Fixing Broken Things

In my day job, I am a QA Analyst for a software company. I spend every weekday from nine to five thirty(-ish) telling developers to fix things.

Not because they’re bad developers, but because software is complex. It has lots of moving parts that can break in new and exciting ways. Once you get too close to it, you can lose sight of how it works for someone who has to use the product.

At least once a day, I have a conversation that goes like this:

“Can you fix the thing?”
“I didn’t break the thing.”
“I know you didn’t break the thing. But I still need the thing to work, so I’m asking you to fix it.”

Sometimes I need to have this conversation a few times before getting whatever the problem is fixed. But at the end of the day, everyone knows that if something is broken, it just needs to get fixed. No matter who broke it.

No, you didn’t mean to break anything in the process of deploying new code, but I still need you to go back and look at the five tangential processes that are now not working and fix them anyway.

Yes, I’m pretty sure most of the developers I work with hate me *at least* once a week. I’m sure I’m the cause of a lot of cranky chat messages and I occasionally get snapped at by a developer for telling them something is broken. But I don’t make developers fix things because I hate them. Or because I think they’re bad people. Or even because I think they’re bad developers. If I thought they were bad developers, I wouldn’t bother coming to them with problems in the first place.

I don’t make them fix things as a way of pointing fingers and saying they screwed up. I make them fix things because that thing is broken, no matter who broke it. It’s broken and it needs to be fixed. They know this and once the moment of “ARGH.I DIDN’T BREAK ANYTHING” passes, they get it fixed quickly and efficiently. It might be hard to deal with in the moment, but it’s an unavoidable part of life. When you’re trying to create new things, things break. My entire job as a QA Analyst means saying “Hey, this thing could be working better. Let’s make it better.”

This is what social justice is to me. No, I didn’t create racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. Or transphobia. Or ablism. But it’s still a thing that’s broken. It’s still a thing that needs to be fixed. Just because I didn’t create it, that doesn’t mean that I get to pretend like it’s not broken. And that goes for every issue out there.

Misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, ablism. These are all things that are deeply and intensely broken in society. There isn’t a single person among us who shoulders the blame for breaking these things. At the same time, there isn’t a single person among us who gets to walk away from the responsibility of fixing them.

That’s the thing that people miss about social justice: Saying that you have taken part in something that needs to be fixed does not make you a bad person. Saying that you need to help fix something does not mean you broke it in the beginning. You can be a really good person and still screw up phenomenally. We all do at some point.

I mean to do good. I have my heart in the right place. Still, sometimes in the process of working on one thing, I accidentally contribute to the brokenness of five other things. I may be trying to work on fixing sexism, but if in doing so, I say something transphobic or ablist, or ignore the intersections of race and gender, or if I reproduce classist rhetoric in critiquing behavior, I have caused harm in exactly the same way I would have created harm if I had intentionally set out to hurt someone. At the end of the day, my motivations didn’t matter. I still need to work to fix the harm I caused.

When this happens, I need someone who isn’t as close to my motivations to take me aside and say “Hey, that thing is broken. Can you fix it?” Most importantly, I need to listen to them. I can have my moment of anger and frustration, but I need to swallow that and think about what they are pointing out. I am too close to myself to see my actions in a non-biased way. My friends are not. It hurts to be told I caused harm, but that hurt is nothing compared to the hurt I could be inflicting on others if I continue.

I need to show up every day at work, ready to help troubleshoot problems. In the same way, I need to show up every day for equality. I can take a day off here or there in either venue, and I need to for my own mental health (we all need to, more often than we let ourselves), but the work still needs to be done. The bugs will still be in our software, and the problems will still be in culture. Ignoring them doesn’t help. It just makes life harder for the people who have to work around those problems, whether talking about computers or society.

I didn’t break our society. I don’t mean to harm anyone. Nor do most other people. That doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility to help fix it. These things are broken. They need to be fixed. Let’s fix them.

