Why I won’t be attending Systems We Love

Systems We Love is a one day event in San Francisco to talk excitedly about systems computing. When I first heard about it, I was thrilled! I love systems so much that I moved from New Mexico to the Bay Area when I was 23 years old purely so that I could talk to more people about them. I’m the author of the Kernel Hacker’s Bookshelf series, in which I enthusiastically described operating systems research papers I loved in the hopes that systems programmers would implement them. The program committee of Systems We Love includes many people I respect and enjoy being around. And the event is so close to me that I could walk to it.

So why I am not going to Systems We Love? Why am I warning my friends to think twice before attending? And why am I writing a blog post warning other people about attending Systems We Love?

The answer is that I am afraid that Bryan Cantrill, the lead organizer of Systems We Love, will say cruel and humiliating things to people who attend. Here’s why I’m worried about that.

I worked with Bryan in the Solaris operating systems group at Sun from 2002 to 2004. We didn’t work on the same projects, but I often talked to him at the weekly Monday night Solaris kernel dinner at Osteria in Palo Alto, participated in the same mailing lists as him, and stopped by his office to ask him questions every week or two. Even 14 years ago, Bryan was one of the best systems programmers, writers, and speakers I have ever met. I admired him and learned a lot from him. At the same time, I was relieved when I left Sun because I knew I’d never have to work with Bryan again.

Here’s one way to put it: to me, Bryan Cantrill is the opposite of another person I admire in operating systems (whom I will leave unnamed). This person makes me feel excited and welcome and safe to talk about and explore operating systems. I’ve never seen them shame or insult or put down anyone. They enthusiastically and openly talk about learning new systems concepts, even when other people think they should already know them. By doing this, they show others that it’s safe to admit that they don’t know something, which is the first step to learning new things. They are helping create the kind of culture I want in systems programming – the kind of culture promoted by Papers We Love, which Bryan cites as the inspiration for Systems We Love.

By contrast, when I’m talking to Bryan I feel afraid, cautious, and fearful. Over the years I worked with Bryan, I watched him shame and insult hundreds of people, in public and in private, over email and in person, in papers and talks. Bryan is no Linus Torvalds – Bryan’s insults are usually subtle, insinuating, and beautifully phrased, whereas Linus’ insults tend towards the crude and direct. Even as you are blushing in shame from what Bryan just said about you, you are also admiring his vocabulary, cadence, and command of classical allusion. When I talked to Bryan about any topic, I felt like I was engaging in combat with a much stronger foe who only wanted to win, not help me learn. I always had the nagging fear that I probably wouldn’t even know how cleverly he had insulted me until hours later. I’m sure other people had more positive experiences with Bryan, but my experience matches that of many others. In summary, Bryan is supporting the status quo of the existing culture of systems programming, which is a culture of combat, humiliation, and domination.

People admire and sometimes hero-worship Bryan because he’s a brilliant technologist, an excellent communicator, and a consummate entertainer. But all that brilliance, sparkle, and wit are often used in the service of mocking and humiliating other people. We often laugh and are entertained by what Bryan says, but most of the time we are laughing at another person, or at a person by proxy through their work. I think we rationalize taking part in this kind of cruelty by saying that the target “deserves” it because they made a short-sighted design decision, or wrote buggy code, or accidentally made themselves appear ridiculous. I argue that no one deserves to be humiliated or laughed at for making an honest mistake, or learning in public, or doing the best they could with the resources they had. And if that means that people like Bryan have to learn how to be entertaining without humiliating people, I’m totally fine with that.

I stopped working with Bryan in 2004, which was 12 years ago. It’s fair to wonder if Bryan has had a change of heart since then. As far as I can tell, the answer is no. I remember speaking to Bryan in 2010 and 2011 and it was déjà vu all over again. The first time, I had just co-founded a non-profit for women in open technology and culture, and I was astonished when Bryan delivered a monologue to me on the “right” way to get more women involved in computing. The second time I was trying to catch up with a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while and Bryan was invited along. Bryan dominated the conversation and the two of us the entire evening, despite my best efforts. I tried one more time about a month ago: I sent Bryan a private message on Twitter telling him honestly and truthfully what my experience of working with him was like, and asking if he’d had a change of heart since then. His reply: “I don’t know what you’re referring to, and I don’t feel my position on this has meaningfully changed — though I am certainly older and wiser.” Then he told me to google something he’d written about women in computing.

