Episode 43 | The Midwit Trap, & Why Tech Companies Are Falling For It

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April 18, 2023

Episode 43 | The Midwit Trap, & Why Tech Companies Are Falling For It

Eiso and Jason discuss how engineering leaders can fall into the trap of midwit thinking (the infamous bell curve meme) where they have a surface level understanding of complex topics and use buzzwords to sound knowledgeable.

Here are a few of our favorite moments from the conversation

I think this kind of creeps in for engineering leaders which is, they think that they're doing the right thing for the right reasons, but it's not actually something that is the predominant reason why something could be successful. And it becomes somebody's whole personality or it's a necessity, it's a must, it's an absolute. When, in reality, it's a nice to have, but, ultimately, not the predominant thing.

We need deep specialists and I don't think you become a deep special in something if you don't align your identity with it. I think aligning your identity is what makes you become a specialist. But you need to have the right context.

And when you're losing sight of a set of things and you're going to “your burned down charts don't look correct, that's why you're not shipping more.” I’m like, hang on a second, you've just reduced my entire, ‘not shipping fast enough’ to my burn down charts. I'm gonna have to question whether or not that's true because your entire personality is Scrum.

We make the tools, but we forget what the tools were meant to be for in the first place. I think that a lot of this comes down to whatever the tool we've chosen to make part of our identity, but we can't forget what the intention was in the first place. And it was never to make it your entire life.

💡 Topic Explainers

🧠 The Midwit Meme

The "midwit meme" is a satirical term that gained popularity on social media in recent years. It is typically used to mock people who are perceived as having a moderate level of intelligence or knowledge but who are overly confident in their opinions or beliefs, often to the point of being smug or condescending.

The term "midwit" is a play on words, combining "mid" (meaning average or moderate) with "wit" (meaning intelligence or cleverness). The meme often takes the form of a hypothetical conversation in which a midwit confidently asserts their opinion on a complex or nuanced topic, only to be humbled by someone with a greater level of knowledge or expertise.

While the midwit meme can be seen as a harmless bit of online humor, some critics argue that it reinforces elitism and undermines the importance of critical thinking and open-mindedness. Others argue that it is a necessary corrective to the proliferation of misinformation and pseudo-intellectualism on social media.

🏎 TDD: Test Driven Development

Test Driven Development (TDD) is a software development approach in which developers write automated tests before writing the actual code.

TDD helps catch bugs earlier in the development process, promotes better code quality, and provides a safety net for future changes to the code.

However, TDD is controversial due to the overhead of writing tests, a false sense of security, design bias, and dependency on testing tools.

🚢 Docker Captains

Docker Captains are a group of customers who are recognized by Docker, Inc. for their contributions to the Docker community. They’re chosen based on their expertise in using Docker and their willingness to share their knowledge with others.

Even though Eiso loves Docker, he calls out the company for this concept, as it incentivizes leaders and orgs to become obsessed with the tool (a predominant topic throughout this episode) and how that’s often not what’s best for the organization.

📕 Atomic Habits

Identity-based habits are a concept from James Clear's book "Atomic Habits."

The idea is to build habits by believing that you already have the identity of the person who performs the desired behavior. This way, you're not just changing your actions, but also your sense of self.

For example, if you want to become a runner, you wouldn't just focus on running a certain number of miles each week. You would also focus on becoming the type of person who identifies as a runner and loves running.

Identity-based habits can help create long-term behavior change by shifting your focus from just achieving a goal to developing a deeper sense of self-identity.

This is one of the arguments for adopting certain tools, especially in your personal life, but Jason and Eiso warn about doing this when it comes to you professional life.

🐦 Shane Parish Tweet

Here is the tweet Eiso mentions in the episode - from The Knowledge Project’s Shane Parrish:

Go deeper on The Knowledge Project’s blog →

💰Don’t Good Money After Bad

The phrase "Don't throw good money after bad" is a warning against continuing to invest or spend money on a project or investment that has already proven to be unsuccessful or unprofitable. In other words, it means that it is unwise to keep investing in something that is not producing good results, in the hope that it will eventually turn around.

Instead, it may be better to cut your losses and move on to more promising opportunities. The phrase is often used in business and finance but can also apply to personal finances and decision-making.

Jason uses this concept to advise listeners to focus on their remaining years rather than the years they have already lived.

He compares your remaining years to "good money" that you should invest wisely. The less time you have, the more valuable your remaining years become, so it's important not to waste them on unproductive pursuits, as you would be throwing "good money after bad." In other words, the less time you have, the more expensive your remaining years become, and therefore more valuable, so it's essential to make the most of them.

