All I Want is a Fair Shot – On Meritocracy

I’ve heard it over and over again in college and in the business world – “All I’m looking for is a fair shot. No company will give me that chance!”

I know, because I’ve said those words before. However, let me tell you two stories that illustrate why this is a dangerous thing to want.

Story #1: A Semester in Competitive Programming

The year is 2002, and I’m still entertaining sticking out my major in Computer Science, so I’m enrolled in CSC 201: Semester in Competitive Programming. Our language of choice was C/C++, the same as it was in CSC 101: Introduction to Programming. My first semester went by pretty easily, netting an A- despite not showing up to many of the classes, and the majority of the people in that section were also in the second section that I happened to be in. While repeating jab, slice, parry alternated with prep gz 5, harness 10, target boar, cast in my terminal window (points for those who get the reference), I heard my professor talk about how the class would be graded on a curve. “No big deal,” I thought, “everyone here is a worse programmer than me.”

While that statement wasn’t exactly true, I didn’t suffer adverse effects from the curve. However, this change would crush the spirits of those who weren’t ready for a true meritocratic society.

We would take two-part exams, same as CSC 101. The first part would be hand-written theory with no computers on, asking for specific questions about programming, implementation, and theory. No big deal. The next part, however, was downright scary. It was the practice portion of our exams, where we would complete tasks handed to us on a network share – stuff like Pascal’s triangles, debugging compiler errors, and completing other small projects. We’d have 90 minutes to complete as many of these exercises as possible, with each exercise having a different point value. When we finished an exercise, we were to put a Post-It Note on the top of our monitor until a TA would come over and check the results for the correct answer – if we did it right, our points were added to a tally sheet.

A true meritocracy – one where competitive programming actually existed and could be seen in the room. Most people probably didn’t think much of this until the first exams started rolling in – when people saw the true disparity right in front of them! You had two distinct groups of classmates – one who crushed these quickly and had clearly been doing their homework, while the other group just hoped to skate by.

It was entertaining to look around to see the despair on the faces of other students as pimply-faced geeks shot their hands up over and over while they sat there trying to figure out how to print a list of prime numbers out.

Story #2: Outsourcing

If what you want is a chance to prove yourself while doing entry-level work, I have bad news for you: That’s going to be less and less available as time goes on. What you’re asking for is a company to sponsor you at a rate of $40,000/year (not great but you’re hardly going broke on this salary, regardless of where you live – get some roommates and eat ramen noodles if you live in SF/NY) for you to do menial work in the hopes that you turn into a good developer in six or less months.

Here’s an example of some menial work I recently had done – for a list of websites, go to each website, download the flash video being streamed, crop it to my specifications, convert it to AVI and GIF, then put them all in separate folders in a shared Dropbox account.

How much would you want to be paid for something like this? It requires basic video editing skills, Internet navigation skills, and general understanding of computers. Someone wanting to break into advanced video editing could easily be assigned a similar task.

I paid $2.60/hour – and the developer’s work was perfect.

You want to compete with this person on a fair, entry-level field – at the wages he’s requesting? (By the way, he had 3 years of experience. I could have gone with someone cheaper.)

Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.

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