Lack of sympathy towards complex systems

Warning: Writing this goes against the trend of the customer is always right. Scary.

During the early days of quarantine, I sat around a dim lit hot fire with my father, girlfriend, and neighbor – you’re typical neighborhood dad. With a glare across his huge smile, he spoke excitedly of how he let his kids earn their living by holding down jobs like cashier, waitress, etc… The types of jobs you often find other high schoolers and college students filling. His purpose was that one day, when his son or his daughter is standing in a grocery store line, 30 years from now, they’ll have a lot more patience and understanding for that person behind the counter – who just couldn’t get the damn bananas’ bar code to scan!

Turns out it’s true (and simple). You’re going to have empathy towards things you’ve experienced before (you probably already know this). My friends who are waitresses are often the biggest tippers at restaurants, despite what their income is.

The customer is always right – but things happen, maybe your food came out slower than you’re liking or slightly cold. Before screaming at the waitress, it may be worth having a bit of patience and understanding.

THIS IS A HOT TAKE. There’s someone reading this gripping their fist and grinding their teeth. Why? Because the customer is always right. You paid for a service or item, and you deserve every dollars worth of that.

Fair point. 95% of the time a fair point. My point is that the world isn’t perfect. Humans are not perfect, and they’re pretty much responsible for all services.

Similar to my drunk neighbor’s rant on their kids place in the world, I think it’s also time people have more sympathy towards engineering. More specifically, having patience for it. Our world is built on a bunch of black-box abstractions that we don’t have to know about. We don’t have to know about where our shit goes when we flush the drain. It’s been abstracted out.

The thesis of this article is that abstracted out doesn’t mean completely disappear. If a product team can do that – all the power to them. They deserve all the market share in the world – but things break… for a lot of different reasons. Perhaps a bug in the product fell through the gaps, or some people couldn’t afford the latest and greatest, and so they are left with a product whose quality detoriates over time.

Many of us are so privileged at some of the engineering feats and processes that have been abstracted out for us. And often with privilege, comes ignorance of that privilege. Does racism ring a bell?

We might get angry when our computer mouse doesn’t work when we plug into the computer. But sit there for a second, and try to invent the mouse. There’s a computer in front of you, but you cannot use it until you build a mouse and make it work with the software in the computer.

Take a minute to approach how you would build one.

That’s the beauty and curse of engineering – you (often) have no abstractions to hide behind. You are now the person who creates and black boxes and abstractions.

There are too many industries in which people are not responsible for the creation of black boxes. Another way to put this, is they only deal with surface level things. It’s like consuming what other people’s opinions of Bitcoin are, without actually going through the scientific paper and solving for every unknown you don’t understand. That’s why I hate gossip. It’s like trading around abstractions and ideas that people themselves have not taken the time to think about, or get to the root source of.

Once you are responsible for black boxes and abstractions in life – I believe it bleeds into other areas of life. Once you start respecting the complexion of software – you no longer become ignorant of your privilege. The privilege of being able to look at a screen and type notes. The privilege of facetime your grandmother 500 miles away. And maybe… just maybe you will start thinking of where your shit goes when you swivel a small flush button. You may never look into how it works, or care, but you respect that it’s there. You’re not ignorant of your privilege.

Perhaps, being an engineer can allow you to check your privilege in other areas of your life – like race, gender, and sexuality.

That is the open ended question I will leave with.