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Hacking Engineers and Engineering Media

tl;dr

A media literacy guide for software engineers (general media literacy guide here).

Puppet cutting it's string - Male Puppet cutting it's string - Female

These images are available to use freely (CC BY 4.0). Free stickers can be requested here — original SVGs are here and here.

Background

There are many ways to “hack” software engineers by influencing media sources and fellow community members.

This guide lists examples how software engineering information sources like Hacker News, Reddit, and tech blogs can be influenced - and how these platforms can otherwise give you a flawed view of the world. The hope is to unbias these sources and provide antibodies to us all. (This guide covers examples often specific to the tech industry, with the general media literacy guide now here)

For more, see my introductory essay: How To Hack an Engineer

Contributions are welcome (see our guidelines), especially when they include vivid and relevant examples. Follow me on Twitter (@nemild) to see more examples of media manipulation.

Examples of Hacks

  • Paying an open source developer without disclosure: A cryptocurrency company gives equity to a key developer on a leading cryptocurrency — and privately boasts that this will give them a say on the roadmap and help influence the development team. The open source developer doesn’t publicly disclose this link (Background: see my introduction here)
  • X Company Now Uses Y Technology: Dev tools companies (and open source projects) will often highlight how a well known company (either a high flying tech startup — or a blue chip tech firm) now uses their tool — hoping to influence developer choices. A surprising number of times, the "usage" is actually in a trivial side project or is a single engineer experimenting. The dev tool company values the free marketing, while the company experimenting with the tool values the recruiting benefits these posts provide.
  • MongoDB-funded User Groups, Conferences, Hackathons: MongoDB funds its own user groups and college hackathons, making them look like organic support over time. For meetups and conferences, it recruits speakers by understanding their financial and speaking incentives (e.g., selling their consulting services, marketing their company). (Background: The Marketing Behind MongoDB)
  • Training Programs: The seller of a GraphQL training course on PluralSight writes a Free Code Camp blog post extolling how GraphQL is the future, and REST is anachronistic and dead (Rest in Peace. Long Live GraphQL). The head of Free Code Camp submits/upvotes the post on HN. (See my HN Comment)
  • Paying for Negative PR: Oracle pays for negative stories about Google, to pressure them over Java litigation. Qualcomm pays for stories that suggest that Apple's CEO will run for president, hoping to destroy his relationship with the current administration — in the hope of pressuring Apple over litigation. Facebook pays for stories that connect anti-Facebook activists to George Soros. (background)

General Notes

  • Key questions to ask with any media:
    • Why Writing: Why are they writing about this topic and how do they and/or their sources personally benefit? Always need to understand the personal motivation of writer and their sources
    • Technical Background of Writer: What is the technical background of the writer? A surprising number of people with little subject matter expertise have strong opinions on highly technical topics. Many great engineers don't have time to write — or enjoy spending their time writing code. And even great engineers can strongly opine on a part of the stack they know little about
    • Distributor Incentives and Community: Why is the media distributor (social network, news organization) putting this piece of content in front of me? How do they benefit from having me see this content? What is the prejudices of the community (i.e., HN) that determines what gets covered and how?
  • Motivations for Content Generators: Know the key stakeholders who produce content in tech and what they each want from you
    • Venture Capitalists: Want you to approach them for funding — and aim to help their portfolio companies
    • Training Programs: Want you to buy their content or join their training program/bootcamp
    • Consulting Shops: Want you to buy their services — or come work for them
    • Dev Tool Vendors: Want you buy their dev tools
    • Tech Companies: Want you to join them
    • Conference Organizers: Want you to attend their conference and buy from their vendors/speakers
    • Conference Speakers: Want to pitch their company's products, build their brand/network, recruit engineers
  • Hype: When a new technology/tool is widely covered, it is often because this elicits substantial reader interest; use wide coverage to understand what content readers are demanding, NOT simply as a sign that something is important or a fundamental shift
  • Understand issues with Hacker News/Reddit: Given how often HN is read by engineers, understand the key issues with Hacker News/Reddit (see more below)
    • Downside of Democracy: The world's most thoughtful expert has the same voting power as someone who knows nothing about the subject
    • Power of a passionate few: A passionate few determine what makes it to the front page; these passionate few often have their own reasons for this content to be widely read (company they are part of, common incubator program)
    • Prevalence of content marketing: A surprising amount of HN posts are content marketing; these get upvotes because a passionate minority has incentives to upvote these posts
  • Identify content marketing: A substantial portion of content read by engineers is content marketing: content created for the purpose of having you do something in the writer's interest. While useful, you should be able to identify content marketing — and what self serving messages you're hearing
  • Know the incentives behind tech media: Most tech blogs make money from ads and conferences. This means that they have to optimize page views, which incentivizes hype, sensationalism, and click bait. They also have ensure that important speakers want to speak at their conference — and so can't be too critical of important industry players (like CEOs, VC firms, top companies). For example, see how John Dvorak was likely fired for critiquing 5g
  • The Power of Narrative: Hollywood writers and tech journalists share similar incentives to create narrative that are engaging to consume. In technology, one journalist argues that narratives are like a clock: "The tone and sentiment about how a business is doing move from positive (sunrise, midday) to negative (dusk, darkness). And often the story returns to midnight, rebirth and a new day."
  • Building antibodies: Scientists and engineers deeply benefit from getting things “right” in their job; to do the best job, critical for us to identify ways our data sources are influenced — and how to partially unbias them

