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?“