't get a reference from their direct manager, which is something I've never seen even from really awful people. Whatever they said to get their previous job and now this new one must have involved some, shall we say, massaging of the truth.

They will, nonetheless, be giving speeches at conferences and earning around the 95th percentile of Australian salaries.

We can all agree, thanks to this person's history of abusing others, that they're probably a bastard that has lied and should be censured. Sure, sure, easy and obvious. Fuck 'em and all that.

But what should the people who were bullied off that team say?

Unfortunately thanks to our dear leader's masterful consummation of toxicity and incompetence, the truth of the matter is that:

  1. They left their previous job due to burnout related to extensive bullying, which future employers would like to know because they would prefer to blacklist everyone involved to minimize their chances of getting the bad actor. Everyone involved thinks that they were the victim, and an employer does not have access to my direct observations, so this is not even an unreasonable strategy
  2. All their projects were failures through no fault of their own, in a market where everyone has "successfully designed and implemented" their data governance initiatives, as indicated previously

The key thing here is knowing what the employer is interested in. We can tell ourselves all sorts of stories to justify not giving them what they're actually interested in. After all, this person knows that it wasn't their fault, right, so maybe the project could have been successful if they had been allowed to work in peace? But their former manager probably doesn't think it's their fault either.

Or the employer isn't really interested in whether the last project succeeded, they're just looking for someone who could hypothetically complete a project, which they feel that they could... but the employer would still like to know that the last project failed. Obviously they would. What they do with that information is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is usually going to be a bad thing. This even comes up with things around language. We happy few understand that learning a new programming language to a standard adequate for productivity is quite easy, but most employers do not, so most people I know just lie and learn before starting the job. This is not something I have tried, and that is why I have not ever been hired to work a non-Python stack.

So, when competing against their former employer's rampant "success", should the person that got bullied just fudge the truth a little bit? Maybe a few things that don't have clear failure conditions are now successes - what does a failed policy document even mean? A stakeholder said that a project saved a million dollars even though no one quite believes that this is true, but maybe we can just choose to believe them, just this once? Sure, that boost in sales might have just been that I joined the store right before the holiday season, but maybe I did boost sales by 10%? Most people I know, including myself, have some bullet points on their CVs that do not quite ring true in their heart of hearts. Here, I'll self-immolate first to get this party started. My CV says that I once saved A$500,000 off an employer's annual Snowflake bill. That's true and is where many of my readers come from. This makes me sound like some sort of Snowflake wizard, but the reality of the matter is that I can only repeat this trick when working alongside people that throw away hundreds of thousands of dollars and don't ask questions like "How are we spending this much money on a few terabytes of data per year?" On a competent team, I'm just like, a guy. Don't get me wrong, being a vaguely competent person is not bad when the bar is subterranean, but that's not what that point on my CV is signalling.

Oh, and the interviewee has got kids. Kids require food and are useful devices to justify arbitrary immoral behavior. What now, Never Lie Guy? What now? You wanna go, huh? You wanna fucking g-

II. Technically True Is Still A Lie

Apologies, I don't know what came over me. Now that the red mist has lifted, the topic of whether it's okay to slightly (or extensively) smudge a CV warrants discussion.

Years ago, I came across an article titled Tim Ferriss’s Scam Framework and the Rise of Fake Gurus, which is now unfortunately walled by a Medium sign-in, but had some choice quotes on this sort of technically true lie.

It took a friend of mine just three weeks to become a “top relationship expert who, as featured in Glamour and other national media, has counselled executives at Fortune 500 companies on how to improve their relationships in 24 hours or less.” How did she do it?

He then goes on to a methodology to make this happen:

  1. Join 2–3 trade related organisations with official sounding names.
  2. Read the top 3 best selling books on your topic and summarize each on one page.
  3. Give a free 1–3 hour seminar at the closest well known university.
  4. Do the same at branches of two well-known, big companies. Use the fact that you have given seminars at the university for credibility to get the booking. And so on.

He finishes by saying that he doesn’t recommend pretending to be something you’re not, and “presenting the truth in the best light, not fabricating it, is the name of the game.”

Sorry, but that’s a bunch of BS. Reading a few books and passing yourself off as an expert might not be illegal in the same way as claiming a qualification you don’t have, but it’s just as immoral and scammy.

