The startup world has a problem: brogrammers.
A new crowd of jock-like developers has arrived, more likely to spend the wee hours of the morning at the club than writing code, turning workplaces toxic to others and dumbing down the world of computer science.
The new bros in town have turned the geek-dominated pecking order on its head, revealing who's really winning the art-versus-commerce struggle on the web.
Cool Code, Bro goes inside the subculture to show where brogrammers came from and how a new order of activists and advocates are trying to restore optimism and diverse perspectives to tech.
Fraternity as Startup Archetype
PILE’S OBSERVATIONS WERE, UNSURPRISINGLY, not the first time brogramming was compared to fraternity culture. Fraternity life would probably be a close analog to any group of men cloistered together, evolving their own norms and inside jokes. In spite of its East Coast entomological origins, the culture consistently described to me as brogrammer-rich was Facebook. Facebook is portrayed (and consistently described by developers I interviewed) as a company pushing aggressive, cavalier engineering standards among developers. It turns out that Facebook’s “Move Fast and Break Things” philosophy has irritated developers that need to have their services working alongside the site, and they’re tired of unexpected disruptions. The social network must have realized this problem. It unveiled a half-assed rebrand of this mantra at the 2014 F8 developer conference, softening the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message to “Move Fast With Stable Infra,” the tech equivalent of the hacker getting a mortgage and settling down.
The big blue thumb has certainly created its share of pop-culture mystique, as the MBA migration shows. David Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network has done more work than any pop culture product to cement Facebook as the leading example of modern geek vengeance triumph, just as Revenge of the Nerds canonized the Lambda Lambda Lambdas in geek culture and Animal House turned Belushi into every party animal’s icon.
Much of the film is stylized into an orbit far above biographical reality, but that’s a fact likely overlooked by viewers looking for a success archetype. Zuck and the gang’s exercise of power is vivid. In an early scene, Zuckerberg’s FaceSmash becomes the fixation of a weekend night on campus, besting strip poker and ecstasy-fueled frat parties with girl-on-girl make-outs—every other social pursuit on campus desirable to a young male, really—bringing Harvard life to a hot-or-not halt.
The contrast of scenes works brilliantly. Final Club initiation ceremonies and the drab fraternity Caribbean Night are contrasted with the Jackass-esque shot-based hacking for Facebook internships and the group ripping a chimney off a California rental while zip lining. All these scenes underscore how the Zuckerberg character subverts the powerful jocks and their crusty, old-money ways, epitomized by the Winklevii and their legal team. But the film also illustrates how both types have similar ends and eventually become each other. Sean Parker confesses to Zuckerberg; “The girl I loved in high school was with the co-captain of the varsity lacrosse team, and I wanted to take her from him, so I decided to come up with the next big thing.”
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s effect on those around him—as he plays the nerd, the bad guy, the “CEO, bitch,” whatever context—is universally interpreted as “asshole.”
Other reconstructions have been less fantastic but still give credence to an origin myth of aggressive transgression and bro-dom. In 2005, Ryan Bradley published a story in a tiny Harvard-based ‘zine called The Passenger about visiting what was later dubbed the Facebook Bungalow. “He takes me through several new features, some recently released, some still being tested. He tells me how important it is, for them, to keep Thefacebook ‘built by college students, for college students.’ How it’s a networking tool, a study tool; how, with a new calendar feature, Thefacebook makes our lives more organized and easier.
“He pauses, again flashing a smile, ‘but most guys still just use it to look for chicks.’”
Zuckerberg cracking “your mom” jokes, tales of his notoriety on the Harvard campus, stacks of empty beer bottles and junk food packaging, all while acolytes determined to fulfill Zuck’s vision code on into the night—the story has all the aspects of an earnest university hagiography, eager to appeal and secure in its undergraduate audience.
Kate Losse’s memoir, The Boy Kings, is different. It talks about her time at the company, first in its nascent customer service group, then as Mark Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter. It’s a treasure trove of early information about Facebook and the culture that picked up where The Social Network left off. The frat parallels only get stronger. Losse’s vivid account of her time contains myriad references to frat culture, including when a supergroup of programmers known as the Microsoft Five arrived.
“They were from Harvard and they were programmers, which made them the valley’s version of good old boys,” Losse wrote. “The Microsoft Five quickly established themselves as a new, explicit kind of fraternity: they called themselves Tau Phi Beta, or TFB for The Facebook Fraternity, complete with Greek letters, custom T-shirts, and weekly keg parties at the house they rented together. Sitting there in the office in my usual uniform of worn jeans and cardigan, watching this new social order unfold, I felt that, as they say in Internet speak, we were doing it wrong. While having an office social scene was necessary, nobody really likes fraternities, with their macho attitude, hazing rituals, and beer-soaked party aftermaths. If we were supposed to be cool and California, calmly convincing people that it was okay to pass us their most private data on a daily basis, we would have to come across as less aggravatingly aggressive than a fraternity house.”
Remember Conway’s Law? It’s the idea that the software created by groups retains traces of those groups’ systems of socialization or behavioral structure. (“Organizations which design systems...are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”) Part of the reason brogramming is worth paying attention to beyond its obvious role in exacerbating inequality is it influences how our software experiences shape us.
For instance, we care about how our coffee is harvested and how our oil is extracted, but not necessarily about the environments where and under which conditions software is made. Software’s production is much less tangible than coffee or oil, of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider a creator’s aims or a company’s values in how we judge its place in society.
Losse witnessed Conway’s Law in action at Facebook. She describes a trip to Las Vegas where she experienced the transfer between product and creator, where the things her colleagues made for the web impacted how they treated real people. “They were performing an elaborate ritual only they would have the strange, cold vanity to invent, in which they would methodically chat up and reject girls that the bouncers had brought to their table. ‘Leave! You’re not pretty enough!’ one of them seemed to say over the din of the club as he shooed the girls away in succession like so many servants. Even though I had been living in this boys’ world for almost two years, I was still a bit shocked. Their products ultimately reflected their real-life behavior. Instead of making a technology of understanding, we seemed sometimes to be making a technology of the opposite: pure, dehumanizing objectification. We were optimizing ways to judge and use and dispose of people, without having to consider their feelings, or that they had feelings at all.” Were apps like Tinder and Grindr, which let you evaluate and reject prospective partners with the blink of an eye, created in this same way? As seductive products with mass appeal, are the choices they encourage us to make influencing our culture?
Understanding the concept of “products” seems to be key to Facebook’s success. When asked if he saw some of himself in Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates told Rolling Stone “he’s more of a product manager than I was. I’m more of a coder, down in the bowels and the architecture, than he is...I start with architecture, and Mark starts with products, and Steve Jobs started with aesthetics.” In recent communications, it seems like the new, “stable infra”- focused Facebook is trying to push back against this tendency to treat people as products with feng shui and linguistic gymnastics. A recent photo essay in The New York Times looked at the fashion and function of Silicon Valley office spaces, and a chummy, analog sense pervades what people at Facebook call things. “Couches in the casual areas, for example, can be replaced without warning. Similarly, design changes to Facebook’s home page are known as ‘moving the furniture around,’” the story said, acknowledging the impact environment has on the product concept. “There are print and woodworking shops designed to keep Facebook’s computer-dwelling employees grounded in offline experiences so they’ll create more consumer-friendly software.”