The Malevolent Meritocracy

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A meritocracy is an organizational culture which bases its structure from individuals with talent and ability. On the surface, this appears to be the most logical choice for any engineering organization that wishes to turn a profit. After all, if an organization can’t execute, it can’t make money.

Table of Contents

3 Tips for Climbing to the Top in Engineering

Unfortunately, as with many topics in this series, the meritocracy has a dark side. Instead of creating a culture of hard workers, the meritocracy promotes a culture of manipulation. In order to advance in a meritocracy, you’re going to need to do a lot more than work hard. In this section, I am going to tell you some of the ways you can reach the top in engineering.

Suck Up to Your Superiors

It’s no secret that sucking up can get you pretty far in Corporate America. After all, what boss doesn’t enjoy talking about their kids or receiving compliments. In fact, there are articles all over the internet on how to effectively kiss ass. Take a peek:

I’d never suck up because it goes against my core values. However, it seems like a valid strategy if you don’t want to do any actual work. I’ll continue to let my work speak for itself.

Be A Rich, White Male

Back in 2015, the Huffington Post (not the most reputable source) stated that 91% of Fortune 500 CEOs were white men. That sounds like a recipe for success if you ask me.

If you’re not fortunate enough to be white or male, you at least have a chance to fulfill the rich part. Well, that’s assuming you can dig yourself out of today’s wealth inequality. Refer to the other sections in this article for a few get rich quick tips.

Take Credit for Other People’s Work

Why do your own work when you can piggyback off the work of others? The quickest way to the top is to stamp your name on a few potentially successful projects. That way you can leverage those projects in the future when you’re trying to get a raise or join a new company.

But how do you identify good projects? The trick is to look for a team of passionate workers. No one on this kind of team will ever rat you out because the project is too important. You’re not guaranteed to be successful with this strategy, but you will avoid getting caught.

A Personal Account

All kidding aside, I really do feel that the meritocracy is more about corruption than actual skill. Just take a look at a couple of my stories below.

Defect Tracking

When I was working as a software engineer, we had a defect tracking system much like the ‘issues’ section in GitHub. The tool was archaic, and most people didn’t even know how to use it. However, it was a major aspect of the design review process.

In this tool, each defect was required to be tracked before anyone could begin to fix it. That’s because our version control system would block merges that didn’t include the defect tracking number. Once a fix was tied to a tracking number, it was someone’s job to verify the fix.

Obviously, this sort of process is very heavy in bureaucracy. First, a defect has to get logged. Then it needs to be assigned to someone. That person has to go in and update several fields which detail the fix, and then they need to link that defect back to a change list in version control. After that, the solution has to go through a round of verification.

When it’s all said and done, a list of all the defects get shared in a final review. If the verification is acceptable, the product is approved to ship. The rest is history.

From start to finish, this process takes a minimum of six months. During the entire process, the team rushes to get a design, implement a solution, track mistakes, and document rework. As a result, everyone tries to keep the defects down to a minimum.

The Witch Hunt

That said, anyone who has written software knows that defects are inevitable. It’s a part of the job. Unfortunately, that’s not how this team saw defects. Instead, defects were considered taboo. In other words, defect tracking was a witch hunt.

Witch Hunt
Despite drafting this article over a year ago, all I can think of now is Donald Trump’s WITCH HUNT! tweets.

No one ever wanted a defect “written against them.” Yeah, you heard me. It’s not simply about software issues; it’s a witch hunt. As defects would come up, people would try to hide them for as long as possible. You’d never catch anyone assigning a defect to themselves. It’s as if defects contributed negatively to salary.

Early Career Jumpstart

That last story was an example of the effect of the meritocracy on team dynamics. Now, I want to talk a little bit about some of my fellow peers who tried to leverage some of my tips above to jump-start their careers.

By now, you know I was in a rotational program. This program was excellent for flying up the ladder as I got plenty of opportunities to demonstrate my skills while networking. Unfortunately, that strategy wasn’t good enough for some of my peers. In fact, even with as many opportunities as we had, some people still felt the need to follow the path of dishonesty.

For example, as a part of this program, we all had to take classes together. Actually, that’s a lie. I was split off into a small group of software guys. The concept was similar to the larger group, but we had a designated grader for all of our assignments.

For everyone else, they had people rotate through grading the assignments. While that seems fair on the surface, it actually became quite a problem for a couple of reasons:

  1. Some people were fortunate enough to grade more than others.
  2. Some people graded differently than others.

You can probably imagine how this played out. Simply put, the more corrupt individuals got better grades. By the end of the course, the overall grade distribution did not reflect characteristics of an ideal meritocracy. Instead, intelligence, teamwork, and work ethic were outweighed by dumb luck and corruption.

Addressing the Issue

You want my opinion? Stop calling the engineering environment a meritocracy. Performance has never and will never be a measure of productivity. It’s a combination of ass-kissing, networking, smooth-talking, and manipulation.

Sure, skill plays a role, but it’s only a barrier to entry. Prove you have the bare minimum amount of skill to join the club, and you’re set for life. From there, it’s up to you to determine how much of your morality you’re willing to sacrifice for a bigger paycheck.

Regardless, the whole concept of merit is kind of silly. How do we measure it anyway? Is it all about tasks per hour? You wouldn’t commend a doctor for completing the most surgeries an hour. Is it all about profit? Again, you wouldn’t commend a doctor for using a more expensive treatment for no good reason (maybe some would).

Even if we could agree on a metric, merit would still take a large component of luck. If you work hard, you can sort of manufacture your own luck, but you can never guarantee that you’ll be successful. But, don’t take my word for it:

If the video doesn’t sell you on the ruse of the meritocracy, check out How the Survivor Bias Distorts Reality. My point is merit is a flawed concept, yet it’s used all the time as a form of discrimination.

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Jeremy Grifski
Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Today, he pursues a PhD in Computer Science in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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