And just like that, I was enlightened. Nineteen year old me was very intelligent in the specific way that programmers tend to be, and very unwise in the way that nineteen year olds who think they are very intelligent tend to be, and these sorts of half-truths felt like finding an interesting hack, or finding a poorly-worded clause in a board game. I probably would have tried exactly this, and I'd have gotten away with it too. But it's actually just lying, right? I have carefully selected a series of words that have been designed to conjure up a false image in another person's mind. Sure, maybe this is defensible in a court of law, but that's more-or-less unrelated to the ethics of the action. The active ingredient of the lie, the epistemic violence, is fully present.

If someone tells me they spoke at Harvard when they actually booked out an empty room to spout nonsense into the void about their awful relationship advice, they know that I am imagining that professors signed off on their expertise and allowed them to address some of the brightest (or at least richest) students in the country. Any amount of hand waving about how I shouldn't have made assumptions is, simply put, bullshit, with all the sophistication of a child poking their sibling with a stick, and defending themselves with "But I didn't touch them! The stick did!"

Please, you're an adult, face your crimes with a modicum of dignity. Or, you know, just fucking lie if you insist on being awful. You're being just as dishonest for all intents and purposes, you can tell way better lies without constraints, and you're at least not wasting your own time. If that sounds unethical then you shouldn't be telling technical truths either, because, and I cannot repeat this enough, technical truths are just as bad.

Is this really any different than Successful Governance Person saying that their governance initiatives were successful? Is it different from their staff doing it? In reality, probably not. It's all premeditated deception, dishonesty as a strategy, and everyone I know has lines on their CV that they don't believe in. This is what it means to be in the Vortex. I suspect Nat's CV, by virtue of finding a place that does work Nat actually believed in, is not peppered with nonsense.

Also, most importantly, Tim Ferriss is a good interviewer but also sounds like a morally compromised maniac.2

III. The Playing Field and Status Laundering

I'm assuming you're still with me, because I don't think the points above are very controversial. The market is flooded with people who lie for a reasonable definition of lie - that is, intent to misrepresent themselves - and it turns out that unfortunately it's quite easy to end up in a position where you're trailing inglorious failure through no serious fault of your own. Good candidates can end up in positions where they are very vulnerable unless they happen to run into an interviewer who has done enough self-work to treat them as a person, and be open to serious vulnerability, and they have to understand enough about the reality of the industry to act appropriately. Once we set aside tying ourselves into pretzels trying to explain how we personally didn't lie, all we're left with is the consequences of our actions.

The second issue is that the playing field we are on is quite dire. To quote a reader who works at one of Australia's few good companies, they once looked at the broader market and concluded that it is "bleak". That is, the money is good and the likelihood of getting hired is good, but the culture of the companies involved is not serious. Version control, for example, is largely treated as a drag on speed across the government, education, and healthcare spaces. A "database" is usually a spreadsheet. Every "digital transformation" goes wrong in such obvious ways that I've started to register my predictions with employers so that they offer me work in a year when it all goes to hell.

Or consider a conversation I had with one of Melbourne's rare technical CEOs a few weeks ago. I very sincerely asked them where one finds serious opportunities to do good work and upskill on humane teams - they named two or three companies, then admitted that they grew so disgusted with the job market that they had to leave the country to find a place that didn't suck. That's how hard it is to find a place that takes their work seriously - you have to be open to international travel because good local opportunities will not arise with any consistency, even in a first world city.

What I am trying to say is that I currently believe that there are not enough employers who will appreciate honesty and competence for a strategy of honesty to reliably pay your rent. My concern, with regards to Nat's original article, is that the industry is so primed with nonsense that we effectively have two industries. We have a real engineering market, where people are fairly serious and gather in small conclaves (only two of which I have seen, and one of those was through a blog reader's introduction), and then a gigantic field of people that are cosplaying at engineering. The real market is large in absolute terms, but tiny relative to the number of candidates and companies out there. The fake market is all people that haven't cultivated the discipline to engineer but nonetheless want software engineering salaries and clout.

I spoke to Luke Kanies, founder of Puppet and writer of this excellent blog3, who said the following about why Puppet exists after listening to an episode of my podcast:

A huge part of why I built Puppet is because most ops people never did what you and Jesse discussed: turn failure into knowledge, and avoid future stupidity.

Firstly, thank you Luke, I will use this as yet another brick in the unassailable bastion of my ego. But more importantly, is no one else concerned? Most ops people never turn failure into knowledge? That's called fucking learning! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! And I suspect ops people are a lot more serious than other subdisciplines because you can't bullshit your way through a network failure!

