active in the world of Django, both as enthusiastic users of it and supporters of it. I work on: * django CMS - one of best known open-source Django-based projects * Aldryn - our cloud-based hosting and development platform for django CMS
position. So, how did I get here? I’m slightly unusual programmer - I didn’t even start until ﬁve years ago, when I was already 39 and had had a couple of different careers, neither of which had anything to do with programming. I’m not even a very good programmer - I am slow, inefficient, inexperienced, and fumbling - and have to work twice as hard as most people to do the same things. When I look back at what it took to get here, what I see in my rear-view mirror is:
easy. It’s amazing to be here, great that it paid off, wonderful that it all worked out, and I am delighted that the things I’ve worked on have turned out well. I am enjoying every bit of it immensely, The ﬁnal reward for it is recognition: dream job, participation & invitations, even congratulations - it’s nice to feel you deserve something, and to be told that you do.
feel your successes have been due to your hard work. Most people do. It’s a very good feeling to feel that you deserve your success. I have an extremely healthy capacity for recognising merit where it’s due, especially when it’s my own...
I have managed to do things that I hadn’t even imagined doing. I do think I deserve the success and rewards - and of course I think the same goes for other people’s successes following hard work. But there is still another but, and it’s this:
because we deserve it. Even when we get what we deserve, it’s not always because we deserve it. In other words, just because we’ve worked hard, doesn’t mean that it’s the reason for our success. What, actually, is a recipe for success? For sake of argument let’s accept that hard work is at least a part of it... what else do I have - what else do we have - going for us? I have, or have had:
employers English as ﬁrst language Good health No disabilities No excessive burdens A safe place to live * a fantastic education. Good schools, good universities (which I didn’t even have to pay for), good teachers; parents who cared about education * intelligence: let’s say well-functioning powers of analysis, synthesis, comprehension * social skills: I know how to get along with all kinds of people, make good impressions, behave appropriately in different situations * imagination: creativity, good problem-solving abilities * self-conﬁdence - thanks to my education, upbringing, good start in life and so on * excellent good employers who have been both willing and able to support me * unlike the 90% non-native speakers of English in the industry, it takes me zero extra effort to read documentation or speak to colleagues - who then praise me for having “a gift for communication”. It means I’m always at an advantage * good health: you trying being successful when you can’t work *no disabilities: my daily life is never a struggle, nor do I have to deal with other people’s prejudices or assumptions. Try being successful when you don’t look normal. * no excessive burdens: I don’t have to look after other people - I have done and know what it entails; the people who do simply sink from view under the burden. * a safe place to live: no wars, disease, ﬂoods, violence, corruption; no danger that all my efforts will be swept away - not even powercuts trouble me. I probably share most of these with most of you. I’m sure we could come up with others, but I think you get the idea:
weren’t successful - I am simply too well-equipped to fail. Succeeding is the least I could do - not succeeding would be like being rowed across a lake in a safe and comfortable boat laden with everything I needed, and speciﬁcally dedicated to my well-being, and drowning because I couldn’t be bothered to swim the last few metres to the shore. So if we accept that these things are the ones that bring success to us, where do they come from? To what are they owed?
of them. I was given them. I didn’t work for them, I didn’t earn them, struggle to attain them, or achieve them against the odds. In fact I didn’t achieve them at all. In each case, they were provided to me by somebody else. Not one single one of them I can claim as something I did. And here we come to that l-word that nobody likes to hear
argument that sounded plausible in the context of a short talk, but then starts to fall apart when you reﬂect on it later, and just looks simplistic and facile. There are important nuances and qualiﬁers in this. I can’t possibly address all the buts one might want to raise; all the same, let’s consider a few just to show that I am prepared to think this through. For example:
is automatically plain sailing, or easy. I’m sure most of you have had to overcome setbacks or even failures; I have. Success isn’t guaranteed to anyone. In my case I decided to become a high-school teacher a few years ago. I gave up quite a lot to become a school teacher, and I was full of high hopes and determination. But it certainly wasn’t a very successful experience. Let’s call it a severe disappointment. It didn’t last very long. That was a hard time. My lucky gifts weren’t enough to avoid a real setback. By deﬁnition, a real setback is one you don’t simply bounce back from. Recovering from a genuine setback is a struggle; again, your lucky gifts won’t be enough make it easy.