But you don’t have to trust my word on what Bryan is like today. The blog post Bryan wrote announcing Systems We Love sounds exactly like the Bryan I knew: erudite, witty, self-praising, and full of elegant insults directed at a broad swathe of people. He gaily recounts the time he gave a highly critical keynote speech at USENIX, bashfully links to a video praising him at a Papers We Love event, elegantly puts down most of the existing operating systems research community, and does it all while using the words “ancillary,” “verve,” and “quadrennial.” Once you know the underlying structure – a layer cake of vituperation and braggadocio, frosted with eloquence – you can see the same pattern in most of his writing and talks.

So when I heard about Systems We Love, my first thought was, “Maybe I can go but just avoid talking to Bryan and leave the room when he is speaking.” Then I thought, “I should warn my friends who are going.” Then I realized that my friends are relatively confident and successful in this field, but the people I should be worried about are the ones just getting started. Based on the reputation of Papers We Love and the members of the Systems We Love program committee, they probably fully expect to be treated respectfully and kindly. I’m old and scarred and know what to expect when Bryan talks, and my stomach roils at the thought of attending this event. How much worse would it be for someone new and open and totally unprepared?

Bryan is a better programmer than I am. Bryan is a better systems architect than I am. Bryan is a better writer and speaker than I am. The one area I feel confident that I know more about than Bryan is increasing diversity in computing. And I am certain that the environment that Bryan creates and fosters is more likely to discourage and drive off women of all races, people of color, queer and trans folks, and other people from underrepresented groups. We’re already standing closer to the exit; for many of us, it doesn’t take much to make us slip quietly out the door and never return.

I’m guessing that Bryan will respond to me saying that he humiliates, dominates, and insults people by trying to humiliate, dominate, and insult me. I’m not sure if he’ll criticize my programming ability, my taste in operating systems, or my work on increasing diversity in tech. Maybe he’ll criticize me for humiliating, dominating, and insulting people myself – and I’ll admit, I did my fair share of that when I was trying to emulate leaders in my field such as Bryan Cantrill and Linus Torvalds. It’s gone now, but for years there was a quote from me on a friend’s web site, something like: “I’m an elitist jerk, I fit right in at Sun.” It took me years to detox and unlearn those habits and I hope I’m a kinder, more considerate person now.

Even if Bryan doesn’t attack me, people who like the current unpleasant culture of systems programming will. I thought long and hard about the friendships, business opportunities, and social capital I would lose over this blog post. I thought about getting harassed and threatened on social media. I thought about a week of cringing whenever I check my email. Then I thought about the people who might attend Systems We Love: young folks, new developers, a trans woman at her first computing event since coming out – people who are looking for a friendly and supportive place to talk about systems at the beginning of their careers. I thought about them being deeply hurt and possibly discouraged for life from a field that gave me so much joy.

Come at me, Bryan.

Note: comments are now closed on this post. You can read and possibly comment on the follow-up post, When is naming abuse itself abusive?

60 thoughts on “Why I won’t be attending Systems We Love

  1. Thank you for this. I, too, have been unlearning years of practice in being a jerk and it’s still so hard sometimes. The one thing I cling to is that I actually want to do better, which means that I already am a bit better. And each month I’m a bit better still (I won’t say each day because, woo, there are DAYS, you know? But they’re fewer and further between all the time). Thank you for sharing this & helping others know that there’s another way to be and that if they feel belittled, it’s not necessarily because they’re little.

  2. Thank you for this. As a not-out trans woman developer who’s debating how to manage her life and career in her mid-40’s, and wondering indeed whether to go back to the “culture of combat, humiliation, and domination” (killer words, in ways that stretch beyond the figurative), this struck a chord. Everyone knows a Bryan, and many of us have been one. It’s heartening to know that there are people like you out there, that there are people trying to change themselves, and it makes me feel markedly less hopeless.

    Thank you (I couldn’t say that enough if I tried)

    1. Thank you for letting me know how this made you feel. I don’t know what the right answer is for you, but I’m glad I could make you feel less hopeless.

  3. Toughen up. You’re an engineer. You should know how to stay professional and take criticism, even if it doesn’t come gift-wrapped or sugar-coated.