Developing Leadership is powered by Athenian. We are introducing a winning approach to engineering metrics that can help you empower your teams to autonomously improve. If you want to learn more, go to athenian.com

Episode Transcript

Eiso: Hi everyone. Welcome back to yet another episode of Developing Leadership. Uh, today Jason and I are kicking off with a word that I think for, for non-native speakers who might have to define, uh, maybe that makes me one the. What is the 

Jason: Jason ? Oh, I, I can't keep up with all of the different, uh, terms out there.

I just know that it's become a meme where we'll have the, uh, the, the meme where at both ends of us bell curve spectrum, you have some, some simplified concept of just do something and in the middle, um, there's somebody who is overly complicating the entire. And making it hard, harder than it needs to actually be.

And the joke being that, uh, the majority of people are gonna be find themselves in a position where they're trying to overcomplicate something. And really at the end of the day, it's just, it should be a simple concept, but it looks either as like, the best of the best have that same opinion to the worst of the worst.

And you gotta understand what your, which satisfaction you're actually on. 

Eiso: Yeah. I, uh, to be honest, uh, the, the bell curve distribution memes are my favorite. Like every single one of them because they hit home so often. Uh, but I think that is a little bit a part of a definition in the, because the width, you know, always believes they're on the tail end of that distribution, uh, and, uh, instead of being in the middle or at the bottom end.

So you have us today, uh, potential widths, but unaware, uh, because on it. Uh, talking about the width. Uh, why is this something that we're bringing up on a podcast? Uh, for engineering leaders, ? 

Jason: Well, I think so. I think this is one of those things that kind of creeps in for engineering leaders and, and, and engineering managers and people in general, which is, uh, they think that they're doing the right thing, is something, anything for the right reasons, but at the end of the day, it's not actually something that is the predominant reason why something could be successful.

And maybe that's the root of it for me with engineering leaders. It becomes somebody's whole personality or it becomes this really complex topic, or it's unnecessary. It's a must. It's an absolute, and in reality it's, it's something that's either a nice to have or it's a good thing, but it's ultimately, again, not the predominant thing.

And I, I think a really good example that I can just bring up right off the bat is the idea, and this became a thing, you know, many years ago, so maybe the younger listeners don't know this, but like, let's just take t d D test driven. For a period of time it was, you aren't doing software development properly unless you're doing test driven development.

And then there's a whole bunch of other ones that entered B, D, D and you know, libraries and entire frameworks and um, even some startups that started around this. But it really became a consulting boom more than anything it really felt like. And so, you know, every once in a while it still pops up like, no, no, no, you're not doing tdd.

Like this is how we do it over here, blah, blah, blah. That sort of stuff. And I was like, well, you know, go into this way, but it's almost like you wanna go to Enon, but what'd you ship this week? You know? Yeah. What'd you get done? Um, and, uh, for whatever reason, the TV one is one that triggers me the most.

Like I just, whatever I hear that one. I'm just like, p All right, let's dive in and see how many prs went through today. Let's see how many, how many actual things hit customer's hands this week? Let's go, let's go nuts on this one. Let's have that conversation. Um, but I'm sure that we can find a lot. 

Eiso: Oh, there are a lot more.

And, but there was something in this that you said, uh, that I think is a hard topic to explore because which is, it becomes someone's entire personality, uh, in almost all cases, not bad intentioned. Uh, and, uh, yeah, before I share some of my thoughts there, I'd love for you to, to kick us off here, Jason. I'm, I'm taking the easy ride out

Jason: Well, so I mean, so this is something I'll. , uh, on a broad range of topics, which tends to be like, I, I I really want people to guard against almost anything becoming their whole personality. But it's common for people to find something in work life that can become their home person, a whole personality.

And obviously in their personal life, there's a bunch of different things that could become their whole personality. It could be a hobby, it could be some sort of philanthropic. You get the idea, something can enter it, and if you, it's pretty obvious when. Answering questions, how they define themselves and all that.

Interestingly, in business, this happens all the time and we, we never give the second thought, never once, give it a second thought. Um, example being like, you know, I'm, oh, I'm an agile dev, or I'm a type script dev. Or, you know, defining yourself by the definition by, by, by the categorization of something else.

And, um, it, it is an, more than anything, it's an immediate. Blocking of other information coming into the system or a defense mechanism if something challenges that sort of definement and, um, you know, again, I'm, I don't know, I don't think I'm immune to these things, but it's something I watch against myself all quite a bit.

