Mr. Teflon and the Failed Dream of Meritocracy

You can either write software or you can’t. I’m not saying that people who can are special. Hell, total absolute complete fucking idiots with dried husks for skulls write code. Anyone can learn to code, but if you haven’t learned to code then it’s really not something you can fake. I can find you out by sitting you down and having your write some code while I watch. A faker wouldn’t know how to use a text editor, run code, what to type, and other simple basic things. Whether you can do it well is a whole other difficult complex evaluation for an entirely different topic, but the difference between “can code” and “cannot” is easy to spot.

Painting is another skill that you can either do or you can’t. Again, this doesn’t mean the people who can paint are magical special beings who repel thetans with cadmium coated auras. I’ve found, just like programmers, some of the dumbest fucking people in the universe are painters. Hell, I can paint, which says a lot about how good you have to be to be able to “paint”. It is a difficult skill to fake, and if I sat someone down and told them to paint I could spot a fake immediately. The faker wouldn’t know how to mix, what colors do what, how much to put out, what brush to use, and other simple mechanics.

There are a great many skills where you can either do them or you can’t, and that’s where the concept of meritocracy comes from. In a meritocracy it’s supposed to be that the only thing that matters is you can do the thing, and then competition is based on how well people do that thing. In these environments you frequently hear of people who are just awesome at something getting tenure track positions at universities to teach it without any other formal education. In art I know of two professors who did this, mostly because they were just crazy bad ass at drawing or painting. Didn’t matter that they had zero degrees in art. All that mattered was they could do the thing, and they were awesome at it.

The appeal of a meritocracy for weirdos like me and many of my friends is that we’re frequently judged for things that have absolutely nothing to do with who we are. People have all sorts of disabilities, socioeconomic backgrounds, appearances, strange interests, and personality quirks that make them the targets of slick talking douchebags with angelic faces. These pretty motherfuckers get away with literal murder while a weirdo like me gets death threats because I don’t like Haskell. In my ideal environment, it wouldn’t matter what you look like, only that you can do the job and how well you do it. That’s a meritocracy.

Obviously part of “doing the job” is being able to work with others, but that cuts both ways. I have to shower and not invade people’s personal space, and you have to not comment on my fucking clothes or make fun of how I talk. I have to be polite and say thank you and not hit people, and you have to stay off my computer and not walk around the office with an 8” hunting knife. I have to work with people on a team and help folks out, and you have to not assume I’m gay because I like to paint.

In general, things in a business work better if you follow Zed’s #1 Rule Of Business:
Don’t shit where you eat.

You like hunting knives and guns? That’s your personal shit. Do it at home or a gun range. You like weekends full of BDSM sex with guys dressed in unicorn costumes? Shit in your own mouth at home. You like to smoke weed and think the girl in accounting would be a great addition to your bi-sexual poly relationship? Super fecal. Definitely do it at home. You’re a super religious Christian who has a mandate from God to convert the masses? Yup, turds galore. Do it at Union Square. You can totally be into these things, and tell people about it, and be yourself, but if you want the work environment and the meritocracy to function then you have to vanilla up to a point and reduce the drama. That way everyone has a nice drama free day and can just work their damn job without worrying about being harassed because you’re a freak (and they leave you alone even though you’re a freak).

Incidentally all of these things have happened to me at places I’ve worked, and that’s your first clue about why the meritocracy is such bullshit. Everyone who claims they have a meritocracy then uses this to act like total fucking assholes because if you extend the concept of meritocracy too far you can excuse any obnoxious ass behavior. The real result of a meritocracy is to craft a character I like to call Mr. Teflon. When you read those words you probably had a specific individual pop into your mind, but let me explain Mr. Teflon to you.

Mr. Teflon is that guy who is a complete total fucking asshole and a fuck up, but for some reason he never gets fired. Maybe he did something heroic in the past, or maybe he has pictures of the CEO giving goats rim jobs. Who knows, but this is the kind of guy who can cost the company $500k through his own incompetence, grab the ass of random women, never show up to work, yell and scream at managers, walk around with a knife, hack other people’s computers, and be an insulting prick to everyone and still keep his fucking job. Nothing sticks to him ‘cause he’s coated in teflon.

My favorite Mr. Teflon was Rajiv, who would troll people’s accounts looking for nude pictures, kept crashing the fucking site because he hand edited servers as root, kept the network architecture a secret so everyone had to depend on him, clearly was doing coke at work, demanded that employees he just didn’t like be fired, and would incite near violence against anyone who tried to manage him. In one incident he spent weeks on IM with the team undermining a product manager until finally the CEO had to fire the product manager because this Mr. Teflon managed to make everyone hate the product manager. This guy was a total fucking asshole, but one time back in the day he managed to figure out a hack on OS X that nobody else did so he gained a position of power and nobody would fire him. He later would cost the company insane amounts of money, but hey meritocracy right? Gotta keep motherfuckers around who did a good job once way back in the day because it’s all about who does the best job!