      1. I am staying anonymous because I fear harassment and repercussions. We shouldn’t care about ones color, sex, orientation and beliefs. The only thing that should matter is our skill in what we do and our will and motivation to get better at that. You are no better than Bryan, when you shame someone just because you don’t agree with his views. I will only judge both of you on your merit and nothing else.

        1. Agreed. Sensitive people shouldn’t get into stressful business where you have to take tough decisions that affect a lot of people. And whether the person is trans-gender… who cares ?
          To me it soulnds like the classic propaganda that is trying to make evryone think in terms of gender rather than in terms of skill.
          I initially thought it was fair to expose bullying, then I watched several of Bryan’s presentations, and I understood it was just whining around “Bryan shouldn’t be in the spotlight because he has a politically incorrect sense of humour”.

          I can just say “thank you Valerie for letting me know Bryan Cantrill, he’s sure great, entertaining, and makes exellent points while being quite blunt rather than wrapping his opinions in layers of hypocrisis”

    1. You missed the point. She doesn’t cry for herself: she thinks of young people potentially going away from engineering because of Brian’s cruel behavior.

      1. Huh? What influence does Bryan Cantrill have? None. Valerie’s post is classic cyber-bullying. In any contemporary middle school this post would earn her a suspension.

  4. Interesting perspective. I have a fraction of a percent of Bryan’s talant but have gone on similar tirades at work and at large and admired his speeches. I don’t think I’ve targeted individuals but I am picking up what you are saying about even simply acting elitist about community or implementation being an off putting problem. I’ll have to ponder if this is unbearable and what it means about me.

    When I read this post it registered as what I find so off putting about management in tech, especially executive level. I’m not sure if I have just worked for awful companies but the executives and high middle management I’ve known sound like the leaked Trump bus tape when I’ve been taken out to dinner and even just dropping by an office. I find them repulsive and I want to leave technical computing and just do it as a hobby to get away from that good old boy type of evil, especially since I am enabling and enriching them by simply doing my job even if I avoid them. Do you have any thoughts on this kind of thing, is my experience typical and how it can be addressed? If someone makes the gauntlet of brutal CS education and brilliant narcissistic open source architects I think this is still a death blow and probably the hardest to change.

    1. Your experience is not unusual. My usual recommendation if you don’t want to work for that kind of executive is to start your own company. :(

      I wrote about preventing a different but related problem with Leigh Honeywell and Mary Gardiner in this post: https://hypatia.ca/2016/06/21/no-more-rock-stars/

      Bryan isn’t a “rock star” in the sense of this post for many reasons (for one, he is extremely competent and doesn’t need to steal credit for other’s work), but the cultural norms I recommend in that post would go some way towards preventing the brand of obnoxiousness you describe.

      1. Wow I can see that my current job has pushed me into some rock star tendencies and why I have been extremely unhappy. This is just what I needed, thanks.

  5. I’m posting anonymously because I’m not a highly respected engineer who can hide behind their name without fearing repercussions at job interviews. Please excuse me for that. I’m male and white and have been in the industry for a over a decade, that much I can reveal. If for some reason you want to identify me in this forum, discussing “divine engineers”, hesiod is a fitting pseudonym you could use.

    Thank you, Valerie, for confirming a personal impression of Bryan I’ve had for years, watching his interviews and talks or reading comments on hackernews. Just recently, I’ve listened to another interview with him on BSDNow.tv, and he seemed to have improved a little in that he seemed to be slightly humble when he didn’t know something.

    I haven’t met Bryan in person, but I’ve always cringed at the way he was heralded but bad-mouthed any and all technology he doesn’t personally like. He has a habit of disregarding anything not Unix and using any opportunity, as you said, of criticizing some other code’s failure or limitation as stupidity of the relevant authors. What I’ve noticed is that when a deficiency in illumos is mentioned, he gets humble and invites contributors. It’s interesting to watch how he unmounts the throne of ultimate wisdom in such situations.

    Bryan, ultimately is lazy in ignoring other technological designs, and hides behind insulting such projects. Just because Unix’s design won doesn’t make it the right one. There are many designs that are far superior and only getting more important with the changing landscape. I’m looking forward to the day Bryan praises a non-Unix design, which I think is possible, and his unquestioning followers will jump on the bandwagon like they never badmouthed it before. This, if it happens, would be consistent with typical behavior of many who expose similar behavioral patterns.

