We Need To Do Better

A carved wooden hand holds up a thick branch of a dark brown tree.

The cover image for this post is by Neil Thomas

This blog post was written by Jamie.

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” will be a familiar refrain to every person who has had to deal with an angry teenager.

Baked in?

One of the things that I spend a considerable amount of my time thinking about is empathy. There’s a serious lack of it in the software and IT industries. And it’s almost baked into those industries, too.

You might be asking, “But how is it baked-in?” Well, come with me back to the early 1960s. Over at MIT, they had the beginnings of what would become the first networked set of computers (this was at the same time as PLATO over at the University of Illinois - a system that had email, multi-player online games, and plasma screens… in the 60s?!) using a PDP-7 (or was it an 8?).

Anyway, the system administrators would often refer to the users as “lusers” (or “users with a silent l”) of “losers”. That’s what I mean when I say that it’s almost baked-in: it was there from the start.

When a user first walked up to a terminal at MIT and typed control-Z to get the computer’s attention, it printed out some status information, including how many people were already using the computer. A patch to the system was then written to print "14 losers" instead of "14 users", as a joke… For a while several hackers struggled covertly, each changing the message behind the back of the others; any time you logged into the computer it was even money whether it would say "users" or "losers"

It pervades to this day, too. I attended a talk by Lianne Potter at Leeds Cyber Security Conference last week (organised by the fantastic Lee Gilbank of YorCyberSec), where it was pointed out that the way cyber security incidents are reported in the press uses words like “idiot” and “stupid” when describing the victims. And if the press are doing it, then the wider public will be too.

great talk, by the way

We need to do better

I’ve worked alongside developers and IT “professionals” who have done just that - called users “idiots”, “morons”, “stupid”, and “lusers”/“loser”. And I’m ashamed to have worked alongside them, and even to be in the same industry. We need to do better. The simple act of using a word like or attitude like that to refer to someone who is, in effect, paying your bills shows an astounding lack of empathy and compassion for them.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, and to whom you say it.
- Lianne Potter

Empathy is one of those incredibly important skills, one that I think applies to any industry and any job. Almost everyone should practice it every day - not just developers and IT professionals. So important is it, that I’ve brought it up several times in blog posts and podcast episodes (see the links section below); yet it’s something we don’t tend to practise outside of those nearest and dearest to us.

A challenge

And because it’s that important, I want to challenge you all to empathise or show compassion for a random person on your journey through today. It doesn’t matter who it is - it could be a user/customer/client/whatever, it could be a random person on the street, or it could be someone on the phone. Try to connect with what’s going on with them, and see the world through their eyes.

Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. Keep it up, and see if you can do it every day.

As mentioned above, the topic of empathy has come up a lot in my writing and podcasting over the last few years, so here are a few of those things:

And you don’t have to take my word for it, there’s a huge selection of books on empathy and compassion out there. Here are just a few that I would personally recommend:

  • Dare to Lead by Dr Bréne Brown (pretty much anything by Dr. Brown’ll do it, as it’s a focus of her research)
  • Cybersecurity ABCs by Dr. Jessica Barker, Adrian Davis, Bruce Hallas, And Ciarán Mc Mahon
  • If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? by Alan Alda
  • Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
  • Anger by Thích Nhất Hạnh