limitations. Sometimes this means you have to work extra hard, or have to ﬁnd ways around them. Sometimes it means ﬁnding ways to turn them to your advantage. I’m a rather poor programmer and have a weak and hazy understanding of programming concepts. But by the time I have painfully crawled my way to comprehension, I am in a position to write a better explanation than the ones I’ve followed to get there. I’m certainly not a member of the Django core team because I can write better code than other people, but one of the reasons is that I can write better documentation, and that’s because of the perspective that my limitations give me. Another example: the obvious solutions to the programming problems I need to solve are not obvious to me at all. I don’t see which tools or techniques are ideal; it takes me a long time to work that out. What’s clear to me is what I, as a user, need from a program that solves the problem. This perspective means that my solutions, however inexpertly implemented, remain centered around the nature of the problem, and not determined or distracted by the tools I reach for - which can make them better solutions. Again, ﬁnding ways to turn your limitations to your advantage is not easy. It’s a skill that certainly not everyone has, and it requires work.
saying that hard work doesn’t matter. Even if it’s not sufficient for success, it’s still almost always necessary. If hadn’t worked hard, I wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be. People do have to work hard, even the ones with all the free and lucky gifts.
let’s take each of three points seriously - that recovering from setbacks, dealing with limitations, and the necessity for hard work respectively don’t seem to involve luck. So: the resilience to recover from a serious setback: where does that come from? Is that really only of our own making? I think the fact is that if you’re not already equipped to recover, you won’t recover. If I - or you - have been able to recover from serious setbacks, I think it’s because we have been equipped with resilience - by others. My resilience was not conjured up by me. I am not resilient because I worked hard at being resilient. It was invested in me, by other people, just as for example my social skills or my education were. Resilience is another lucky gift.
gift. And the resourcefulness that makes it possible to turn a limitation to our advantage: that too is not simply we can choose to do. It’s another lucky gift, acquired only because somebody else - or some education system or some social order - made it their business to ensure that we would have it. Our having it is not our own doing.
a gift. And ﬁnally: do you think that being able to work hard is simply a matter of having the will to work hard? It’s not. I’m a hard-working person, but I wasn’t born knowing how to work hard. It’s not natural. By nature my inclination is to fool around and enjoy myself. I had to be taught to work hard. And in fact it’s deeper than that: being able to work hard depends upon knowing how to work hard, just like being able to play chess depends upon knowing how to play chess. It’s something we have to learn; something that has to be taught, inculcated in us. I’m a hard-working person thanks to the painful efforts of the other people - parents and teachers again - that I was lucky to have, who could teach me, and show me by example, what it means, how to do it. So yes, it’s up to us to work hard, but being able to work hard, knowing how to work hard, is itself another lucky gift.
Self-conﬁdence Imagination Resilience English as ﬁrst language Good health No disabilities No excessive burdens A safe place to live Good employers Resourcefulness So we can add resilience and resourcefulness to our list of lucky gifts, while even hard work is not just a matter of hard work.
Do an image search for hard work and success. Or a video search. You’ll ﬁnd some dissent from this opinion, or sometimes a little more qualiﬁcation, but not very much. Most people ﬁrmly assert: hard work is the secret of success.
coaches and teenagers on Twitter who believe this. People take it very seriously; they’ve thought it through, or think they have. Here’s a good one I found, a TED talk by someone called Richard St John. First things I found by chance at the top of a web search. I’ve never heard of him before but apparently, he’s very successful. He’s an entrepreneur, a millionaire, won all kinds of awards, writes books about the eight things successful people have in common. He has a black belt in judo. He runs marathons, climbs mountains. He probably wrestles bears at the top of mountains with Vladimir Putin. He has a very popular TED video called “Why it pays to work hard”.
over 500 very successful people - that hard work is the secret of success. “Trust me,” he says, “I’ve interviewed over 500 successful people; not one of them said it came easy.” Well no shit. Who would have expected them to say that? What did he imagine they might say?
the right place at the right time, and made friends with the right people, and had the right kind of education, and the right kind of natural talents, and the right kind of parents, and the right kind of face, and went to the right kind of school and had the right kind of health.” “Well to be honest with you I have to admit that secret of my success is that I was in the right place at the right time, and made friends with the right people, and had the right kind of education, and the right kind of natural talents, and the right kind of parents, and the right kind of face, and went to the right kind of school and had the right kind of health.”? Because if they said that, that would be news. That would be a surprise to people. That would be worth a TED talk.