Another great Mr. Teflon was Chris. My first encounter with Chris was walking into the office after I’d been there 3 days to him screaming at the VP of Engineering, “Fuck you! Fuck you! Leave me alone you fucking asshole! You better shut the fuck up!” Why? The VP of Engineering was trying to get him to write unit tests. Chris was a short loser little asshole who had saved the company once, so nobody would fire him. Eventually he walked up to me and asked, “Do you know Thomas?” Thomas was a guy who hated me online, and I thought it was weird Chris would ask me about him. I said I did and then Chris started typing quickly on his laptop with a weird grin on his face. I strolled by casually and shoulder surfed him talking to Thomas on IRC telling him about me. He actually hunted down one of my enemies and violated my privacy to inform on me! That’s fucking crazy. But, he was Mr. Teflon there so I couldn’t get rid of him.

Over the months this asshole Chris would constantly ask me what I thought of Thomas. Since I knew that he knew Thomas I fed him huge lines of bullshit and misinformation, but one day Chris walks up and asks, “How do you store your passwords?” He was really freaked out asking me this, like he knew he was doing something wrong. He stammered and didn’t look me in the eyes, and I realized, holy shit, this guy is going on my computer and giving Thomas my password database, if he hasn’t done so already. I immediately started taking my computer home and changed all my passwords, and then other weird shit started happening. One day all SSL certificates to gchat and gmail stopped working, and when I started yelling about it Chris ran to his computer really quick in a panic. I started bringing my own WiFi hotspot to work. He came to work one day carrying a massive hunting knife, ‘cause, you know, that’s totally appropriate in an office.

Chris was an insulting, obnoxious, stupid fucking loser who probably violated my privacy and handed who knows what information to an enemy of mine online while walking around with knives, screaming at leadership and doing no work, but did he get fired? Nope, because, meritocracy, and Chris had done like, one thing 2 years prior that meant he could be the absolute worst most abusive employee ever and never be fired.

I’m done with meritocracy after encountering Mr. Teflon assholes in every supposed meritocracy and seeing how that word ends up doing nothing more than keep barely capable losers who get lucky once in jobs despite their insanely fucked up behavior. The failure of a meritocracy is that it has become a way to abuse people. Originally it was so that people who were different could keep their jobs in the face of mediocre losers who felt everyone should be just like them to have a job. Now it’s used by mediocre losers to keep other mediocre losers in jobs just because they’re all alike.

The problem with throwing the meritocracy completely out is programming is a skills based job, and like I said you can either do it or you can’t. Nobody wants the inverse situation where some mediocre asshole from HR denies promotions to people because they don’t have the right education. The inverse of a meritocracy is organizations that are obsessed with certification and not on results where HR controls who gets promoted and rewarded. These environments breed idiots who can fake their way through jobs until they’re in a position of power because they got a degree from Haavaaad and have a pretty smile. The inverse of meritocracy is just as abusive and rewards people for their socioeconomic backgrounds rather than giving them a chance to shine despite where they come from.

The upside to HR run bureacratic companies is they don’t put up with Mr. Teflon. These places have procedures and policies that you have to follow. They have sexual harassment training and dress codes. They may be vanilla, but if I’d told HR that Chris was walking around with a fucking hunting knife, going on my laptop and not working he’d have been fired quick. I don’t advocate the bureaucracy of HR run companies, but fuck me if that’s the only way to get rid of Mr. Teflon then let’s do this! I was in the Army. I’ve worked for the government. I can fill out some forms in triplicate to get rid of that complete loser. I can put on a suit. Hell yeah.

Actually, I’ll just work for myself since that’s the ultimate meritocracy.

4 thoughts on “Mr. Teflon and the Failed Dream of Meritocracy

  1. Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I always thought meritocracy is all about what counts against your reputation or not. A reputation is something you need to actively keep, not something you can earn once and keep forever. What you describe may have become what the mainstream definition of “meritocracy” shifted to be, but it’s not in my dictionary and I refuse to accept the perversions you describe as meritocracy. 🙂

    In my ideal world meritocracy means that it doesn’t matter who you sleep with in the company, or if you go to their parties, you get promoted if and only if you do your job right.

    What was done to this word reminds me of what was done to the word “agile” which as of today lost every last vestige of meaning in the context of software development.


    • No, that’s not the version of meritocracy I subscribed to. In fact, if it’s based on reputation then that’s probably why so many passive aggressive assholes in the valley are into slander to destroy someone’s career. Reputation is easily manipulated by others, but your work mostly stands on its own.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There seems to be a *lot* of drama in your professional life, Zed! I’ve been programming professionally for 20+ years and have never run into any of this or the other stuff you’ve posted about. Is it just really bad luck? Why do you think you chronically run into this junk so often?


    • I do seem to be a drama magnet. For example, I went to work for Bear Stearns in 2008 to get away from startups because startups kept failing and banks don’t fail! What happened to Bear in 2008? Oh, that’s right it failed. Drama and bullshit just seems to follow me.


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