And then he dismantles the idea of the genius coder. He presents the case of a start-up ousting a “brilliant jerk” who was writing elaborate (and to everyone else, illegible) code, discovering they were more productive without him. The lesson was that if the team could work better together, “they wouldn’t need superheroes,” and this seems to be the moral of the chapter. Despite the mystique, coding is not an art.
It’s pleasing as he picks up each Silicon Valley cliché, each canard rarely questioned, and dumps it into this wood chip machine.
Many Silicon Valley engineers are convinced that the work is done by males (and built mostly for males) because males are better at coding. They imagine a pure meritocracy. Code either works or it doesn’t. Good code rises. There would be more female coders if females were interested in coding and were a little less neurotic, the argument goes.
The leading proponent of this is James Damore, a former Google employee who wrote a memo arguing that the reason there were not more women was that women are temperamentally unsuited for coding. “Is it possible that Damore is right?” Thompson asks. “No.”
He draws a history of early coding when the best early programmers were, in fact, women, and he describes how other countries have far more gender balance in tech. “If women were so biologically neurotic that they couldn’t endure the competitiveness of coding, then the ratio of women-to-men in programming ought to be similar around the world,” Thompson writes.
The only real hero coders in the book are the cypherpunks, a group of cryptography-obsessed coders deeply wary of governments, surveillance and big tech. And they are the good guys here because they told people to be scared of what everyone was building. “The cypherpunks are paranoid, sure — but the rest of us probably should be, too,” Thompson writes.
He ends by describing how coal miners are now learning to code. The work that had seemed so complicated can be taught pretty easily, it turns out. The new Brahmins lose their power if everyone knows what’s behind the curtain, and that seems to be Thompson’s goal with this book. Algorithms are human tools, not magical spells.