The Tech Ecosystem

Common Players in the Engineering Ecosystem and Their Incentives

Venture Capitalists (VCs)

  • Key goals: Source and win deals, market their portfolio companies
  • Create content to show themselves as thought leaders and paint their portfolio companies in the best light
  • Have a difficult time critiquing entrepreneurs, as they need to seem founder friendly as they compete for deals
  • Function as a powerful ally for their portfolio companies, but also means you should critically weigh their messaging

Dev Tool Companies

  • Key goals: Get uptake for their tools
  • Sponsor content that justifies their tools; this can be their own content, or often funding/incentivizing third-parties to favorably discuss their technology
  • May push their tools as the future, while suggesting that existing tools are anachronistic

Training Programs

  • Key goals: Sell classes/content
  • Push new technology which their paid training programs then teach you about
  • Ally for motivated dev tool vendors, as both financially benefit from having engineers uptake newer dev tools

Conference Organizers

  • Key goals: Fill a conference and attract sponsors by attracting speakers
  • When media organizations run conferences, they often will shy away from attacking important potential speakers and their companies

Content Playbook

These are common content strategies used to influence engineers to adopt a new technology:

  • Fear: Play into an engineer’s fear of being left behind technologically
  • Good vs Bad: Argue that a technology is solely good — or bad; these controversial statements attract engagement, while often ignoring the nuance of the tradeoffs with various solutions
  • Validated content: Write derivative content on hyped topics, as you know there’s a huge market that already wants to read this; for example, MongoDB's ads and content that highlights how their database can be used to power blockchains
    • Hype is a function of reader interest, but often says little about engineering appropriateness
  • Astroturfing: Support others who write seemingly tangential content that supports the need for your product (example: containerization companies and microservices)

Hacker News/Reddit

Example Hacks

  • Upvoting Ring: Ask your friends and supporters to upvote (common in dev tool companies, training programs, incubators); this can work despite social network countermeasures
  • Allied Commenters: Get your allies to be the first commenters (which your friends will then upvote and bubble to the top), subtly shaping the views of everyone who reads the content
  • Confirmatory Content: Create content that justifies pre-existing views or financial incentives of subreddit holders; see what popular views are before, and ape them (example: cryptocurrency subreddits that promote their own currency, and discredit/ignore positive information about competing currencies)

