It’s not just HR then?

Clothes maketh a man, perhaps, but it’s more probable that behaviour and manners maketh his – or her – reputation. It was interesting in a week where the ‘looks like everybody hates HR’ trope reared its head again – the latest response comes from Melvyn Dinnen, speaking mostly for the defence but pointing out along the way that journalism doesn’t have the most glittering behavioural résumé – that I should read a recent post from New Republic.

The title alone, Popular Culture Has Soured on Silicon Valley’s Hotshots, made the argument clear enough, although I might have been tempted – on a hypothetical re-edit – to put Umair Haque’s cited Tweet a little nearer the headline:

Tech is something like the new Wall St. Mostly white mostly dudes getting rich by making stuff of limited social purpose and impact.”

The concept of San Francisco comparing with Wall Street is attention-grabbing, even for Europeans. To us SF is, after all, the city of trams, Haight Ashbury and hippies, Harvey Milk, Fishermans Wharf, clapperboard houses and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. To which it’s only reasonable to point out that at least some of those are not still standing, to misquote Elton John. And Maupin’s still-growing series of ever-popular novels is fiction, although – like most fiction, and perhaps especially the best received – there is a lot of reality in it. SF may not be what (we may once have thought) it was, but even the first book of Maupin’s series included Beauchamp Day: suited, slick, professional, wealthy – and an almost total slimeball. It’s not always the bottom of things that parasites cling to, but they’ve always been with us.

The New Republic writer, Noreen Malone, is evidently having a lot of fun with her piece, and it’s also quite an entertaining read. The point that young rich people are also obnoxious in some people’s eyes is also admitted early on (and may even provide some relief to the young women in HR rethinking their career after Louisa Peacock’s recent Telegraph article: oh, to have the luxury of such problems, etc.) And it concedes, albeit not until its last paragraph, that The Internet and Computer Industries are among America’s most popular.

But did Noreen miss a more telling point along the way? Among the irritation factors that the IT industry has generated are not just the ubiquity of the big winners (have you noticed how we don’t all hate Microsoft so much now that Google and Apple are more successful?), the status symbol gadget obsession (receding now that we’re all wired to our iPhones) and the linguistic mangling, but something that may yet turn out to be a hostage to fortune. By which I mean their fortune, fiscally and otherwise.

Here’s the article again:

People in tech believe that they’re going to change some part of the world,” says Biddle. “They’re so self aggrandizing they can’t have any kind of sense of humor about it. They can’t just say, I hope my app ends up being super successful.” You can pick fulfillment or money or do-gooderism, goes the post-liberal-arts logic; only entitled jerks think they can get it all.”

This, I suspect, is what Umair Haque was hurling a Tweet-sized brick at. Although Bill Gates’ public image may have been changed by his philanthropic activities – thereby providing an interesting contrast with Steve Jobs despite the posthumous revelations in The International Business Times, not least that Jobs allowed his seeming lack of charity to go unquestioned, even by his biographer – but IT and tech trade to a large degree on their promise. As consumers, we want a better future – and we want it now, dammit.

Reputations aren’t entirely based on behaviour, of course. Having spent many years in tech and Internet companies, that might be encouraging for them to hear. Interpersonal charm, customer care and maturity of interactions weren’t highlights of the culture, and I’m speaking about a string of companies here rather than just one example. Most of them, I noticed, kept the technical team as far from customers as possible, usually from fear for the relationship should the twain ever meet.

But reputations are based at least in part on delivering. The track record of many companies on late delivery and product faults would sink companies in most sectors, but tech seems oddly to get a free pass. Products that don’t match the customer’s requirements or fail to deliver the agreed specification seem to be part of the ‘culture’ of the industry in general. “It crashes if you do that” is something we shrug at with software, but we would be litigating fiercely if it applied to a car.

But there’s more to this in IT’s promise. Look at the second table in the Gallup Poll from which New Republic drew its parting good news: Internet industry and Computer industry are only barely increasing their standing in this poll from a year earlier. IT is, as yet, a young industry sector, possibly one reason blind eyes are turned to some of its cultural oddities. “Geeks,” we mutter, and move on. But time moves on, and the puppy turns into a dog (although, to be accurate to the sector, in this analogy most of the puppies just die).

HR is a profession increasingly berated for not maturing, not moving on from its roots and embracing an adult role. Banking remains the bad boy, post 2008, and will doubtless linger there for a few years yet, while IT has been forgiven for the dot com crash a few years earlier. Let’s hope for the investors’ sake that that particular piece of history does not repeat itself: the scale of disaster may have been smaller, but a lot of people still lost a lot of money. And nowadays, a lot of us have less left to lose.

New Republic quote Sarah Lacy, who they describe as “one of tech’s most vocal defenders”, who seems eager to play down any reputational and image issues:

Lacy doesn’t think that, outside a group of vocal critics on an increasing number of sites, there is really all that much hate for tech in America. Although the way she described the reaction to the aftermath of the last tech crash in terms that sounded to me an awful lot like the wake of the subprime mortgage crash (“you had a lot of real everyday people who were invested in these things and when the bottom fell out underneath it, there was just a sense of rage and just being cheated”) but denied that tech was in any way like Wall Street.”

What interests me are some of the voices raising questions about tech’s culture and the impact of its values. Laura Rittenhouse’s Candor Analytics ranking saw Google fall from 4th place to 50th in 2012 (see our earlier post), and the same corporation – along with Amazon – has had well publicised run-ins with the Public Accounts Committee in the UK Parliament. And even highly credible – and creditable – industry insiders (step forward, Jaron Lanier) are questioning whether the industry is changing the world for our benefit, or for its own.

If I were in IT, I’d be commissioning someone to work on a “I think we might be skating on increasingly thin ice” app.


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