To paraphrase the only recruiter I've met who can write software well enough to tell when employers are full of it:

I prefer to place people at good companies, but there are so few that I have to engage with the rest of the market to make ends meet.

Status Laundering and Bad Actors

The fundamental issue is that the majority of the industry is not seriously engaged in engineering. They are engaged in a convoluted and snails-paced theft.

Let's say that I am an engineering manager, or CEO, or what have you, and that I am not particularly good at it. I've never done either of these things, so that's overwhelmingly likely to be true. The company has given me access to anywhere between a million to a hundred million dollars in the form of assets and salaries. Unfortunately, while I would love to put all that money in my pocket, where I would at least spend it on a yacht instead of wasting it on new internal chatbots that only tell my employees to do something illegal about 10% of the time, I am unable to do so because the cowards in finance keep whining about embezzlement.

What am I to do? Well, for the low, low price of lots of someone else's money, I can very, very inefficiently convert company wealth into personal status, and then convert that into money.

For example, one of the people responsible for the architecture described in my post about Snowflake madness regularly gives talks about their state-of-the-art infrastructure, which I should remind you is mostly SharePoint strapped to Lambda strapped to DynamoDB strapped to a managed data warehouse to ingest like data approximately the size of one copy of Call of Duty every day. Was it wasting half a million dollars and, in fact, a shrine to Mad Cyric upon His black throne? Yes. Is that going to get them a A$50,000 raise one day? Yes. We'd have been better off if they just stole A$200,000 but if they do it this way then it's legal, and everyone is worse off than they could have been, including them.

I call this extremely high friction way of stealing from companies status laundering, which has polled as extremely funny with focus groups.

This reality of our industry (probably most industries, but ours in particular) drastically complicates the issue of lying. Doing technical work effectively is so profitable that being seen as someone in the space is intrinsically high status. Unfortunately actually being in the space requires an extremely sophisticated worldview, so we instead have tons of people playing at it. The number of people that are pretending to understand how to do this whole software thing correctly vastly outstrips the number of people who can do it correctly. And since most of the market is playing at it, it turns out that a lot of jobs do not exist for people that honestly present their achievements, because people are looking for indicators that you will either bullshit alongside them or are that you aren't going to say the emperor has no clothes. I've still never seen a codebase at an employer with tests in it that I didn't write myself, and frankly, I barely have the energy on the median team these days - management gets upset because they fundamentally don't believe me when I say knowing if your code works lets you ship faster.

Most people conducting interviews want you to say whatever they want to hear, and they are, to quote Patrick McKenzie, fundamentally unserious about how they hire. The majority of jobs available in Melbourne (and thus, probably elsewhere) are gatekept by people that very obviously have no idea what they're doing from even brief skims of their professional profiles. I have also run into many directors that either run stupid technical interviews, or they don't run technical interviews at all. The former can be done well, but it does tend to be useless trivia (and I'm not being salty here, I've cleared the hardest ones I've sat!). The latter I have a 100% success rate at, but it's because it's so easy to work out what their levers are and pull them. They think they're great judges of character, but they're just selecting for people that make them feel high-status and unthreatened.

There are some companies where your interviewer is going to be a reasonable person, and there you can be totally honest. For example, it is a good thing to admit that the last project didn't go that well, because the kind of person that sees the industry for what it is, and who doesn't endorse bullshit, and who works on themselves diligently - that person is going to hear your honesty, and is probably reasonably good at detecting when candidates are revealing just enough fake problems to fake honesty, and then they will hire you. You will both put down your weapons and embrace.

This is very rare. A strategy that is based on assuming this happens if you keep repeatedly engaging with random companies on the market is overwhelmingly going to result in a long, long search. For the most part, you will be engaged in a twisted, adversarial game with actors who will relentlessly try to do things like make you say a number first in case you say one that's too low. Or informally promise you remote work, as pals, but not put it in the contract. They will usually understand very little about their jobs, have shoddy interpersonal skills that are compensated for by the corporate social script, and will use the interview as an opportunity to address their unmet psychological needs.

In Southeast Asia, I knew someone that would terrorize new candidates by asking them to provide Fermi estimates (i.,e how effectively can you make estimates around a question like "How many sunglasses are sold in Malaysia every year?" with no data). The interviewer was actually quite a smart guy, but it was absolutely transparent to me that the real point of this question was for him to feel smart, since he gets to decide what a reasonable assumption is, and the candidate who gets hired is the one who doesn't freeze up and more importantly expresses awe when the interviewer quibbles over one of the assumptions.

