Personal

White male privilege; Or, the simplicity of equal rights

I rarely consider just how fortunate and privileged I am to be a heterosexual, middle-class white male.

Cops don't pull me over for driving while white. Women don't clutch their purses more tightly as I walk past, fearing that I'll mug them. I've never been killed for looking suspicious on my way back from the corner store with a bag of Skittles.

I get paid on merit, not as a percentage of what someone else makes for the same work. There's very little chance that someone will try to grope me. (Even if I could use a little action sometimes.)

When I go online, I'm not harassed for my appearance, or threatened with violence, or assaulted with slurs based on the type of body I was born with. No one tells me to eat a cheeseburger, go on a diet or make them a sandwich. No one tells me my only place in this world is the workshop or the kitchen or out clubbing gazelles for dinner.

The worst stereotype I might face is my inability to jump.

No one sees the name "Tom" on a job application and immediately judges me like they might for someone named Roshanda.

No one would look at me like a lesser being for buying contraceptives or refuse to ring up my purchase based on their religious beliefs. No politicians have suggested I'm roughly equivalent to a farm animal.

I don't have to endure looks of pity when selecting a form of payment for groceries. So far I've been fortunate enough not to have to choose between a doctor's visit and food. No one is making it impossible for me to exercise my right as a citizen to vote.

I don't have to wait for others to grant me basic civil rights. There are no laws barring me from being in a relationship with a consenting adult1 of the gender to which I'm attracted. There aren't churches full of people lining up with picket signs reading "God Hates Straights". "No hetero" isn't a phrase anyone uses.

I'm a straight, white male from a middle-class background, and that gives me enormous privilege in today's world. It's remarkably easy to take it all for granted, and of that I'm absolutely guilty. But it doesn't have to be that way.

You don't have to be gay to support gay marriage. You don't have to be pregnant to support the ability for a woman to get an abortion. You don't have to be a minority to oppose discrimination. You just have to be a reasonable human being2 with a shred of empathy and the mental capacity to understand that allowing someone to lead a lifestyle of their own choosing will probably not bring down fire and brimstone upon the world.

Humans are humans, regardless of their skin color, their access to bits of paper, their dangly bits or who else's dangly bits they enjoy. That shouldn't be a difficult concept to embrace.


  1. To take it a step further, I'm not even sure why marriage should necessarily be limited to two people. So long as those involved are consenting adults of legal age, who are we to tell someone that you can't love more than one person simultaneously?
  2. This is somewhat kinder language than what I used on Twitter today.
Personal

Death and Your Digital Posterity

You are going to die.

It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. But it is going to happen. We may not know when exactly you’ll succumb to the Reaper, but eventually the bell will toll for thee. Then, presumably, those left among the living will be tasked with handling the aftermath.

It’s likely you’ll have left some physical remnants behind – some furniture, maybe a few books, your prized peanut butter jar collection, whatever. We as a species have had some experience with death over the centuries, so the process of dealing with all that stuff is pretty well defined by now. But what about your digital life?

For most survivors, coping with the physical possessions and conventional assets of the departed can be overwhelming enough, but at least there are parameters and precedents. Even if a houseful of objects is liquidated through an estate sale or simply junked, mechanisms exist to ensure some sort of definitive outcome, even in the absence of a will. And there’s no way of ignoring or forgetting it: eventually the stuff will have to be dealt with.

Bit-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about. They may be uncertain to the point of inaction about how to approach the problem at all.

Cyberspace When You’re Dead by Rob Walker, for The New York Times. You should really read that article – it’s quite good.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, we started sorting through the various papers and effects she left behind. Among them was a fairly well-documented family tree dating back a couple hundred years, along with a handful of newspaper clippings about this family member or that. But none of it really gives a sense of who those people were, no sense of what their lives encompassed. All those moments have been lost in time, like tears in rain.

Continue reading “Death and Your Digital Posterity”

General

Two simple rules for managing my work life

I have two simple rules for managing my work life:

  • Don’t think about work after office hours
  • Ask why, and don’t be afraid to say no

As simple as these two rules are, they’re invaluable for maintaining some semblance of sanity and a reasonable work-life balance. These were my only two pieces of advice to a new employee, and I wish someone had told them to me.

Don’t think about work after office hours

It’s important to “check out” if you’re not actually supposed to be working. Weekends, vacations, sick days, whatever. Don’t give your time away for nothing, because that’s what your time will end up being worth: nothing.

