Note on Corporate and Academic Institutions

Ray wrote:

Cholly on Software : The Signifying Code Monkey

There are benefits — non-financial, obviously — to working for an institution of higher education. But in a 27-year career I remember only four people with whom I couldn’t establish some sort of working relationship, and I met three of them after leaving what’s oddly called “private industry.” Similarly, two of the three pieces I’ve regretted publishing were written within the context of a (mostly) academic website. Maybe it’s true that there’s something peculiarly toxic about this environment? Or maybe this particular pachyderm happens to find my own blend of tones and pheromones peculiarly noxious? For whatever reason, I’ve spent a painful number of turns playing the wrong side of Whac-a-Mole.

I responded:

Academia tolerates and even fosters antisocial behavior in various forms, while the private sector is much more strict in its codes of behavior hewing to some practical norm. Coders who work in academic nonprofits tend to be those who were “too weird” for industry, by their own account. Much of this may have to do with the ultimate bottom line of the holy dollar asserting itself far more incessantly in the private sector. (The exceptions were research-focused places like Bell Labs, which also attracted the types of pig-headed people you simply could not deal with. They have gone under precisely because their employees would rather spend their time perfecting an IETF RFC than writing server monitoring scripts in Python or, god forbid, Perl.) So given an insufferable, ambitious, and/or dogmatic person, that person will either have the rare good fortune to rise to a management position in the private sector that he (occasionally she, mostly he) will then use to attempt to realize his treasured, pure vision of paradise, and fail repeatedly while inflicting untold suffering on his peons; OR, that person will be thrown aside by the capitalist machinery and will seek refuge in locations where the almighty dollar holds less immediate sway. There, in academia or a like-minded non-profit, their high rhetoric and uncompromising passion will convince prestige-hungry administrators that here is a person with the vision to save the university from the capitalist chopping block, money and reasonableness be damned! Lather, rinse, repeat. See Albert O. Hirschmann’s The Passions and the Interests for what I genuinely believe is the dynamic at work.


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