    As an engineer, what I’ve learned is that whenever you might think someone was lazy or stupid to not consider a better design or implementation detail, it more often than not boils down to external forces that led to the existing body of code and not the engineer’s personal skills or motivation.

    Finally, let me say that I know people in real life, not engineers, who act like Bryan does in tech circles and cannot accept when you know something in more detail. What I’ve noticed is such people have a personality trait to enjoy telling stories, and them being personal social connections, I’ve learned to let them do it, because they don’t employ personal insults in my face, sometimes knowing very well they’re telling half of the truth. Maybe I should correct them, but I think they enjoy it and it’s their way of probably unwinding from their stressful life at home, so I let it slip. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m sure there’s a term for this character profile, and it’s a spectrum because not all of them bully you. That said, Bryan does much more than that, because he publicly humiliates specific projects and persons.

    I think Bryan is hiding his ignorance of other technological designs by ridiculing them, showing uncertainty, and this isn’t different from a zealot voicing prejudiced opinions about someone else’s world views or belief system or lifestyle.

    If I had to describe Bryan: the achieving quarterback who’s a major bully, supported by his peers in the team and fans in school.

    The problem I see is that those who look through the behavior, like that which Bryan shows, are seldom bloggers or vocal types. They’re very often luminaries of the field, but those are wise enough to not call names. They have similar reasons like me staying anonymous, namely not wanting to associate one’s professional persona with any type of non-technical “drama”.

    There are more Bryans out there and they’re doing the field a disservice if they’re of the vocal blogging, speaking type, as those with balanced and well-informed views are almost always those who never participate in non-technical discourses, let alone resort to ad hominem arguments to criticize someone else’s idea.

    1. “If I had to describe Bryan: the achieving quarterback who’s a major bully, supported by his peers in the team and fans in school.”


    2. I don’t want to detract from the article, but you are going off in the weeds a bit. He has praised IBM’s OS/400, QNX, TUNIS, BSD and is familiar with overall systems software design and history far beyond anyone I can think of. A central conjecture of this article is that he is incredibly talented and uncannily objectively right. What matters is how that is used, do you build others up, or tear others down, to gain respect/fame/success/market share for your chosen tech.

      1. I don’t think you are in disagreement with each other. Bryan uses both praise and humiliation. Note also that he worked on QNX while a student.

      2. Thanks for mentioning systems he praised, although those weren’t the drastically different designs from Unix I had in mind, but your point still holds. If I rewrote the above, I’d either be more specific or use expressions like “he dismisses certain classes of designs as being xxxxxx”. Either way, I don’t know him personally, and will trust you when you say he’s aware of a broader set of designs than he lets on generally.

        My impression of him bashing anything non-Unix in, what seems like, tirades on pieces of technology (e.g. recently Linux, Unikernels or btrfs) is done in a way that actually weakens the point he’s trying to make. Anytime he argues about a deficiency in something by resorting to ridicule and characterizing said product’s authors as inferior to him, or with what can be perceived as insults, he’s basically doing himself a disservice. I know there are many who enjoy listening to that style of speaking, but I’d very much not want to see for technological debates or talks to be primarily delivered in the style of political speeches, where one politician lists a number of deficiencies in the opponent’s proposals. In fact, there should be no opponents in open source at all. Collaboration and healthy competition is what I expect and aim for.

        What I always remind myself when communicating in open source tech circles is that the audience and collaborators are from all kinds of cultures around the world. That means, even things that are not meant to be offensive but just well-meaning jokes can be very offensive to someone. I’ve experienced this in a project where a debate about project names revealed that one name suggested would be deeply offensive in a religious sense to some people. This doesn’t mean you have to write in a robotic style, devoid of any emotion, but just think twice when you write something non-factual, and think at least four times before you name call someone. There are many ways to criticize a piece of broken code that actually encourage its author/maintainer rather than affect them emotionally. In fact, most maintainers take pride in their code, and any and all bugs cause feelings of embarrassment, so one doesn’t have to kick the author when they have been shown to have introduced a bad bug.

        I’ve also learned long ago to separate the works of an author from their personality. It’s right to use the innovations and results someone produces, if they’re useful, even if said person is otherwise a divisive or unhealthy debate partner. Just imagine if we dismissed art or science results only because we don’t appreciate an author’s characters or what political movements they are associated with. We’d probably have to reinvent 30% of physics and maths.