the layered fatuity of these six ghastly minutes of this video was hard to stomach. In each case, it’s clear that he’s talking about someone who alongside their admittedly Herculean hard work - which was only possible because they didn’t have other burdens to attend to, like looking after people who were dependent upon them - have been generously provided with lucky gifts in abundant quantities. So there’s a “top independent Wall Street analyst” who says he thinks “about investments 24 hours a day, 7 days a week”. Well, lucky him! there’s someone who clearly doesn’t have to worry about the daily demands of life, who’s not looking after a disabled child or elderly parent, who doesn’t need to worry about his health or his body. He mentions several times how enjoyable all this hard work is, how much fun. How amazing! How extraordinary that astoundingly well-paid labour in the most comfortable surroundings, labour that’s valued and recognised and congratulated and richly rewarded, should be enjoyable! And so on. I really tried not to be personal, but what I want to ask him, and the other over 500 smug-faced, facile, self-mythologising, self-congratulatory, complacent, very successful people is:
- any successful person who hasn’t had generous helpings of lucky gifts. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who despite vast quantities of hard work will never attain success. If the secret of success were hard work, the women of Africa would be the most successful people on the planet. There are people who will work harder, for longer, in nastier jobs than I could ever dream of doing, and will never enjoy anything you’d call success in the work. No matter how many extra shifts you work for a pittance in doing unpleasant and unrewarding labour that will never be fun, you’ll never achieve very much doing it. You will never be successful. If you want to know the secret of success, you won’t gather useful evidence by interviewing over 500 hugely successful people and swallowing whatever they have to say. The evidence is in plain sight everywhere, in the lives of not 500 people, and not thousands or millions but billions of people, and it’s inescapable: hard work is not the secret of success. The secret of success is luck.
of hard work, then failure would have to mean the lack of hard work. Yet, we know that this is not true: many work hard and don’t earn success, or have moderate success and lose it. Failure doesn’t seem to be connected to hard work: it seems to be connected to luck. So, how does failure work for the lucky?
only really bad work or behaviour will bring you down and failure matters less in the end anyway So if you start off being lucky it means: * you’re less likely to fail - some really bad luck has to come your way * you need to work hard to fail - you have to do something pretty awful before the consequences hit you * it matters less anyway - even if you do fail in ways that would be devastating for someone else, it’s not a problem for you
Our industry is ﬁrmly wedded to these notions of success and hard work. People in the industry - whether they are successful or not - call it a “meritocracy” and really do believe that hard work grants success.
working well. It’s secret, even if people don’t like to mention it, that it’s not working well for many who live in it. It’s exclusive and lacks diversity. It disadvantages the less lucky, compounding their ill-luck while insisting that success is based on merit. Its infatuation with this notion of hard work harms even many of the lucky and the successful, because working 80-hour weeks is not good for you. Burnout and exhaustion, depression and mental health are a real problem for many, even the ones who seem to be thriving.
a dangerous, harmful lie, that obscures an important truth about how success. In failing to recognise the role that luck plays in success in our industry, we risk allowing our industry to harm us and to harm the world.
up its own tracks. It focuses attention on the individual, away from the conditions that made the individual, and under which the individual must work. It makes it easy for the successful to rewrite the history of their success. It makes it easy for them to fail to see what’s holding back others. It makes it easy for people who are trying to succeed to believe that they must do achieve it on their own It makes success an exclusive club, forcing people on the outside to sacriﬁce themselves doing useless things in the attempt to get into the club.
what happens to the notion of responsibility? It’s a fair question to ask. But in fact I don’t believe that my analysis diminishes or denies our responsibility. What it does is ﬁnd a proper place for individual responsibility, where it can make sense, not be fetishised, or a dangerous lie. And it leaves a place for collective responsibility: on my account there is more responsibility, not less, since we are now also responsible for others, and the world we are part of.
now, is being affected by these problems. You can trace them back towards this dangerous ideology of work and success. For example, in order to be contributors to Django, people need to have a little time and energy to spare. But: We are losing valuable people through burnout. We are losing contributors who give up in dismay and frustration. We are failing to gain new contributors, because the barriers are too high. We remain horribly undiverse, and fail to gain new contributors, new ideas, new approaches. Monocultures don’t produce software that works well in a big diverse and multicultural world.