Other Issues

  • Tribalism: Tribal behavior by key influencers can determine how certain topics are received (example: Though HN was quite negative to MongoDB, what would the reaction have been if MongoDB was a Y Combinator company?, How does one cryptocurrency subreddit approach another?)
  • No more experts: No distinction for experts versus others; one layman has the same voting power as the world’s most thoughtful expert (Example: a non-engineer vs. the world’s most thoughtful database expert on MongoDB posts); readers may also not take the time to understand background/expertise of writer
  • Different Needs: Ideal tools for one group/use case don’t map to another group/use case, even though both share the same social network (Example: frontend engineer’s database preferences for a hackathon vs. backend engineer’s database preferences for production, TDD and the needs of consultants)
  • Differential Opinions Mini-Community of Commenters: There isn’t always a monolithic statement like “HN believes ...”; different posts can attract wholly different tribes in the comments, meaning HN is hundreds of sub-groups.
    • A post on a Ruby gem, might attract an entire commenter group who are Ruby-ists that hold common views on opposing languages. You might see this as "HN believes X", but instead it's the subset of people attracted by that post that readers are in fact interacting with (see my response underneath the top comment [here])

Potential Antibodies

  • Think of Hacker News as a bazaar — with many voices clamoring to get your attention to achieve their own particular objectives (i.e., for you to join their company, purchase their software/consulting services, use their open source tool)
  • Avoid trolls (see prettydiff's great guide)
  • For more on Hacker News, see A List of Hacker News's Undocumented Features and Behaviors

Content Marketing

How it works

  • Create “valuable” content that doesn’t look like an ad; is apt to get engagement and influence behavior (examples: uptake a dev tool platform, enroll in a training program, join a company, use an open source package)
  • Popular reasons for content marketing: increase domain SEO (example: Yummly, Nerdwallet), collect sales leads, sell product/service, recruit engineers, improve brand
  • Content can be created in house, or relatively small amounts of funding can encourage others to create the content needed (example: Pusher’s technical tutorial solicitation)
  • Content marketing applies far beyond online posts, including categories like whitepapers to handouts in college/grad school classes

Example Hacks

Other Issues

  • Lots of content marketing passes for journalism
  • University/grad school reading can be content marketing (At one top business school, a professor confided to me that the smartest move for many CEOs was to push for business school case studies that biased students to want to join their companies; these case studies would often read like a fawning profile)
  • Need to write content on widely read topics to maximize readership; leads to an echo chamber of hype since these stories have been validated to be of interest
  • Content is expensive to produce (and the costs of creating more effective content is only increasing), so only those with the resources and exposure are the ones most likely to present the content to you. For more information, please read "Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy"

Potential Antibodies

  • Have to be able to identify when something is content marketing in everything from online posts to school curriculums
  • Ask what is motivation of writer and how this influences their view; also need to understand their technical background
  • Use content marketing to learn, but use it with proper skepticism
    • Fred Wilson, Partner Union Square Ventures:

“So how should entrepreneurs use this knowledge that is being imparted by VCs …? Well first and foremost, you should see it as content marketing… That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful or insightful. It may well be. But you should understand the business model supporting all of this free content. It is being generated to get you to come visit that VC and offer them to participate in your Seed or Series A round. That blog post that Joe claimed is not scripture in his tweet is actually an advertisement. Kind of the opposite of scripture, right?” (link)

Tech Journalism

Example Hacks

Other Issues

"It’s a game of access, and if you don’t play it carefully, you may pay sorely. Outlets that write negatively about gadgets often don’t get pre-release versions of the next gadget. Writers who ask probing questions may not get to interview the C.E.O. next time he or she is doing the rounds. If you comply with these rules, you’re rewarded with page views and praise in the tech blogosphere. And then there’s the fact that many of these tech outlets rely so heavily on tech conferences. “If you look at most tech publications, they have major conferences as their revenue,” Jason Calacanis, the blogger and founder of Weblogs, told me. “If you hit too hard, you lose keynotes, ticket buyers, and support in the tech space.”"

  • Technical Competence: Many journalists don’t have a technical or business background, but write on these topics authoritatively
  • Talent: Salary in journalism is a fraction of tech industry, meaning that many experienced, smart journalists increasingly leave or work in house
  • Make the World Better Narrative: In technology, desire of journalists to cover companies that pitch them a "make the world a better place" message:

In fairness to tech media, there’s also the very real hope that they are illuminating a company that really is going to change the world. [Theranos CEO Elizabeth] Holmes was, after all, everything they were looking for: smart, ambitious, Jobsian, and, unlike most companies in Silicon Valley, Theranos wasn’t some pizza-delivery app. It was truly endeavoring to make “the world a better place.”