        Finally, just to be clear, I’m assuming he’s not a bad person and would like to say we should encourage Bryan to improve his communication skills. But I haven’t met him in real life, so I cannot say if that’s a realistic approach.

  6. Thanks for speaking out, Val. I’ve refused to be on a program committee because another member had grossly mistreated me elsewhere, but I didn’t post publicly about it.

    I love teaching computer science at Mills College, where I’ve learned that it is possible to be both rigorous and nurturing. In fact, I believe the best way to help people improve their skills is by creating an environment in which it is safe to admit ignorance and where people treat each other with respect. While I have been successful at places that take a different approach — MIT, Microsoft, and Google — I would take no pleasure in tearing down someone less experienced than me who is trying to improve themselves.

  7. Having known Bryan from the days of being a junior engineer…he has always been a narcissistic f_ck that proudly leaves a wake of destruction rising up on the carcasses of his perceived foes (real and imagined). His brilliance comes at too high of a cost.

    1. Hey, I’m personally okay with theorizing about which personality disorders people have only when they are abusive and it helps those vulnerable to them protect themselves, but in this case I don’t think Bryan is a narcissist. Narcissists tend to get others to do their work for them and are rarely very accomplished at anything, which is not something you can say about Bryan.

  8. Thank you for writing this.

    I’m no brilliant technologist. But I’m a person working in a mix of tech, comms/marketing. I’m fairly cis, straight, male and white, and around thirty.

    And I do find Cantrill very entertaining. Thinking in pathos about the aesthetics of technology helps me wrap my head around this stuff. To me, ranting is inspiring to listen to and I tend to express myself in a similar fashion in personal spaces.

    Cantrill, based on your essay, doesn’t seem like the Appelbaum type of incurable sociopath and predator, of course. Nonetheless the oratory fireworks of his public works doesn’t seem as innocent when combined with your tales of humiliating behavior, and reflexes to take up space to explain… err… how to best integrate women in the workforce.

    That’s plain obnoxious and poor professional communication and management skills. Meh.

    But I really, really enjoy my own variation of Cantrill-like writing to unwind and for making personal notes of things. Heck, I subscribe to George Carlin’s description of dirty words as having a texture and beauty in their own right.

    At the same time, I also value shutting up and listening to other people’s experiences. I try make sure to encourage the creation of spaces where everyone can feel welcome. I’m a conversationalist socially, and professionally. I try to actively include people in conversation because I need information on a lot of subjects to do my job and to self educate because I’m a lousy academic.

    The inherent value of diversity is a no-brainer to me, too, starting with commercial self interest in product design and marketing and the ability to reach people with different backgrounds. I self describe as a feminist.

    But it’s just within just two years and the rise of aggressive “Tumblr intersectionalism” that I’ve learned to really think long and hard about not attacking people, their bodies, pathologies, ethnicity etc. That’s slow, considering that I live with cognitive disabilities myself, and that the oppressiveness of using ableist language for shits and giggles is self-evident in hindsight.

    Here’s where I think your writing strikes pretty close to home for me. Just letting go of, well, personally offensive language isn’t enough. If I’m reading this correctly, merely indulging in entertaining nerd rage may create an atmosphere where people who face discrimination and aggression otherwise do not feel particularly chill just because everyone uses the right words to attack ideas instead of individuals.

    I know I’m passive aggressive as hell in the way I like to write to unburden myself. While tech is interesting, computers suck.

    But describing things that create unnecessary manual labor, software insecurity, Android ecosystem fragmentation, PC crapware, ‘systemd’ etc by mixing cusswords and references to septic tanks, perhaps doesn’t invite to actual debate. Even if combined with a bit of disarming (and honest) self deprecation. Go figure.

    This type of thing just is very hard to let go of because computers are goddamned infuriating.

    Boy do we have a lot of work to do to make IT suck less.

  9. All that you say is true, and if anything, toned down from reality. Bryan is a truly horrible human being.

  10. I guess one doesn’t fully appreciate feedback in what ever way it comes until you’ve been in the situation where you needed feedback and had none of it.

    Anyways, I find myself struggling with this piece. On the one hand I appreciate the appeal to kindness, on the other the delivery and the targeting of a gathering that is obviously more then any single person.