And whenever I was part of our organizations, I really try to watch against that type of stuff. 

Eiso: I'd, I'd, I'd almost say that what is has always existed and probably always will exist the. The scope and narrowness of the definitions continues to increase as time goes by, and it's partially a function of the complexity of, of the, you know, the body of knowledge that we have in in, in engineering.

but it almost feels like, you know, TDD can even be taken as that example where like there was the person who cared about tests and they were their whole life. And then it became, and then it becomes, okay, it has to be fully test driven development. And then, and you can keep going further down that and, and then at some point you are the, I don't know, the end to end test person or like, you know what I mean?

And then you start making your identity. Playwright versus Selenium. And then before you know it, like you're down the rabbit hole and your identity is linked to something that is so, they're so small. But when the, but when you don't change with it, you also get left behind. Cause technology keeps changing.

Practices keep changing. And like you said, TV isn't as present anymore today as it was. Yeah. 20 years 

Jason: ago. Exactly. 10 years ago. Yeah. And, and it evolves and it can. . But at the end of the day, it also is like incredibly niche and it's limiting, um, in all likelihood. And that, and, and you, or you could find yourself in a very large one of these things, that's your personality too.

Um, but at the same time, it's, it's still the same maybe psychological beha, uh, mechanisms that are at play, which is, I'm defining myself by this other thing as opposed to defining myself by this, by 

Eiso: by, by the outcome myself and my own 

Jason: beliefs and views and stuff like. Um, but even more it's, again, it's like a limiting worldview.

So like that the whole TD to end, to end a playwright versus whatever. Imagine for a second that the expansiveness of Twitter is out there, however many hundreds of millions of people use it, or, you know, tens of millions use it on a daily basis and you find yourself talking to the same three people about the exact same topic on a regular basis, or the Discord channel or whatever.

how limiting is that actually to, to the entirety of the world now, obviously, like we're all talking to a subset of all people at all time. Mm-hmm. , but I, you try to, you know, I guess it depends what you're after. If you're after like a very specific thing, maybe being the TDD person or the, the selenium person or the playwright person is a great, great thing for you.

Um, but when it becomes the entire, like every answer or becomes. Every topic or you know, like when there's a, maybe this is even a better way to say it, when there's a major disconnect between conversations. So imagine, you know, you're talking to a senior engineer and you have three people in the room and one of 'em is bringing up like, well, you know, then we have to change the playwright test this way.

And like everyone's like, does they give a shoot? Yeah. Because literally it is like the least possibly important pop thing in the entirety of the conversation. That's your only ability to contribute. 

Eiso: and, um, you know, I think it's within the context, other domains. It's, it's within the, like it has its role.

It, it reminds me of the, you know, I spent a fair amount of time in, uh, fair amount of times. I wouldn't say necessarily total time, but in, in, in Tokyo and in Tokyo, you'll, you'll go and find the one person who spent, you know, his entire life perfecting the carbon. And you'll find the best Italian carbon hour you've ever had in your life in, in, in, in Tokyo or on specific topic.

And I think just like the playwright, uh, there's a very specific setting in which it is great that that person exists, as long as the self-awareness is there, that that's the scope of your boundaries. Right? Because we, we need deep specialists and, and I don't think you become a deep, special. In something if you don't align your identity with it.

Right. I think aligning your identities is, becomes, makes you become a deep specialist. And it's the reward, I guess, to it as well. But you 

Jason: need, you need to have the confidence. I think it's, the self-awareness is the important part here, right? So we would never begrudge somebody who wants to go and become the playwright person even.

And I talk about the people who write, play, right, and support it. I mean, but it's, you wanna become the best in the world at this very specific thing. That's great. But when it comes to the answer to 80, Of the problems out there, or it becomes your only ability to contribute to something, um, or your for via lack of awareness or, you know, some other mechanism looks like that.

That's, that's where I think we endanger territory and I think in corporations, because we're talking about to engineering leaders and other leaders inside here, we see this in, in different mechanisms. Right. You know, um, um, there's, there's, there are, um, personalities on Twitter as an. , whose entire thing is about Agile, you know, and scrum versus XP versus whatever, and I, I think I could speak for 99% of all C level executives at this point.

We don't care about that topic at all. For whatever reason. There seems to be this conversation that has to happen there and, and whatnot, but you know, it's this, it's this strange sort. Thing that happens, and again, I, I put these into this midway territory because at the end of the day, it's about making money, shipping product.