13 thoughts on “Fixing Broken Things

  1. A very beautiful piece, and I love your view on things. Yet oftentimes, I feel the real issue may lie elsewhere. It’s not that most of us don’t want to fix the broken things, but how to go about it and how to fix the things broken in the process of fixing. To stay with your metaphor: say I developed a program to copy a file from point A to point B. It doesn’t tell you if it succeeded and only works 50% of the time. The big battles one may witness over this issue is that the one side feels we should implement some output to tell us if it succeeded (and later use that output to debug the process itself so that it works 100% of the time). The other side, however, feels the program is there to to one thing: copy things. Failing at that 50% of the time makes it nearly useless, so THAT is what should be fixed first and afterwards, we can think about some shiny GUI that tells us everything we need to know about how it did its job.

    Both sides have a good argument, and they both try to fix things, but one side will scream treason the second you decide you think the process should be fixed the other side’s way.

    (I don’t even want to start with the group on the outskirts that thinks maybe your copy program totally fails to produce unicorns like it was meant to be and should be deleted entirely unless you fix THAT problem really fast.)

    For me, that’s at least one of the reasons, why I would try the “But I didn’t break it” line – there’s five QA guys sitting there and they all want me to fix a specific problem a specific way, but they don’t really agree what the problem is exactly and the way one guy thinks will fix it is the way the other guy thinks will make it so much worse.

    And the programmer can see the problem, and want to fix it, and have his heart in the right place and still prefer to do nothing about it because of the process (and all the drama) you have to go through to fix it.

    Meaning: the complexity and interdependency issues and the coordination problems don’t let us fix the problem even if every single one of us wants to fix it really badly.

    • Your metaphor is TERRIBLE. In social justice situations, the various methods of working on a problem are almost always things that can be done in parallel. It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. Sometimes they do conflict, and then you get to make your choice about where to put your energy, and yes, that means you should probably put at least a little research into it. But whining “But all these different people are telling me different things, so that means I can’t do anything!” is a way of attempting wiggle out of your responsibility to do your part.

  2. Nice read.

    As a programmer, I never like to hear that there is a problem, but I know that we need to fix it. Often times the reporter does not understand the amount of time that could be required to analyze the problem to properly fix it. This causes nervous and angry feelings all around. Some people never get past that and think that I’m not trying hard enough, or I am purposely throwing roadblocks up because I’m incompetent or am actively trying to make their life miserable.

    If we all were on the same page and understood how difficult/time consuming it is to fix various problems there would be less hard feelings being passed around.

  3. “Social justice” raises some challenging issues. I think we can agree that those of like mind can and should help to remedy racism, sexism and other kinds of discrimination — those of us, that is, who are willing to do so. But in the recent election cycle it became clear to me that there is a different issue in relating to people who are not willing to make such efforts. I do not think we can realistically expect that everyone will try to help.

    Certain kinds of discriminatory behavior are illegal under our current laws. There is no lack of clarity in that realm. Anything illegal must promptly stop and/or be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It is the lesser offenses (or more precisely those not legally sanctioned) which I am concentrating on here.

    In our personal conduct we hold ourselves to personal standards. So must those who disagree with our approach to combating discrimination. In general I believe we can and must insist on changing behavior that leads to a breach of law, but when only, say, a lack of kind and polite behavior are at issue, I say we should not insist on bringing the moral behavior of others up to our own standards. For it will never work to expect others to change in their hearts.

    We cannot expect or insist that a person who might have grown up in a verbally combative family or a physically combative neighborhood will suddenly become an entirely different person. There are varying levels of verbal and physical display of aggression that are acceptable in various environments. Here I am not speaking of aggression at the level of breaking the law — we already separated that problem out — but simply at the level of not always being kind or nice. Some people will not (and perhaps cannot) become kind or nice. We cannot exclude people from participation in our public institutions for exhibiting differences of that nature.

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