Once you notice that the majority of interviewers are just trying to feel good about themselves, it becomes very easy to hack them. That deserves a post on its own, as I suspect this is an area where things come more easily to me. Immigrating to Australia exposed me to many, many systems where the only winning move was to debase yourself and beg a petty official for mercy, with your face in the dirt, and I had to learn how to appease authority figures to remain in the country. Those days are blessedly behind me, but the brain learns to read status quickly when it is your main defense against deportation.

Suffice it to say that, if you grin in just the right way and keep a straight face, there is a large class of person that will hear you say "Hah, you know, I'm just reflecting on how nice it is to be in a room full of people who are asking the right questions after all my other terrible interviews." and then they will shake your hand even as they shatter the other one patting themselves on the back at Mach 10. I know, I know, it sounds like that doesn't work but it absolutely does.

This is basically weaponized therapy. You meditate, reflect, do self-work, speak to professionals and the like because you don't want to be a monkey that treats the people closest to you based on whatever the monkey-brain decides its immediate ego needs are, and then you realize that most people are fully in the grips of monkey-brain. You just throw a banana in the cage and slam the door shut behind them.

Let us evaluate your board position if you operate this way.

Pro: Surrounded by money.
Con: Surrounded by monkey.

I'll take the money, but I don't want to be surrounded by monkey. Nat is onto something.

Interlude: Neil Gaiman On Lying

People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. In my case I did something which these days would be easy to check, and would get me into trouble, and when I started out, in those pre-internet days, seemed like a sensible career strategy: when I was asked by editors who I'd worked for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident, and I got jobs. I then made it a point of honour to have written something for each of the magazines I'd listed to get that first job, so that I hadn't actually lied, I'd just been chronologically challenged... You get work however you get work.

Projects Are Default Dead

Most projects never had a chance of succeeding, so unless you somehow have the ability to discern what those projects are up-front4, you're going to start off with some weak talking points on that first gig. My very first job in tech, which I took gratefully due to my sad, sad postgraduate visa, was advertised as a data scientist position at a nationally-recognized institution that was getting serious about artificial intelligence. I did nothing but clean spreadsheets for two years, try to manage a legacy Oracle database that we eventually found out didn't have any indexes and all the primary keys were just named primary key but didn't have the actual constraint, and finally fail to ship a CRUD app because I was a data scientist being asked to write integrations into as many systems as our stakeholders could dream up - usually a new system every week.

In retrospect, I nailed every question on that interview, but lied at the very end. One of the interviewers asked, "Do you know what ETL is?", and I, not having learned this at university somehow, said "Yes, of course" because I really needed the job and panicked. I was hired, but I just realized, having worked with that person, they didn't know what ETL was either and they would have failed me for not knowing.

But most importantly, how was I to know better than to take that job and how do I make the jump out? At that point, I was two years in, hadn't really acquired any serious skills, and rent kept going up. I've learned a lot in my own time, at great personal expense, such as not touching grass after work and drifting ever closer to sacrificing my humanity to become one with The Machine, but that doesn't show up as a bullet point that 95% of employers care about, or indeed, are able to discern.

If I say "I learned Phoenix for fun", most employers say "Wat dat?", presumably while picking their noses and scratching themselves rudely. "I've read High Output Management" is met by "Oh, I prefer LinkedIn to books". No one checks my GitHub, as paltry as it is, and almost every company cannot understand anything other than how many years my CV says I've worked with a particular buzzword. A few are different, but there is no guarantee they'll be hiring for roles that I'm qualified for within any given year, and there's no guarantee I'll get hired if they do - skill atrophy is a real thing!

For basically everywhere else, ranging from the government to Deloitte, anything other than "I have four years experience working on a team that has the words you're looking for, leaving aside the fact that must mean they hired me without having that experience, and the only issue was this one fabricated dilemma to make me sound like I'm a straight shooter" is met by awkward silence. This is the real thing behind resume driven development. By turning on DynamoDB for no reason then waiting for five years, everyone has five years of experience using DynamoDB, technically.


It is a sobering thought to realize that the average business has not worked out how to finish a CRUD app on schedule, and will frequently be off by years. It is more sobering to realize that all professions have this level of dysfunction in them if you talk to professionals, but that is too sobering and would leave us positively knurd, so we're going to leave that aside for now and just focus on tech. People that cannot ship a CRUD app will sit in judgement, and they will think you're a fucking moron for your Actually Shipping ways.