Mm-hmm. Customer happiness. And when you're losing sight of a set of things over here and you're going to, your burn down charts don't look correct. Um, that's why you're not shipping more. You're like, oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on a second. You've just reduction my entire, not shipping fast enough to my burn down charts.

Like I'm gonna have to question whether or not that's true because your entire person. Is Scrum like I I I'm suspect of your advice at this point. 

Eiso: Yeah, I I think it's, you know, the, the, I see the swat, right? Like I, I'm, I'm a very big believer of, of of, of bringing, you know, metrics and data to conversations.

Uh, but there's a danger with them where people will start talking about the metric more than anything else. Yeah. Right. And it's a very good example. It's like there, and it's, when we make the tools, we forget what the tools were meant to be for in the. Us. Right. Uh, and I think that's, that's, I think that's a lot of the, the context comes down to like, whatever the tool we've chosen to make part of our identity, uh, we can't forget what the intention of it, what it was there for in the first place.

And it was never to make it your entire life. And, and I have to take a, I'm gonna pick a bone with a lot of companies out there who are building tools and products because your business is entirely incentivized to try to make people be that. . Mm-hmm. , right? This is what we see. Uh, Docker captains. I, I, uh, I, I, I love, I love Docker in the early days, uh, like many people, and, and, and it was an incredible strategy for them to make people to docker captain.

And like, we have it now. Everyone has this certified act. It's a great strategy. It's 

Jason: a great strategy. And what does it become 

Eiso: exactly right. And it's the, the, the intended consequences for the business promoting the technology. Uh, Are not, you know, shouldn't be the consequences that that fall on you. And, and this is why I think, you know, if, if you find yourself, and I have to do it myself as well, right?

I, I, I have some things that are closely linked to my identity, uh, and I think constantly revisiting them and, and trying to take a polymath style approach. , uh, it adds to your life instead of detracts from it unless you really decide to be the person who really wants to go deep because there's depth 


Jason: be gone and no one's gonna begrudge that.

I think it's, and I think the purpose of our conversation here is to cause people to like reevaluate them. Not not to change, but if they, unless they really want to, but don't fall into the trap of this default mindset of something like that. So let's take it outside the realm of, uh, of, um, uh, tech for.

And there's that old joke. Cause like, hey, how if you're at a party, how are you gonna know who the vegan is? Like, don't worry. They'll tell you. Yeah. , um, you know, hey, you're doing a low carb diet. All of a sudden you become, your Instagram handle is keto maniac. You're like, like, these are tools. They're like, if, if you're entering the life, the worldview aspect of these things.

For, for these, you've, you've changed from this being useful to you to it. . And that's a dangerous thing to happen unless you very specifically, very intentionally, very appropriately want to make that your entire thing. Okay. But 

Eiso: it's, it's funny you, it's funny because, you know, you and I were having a chat outside of podcast, uh, such suggest night to talk outside the podcast quite a bit.

And, uh, and we were talking about, you know, atomic Habits and, and James Clear. And I think one of the things that, you know, That James Clear, you know, you know, really mentioned is, you know, identity based habits, right? One of the ways to stick to, to our goals and to be able to actually improve is to, is to align them with our identity.

Uh, but it seems that, you know, we've done the same thing and where that's a very healthy way and it's very useful, right. I'm the person, it's a hack. It's a hack. A hack. Yeah. And, and I think in, in, in those things, it's, it's a healthy hack, 

Jason: right? Like it's a, it is a healthy. I think it also is one of those things where it, the hack become a crutch.

Eiso: Yeah. Too. Yeah. And I think this is what we see in organizations, right? This is I think where like if it's about, hey, I'm the per I'm, you know, I'm the athlete and I, therefore I exercise every day. But, uh, well the thing, what I think James clearer, you know, goes for is you build up a whole set of identity based habits that you want to have and you align them with your identity.

I think what we're talking about, Is that we're fi that we're finding more and more in tech that it's a single identity based, you know, concept I've aligned with and it's a single one. It's not a multiple tech. I'm not, and, and, and, and taking that too far and putting that in every conversation, uh, you know, is where it, where it becomes.

But I, 

Jason: or even just the, it's the more appropriate tool to reach for in a case. You know, it's not, and um, it becomes the answer to everything. It's just a hammer nail scenario. And like we have a lot of old kind of cliched examples of ways in which we can talk about these things, but it's just one of those, those things that happens and, but in intact Chris, some reason we don't reevaluate them, you know, and I, I think that's what is important is, is to understand yourself, like we've talked about on this podcast a ton for.

