Some famous white dude in tech tweeted an inane remark that erased a significant portion of the population, and one of my friends was really mad.
I asked why. Because my observation is that this guy dispenses advice for white men. In long form, and in trite remarks on Twitter. He tells them what they want to hear, that they are special snowflakes for whom anything is possible. He has built a career on Advice for White Men and I expect he will die still dispensing it. Still ignoring the other 69% of the population (America). I don’t expect better from him, and so even though he periodically writes things that I find not entirely worthless, I aggressively filter through “does this apply to people who aren’t white men”, to find utility in it.
My friend had an answer to my question, and we had an interesting conversation. But I in general am irritated by the prevalence of “Advice for White Men”, especially prevalent in tech. Firstly, there are too many assumptions. Secondly, it’s hard to tell if it is any good. Thirdly, it doesn’t all apply.
Too Many Assumptions
The first big assumption made when it comes to advice is that anyone wants it. For quite some time now I have been aiming to not give anyone advice. I’ve been falling way short of this as a goal, but at least it means I do a lot better at asking first.
Mainly assumptions seem to arise between a confusion between correlation or causation. Something worked, but is it really because of actions taken? Was it really the best decision? We operate so much on partial information and we don’t A/B test life. In any situation we have a set of choices. We pick one. If things get better, that choice is so far from being isolated as a variable.
One place this is particularly jarring are tech origin stories. Where people seem to confuse “worked hard” with “worked hard, got lucky, had the right network”.
Is It Any Good?
I have written a lot about technical interviewing. One might say that despite my best efforts, I have dispensed advice on technical interviewing. A lot of it is applied conclusions from research, but still – it’s an open question as to whether I am any good at it. How would you find out? There’s probably only one person in the world who could really have an informed opinion on this, everyone else is going on “that seems about right” and trust. There’s an argument that anyone who thinks and cares so deeply about it much be better than average, but when the general standard is so low, better than average doesn’t actually mean good.
This is something I have thought a lot about as I became a manager and started looking for resources. I want to learn from people who I trust are good managers, not just random people with opinions on the internet. I have read and learned from extremely popular writing on management in tech and drawn the conclusion that I would emphatically not want to report to the person (man) who wrote it.
The other thing is we can’t just take on someone else’s persona. We have to fit that advice into our mental model of how we operate. This is a big part of why specific questions are so much better than general ones. Also, when we are asking specific questions, we can segment by category. So I can go to one person with process questions, one person with fuzzy “what does a manager accomplish” questions, and another with “people are hard” questions. I get great insight from each of them on the topic that I feel most aligned with and inspired by them.
Does it Apply?
Foodwise, I’m kind of a nightmare. I’m allergic to nuts, intolerant of potato and dairy, I don’t eat fish, seafood, or deep fried food, and I don’t eat that much meat. I hate eating at people’s houses because I hate to inflict this set of (at times variable) restrictions on them.
My friends will say things like, “hey Cate, I found this sushi place with a great veggie selection let’s go together”.
People who don’t know me well will say things like “this place is amazing”, and when I go there I’ll discover that other than seafood there is only steak, they consider potato to be a vegetable, and the house speciality is peanut sauce. Then, I will throw up all night.
This is an easy analogy because it’s so clear. But here are some things to consider:
- Advice on failure is different for people who are judged on performance rather than potential [reference].
- Advice on saying no is different for people who aren’t appreciated for doing work for the collective… but who are punished if they don’t [reference].
- Advice on negotiation is different for people who are perceived negatively when they do negotiate [reference].
- Advice on choosing a new job is different for people who disproportionately experience harassment (it’s another factor to consider) [reference].
- Advice on raising your profile is different for people who are recognized for their advocacy more than their work [reference].
Advice Considered Harmful
My point is this: we should be critical of the advice we take, but also of the advice we give.
Beyond that, the next time you rave about someone as being a thought leader, consider if they are only trying to thought lead 31% of the population. The uncritical hero-worship of white men who dispense advice for white men is at best boring, and at worst harmful.