But the question remains: Assume that most projects are default dead. We should do this, because a major institution recently sent me a job titled "Senior Snowflake Engnieer" and they left all the edit history in the word document, so I could see them fail to spell the word "model". And furthermore, most employers are not interested or capable of evaluating your technical competence in the absence of a vaunted procession of victories. How do you escape the Infinite Lie Vortex?

IV. Get Me Out Of This Rat Hole

The Infinite Lie Vortex must be escaped. It's terrible in there - everyone keeps talking about Scrum, and sometimes they beat you for asking people not to rubber stamp PRs. It is superior to financial stress, but vastly inferior to being near people that you actually respect for eight hours a day.

Nat Bennett, of Start Of This Article fame, writes:

If you want to be the kind of person who walks away from your job when you're asked to do something that doesn't fit your values, you need to save money. You need to maintain low fixed expenses.

Acting with integrity – or whatever it is that you value – mostly isn't about making the right decision in the moment. It's mostly about the decisions that you make leading up to that moment, that prepare you to be able to make the decision that you feel is right.

This is brutal advice, but it is the sad truth. My escape from that first job came from someone who I had cultivated a relationship with over about six years, and at one point provided them an amount of help on a programming assignment that was probably a breach of academic integrity due to some very serious stuff they were dealing with in their personal lives. If I had needed to leave without having that groundwork in place, I would have been totally trapped unless I outright lied, and then I'd still have been in the Infinite Lie Vortex.

As a rough rule, if I've let my relationship with a job deteriorate to the point that I must leave, I have already waited way too long, and will be forced to move to another place that is similarly upsetting. The last time I spoke with reader Iain McLaren, our resident Go-slinging lawyer and designated person who gets slightly distressed when I put a company on blast by name, I had just rejected some very stupid jobs. I was reflecting on how weird it felt to not desperately take the first job on the table, because I'm now a financially secure permanent resident now, and arguably slightly unhinged. He said:

A lot of people are moving away from things, which is very different from moving towards something.

And that is, of course, what had gradually happened. I very painfully navigated the immigration process, trimmed my expenses, found a position that is frequently silly but tolerable for extended periods of time, and started looking for work before the new gig, mostly the same as the last gig, became unbearable. Everything other than the immigration process was burnout induced, so I can't claim that it was a clever strategy, but the net effect is that I kept sacrificing things at the altar of Being Okay With Less, and now I am in an apartment so small that I think I almost fractured my little toe banging it on the side of my bed frame, but I have the luxury of not lying.

If I had to write down what a potential exit pathway looks like, it might be:

  1. Find a job even if you must navigate the Vortex, and it doesn't matter if it's bad because there's a grace period where your brain is not soaking up the local brand of madness, i.e, when you don't even understand the local politics yet
  2. Meet good programmers that appreciate things like mindfulness in your local area - you're going to have to figure out how to do this one
  3. Repeat Step 1 and Step 2 on a loop, building yourself up as a person, engineer, and friend, until someone who knows you for you hires you based on your personality and values, rather than "I have seven years doing bullshit in React that clearly should have been ten raw HTML pages served off one Django server"

The pathway to riches is probably not honesty. Or at least, you'll have some riches, but not as much as you could have, by a long way. That's okay. For all the hand-wringing about children and expenses, my father grew up in post-occupation Malaysia, where I am told even sugar was rationed. He studied surgery in India, living out of a hostel where they heated water by dropping induction coils into containers, and every morning a wave of cockroaches would go scurrying out of the bathroom when he flicked the lights on. Sometimes you just do hard things - I'm grateful that I don't have to, but I value his character more than his money.

But don't get me wrong, and that is where the nuance comes in, I get to say this because he is the one that dealt with the cockroaches. Who could have blamed him for lying?

And once you're authentic, the median employer hates it. They loved the version of me that went, "Wow, that's really amazing, how you've done all that data science work. SageMaker Canvas? SageMaker with a drag-and-drop interface?5 Gosh golly mister, that's a swell idea, it's about time we could get rid of those sweaty programmers! What we really need is more people with LinkedIn Agile qualifications doing engineering work!"

And they hate the version of me that goes "So that's your manager over there? Why are you hiring ten data scientists in the span of a month with no technical interview, exactly? Does your team use Git? Are your story points time estimates? How exactly will rolling out GenAI across the bank's finance department improve revenue? What's a hash table? Fellas, wait, where are you going!"