Um, and for organizations to understand what you're good at, understand what you're bad at, but understand yourself. Ask yourself explicit and implicit questions and understand what you're explicitly and implicitly doing. And be intentional when you, uh, is intentionality is one of the, the best things that you could ever do.

Um, when you fall into things, you know, or slowly develop into them too. You, you evolve, but it evolve over time, slowly into this other thing. Is that where you actually wanted to be? Take a step back. 

Eiso: Yeah. It, it's funny, it reminded me and it's. It's kind of, it's kind of funny how I ended up on this topic because, you know, when we were talking about James Clear, we were also talking about Shane Parrot, uh, who Fidos Don't Know, has an incredible podcast, uh, called The Knowledge Project about mental models and, and some great guests.

And it reminded me of a tweet and I just went and Googled it and it turns out it's already four and a half years ago. So I guess my tweet memory, I don't know what that says about me, uh, but the tweet was, A map is not the territory. You are not your title. An online dating profile is not the person.

Metrics are not the goal. Right. And I think, and I think that's what we're talking a lot about, right? The, when, when the map becomes the territory, uh, that's when you're in danger. 

Jason: So, Let's slip into this round. I I, one of the more, um, I deleted this cause I had auto deleting tweets a long time ago, but I had a, I had a tweet that talked about how I actually kind of like structure some of my thinking about my own life.

And I said I break this into 20 year arc, um, 20 year blocks with five year arcs. And I try to do this planning along this way because I effectively at the maximum have. Five of those 20 year blocks and sub blocks and stuff like that. Now that I got a lot of questions about specifics about what I did there, but no one really asked me why I broke it down that way.

Which is interesting because like I think that goes to the point of, well they want to implement, let me not understanding, but like at the root of it here, here's why I did that. Because essentially I have, I have three main goals in life and those aren't actually the why's either cause. This other one, which is above, but let me just explain what my three main goals in life were.

I'm be married to my wife for the rest of my life. I want my kids to want to come home to see me. And I want to have a very fulfilling, successful, um, monetarily and, uh, career, rewarding career that supports those first two goals. Everything after that is in support of those three, and you get the idea.

But in a fact, what I'm actually trying to do is even one more level abstracted. I want to have this 80, 75, 80, 85 year old moment where I'm. on a rocking chair on my porch somewhere, whatever. And I look back on my life and my regret minimized, as Bezos might say. I've got a bunch of stories and I have people that are in my life still that I can text or call my kids, my wife, obviously, but friends too.

And if you root it this way, you understand that it's not about my title, it's not about that. It's all I, I have built some sort of a construct that allowed me to navigate some decisions in my life that point to. And I think it's important that we continually do this tools, frameworks, languages, approaches to business outcomes in business.

Um, but at we, we get lost in the day-to-day sometimes, and we end up in that mid wit territory on a lot of these topics and they become this whole thing 

Eiso: that's, it's, uh, it's funny how we, how we got here from, from Midwood into life goals and. and it opens up a question we won't touch upon the, upon the podcast, but it's, it's interesting to hear you still, you still through monetary in that third call, uh, at, at this stage of your career.

But we're gonna, we're gonna have to take that offline, uh, . So what, for someone who is there today who looking at this and is gaining the realization of shit, maybe I've gone a little too far. , what should be the next step? I'd love to leave that as our, as our, as our final words on, on today's episode on, on the mid wit.

Jason: Well, one, I think it's never too late to change. Um, don't good money after bad. Like, that's the, the easiest way to think about this. Like think about your remaining years, not your, what you've already lived. The remaining years are your good money. Like you need to invest them appropriately. And, um, the less you have, the more valuable.

So don't good money after bad. And the less time you have, the more valuable they are. So it's the more expensive that is. So take stock, do it. And um, I have this conversation a lot with, um, about fitness as an example. People say, oh, I really wish I worked out when my twenties or thirties. I'm like, well, great.

Let's figure out what to do today, tomorrow, and the next day and get you going. And they're like, oh no, isn't it too late? I'm like, no, it's never too late. And that's the point like, you, you've only got an X amount of time left, so like, get doing it. You know? Get serious about it. Don't worry. Like literally it's done in past, you're still alive, healthy, happy.

Like everything up to this point is irrelevant. It might have made you who you are, but it doesn't define your future. Let's go and define your future explicitly. 

Eiso: I couldn't agree more. There's some beautiful words to leave today's episode on. Thank you all for listening.