Why Software Developers Need to Stop Using Labels

By | January 14, 2016

Why software developers need to stop labelling each other

I’ve never liked really liked labels. Not the sort that appear on Polo Shirts (I like those). I mean labels that we give each other.

Movie directors and writers have given software developers many labels over the years. We’ve been turned into caricatures. We’ve been stereotyped as geeks, nerds, or bro-grammers. We’ve started labelling ourselves as ninjas, gurus, hipster hackers or rock stars.

This needs to stop for four reasons:

1. Labels make us biased

Labels help us categorise and understand people. The trouble is we find it difficult to see past labels once they are there.

When we label a developer as a ‘C# expert’ or an ‘Angular guru’ we become biased towards thinking everything they say is right. We don’t challenge their code, we copy it without thinking.

If a ‘rock star developer’ raves about a new technology we jump on the bandwagon and join them in praising its virtues. Maybe they’re right! Maybe we should discover for ourselves.

This halo effect of labelling also works in reverse. When we give someone a negative label we dismiss or ignore their contributions. This is wrong because everybody has something to offer.

We use labels to categorise people into groups. When we do this we forget that people are individuals. We’re biased towards thinking that everyone in that group is the same (see accentuation effect).

We’re not geeks. We are individuals with different personalities, strengths, weaknesses and interests.

2. Labels lower our social status

Labelling isn’t just about categorising people. It’s also a power game.

Assigning a label to someone influences their relative social status. Normally this happens when the label is assigned by high-powered individuals. High-powered individuals categorise and form stereotypes of those over whom they can exert power.

When low-powered individuals use these labels to describe themselves they unconsciously create a bias that maintains this status quo. Are we happy with the social status that we have as a software developers? If not then we need to stop labelling ourselves. And start labelling managers instead. 😉

3. Labels lead to self-fulfilling prophecies

Labels become stereotypes. They affect our perception, attention and memory. They affect our expectations of ourselves and influence our behaviour. Labels become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Sometimes this might have a positive effect. Being labelled as a rock star developer might make us feel good (for a while). But it puts pressure on us to maintain that status. We end up feeling like an imposter because our perception of our abilities doesn’t match the development community’s.

If we’re not striving to become the next rock star developer, we’re emulating the media-created ‘bro-programmer’ through our uniform. Or branding ourselves as code ninjas.

Use the latest technology before anyone else. It is your destiny.

Rather than trying to emulate someone else. Be yourself! Follow your own path and your individual interests.

4. Labels divide us

You’re either in the ‘Jeans and T-Shirt’ club or you’re not. You’re not using React?! I’m a MEAN stack developer. Are you in the Agile or the agile camp? These statements are dangerous because they create an ‘us and them’ mentality.

A fundamental principle of human nature is that people like to form groups. This is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Social groups provide us with safety, community, support and an identity. We can usually achieve more when working with others.

But when groups form they immediately create outsiders. People that are not members of our group become ‘them’. Simply being a member of a group is enough to trigger discrimination against other groups.

We are psychologically biased towards favouring our in-group and discriminating against other groups.

Nobody likes to feel discriminated against or made to feel like an outsider. We can’t stop groups forming (that would be impossible and undesirable) but we can prevent unnecessary groups forming. We can stop labelling each other.

“We’re not so different you and I”

We can’t easily drop our bias towards favouring our in-group and discriminating against out-groups. But maybe we don’t need to. We can use the strengths that we derive from being a member of a group by realising that we are all people. We can label ourselves as… people.

Despite our varying personalities, interests and experiences we are all human beings. This means we all want to be liked, valued and happy. The universal group of ‘a person’ unites us and can help reduce discriminatory behaviour towards others.

People are naturally social – yes even introverted software developers! Some of our innate drives center around playfulness, curiosity and inventiveness. Our core qualities of being naturally social, playful, curious and inventive have contributed towards our extraordinary success as a species. These qualities that unite us as software developers.

We enjoy sharing our experience and knowledge with others; we enjoy playing video games; getting our teeth into programming problems; exploring new technologies; coming up with novel solutions; being curious about how something works or why a particular feature is required; we enjoy interacting with the people we trust; we’re active on social media; and so on.

We’re not geeks, rock stars, or bro-grammers. We’re social, curious, playful and inventive. We are people. Let’s fight to make this our most prominent label.

2 thoughts on “Why Software Developers Need to Stop Using Labels

  1. Rob

    Excellent, a fun article with serious undertones.
    In total agreement with you, unfortunately the world now operates with badges of honour from the moment your mum gets you into the “best” school, not that shoddy one down the road, heaven forbid!

    A recent CV reviewer suggested that I include particular skills in a particular way so that agency CV filtration systems would correctly pigeon hole me – computers cannot filter a personality, although my laptop seems to have the measure of me. So your CV only looks backward littered with the badges and labels earned, none that are desired. We will never have the pleasure of a recruiter asking if we “could” do something, it is too much trouble to sell; plus, if the badge isn’t on your CV they will never find you anyway – we are stuck doing what we do, incrementally earning one label at a time until we are covered in more badges than a touring campervan from Birmingham.

    So developers are tagged developers and will continue to get differentiated by labels of their past and experiences suffered (sorry, gained); separating the gurus and the super heroes from the have nots.
    It is horrible that the world is now #tagged, tick boxed and labelled and it is only set to become worse as we and the world becomes infinitely more searchable.

    Anyway – are you forming a group of people who agree with you? if so I would like a club t-shirt and pin badge; and please don’t let everybody in, exclusivity is everything!

    1. Matt Burrell Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Rob. Yes, it’s a shame that we define ourselves and others using ‘badges of honour’ as you say. Your point about the campervan made me laugh because I own one… no stickers on it though. 🙂 Well, not until I set up that exclusive club that is.


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