When I first started at my current company, it didn’t take long to get sucked into the department culture of working all the time. Emails from managers at 3am on a Sunday weren’t uncommon. It was exhausting, and burnout was frequent. It’s not sustainable. You have to set boundaries.

Unless lives are literally depending on you, your work can wait. Once you leave the office (or finish your set work hours), turn it all off. Don’t check your email. Set your work phone to silent. Do whatever you have to do to switch work off and your personal time on.

Ask why, and don’t be afraid to say “no”

If you find yourself having to do something that you honestly believe provides no value to the company or your customers, don't just go with the flow and do it. Ask why it has to be done. Ask why it has to be done that way. What value does it add? Maybe there's a good answer, maybe not, but you won’t know unless you ask.

If you do get a valid answer that justifies the task, make sure you document the why, not just the how. If no one can reasonably justify the task, find a way to kill it.

Sometimes the reason is that someone with a sufficiently large paycheck said you have to do it, and there’s not much you can do about that. But you should still ask. As long as you’re genuinely concerned about quality, and not just trying to get out of work, eventually this will (or should) be respected.

The second part of this is the importance of learning to say no. Sometimes you have to stand your ground and tell people “no, I can’t do that right now”. An inability to say “no” will lead only to overwork, poor results and eventually burnout.

→ Basically: Work to support your life. Don't die to support your work.

General

Document the Why, not just the How

Documentation is important. Everyone knows this, everyone agrees with this, it’s not really a topic of debate. It’s important to have your processes written down in some format to make ongoing work easier. If Person X wins the lottery and promptly quits, never to be seen again, can their duties be picked up by someone else relatively quickly? If you have good documentation, hopefully the answer is yes.

Unfortunately, documentation is too often confined to the how of the work, and leaves out the why.

Sure, you can lay out a step-by-step process of how to do a given task. That’s easy. I’ve written a great deal of process documentation in the last several years, with the intent of making life just that much easier for the next guy who fills that role.

What’s too often lacking is an explanation of why something is set up the way it is, or why a process has to be done a particular way. Maybe there’s a lot of tribal knowledge in your organization that covers these questions, but until someone documents that, it’s essentially useless.

If we don’t explain why a decision was made that led to the current state, it becomes much harder to work towards something better. Maybe there was a significant problem discovered along the way that required doing it a particular way. Maybe it was a budget constraint or lack of available resources. Maybe it’s just that no one thought of doing it any other way and that’s the way it’s always been done.

If no one documents the reasons, you’re condemning the next person to re-invent the wheel, to catch Sisyphus’s boulder and roll it back up the mountain themselves.

// 
// Dear maintainer:
// 
// Once you are done trying to 'optimize' this routine,
// and have realized what a terrible mistake that was,
// please increment the following counter as a warning
// to the next guy:
// 
// total_hours_wasted_here = 35
// 

What is the best comment in source code you have ever encountered?” on stackoverflow, via the Internet Archive since the original thread was removed

I’ll be making an effort to include more of the why in my own documentation as part of my ongoing work, and for great justice the sake of your sanity and your successors, I’d encourage you to do the same.

General

It’s not easy to “check out” but you should do it anyway

Julie at Boelter + Lincoln writes:

Here I am on vacation in the Northwoods writing this blog. I will be on vacation all week and will check my email every day – several times. I will log in to check on client campaigns and meet deadlines that could probably wait a few days. I am not an on-call rescue person, I work in advertising. But we have been conditioned to be connected all the time. What if I miss something?

– Can you “check out”?

My rule is very simple: if I’m not in the office, I’m not working. Obvious exceptions apply: those days when I’m just sick enough to stay home rather than infecting everyone else but not sick enough to be bedridden, days when last night’s blizzard buried my car in three feet of snow, and so on. But otherwise: no office, no work.

When I leave at the end of the day, my work laptop gets turned off and put in its bag. I don’t have a corporate-issue cellphone, so there’s nothing to persistently ding with each incoming email. The laptop doesn’t come out of its bag until the next workday morning. Once I’m across the front lobby threshold and into the parking lot, it’s me time.

However… I recognize that there will occasionally be instances where something needs to get done outside of business hours. If that happens, someone has to contact me directly. There needs to be a phone call, or a text message, or – depending on who’s asking – a Twitter mention or message. It needs to be initiated by someone from work; I won’t be actively looking for something.

It’s simple, but actually quite effective. My boss is well aware of this policy – it was made quite clear my first day on the job. If you really need me to do something, no problem, but it’s not happening unless you get in touch directly. I’m checked out otherwise.