• Matt Burrell

Why Software Developers Need to Stop Using Labels


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. Stereotyped as geeks, nerds, or bro-grammers. We’ve even started labelling ourselves as ninjas, gurus, hipsters and Rock Stars.


This might sound like a bit of fun but it has some interesting side effects.


1. Labels make us biased


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


When we label a developer as a 'React expert' or a 'JavaScript guru' we become biased towards thinking everything they do and say is the gospel truth. We might not challenge their code and instead just copy it without thinking.


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


This halo effect also works in reverse. When we give someone a negative label we more easily dismiss or ignore their contributions.


Categorising people into groups leads to bias. When we assign someone to a particular group, we start to treat them either favourably or unfavourably depending on whether we're members of that group. We start to think that everyone in a group is the same (a fallacy known as the accentuation effect).


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. This can happen when a 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 the status quo. Are we happy with the social status that we have as software developers? If not then we need to stop labelling ourselves.


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 community's.


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 weakness. Social groups provide us with safety, community, support and identity. We can achieve more when working with others.


But when groups form they 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 from forming (that would be impossible and undesirable) but we can prevent unnecessary groups from 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 simply label ourselves as human beings.


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 human' unites us and can help reduce discriminatory behaviour towards others.


People are naturally social – even introverted software developers. Many of our innate drives centre around playfulness, curiosity and inventiveness. Our natural qualities of being social, playful, curious and inventive have contributed towards our extraordinary success as a species. These qualities also 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.