But the important thing is that regardless of what they think, I like the second version of me, who is not secure yet, but we can also escape the Vortex by taking risks. My risk-laden CV looks more like this:

I'm just some guy figuring things out. I like simple systems, and it's unclear if that's because they're better or I'm a dullard, and my experience has probably made me too suspicious of any solution that isn't Just Use Postgres, You Bastard. My programming skill is a serious work-in-progress. A CEO here told me that he asks people to self-evaluate their skill on a scale of 1 to 10, but he actually has solid measures. You're at 10 at Python if you're a core maintainer. 9 if you speak at major international conferences, etc. On that scale, I'm a 4, or maybe a 5 on my best day ever, and that's the sad truth. We'll get there one day.

I like writing code, and I can appreciate the need to write things that deliver value, but I will always hate writing code that moves the overall product further from Quality. I'll write a basic feature and take shortcuts, but not the kind that we are going to build on top of, which is unattractive to employers because sacrificing the long-term health of a product is a big part of status laundering.

At my first job, I wrote a truly horrendous Python monstrosity with a factory spitting out lambda functions because I didn't read the documentation for the pandas.DataFrame.apply method properly, which would have solved it instantly, and it is one of the two pieces of code that I have running in production anywhere. People think it is because the code is too advanced for weaker engineers to understand, and the compliments they shower upon me to this day are my greatest shame.

The only piece of software I've written that is unambiguously helpful is this dumb hack that I used to cut up episodes of the Glass Cannon Podcast into one minute segments so that my skip track button on my underwater headphones is now a janky fast forward one minute button. It took me like ten minutes to write, and is my greatest pride.

I earn A$80 a month on Patreon, and I have a company that earns way less money than it would have to in order to employ a single person full time. Clout supplies are at an all-time low, but friend supplies are through the roof. This blog does decent traffic, but not enough for anyone to have to actually take me seriously.

I care enough that I read lots of books on programming, but the closest thing I have to a serious engineering education comes from people on this blog that have agreed to provide me with professional guidance, like Jesse Alford and Bernardo Stein, who I am very grateful for but are also in what I can only describe as a whole other league. I can use Nix, but only because Victor Engmark walked me through what I can only describe as tantrums.

Have I actually worked with Google? My CV says so, but guess what, not quite! I worked on one project where the money came from Google, but we really had one call with one guy who said we were probably on track, which we definitely were not!

Did I salvage a A$1.2M project? Technically yes, but only because I forced the previous developer to actually give us his code before he quit! This is not replicable, and then the whole engineering team quit over a mandatory return to office, so the application never shipped!

Did I save a half million dollars in Snowflake expenses? CV says yes, reality says I can only repeat that trick if someone decided to set another pile of money on fire and hand me the fire extinguisher! Did I really receive departmental recognition for this? Yes, but only in that they gave me A$30 and a pat on the head and told me that a raise wasn't on the table.

Was I the most highly paid senior engineer at that company? Yes, but only because I had insider information that four people quit in the same week, and used that to negotiate a 20% raise over the next highest salary - the decision was based around executive KPIs, not my competence! They wouldn't know to pay me more based on competence if my name was Guido van Rossum!

Did I help an institution respond to audits? Sure, but everyone on the project got involved in a massive political knife fight and quit after I handed them the report on what needed to be remediated, so nothing happened!

Fury! I help colleagues find work elsewhere if they get mistreated! Justice! I help people build a paper trail when they're bullied! Unfettered vengeance! I will make you fire me rather than betray my team! You should not hire me if you are a bastard!

Sweet freedom! I've never seen a test in production! Exultation! I made development containers once but a Scrum master told me I was wasting my time! Liberty! I've never trained a model that was used for anything! Jubilation! Joy! Blessed condemnation!

Exoneration! Confession and lightness! Immolation and purity!

My career may be mud, but at least I'm honest.

  1. Or at least, "actually it's very complicated", which you must admit doesn't sound as good. 

  2. I've heard that criticizing Tim Ferris is how you actually get hatemail, so hopefully I'll finally get some of the good stuff. 

  3. Look at me namedrop famous people, ma! I've made the big time, and I didn't even have to lie about this one! 

  4. It took me about four years, but now I can recognize the worst jobs within about thirty seconds of listening to employers talk because they're all failing in exactly the same ways

  5. A real product that AWS demo'd to me at a previous job, with an example of a real estate agent that wanted to use fucking AWS to create a random forest using AutoML. Is everything okay over at Amazon? Should we send help? What on earth do you think real estate agents are like?