(The rejoinder is that many unsexy businesses change the world after many years of hard work — even if they may look dumb at first; many entrepreneurs falsely claim they make the world better, without noting all the issues their technology creates)

Potential Antibodies

  • When something is heavily covered, it is substantially due to large reader interest — not due to the importance of the event for you; risk of confirmation bias and sampling bias if you don’t adjust signal; critical to realize, since so much of tech is
    • Paul Graham: “The number of news stories about a problem is not a sign of how serious it is, but of how much demand there is for stories claiming so” (link)
  • Dig into technical background of writer

Tech Conferences and Meetups

How it works

  • Tech conferences make money primarily through ticket sales, sponsorships, and booths; they aim to fill the conference seats
  • Companies and media organizations organize groups of speakers and market the conference
  • Sponsors and corporate organizers want to show their technology in the best light
  • Motivations to speak at a conference (according to MongoDB’s marketing team)
    • increasing the speaker’s network
    • raising the speaker’s profile (personal branding)
    • recruiting for the speaker’s company
    • marketing for the speaker’s company (and for conference sponsors)

Example hacks

  • Sponsor speaker: For companies, support a speaker unaffiliated with your company who you think will be likely to represent your view
  • Organize your own conference: Run your own conference to ensure your own viewpoint is widely shared — and then shared widely online afterward by participants (Example: MongoDB funding for conferences and user groups)
  • Advertise the list of invited speakers, not actual speakers (Example: Crypto Health Summit Global Conference Series)

Other issues

If you look at most tech publications, they have major conferences as their revenue,” Jason Calacanis, the blogger and founder of Weblogs, told me. “If you hit too hard, you lose keynotes, ticket buyers, and support in the tech space.”" (link)

  • Surfing on hype: Conferences need to fill seats, and so often feature tested ideas that will encourage this (e.g., NoSQL)

Potential Antibodies

  • Conferences should be just one additional data point that augment learnings from being around talented engineers — and shouldn’t be used as a primary view of what’s going on
  • Weigh the background and personal motivations of every speaker
  • Weigh the motivations and editorial power of who’s running the conference

Fellow engineers

How it works

  • Fellow engineers/scientists may be vocal in social media, conferences, and on mailing lists

Example Hacks

  • Give ally a business model: Give them a monetizable business model, so that they’ll represent your views (example: MongoDB consultants who then speak favorably about MongoDB)
  • Pay ally with Equity or Cash: Give them cash/equity in the success of your business — increasing the likelihood they’ll speak positively of you and, at minimum, reducing the likelihood they can publicly say negative things about you (example: cryptocurrency ownership, open source developer equity grant in my essay introduction)
  • Give a college talk or become an ongoing college lecturer: For entrepreneurs this lets you scout talent, increase your company's brand on campus, and improve your own personal brand; for VCs, this lets you scout deals earlier and have greater consideration to be the chosen funder when the company raises outside funding

Other Issues

  • Establish your expertise in one topic so that you have people's attention. Once you have their attention, express your views on another topic that you have no expertise in
  • Fund researchers who pursue avenues that will be potentially accretive to your interests; not explicit bias, but means that opposite hypothesis may be weakly pursued

Potential antibodies

  • Question funding and incentives of anyone speaking favorably about a chosen technology
  • Just because someone has a well regarded reputation (e.g., through open source contributions, through previous well regarded projects) doesn’t mean they can’t be representing parochial incentives that are at odds with what is right for you
  • Like with all written media, you have to understand the incentives of a speaker/social media poster

Ways You Can Help

  • **Experiment with a new HN algorithm/incentives system **: Create your own Hacker News algorithm/system that favors content that helps engineers make better decisions
  • Board of Engineers for eng media publications: Ask the leaders of popular tech blogs for early engineers (such as Free Code Camp and Hacker Noon) to have a board of engineers who vet content before it is published
  • Add eng media literacy to eng training programs: Encourage bootcamps and college CS programs to teach engineering media literacy
  • Other ideas?