    1. I’m interested to hear how you or anyone else thinks I could have given attendees the info they needed to protect themselves. Unfortunately, abusive people often draw others into their projects, intentionally or unintentionally making others reluctant to speak out. And, as I said in the piece, the people I could warn through the feminist grapevine were the ones who least needed warning.

      1. I’m afraid I can offer little more then to convey my feeling… I know it’s not easy to write these pieces and I’m not going to pretend to be able to do better, there’s a lot that needs to come together and be balanced.

          1. That’s not entirely fair, I did not ask you to tone it down or constrain yourself in anyway.

            If I interpret the piece correctly, and feel free to correct me on this(or any other thing), the gist is that a culture of combat, humiliation, and domination turns away groups of people that could otherwise provide valuable contributions. However it seems to pivot more on the person(bryan) than the underlying problem and distracts from it. I mean you already mention it’s more widespread behavior then just Bryan.

            Moreover, what is the combatant paragraph at the end – if not an insult that is “subtle, insinuating” It’s seems the same sprinkle that flavors, promotes this piece it’s the same type of sprinkle Bryan is putting on his critiques to make it stand out from others. It seems to me more about breaking someone down(bryan), to bolster your point, then to build people up (by giving people the tools to deal with situations like this).

            The only suggestion given to deal with the eventual exclusion(being pushed away by crudeness) is basically to preemptively exclude yourself by staying away. And I just don’t think that does right by the others who would strive for a better culture and environment who also attend or probably worse the people you don’t reach end up going and only find themselves to be even more alone and marginalized. Also not sure how it would help inclusiveness.

            Now before you ask the only tools I know myself, which are easy to suggest when you have both male and white privilege(https://youtu.be/4KhXwl0L61g), are to not derive your identity from what any one person or group says and to point the bad practices out and say it out loud when they happen. Even if it ends up being a footnote in the onslaught, there will be people who take note.

            You raise an important issue but in your delivery I see parallels with the exact same things that you hold against Bryan, and that conflicts me. It’s not that you, we, shouldn’t call Bryan out on his practices.

            I don’t know, I certainly though twice before posting here.

  11. This post is incredibly petty and is beneath your dignity. This has nothing to do with inclusiveness, you just want to kick someone in the b*lls.

    1. Yeah, I combine the rare qualities of pettiness and the patience to wait fourteen years before character assassinating someone. Next time I’ll wait twenty-five years! I just hope they don’t accidentally die before I get around to them.

  12. What did Bryan say when you talked to him about it? Or is this the first time, and it’s a public blog post?

    1. Did you read this part?

      I tried one more time about a month ago: I sent Bryan a private message on Twitter telling him honestly and truthfully what my experience of working with him was like, and asking if he’d had a change of heart since then. His reply: “I don’t know what you’re referring to, and I don’t feel my position on this has meaningfully changed — though I am certainly older and wiser.” Then he told me to google something he’d written about women in computing.

      You are welcome to bell the cat next time.

  13. You are a bully Valerie. That is all this is…you are bullying someone. If you want to believe you are categorically incapable of being a bully, feel free to believe that. In middle school this would be called cyber bullying. Ask your local middle-school principal, man or woman, what they would do to a student, male or female, who posted something like this about another student, male or female. You have stooped below the acceptable standards even applied to middle school students. You should take some time for introspection.

    1. Funny you should mention middle school! That reminds me of the time another girl told me she was going to beat me up in middle school. I told my teachers, we went to mediation with the principal and our mothers (where I told her she was pretty). The next week she punched me in the face in front of a dozen people and I held her wrists and cried until the bell rang. We were both suspended for a day because, really, who could tell who started the fight?

      Middle school – definitely the environment I’d like to recreate in my adult life.

      1. Your responses in this comments section are utterly bizarre, even more so than your juvenile and vindictive post..are you experiencing some kind of life event?

        1. Calling something “utterly bizarre” does not make it so. “Juvenile” is a cheap shot at odds with the author’s long experience and the seriousness of the subject matter. “Vindictive” conveniently ignores the author’s stated intentions in favor of the proposition, however degrading and outlandish, that she has risked her own good name for nothing more than a petty personal vendetta. That one should dismiss the text as the unfortunate outcome of a “life event” is a suggestion so disingenuous as to appear desperate—as in desperately trying to distract from the actual subject matter.

