Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
The Ambition Taboo As Dark Matter
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2018 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
PyCon just rejected my talk submission,* so I'll try to finish and post this draft that I've been tapping at for ages.
My current half-baked theory is that programmers who want any public recognition from our peers, recognition that meaningfully validates our personal mastery, basically have to do that through one of a few fora that therefore accrue less-spoken emotional freight. And two of those places are code review in open source projects** and proposal review in tech conference talk submissions, and the fact that we don't talk enough about the role of ambition when talking about these processes leads to unnecessary hurt feelings.
For context: We give talks for varied reasons. To teach, to make reusable documentation, to show off things we've made or things we know, to burnish our credentials and thus advance our careers, to serve our corporate brands' goals, to provide role models for underindexed folks from our demographics, to give a human face to a project and make it more approachable, it goes on.
A conference talk is a tool in a toolbox that has a lot of other tools in it. (The Recompiler, Linux Journal and LWN pay for articles, for instance.)
And conferences are more than lecture halls, of course -- they're networking opportunities, communities of practice, parties, vacations, sprints, and so on.
But when we talk about the particular pain or joy of having a talk accepted or rejected from a conference, there's an emotional valence here that isn't just about the usefulness of a talk or the community of a conference. We're talking about acceptance as a species of public professional recognition.
I've found it pretty useful to think about public professional recognition in the context of Dr. Anna Fels's book Necessary Dreams. She points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one's peers or community. This influences how I think about awards, about job titles, and about encouraging technologists in the public interest, and about the job market's role in skill assessment.
So how can a programmer pursue public mastery validation? Here's what I see:***
So, this stuff is fraught; let's not pretend it's not. And we get rejected sometimes by conferences and talk about it, try to take the perspective that we're collecting "no's", we remind others that even successful and frequent speakers get rejected a lot and you can choose not to give up. And we give each other tips on how to get better at proposing talks. And that's all useful. But there's also another level of advice I want to give, to repeat something I said last year:
I try not to say "don't get discouraged," because to me that sounds like telling someone not to cry or telling someone to calm down. It's a way of saying "stop feeling what you're feeling." Instead, I try to acknowledge that something is discouraging but also -- if the other person's ready to hear it -- that we can come back from that: your feelings are legitimate, and here are some ways to work with them.
Some advice I hear about bouncing back from a conference talk rejection involves formalizing, creating systems to use to get better at writing proposals (my own tips mostly fall into this category) -- after all, in programming, you can learn to make better and better things without directly interacting with or getting feedback from individuals. The code compiles, the unit tests pass. And that can be soothing, because you can get the feedback quickly and it's likely to be a flavor of fair. (But that computer rarely initiates the celebration, never empathizes with you about the specific hard thing you're doing or have just done, and rarely autocredentials you to do something else that has a real impact on others.)
To formalize and abstract something makes it in some ways safer; it's safer to say "I'm working to pass the [test]" or "I'm building a [hard thing] implementation" or "I'm submitting a talk to [conference]" than to say "I am working to gain the professional respect of my profession". But that is one motivation for people to submit talks to tech conferences and to feel good or bad about the talks they give.
So part of my advice to you is: go ahead and be honest with yourself about how you feel. Rejection can be hard, working to get an unaccountable gatekeeper's acceptance**** and failing to get public professional recognition in your chosen field is a cause of anxiety, and so on. Be honest about how discouraging that can feel, and why, and what you wanted that you didn't get.
And another part of my advice is that I will ask, like the annoying programmer I am: what problem are you trying to solve? Because there are probably a lot of ways there that don't involve this particular gatekeeper.
And the most annoyingly empowering part of my advice is: Humans created and run PyCon and TED and Foo Camp and all the other shiny prestigious things; you're a human and you could do so too. Especially if you acknowledge not just your own but others' ambition, and leverage it.
* Maybe we'll do it in an open space anyhow.
** Another blog post for another time!
*** I've left some things out here.
We have some awards, e.g., ACM Distinguished Member, that you might get if you work really hard for decades in certain fields. That feels too far away for the kind of thing I'm thinking about.
I've left out the possibility of being promoted at your job, because many technologists perceive engineering job promotions as not particularly correlating with the quality of one's work as a programmer, which means a promotion doesn't send a strong signal, understood by peers outside one's organization, of validation of programming mastery. Then again, if your organization is old enough or big enough, maybe the career ladder there does constitute a useful proxy for the mental models of the peers whose judgment you care about.
I've left out various certifications, diplomas and badges because I don't know of any that meaningfully signal validation of one's mastery as a programmer industry-wide. And there's a lot of stuff to parse out that I feel undecided about, e.g., I find it hard to distinguish the status symbol aspect of admission from the signal that the final credential sends. And: A lot of people in this industry find it impressive when someone has been admitted to certain postsecondary engineering programs, regardless of whether the person graduates. And: In my opinion, the Recurse Center is an experience that has an unfortunate and unintended reputation for gatekeeping on the basis of programming skill, such that a big subset of people who apply and are rejected experience this as an authoritative organization telling them that they are not good enough as programmers (and Google Summer of Code and Outreachy have a related problem).
Of course, go ahead, write your own blog post where you talk about how wrong I am about what I list or exclude, especially because I come from a particular corner of the tech industry and I'm sure there's stuff I don't perceive.
**** Some conferences' gatekeepers are more unaccountable than others'; regardless, the feeling from the rejectee's point of view is, I bet, mostly the same. And you can start your own conference or join the program committee of an existing conference to see what it's like from the other side of the desk and wield a bit of the power yourself.