By Nathan L. Walls

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The Post-Meritocracy Manifesto

Coraline Ada Ehmke, creator of the Contributor Covenant, has created the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto:

Meritocracy is a founding principle of the open source movement, and the ideal of meritocracy is perpetuated throughout our field in the way people are recruited, hired, retained, promoted, and valued.

But meritocracy has consistently shown itself to mainly benefit those with privilege, to the exclusion of underrepresented people in technology. The idea of merit is in fact never clearly defined; rather, it seems to be a form of recognition, an acknowledgement that “this person is valuable insofar as they are like me.”

After reading and digesting the document, I signed on. It reflects the values I aspire to and value for myself and in my peers.

Meritocracy, as a term was always intended as critique and satire:

The co-author of a classic work of sociology, “Family and Kinship in East London” (1957), Mr. Young was also known for coining the word “meritocracy,” first used in his biting futuristic satire, “The Rise of the Meritocracy” (1958)

…but, in the libertarian space that is much of big tech, it’s not at all rare to see the term used as a value statement. Red Hat’s CEO, Jim Whitehurst has specifically defended the concept as a core Red Hat value:

Seeking consensus and creating a democracy of ideas is not what we at Red Hat would call collaboration. In fact, it’s a misstep. Rather, managers at Red Hat make it a practice to seek out ideas from those who’ve shown that they typically have the best ideas—those who have risen to the top of our meritocracy.

To get to the top, though, it’s not enough to merely have an idea; you’ll also need to defend it against all comers. That means there may be disagreements. Voices will be raised. Building your reputation, therefore, can take time, patience, and a thick skin.

That sounds like a hyperaggressive Thunder Dome where the loudest, most stubborn, person “wins”.

Whitehurst continues:

This environment can seem harsh at first. But keep this in mind: Open source software developers say, “In the end, nothing matters but the code. The code wins.”

This is a recipe that rewards “brilliant jerks” and assholes. Our industry has far too much of that. It chases valuable contributors with differing communication styles or different valuations about empathy out.

We can do better.

The Post-Meritocracy Manifesto goes in a different direction and sets a more inclusive vision:

  • We do not believe that our value as human beings is intrinsically tied to our value as knowledge workers. Our professions do not define us; we are more than the work we do.

  • We believe that interpersonal skills are at least as important as technical skills.

And, directly countering Whitehurst’s point about the code being paramount:

  • We understand that working in our field is a privilege, not a right. The negative impact of toxic people in the workplace or the larger community is not offset by their technical contributions.

I feel fortunate that my coworkers and company, from where I sit, are substantially closer to the values expressed in the Manifesto and further from the world Whitehurst lays out. I hope anyone reading this would be so similarly fortunate. However, we have to actively encourage, support and reinforce this vision of an empathy-driven, diverse and inclusive tech industry.

If you’re involved in any part of the tech industry, please give it a read and consider signing on. Thank you.