          According to Aurora, Cantrill resorts to ad hominem attacks in professional settings to the detriment of collegiality and professional development. Indeed, ad hominem attacks add no value to scientific discourse. Your comments, for example, neither defend Cantrill nor contradict Aurora’s experience: they amount to an ad hominem attack—thematically poignant, logically ineffective.

      2. I agree. There is a big difference between initiating bullying and reporting bullying, just as there is a difference between ad hominem attacks (by Cantrill and Anonymous) and criticizing someone’s actions.

      3. Don’t get too engaged in this fight.
        You delivered your message.
        You did what you thought was right.
        Other people will do the same. Let them express their opinions.
        You won’t win anything by counter-argue everything.

  14. Having been a Joyent “customer” and working to porting an application to run on SmartOS was like being a personal punching bag for Bryan. After an initial port we had very poor performance, and Bryan immediately blamed the problem on us, not on his precious operating system fork. Every single interaction from that point forward with his engineering team was full of confrontation, regardless of how intelligent the people were on the conference calls and email threads. And yes, we went through every single suggestion they had to try and fix the performance, but nothing worked. And it was still our fault, not a limitation of SmartOS.

    I expressed my concern about his flippant arrogance and lack of support to one of his lieutenant leaders. The response? “I’m going to pretend we never had this conversation” and he walked off. What kind of way is that to treat someone you’re trying to work together with?

    Poison at the top trickles down, apparently.

  15. I’ve been dwelling on this all last night and all of today (the highest compliment I can give to Val).. made a couple comments already and want to leave one more before ceding the floor and focusing on addressing my own internal takeaways.

    I’d like to introduce the term “hazing”. We (“royal we”) have often used hazing to select for tenacity that is helpful to work on systems software. This is a blunt, cruel, and unacceptable method. I’m not sure how to select and promote hard work and pride in quality that we should strive for, but maybe it looks more like what Mike Rowe does to shine the light on people and less like a tech titan that dominates every scenario.

    Val mentions coming up through this culture and having to unlearn it. I think the same thing can happen to Bryan. You can read a book like Showstopper featuring Dave Cutler and see this is learned and propagated behavior that has been around a long time. This is good and bad news. It means it’s as much a cultural problem as it is a person being bad or having some syndrome or immutable trait.

    With that it mind, it will be very interesting to see how Bryan reacts (a word with much more meaning than responds in this context).

  16. Worth pointing out that Cantrill did take a strong, if overly aggressive stance 3 years ago for diversity when he called out a core Node contributor for rudely rejecting a pull request for non-gendered pronouns. As I recall, it was not an uncontroversial blog post:


    > To reject a pull request that eliminates a gendered pronoun on the principle that pronouns should in fact be gendered would constitute a fireable offense for me and for Joyent. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous (absurd, perhaps) to fire someone over a pronoun — but to characterize it that way would be a gross oversimplification: it’s not the use of the gendered pronoun that’s at issue (that’s just sloppy), but rather the insistence that pronouns should in fact be gendered. To me, that insistence can only come from one place: that gender—specifically, masculinity—is inextricably linked to software, and that’s not an attitude that Joyent tolerates.

    This was probably the post referred to by “Then he told me to google something he’d written about women in computing.”. It definitely reinforces some of the accusation that he is unnecessarily abrasive in how he expresses himself. On the other hand, I think most advocates for diversity had also reacted strongly to the situation, and had stronger words for the Node contributor than Cantrill’s calling him an “asshole”.

    1. Yes, I remember gritting my teeth and reading through that post. Reread it with my layer cake formula in mind and see what you think now. I’d be interested to see how many women who worked with Bryan in the past would recommend other women work with him now.

  17. IMHO it’s not so rare that kind of behaviour/personality are somewhat overlooked in exchange for her/his excellent skill. It seems not a phenomenon unique to software engineering field. Still, for me this post helps me stop and think what we must not lose. Thank you!

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  19. Taking what I read in both the “Systems We Love” and “The Power of a Pronoun” in a vacuum, Cantrill comes off to me as someone proud of his expertise, as well as firm in his convictions regarding the importance of quality systems development (and enjoyment thereof), and of gender-blind inclusiveness and meritocracy. One might quibble with either of these things; I know there are different schools of thought in feminism, for instance, about how to achieve egalitarian goals.

