Broken Windows and Corporate Decency

Broken Windows

Over the weekend, I became aware of trouble at GitHub, a collaborative center for software developers. Prominent developer Julie Ann Horvath (@nrrrdcore) detailed a campaign of discrimination and harassment at TechCrunch.

She described being harassed by the boys’ club of fellow developers, which she initially just ignored. Then, it appears that – as she gained prominence in the community – she was targeted by one of the founders and strangely, his wife, who was not an employee but frequently on the premises. And her code was wrecked by another developer whose social advances she had rejected. Bravely, she spoke up over the weekend, to describe her experience and explain why she was leaving the organization.

This morning, I read a tweet from Bryan Cantrill (@bcantrill), who posted a link to another GitHub scenario where one developer targeted another, wrecking code in a systematic and repeated campaign. Bryan’s tweet asked if it was the same thing as the situation with Julie. Many people, including myself, said that it was not.

But I think that we’re partially wrong about that.

There is a theory in law enforcement known as “broken windows”. The theory is that if you ignore trash, graffiti, broken windows in a neighborhood, you send a signal. The signal says, “no one cares what happens here,” which creates a snowball effect of escalating crime. Effective law enforcement counsels communities to pay attention to the little things – the broken windows – to send a message: “We take pride in our community. We care about our neighbors. We won’t tolerate anything that degrades us.”

So, Bryan, let me say I’m sorry, and (very slightly) adjust my earlier assertion that it’s not the same. It’s not exactly the same thing. Julie’s situation was gender-based and, in addition to being wrong, it’s illegal. The other instance you cited is also a case of bullying. Both things silently happen ALL THE TIME. But, so far, bullying coworkers is not illegal.

It’s broken windows… something that GitHub should have noticed and addressed. Bullying of fellow community members helped build a foundation that made it seem okay to harrass a female developer. GitHub CEO Chris Wanstrath posted an excellent response on the GitHub blog, thanking Julie for her contributions and vowing to “begin a full investigation.” It was thrilling to see.

I’ll caution Chris though… My life’s work is all about finding the root cause. Not just putting a Band-Aid on the situation, but asking, “What makes it possible for this to happen here?” Looking the other way during instances of petty bullying, such as the one mentioned by Bryan, that’s a root cause, a broken window. Your investigation needs to identify and punish Julie’s culprits, but it shouldn’t stop there.

Making GitHub a beacon of corporate decency, where good work is possible through positive collaboration… that would be a stunning corporate goal, and a remarkable example for the rest of us.


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2 thoughts on “Broken Windows and Corporate Decency”

  1. First, no apology is required — I was earnestly asking the question, and I welcome vehement disagreement to its implication. But just to clarify what I was trying to ask: I don’t assert that these things are the same (they’re clearly not: this is abuse of an employee versus not implementing a request for enhancement), but rather was wondering if they reflect a single cultural malaise. I think @shanley’s tweets were thought-provoking in this regard — and I have a hard time not seeing opulent office space and empty hero-worship as helping to generate a culture that would tolerate some of what @nrrrdcore reported. I think this is what you’re saying as well: that there were broken windows in the GitHub culture that may have implicitly tolerated the torched car that is the abuse of @nrrrdcore.

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