Naked Emperors in Tech

In Hans Christen Andersen’s classic tale, two swindlers trick an Emperor by saying their clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Everybody sees the Emperor is naked, but nobody says anything, until a child blurts out the simple fact that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. Then the silence is broken and everyone realizes that everyone else was seeing what they were seeing.

There are a lot of Naked Emperors in Tech.

Mostly, these take the form of widely repeated beliefs that are oversimplified (or at least, no longer true). Sometimes these are factual statements that turn out factually wrong. Sometimes these are opinions overstated as fact. Sometimes the cause is schlep blindness. Sometimes these are implicit beliefs - unstated, unconscious, but designed into our products anyway. What makes them Naked Emperors is just somebody visibly pointing out nakedness, and then the lie being retrospectively obvious all along.

Here is a short list I have, with their respective bullshit calls:

  • Asking Five Why’s (aka the Toyota method): Complex failures have multiple causes that are each necessary, but only jointly sufficient.
  • “There are no stupid questions”: Some questions are certainly better than others, and some questions are so bad they beg terrible answers. Better to make it OK to ask stupid questions than to deny their very existence. Allow the answerer to question the question rather than waste time on a flawed premise.
  • The Golden Rule: is clearly broken for vulnerable or picky people. The Platinum Rule is a higher bar.
  • Regret Minimization Framework: Leads to constantly taking the highest risk option, ignoring risk of ruin. The biggest tell of uncritical Bezos fans is how confidently they quote him here based on his DE Shaw anecdote (the same narrative fallacy he despises)
  • Ideas are worthless, execution is everything”: Surely it is a mix of both.
  • Accessibility is not optional”: Accessibility isn’t a binary either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t state. Accessibility has a cost. Accessibility experts and libraries that market accessibility don’t agree on or audit details. That doesn’t excuse us from making sincere effort, but let’s stop pretending that Accessibility is easily accessible.
  • Multicloud is a dumb idea“: AWS hearts multi-cloud. Mitchell Hashimoto on Why Multicloud.
  • You should use React for everything/Gatsby is the best static site generator“: It’s very much not. Most devs should at minimum use Preact over React for Sites, but both offer far less than Svelte.
  • Everything is an Infinite Game“: No, not everything. Many careers hinge on a single ”Big Break” (arguably the leadup and the follow through is an infinite game, but don’t tell me there aren’t important Finite Games within the Infinite Game)

What other Naked Emperors are parading around out there, too naked for me to even see?

Additions from the future

Tagged in: #reflections #tech

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