Category Archives: Philosophical

Instant Gratification

Technology consistently upgrades our standard of living, often in ways that we inevitably take for granted shortly after.

One of the best upgrades of the past few decades for so-called individual contributors like myself has been the extent to which we can now publish our work, receive feedback, and move forward in the process of perfecting our art. All within a few days or weeks rather than months or years.

In the old days, people like us worked in solitude or with the feedback of only a few confidants. A wider audience would evaluate the work only at major milestones: when a story was published, when an illustration was printed, or when a piece of software had passed through so many internal hoops and jumps that a publishing company agreed to release it to the open market.

These days, people who are confident they can do good work face one primary obstacle: the challenge of doing that good work. When the job is done, or even half-done, a dozen, hundreds, or thousands of eager constituents stand ready to judge it.

That’s terribly frightening and terribly enlivening. No more waiting for permission to share your thoughts, arts, or inventions with the world. And no more excuses for holding back. Got something to give? Put it out there and see what sticks.

Of course this freedom of expression comes at a cost: anybody can publish anything at any time. Most of it will be terrible, and much of it will be of lower quality than the highly-edited content of yesteryear. On the one hand, it encourages flippant blog posts like this, where perhaps the content should have gone through more than a ten-minute review process. On the other hand? Nobody with something profound to share should ever be silenced again.

The Integrity Prize

Alicia Liu paints a compelling picture of Salesforce as scoundrels, or at least oblivious, in their recent hackathon. They promised a $1M USD prize to whichever team of developers could present the “best” product submitted in compliance with the contest’s rules. The questions being raised have to do primarily with whether or not the rules were upheld.

Liu participated in the hackathon, and shares her first hand experiences of problems she observed. I learned about this story from Marco Arment, who points out that Salesforce will likely suffer a developer backlash from the airing of all this dirty laundry. It would be unfair to condemn a company based on the testimony of one participant, but her account reads authentic to me, and seems to be supported by comments on Hacker News. (I know, not the world’s most reliable source).

The most galling points to me from Liu’s report are:

  1. The winners of the contest seemed to be in violation of both the spirit and the letter of the rules.
  2. Multiple participants’ submissions seem to not even have been evaluated.

I believe that in general bending the rules is a valuable exercise. But when it comes to judged competition of any kind, whether it be on the sporting field, at the local trivia quiz, or in a $1M cash prize hackathon, a contest is only as good as its compliance with the rules. Any participant in the Salesforce event whose diligent, rule-abiding effort was either ignored completely or dismissed as inferior to the work of a rules-shirking participant, is right to be indignant about the outcome of the event. The rules of this contest, both the grandiose prize, and the significant surrender of IP rights required by the rules, make the apparent jerking around of participants that much more distasteful.

As much as it irks me to learn of companies exploiting programmers, it bothers me on a more personal level that so many developers are eager to surrender both their time and their integrity to participate in such events. Whether it’s out of hope for a $1M jackpot or, perhaps more troublingly, based in the desperate pursuit of any external validation of their work, these are not ideal outlets for the most talented developers in any field.

Few of us are immune to the lure of prizes and recognition. Every spring, most of my friends and I start gossiping about, maybe dreaming about, the potential winners of the Apple Design Awards. These are conveyed every year at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. While Apple seems to stick to the letter of its rules pretty well, the rules themselves sometimes seem capricious, and are not announced until a few months before the “contest.” Nonetheless, myself and others have been caught up some years toiling away on products or features that we wouldn’t otherwise be focused on, all in the vain hope of winning the coveted prize. At least in this scenario with Apple, we may be sacrificing a small amount of integrity, but aren’t outright donating our IP to the company.

I’m reminded by hackathons like Salesforce’s, by Apple’s Design Awards, and even by awards I’ve been humbled to receive such as the Macworld Editor’s Choice Award, that as great as it feels to win a contest, prizes like these shouldn’t be our primary goal. I’ve joked about it some years, when I inevitably don’t win an Apple Design Award, that at least I’m still winning the Customer Design Award. With that quip I mean to remind myself that winning the favor of these small groups of people with power should never be seen as more valuable than winning the favor of the people who really matter.

Who really matters? Yourself, those who are close to you, and the customers you aim to serve. Start each day determined to win the hearts of those people, and strive to remain indifferent about the judgements of Salesforce, Apple, or any other small group of judges that aims to string you along for their gain. You may not win $1M, but you’ll hold on to the most valuable prize of all: your integrity.