The Ruby Rogues Years

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: four white guys ask a fifth white guy to join their podcast.

Being invited to Ruby Rogues in 2011, first as a guest and then as a panelist, was a thrilling moment for me. It was one of my first experiences of feeling like I’d “arrived”; like I’d achieved the acknowledgment and respect of my peers. It felt like a validation that I was competent and that I belonged. And over the following years it opened a lot of doors for me.

At the time, I didn’t think so much about how this is a privilege not everyone shares: the expectation that eventually, if you work hard, you’ll receive that kind of validation. How not everyone spends their life being implicitly told “that could be you, some day!”.

Fast-forward a few years. The Rogues panel had evolved considerably, but I had reluctantly quit because I had too many other calls on my time.

Charles Max Wood and John Sonmez

A few months after leaving, I became aware of the influence of John Sonmez on Charles Max (Chuck) Wood, the show’s founder. John, Chuck, and two other men hold weekly “mastermind” sessions where they talk about their lives and businesses, which they broadcast on a podcast called “Entreprogrammers”.

Listening to the show, I heard Chuck and the others publicly disparage, mock and plan to screw-over a friend of mine who was then working for him as a contractor. The man who took the lead in egging Chuck on: John Sonmez.

Sonmez’ creepy comments about women also stuck out to me. I remember being surprised that Chuck was so close with someone whose values seemingly clashed with (what I knew of) Chuck’s values.

For a while I also subscribed to Sonmez’ business partner Josh Earl’s newsletter. It was there I learned about some of the questionable marketing practices Sonmez was proud of. For instance, I learned about how John openly employed the tactic of directing mob pile-ons at people who upset him. I recently learned of another case of this, in which he used his mailing list to mass-downvote a less-than-stellar review of his book.

Over the years I would periodically think: at what point is Chuck going to finally get fed up with all this sleaze, and stop taking business and personal advice from this dude? Evidently the descent into full-on MRA pick-up-artist creepiness wasn’t enough. But when Sonmez recently went on a vicious, hateful tear telling black women on Twitter to “shut your mouth”, surely that was a wake-up call?

Civility

I went over to Chuck’s Twitter profile the other day, thinking I would DM him and ask him where he stood. I didn’t get very far though, because what I found were tweets defending Sonmez. Including a retweet of Robert Martin, snidely mocking everyone who was upset.

There was also a video. I watched it in full to make sure I understood Chuck’s position. He spends most of it complaining about how people aren’t being civil, and demanding that if people want to be heard they have to be nice and explain things carefully to Chuck and people like Chuck. He says he won’t defend what Sonmez wrote; but he can’t seem to bring himself to actually condemn some of the most hateful speech I’ve ever seen from a prominent developer. The whole thing comes off as petulant at the fact that people who have been held back by systemic sexism and racism for their entire lives, and are then told to “shut their mouths”, won’t behave themselves properly.

His proposed solution is to get John, a man who has publicly stated that he speaks in bad faith, together with the people he attacked for a “conversation”. 

Gatekeeping

At this point, I thought back on discussions with Chuck in the past. I thought about my Rogues days, and behind-the-scenes discussions of who to invite onto the show, or not. I thought about Chuck’s tweets and other public statements over the years. 

I thought about a recent case I’m aware of. In which a white guy was invited onto one of Chuck’s shows. Noting the lack of representation in the panel, the invitee proposed a woman who was more experienced than him on the same topic to go on in his place. He got silence in response.

And then I thought about silent gatekeeping. About those conferences that just happen to have stages dominated by white men year after year. And the organizers throw up their hands and say “nobody else submitted, these must be the only people available”. Even while other conferences show, over and over and over again, that they can achieve far more diverse speaker slates by widening the circles the organizers reach out to.

Complicity

And then I thought about complicity. Specifically, my complicity.

I thought about the guy that everyone in a group of friends knows is a little bit creepy toward women, but they hang out with him anyway and they don’t say anything because he’s basically a good dude, ya know? Or the guy who when he gets a few drinks in him at a party likes to bring up The Bell Curve and how different races have different IQs, it’s just science, but it’s not like he’s racist racist and so we all put up with him and don’t say anything.

Chuck isn’t either of those guys. But Chuck is nice-ist. He likes people to be well-behaved. Apparently without acknowledging that being nice just happens to be easiest for the people at the top of the heap.

With his position as the owner of popular podcasts for the Ruby, JavaScript, and freelancing communities, Chuck is in a position of great gatekeeping power in who he invites to be guests, and who he invites to be hosts. It’s a particularly influential position because, in my observation, developers typically do their most avid podcast-listening early in their careers. This is the period when they are absorbing norms. It’s the period in which they are learning what a Ruby developer, or JavaScript developer, etc. looks like, and sounds like.

And me… I’ve lent a little of my legitimacy to that empire. There are people who started listening to Ruby Rogues because I was on it. And at least in the back of my mind I’ve known for a while how those shows are implicitly curated.

In a world where marginalized people can sense that things are subtly weighted against them, but can never quite put their finger on how…  silence is complicity.

Repudiation

For years I’ve had a silent policy that I won’t go on any of his shows. I’ve turned down or ignored multiple invitations. I’m making that policy un-silent now.

I can’t magically withdraw any legitimacy I’ve lent to Chuck’s shows. But I can go on-record in saying that I reject any association between myself and those shows, other than my appearance in some of their back-catalogs. I can publicly state that after the mass panel departure two years ago, Ruby Rogues is not the same show I was once proud to appear on.

OK, enough salving of my conscience. Now for the important bit.

Tall Trees and Monoculture

I went on a hike today. Along the trail there was a tree that was so completely rotted out inside that I could fit myself, with my backpack, in the open hole in its side. But remarkably, there were still leaves on its branches. The end for that tree is unavoidable, but it may continue to shade out younger trees and inhibit their growth for another decade or more.

Prominent people and resources in the developer community can feel like that tree. It can feel like “ah, this thing already exists, there is no reason to make one like it”. Many aspiring bloggers despair of what to write, because they are afraid that anything they might write about has already been said.

The truth is, just because a thing exists doesn’t mean it’s the best thing or the authoritative thing. For instance many have noted that John Sonmez’ book on soft skills and career development is… not actually very good. There are others who write far more deftly and wisely on that topic.

Monoculture promotes laziness and mediocrity. One of the reasons I am thrilled to see the software industry gradually becoming more diverse is because of how much the quality of writing and speaking about software has improved as a result.

Facilitating Arrival

I’m not here to try and get Chuck to change. The only way we’re going to have reliably better representation of diverse voices in software is if marginalized people are the ones creating and owning the resources. My role here is to lift up the next generation of bloggers, authors, speakers, show hosts, and screencasters.

So, a few things:

  1. If there’s already a blog, a book, a podcast, a YouTube channel, but you think: “I could do that, and better”… You may well be right. Do it. Don’t let the prior existence of resources or “authorities” hold you back.
  2. I want to help. I’ve created and hosted podcasts, written books, given talks, made screencasts. I’ve done many of these things professionally, and I’ve helped a lot of other people do them too. I’m happy to help with advice, encouragement, feedback, and rubber-ducking. If you’re a member of a marginalized community, you’re working on an idea for developer-facing media, and you want to talk to someone about it, hit me up.
  3. If you know someone who is already doing this and kicking ass, please tell me about them so I can draw attention to them.

Eight years ago when I arrived on Ruby Rogues, I felt like I’d arrived. I want that feeling to be readily available to everyone who has something to say in the developer community. I want to help make sure more saplings get the sunlight they need to thrive.

Published by Avdi Grimm