the latest hip jazz venue downtown, unfortunately. It’s what many people think the Django community, and even more so the Django core team, has become. Django has a core team of developers, who have been referred to to as “Gods of Django”. What do you think the core developers talk about? The new carpets and lasers for their island command bunker? Fiendishly complex aspects of the ORM no-one else can even grasp? This is far from the truth; in fact, our main preoccupation, certainly of late, has been the community. We worry about inclusivity, making it easier for others to participate, contribute. We worry about how to make Django better, by having a healthier community. We are worried that committing to Django, participating, is more difficult than it should be. We are not “Gods”; we are just caretakers. And that’s how we want to be seen.
core team. He has in recent months put in a huge amount of work pushing through some changes in an attempt to address these problems in the structure of our community. He has very different political ideas from me; he’s probably quite sick of hearing me talk about ideology - though he is far too polite to say so. All the same, he agrees that our project is being harmed by the false connections that are made between hard work and merit and successful participation that aren’t, for many people who aren’t already lucky enough, really true. One of his aims, he say, is “to expose the hidden power structure” so that we can do something about it (and when he says things like that I wonder if he is closer to me ideologically than he thinks). So we worry about these things, and we - especially thanks to Aymeric’s work - are trying to do something about them.
would you need to care about this? Django is not just a bit of software, it’s also a community of software users. It has an ethos, and one of the main principles of that ethos is that participation, engagement, achievement and success with Django should not be reserved for the lucky few. That ethos was built into it by its founders. It’s expressed in, for example, Django’s outstanding documentation, that successfully achieves its aim of lowering a barrier to entry. The quality of our documentation expresses consideration and respect for even the most novice newcomers to Django. It’s expressed in the tenor of communication within the project; on our email lists, in our IRC channels, on our ticket tracker: friendly, courteous and helpful. It’s expressed in the codes of conduct that cover our events, and the actual conduct of people at those events: welcoming, inclusive and friendly. (I have a lucky gift I didn’t mention: that I chose Django, ﬁve years ago, and have beneﬁtted from its support ever since. I chose it because I liked the colour of the website. I rationalised the choice in a 52-page report to management, but I think I chose it for the colour.) We don’t want to live in communities for the privileged only, or the burning towns of communities whose unlucky populations ﬁnally lose patience.
to be successful active, engaged, satisﬁed, rewarded participants in our community, our industry, our world. How can we achieve this? Not on our own. Only in small steps. Only by being aware, by talking about the problems.
people lucky. We can make only small differences, as a Django community, or even as an industry to change people’s luck. We can be the good employers and collaborators people need to be lucky. We can share our skills. We can help people develop self-conﬁdence. We can be be a part of this in small ways, but mostly this is a much deeper and wider political aim. It can’t be the responsibility or work of individuals, but requires shifts in our collective thinking about success and the role luck plays in it. Still, we can all do our bit - everyone who gives a talk to share something they know at a conference like this is doing it.
impact making luck matter less to success. We try to do this already, in the effort to close the gaps that the person with fewer lucky gifts has to leap. We write our documentation for the non-native English speaker. We lower the barriers to participation. We try to make different routes available into participation. We recognise that some people don’t ﬁt as neatly into our industry as others; our codes of conduct are intended to ensure that they’re not made to feel uncomfortable.
We don’t have to accept unthinking notions of success. For example, Richard St. John managed to interview over 500 very successful people, but neither he nor they seem to have considered the possibility that for example “thinking of ﬁnance 24 hours a day” is a pretty shit way to spend your time, and that a life spent working 80 or more hours a week is not one worth aspiring to - however much it earns. When people say this kind of thing, our reaction should be to laugh in a kind of embarrassed horror - not to applaud them for their hard work.
in the Soviet Union, a Hero of Socialist Labour. In 1935 he set a new record, mining 227 tonnes of coal in a single shift, an astounding quantity that no-one could match, demonstrating the superiority of the Communist production systems. The Stakhanovite Movement was a huge propaganda tool for the Soviet Union. Those who opposed it were called wreckers. In fact, all kinds of things made it possible for Stakhanov to achieve this record, like being given the best seams to work, the best tools, the best team - and not to mention, having other miners’ production counted in his own (that always helps). Of course, here was an impossible ideal for other workers to measure their success against - and to be considered inadequate in their efforts if they couldn’t match it. And that’s what we’re seeing here, today, in our industry. It’s ideologically-motivated propaganda, a modern-day Stakhanovite movement in which “Soviet methods” have been replaced by “individual hard work”. The effects are similar though: to harm ordinary people who are trying to work.