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The Evils of Snark

Mark Mzyk February 11, 2019

Snark, noun
: An attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Even if you’ve spent very little time in tech, you’ve almost certainly heard snark. It is the lingua franca of tech. We use it to communicate and bond about shared frustrations, especially about the everlasting struggle to get our code and systems to just do what we want.

Except this is the good interpretation. It doesn’t take much for snark to turn dark. That sarcasm that can bond? It also carries with it an undertone of contempt. Contempt for the code and systems we work on. But we don’t stop there. We carry that contempt to the person who wrote that code, who helped create the system we struggle against.

There is a reason the unhealthiest teams use the most snark. They’ve lost respect for those around them. They’ve lost their empathy. The expression of their frustration is now expressed in a way to make themselves feel better by showing how they know better. They have stopped trying to understand how everything arrived at this point. They have stopped trying to understand how those who wrote the code or work with them operate under their own constraints and their own struggles.

Snark is a way of giving up. Snark says I know better, but I’m powerless, so I’m not going to try and make things better.

If your team has a lot of snark, they are sending a message. They are struggling and need help. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to dig out of this. The goal is not to drive out snark simply by forbidding it. That’ll just drive the snark to back channels. Instead question it. Ask: what frustration is this snark expressing? What is in this team’s control to change? Redirect the team or person to figure out what about their situation they can make better. Then start taking small steps to change it. For those things beyond the team’s control, explain why the system is the way it is. Explain the possible constraints others are operating under. Explain the history that has lead to this point. Explain a vision of a path out. Give context and direction. Give agency.

Agency is the enemy of snark. Once there is agency the focus is on using it, on making the situation better. Slowly the snark will fade. It won’t be easy. Habits don’t disappear over night. Continue using the snark as a signal, finding the change you control in it. With practice the team will start to find what they can control themselves. Eventually everyone will forget snark used to be the norm.

What if someone just won’t give it up? Everyone else has moved on, but they continue to engage in snark. They are isolating themselves, setting themselves up for misery. They’ve had the opportunity to learn and move on with the team. If they simply won’t go down the same path, you’ll likely need to let them go. Snark still pervades tech. It’s not dying out anytime soon. They’ll be able to find a place that accepts it, even welcomes it.

Snark is currently ingrained in tech, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Empathy, context, agency. These are the tools you have to eliminate snark. These are the tools that lay the foundation for a positive and healthy culture.

This post was originally sent out as part of my newsletter, Learning Better Management By Sharing. Please sign up if you’d like to receive posts like this in your inbox.

Learning Better Management By Sharing

Mark Mzyk February 5, 2019

Group of diverse people looking at a phone screen that one of them is pointing to.
Photo by rawpixel

I am starting an email newsletter to share my thoughts on software engineering management. It is titled Learning Better Management By Sharing.

Please sign up if you’d like to receive my thoughts as soon as they are ready to go out. The newsletter will get updates first, but I’ll also post all the updates to this blog as well. The newsletter will be a bit more curated than this blog, as only software engineering management topics will be sent there, while this blog is still my personal blog, so the topics here will be what strikes my fancy.

If receiving an email newsletter isn’t for you, this blog does have an RSS feed, if that suits you better.

Thank you for reading and for subscribing.

This Is Water

Mark Mzyk January 27, 2019

Picture of rain on a window
Photo by Anant Jain

You likely recognize the title of this post. It is the name given to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech that he gave to Kenyon College in 2005. You might have been exposed to Wallace’s words from this nine minute video that excerpts the speech. Even if you’ve seen this, you should listen to the full, twenty three minute long speech.
It’ll help you remember This Is Water. This Is The Default.
I find myself listening to this speech about once a year. It’s not purposeful on my part. I have the full speech bookmarked in a long YouTube playlist and as I scroll through to find the video I happen to want to watch in that moment, I scroll past This Is Water. Every so often I stop and watch.
If you’ve only ever seen the nine minute video, it combines the two most famous parts of the speech: the story of a fish remarking on this is water to two other fish, and the story of going to a grocery store with all the irritations that brings. Except of course, the tedium of going to the grocery store is the point. It’s in this tedium that we get to make a choice. We can see ourselves as the center of the universe and look at others with disdain. Or we can see that we are one of many and that everyone has a story. We don’t know their story. We don’t know their pain and struggle. We don’t know the ways they are like us. We have a choice where we can think of this, be mindful of this, and see beyond ourselves.
The speech is a reminder to make sure we see the choice in front of us everyday. That we see this choice and consciously take it to see the world in a different way. A compassionate and empathetic way. In doing this, we break the default and lead a better and fuller life.
This is why I end up watching this speech about once a year. Because it’s easy to forget this is water, this is the default. My default is being pulled into social media, into the news, into the thoughts of others. I need this reminder to pull back, refocus, and remind myself this is my water.
It’s especially chilling to listen to this speech now, as in it David Foster Wallace makes note of those who commit suicide. He would commit suicide himself three years after giving this speech. I can’t know what drove him to this, but what I do know is that the choice he talks about us having is a hard one to make day in and day out. Perhaps he came to a point where he just couldn’t make it any more.
What I can do is continually remind myself that this is water and I have still have this choice, even with how hard it is. I won’t make the choice to break from the default every day, but I’ll strive to make it more days than not. And I can also remind you, so you can make your choice.
I invite you to listen to this speech. Listen to it again if you’ve already heard it before.