    Taking into account what you (Valerie Aurora) have said in the original post and some comments, I try to reinterpret Cantrill’s writings in a different light. The result is that, to me, it looks like some very negative interpretations can be read into what he said, but they do not strike me as necessarily correct interpretations.

    My overall impression, given the evidence at hand, is that Cantrill may have evinced some arrogant, condescending, or supercilious attitude as a matter of habit, and it may not be obvious to those whose only examples are the two Joyent blog posts I mentioned. I think that, perhaps, these are not the best representations of the attitude you wish to illuminate for others. In asking my wife’s opinion of his writing (she is a DBA and database programmer with hobby interests in other areas leading to use of various BSD Unix systems and various programming languages — and, as indicated by pronoun choice, female), first carefully avoiding any prejudicial characterizations then asking her to consider them again specifically looking for insult landmines buried in eloquent phrasing, she responded with even less ability to recognize unpleasant intent in his writing.

    Before this, my only familiarity with Cantrill was by (technical expertise) reputation, but the obvious existence of a reputation for the kind of attitude and behavior you describe has become known to me. I want to better understand it, and hope you can provide some other examples — preferably textual, though video may have to do in a pinch — that could help illuminate the problem for me.

    Thanks for your time, both in considering my request and for raising this issue in the first place. Regardless of gender and genetics, we all deserve a welcoming introduction to the technical fields we find interesting; improving our ability to recognize contrary impulses and influences, and to correct them in our culture, is an important undertaking, and I appreciate your efforts toward that end.

    1. I agree with you, often Bryan’s insults are masked or ambiguous enough that they aren’t obvious to a superficial reading. I personally don’t feel the need to assemble a stronger case against Bryan; you are welcome to do so if you like!

  20. Hi Valerie,

    I have been following your blog for many years, and always admired you for what you are trying to achieve and for what you are fighting against. I often am left with an uneasy feeling though, and for the first time I thought I’d take a shot at expressing that. Basically, there are two things that make me uneasy: the force with which you go after named individuals and how easily you dismiss any sort of disagreement or criticism form your followers (making this comment potentially futile and/or unwelcome, but I’ll give it a go nonetheless).

    The question I’m often left with is: What if you are wrong? Not about the overarching aim you have or the structural problems you describe, those things I am completely convinced by. However, I always wonder, what if you are wrong about some specific instance, some person you go after for what turns out to be erroneous reasons? Or someone you go after who may not be able to handle such public personal shaming (despite perhaps outwards show of strength). Is the argument that the end justifies the means, and that “these people” deserve what they get? Or that it is justifiable to sacrifice the powerful few to protect the powerless many?

    I suppose in my self-centered way, what I wonder more than anything is what if you are wrong about ME. I have never had a chance to cross paths with you, but I must admit that as much as I admire you, I would be (oddly) scared to actually interact with you. What if you misconstrued something I do or say and label me as one of the “bad guys” leading to some potential future blog post warning the world about me? I have been called names and attacked for my (lack of) skills by the usual suspects, that’s not always fun, but it is only about “work” after all, that’s not something keeping me up at night. What you go after is people’s character, and that is much more terrifying. After reading one of your take-downs, we are left thinking that the subject is a bad human being.

    At the end of the day, is this the kind of community we want to have? Where people are publicly shamed and punished (no matter how much they deserve it)? Is there not some kinder, gentler, more forgiving way to build a better community? And how do you react to (someone like me) who agree with your aims but don’t feel they justify your means?

  21. (Posting for someone who got caught in the spam filter and wishes to remain anonymous)

    Sun was such a toxic environment for so many people and it is very brave of you to share your experience. After six years in this oppressive environment, my confidence was all but destroyed. Fortunately, I found that the behaviors tolerated in Solaris are not tolerated elsewhere and that there are so many amazing engineers and companies which celebrate diversity and inclusion. To mention a few, both Nimble and Pure Storage have public policies around such behavior (“No jerks allowed” and “Leave your ego at the door.”). It is also important to recognize that toxic environments like this don’t come to exist out of a vacuum, there were a lot of factors which allowed this to exist including management selectively looking the other way and failure of people to speak up for fear of being publicly shamed. Thanks for being part of the solution and speaking for some many of us which have remained silent.

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