24 Apr 2012

Time for Programmers to Grow Up?

Over the weekend, I came across a tweet sharing an image of a profane commit message.  The tweet originated from a developer from a small but well known Belfast software company.

Original Tweet Sharing Image

Commit Messages Containing Profanity

I wasn't impressed with this, so I replied to let the originator of the tweet know I thought it was pretty immature.  This lead to a (civilized) Twitter discussion with a couple of interested parties about the tweet. 

In this particular case, the screenshot was from a commit to a local repository, which will be cleaned up prior to pushing to a public repository.  It was tweeted by a developer in the company who wasn’t the original committer.  The code wasn't for a client deliverable, but for a community project.  It is worth pointing out that the company concerned does a lot of good work with the local developer community.  The overall feeling was from the guys at the company was that the both commit messages and the tweeted image were no big deal.  I disagree, and this blog post will explain why I think there is a problem:

  1. Profanity Doesn’t Work

Swearing is guaranteed to offend someone.  In this case, it offended me.  It may well have offended others.  I'm not saying this as someone who is blameless -  I do curse.  But there are plenty of ways of expressing yourself without swearing.

  1. Professionalism

I don't doubt the above commit messages were just a way of letting off steam.  We've all been there; my language is certainly not perfect.  But I seriously question the wisdom of tweeting an image with a colleague's name, the name of your company and a load of profanity.  Once it is broadcast on a social network, it is out there for ever.  Would you be happy seeing this one of the top 10 search results for you personally, or for the company you work for?  No, neither would I.

Something relatively minor like this can affect on how professional we are perceived.  In this case, it has diminished my personal opinion of a company who were doing sterling work to support the local developer community.  In the same way, if I walk into a business meeting dropping F-bombs in every sentence, it reflects badly both on me personally and the company I work for.

In this particular case, the code was being committed to a local repository before being cleaned up for release to a public repository, and this was seen as a mitigating factor.  I would ask why take the chance of something like this getting released publically or to a client by mistake?  Why not  hold yourself to the same standard for personal/community code as for a client deliverable?

Incidentally, in one company I've worked for, I'm aware of someone wasting time going through the source code for a major contract and removing the various profane comments before releasing the code to the client.  This stuff can have a cost to a business.

The company concerned doesn't feel this is an issue. But as this recent story shows, just because a company doesn't care doesn't mean their customers will take the same view.  Geeklist lost a significant number of users following this online spate.

  1. Sexism

I have no doubt I will told to lighten up for mentioning this.  But the fact is there are very few female developers.  If we want to start attracting more women into careers as coders, we need (as a start) fewer "brogrammers" and a more gender neutral environment.  Posting a commit messages with references to a sexual act doesn't help, it just perpetuates programmer stereotypes.  If you think I'm grasping at straws here, please take the time to read the following articles:

Possibly you think that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill with this.  Or that I'm just showing my age.  But I seriously think tweeting an image like that is out of order.  Just as I think that a company that allows a culture where it is OK to have developers documenting code in this way has issues.  I would encourage you to respond with your thoughts via the post comments.  If you want to get in touch with me directly, please DM at @AndyParkhill.  Thanks.


  1. Hey mate,

    Great blog post. Always was a sucker for a good old online debate. To be honest with you when I initially read it I took a bit of a step back and thought "Wow! That was a bit of an overreaction." But the more and more I read it the more I was forced to concede to the obvious conclusion. You've got a point.

    I have to reserve judgment a little bit here because I've only met the developer you're referring to once and it was incredibly brief. But based on what little I know of him (and by that I mean our brief meeting and the fact that we have several peers in common), I can be reasonably confident that all he was trying to do was encourage a more relaxed and informal working environment. I don't believe his intention was to damage our reputation as professionals or to plant a flag reaffirming the fact that this is a male dominated industry. I realise that's not what you're saying either but I take your point that it can be misconstrued. Maybe it is time for us to grow up a bit.

    I think the problem is that at this point we're kind of creatures of habit. Thankfully I'm seeing big changes in our industry now but when I was at university, to call our industry male dominated would have been an understatement. Female students made up about 6% or 7% of my year at best. So maybe a juvenile nob gag in a room full of immature teenage and early 20 something males becomes the norm over time. But I think your point is well made that we should be encouraging a more gender neutral environment. Not that I don't know any women that appreciate smutty humor like that. I know quite a few as it goes. But it's fair to say that we should at least represent ourselves in a more dignified manner publicly.

    To be honest I think we're still a way off being where we need to be in terms of a more diverse working environment. I once worked for one company in particular (who shall remain nameless) where I'd had to deal with a particularly difficult female client. When her company replaced her with a man I asked my project supervisor "What's this guy like to deal with?" and was given the response "Well he's a guy so that's good for a start." He even went on to attribute the fact that the female client was difficult to "Hormonal issues." The cherry on top? Once I'd managed to successfully complete the project and get the female client on our side, I was asked the question "Did you give her one?" I could go on to the conversation where he and another colleague acted really uncomfortable at the idea that I might have a gay housemate but I think I've said enough.

    Those kinds of comments are simply unacceptable in any working environment and the fact that we're still in any way tolerant of them is frankly embarrassing. Like I say, I think the incident you're referring to was just a bunch of guys having a laugh and was in no way intended to cause offense, but your point is well made. We've got a long way to go in our industry and it's probably time we all started setting a better example.


  2. Being female (!), I can speak for at least one of us who works frequently in the developer environment. I've not encountered this much, either profanity, crude language or sexism. I've encountered much more in the general "office" environment in Northern Ireland, sexual harassment being one of the several good reasons for leaving it behind.

    My two bob is that this was an example what sometimes ensues from the welcoming, relaxed atmosphere that exists in developer world, albeit (int this instance) crude.

    But, I totally agree with your ultimate conclusion. The people (clients, funders, VCs) who're making the decisions are not impressed with this. It reinforces publicly-held stereotypes (whether true or not). The fact, in my experience, is many developers are family types with kids. Unfortunately, some of the more immature reinforce the stereotype.

    1. Dawn, thanks for the your view on this. I was particularly interested to hear that these issues come up more in the general office environment.


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