What enterprise tech can learn from “Mean Girls”

Posted by gminks in community building | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

You may have seen me refer to a certain company on Twitter as the Mean Girls of the datacenter. It’s not my term, someone just dared me to tweet it. The sentiment of the phrase is interesting, and a repeat of a pattern I’ve seen before in my short career. I think there are valuable lessons we in enterprise tech can learn from the movie Mean Girls.

Caveat: This movie is very American-centric. It resonated with many of us because we recognize and identify with the movie’s groups, characters, and their interactions from our own high school experiences. I’d love to hear from non-US folks on what they think of my analysis, and if any of these points translate outside of the US.

Mean Girls is a 2004 movie written by Tina Fey, starring Lindsay Lohan. Here is the partial synopisis from Rotten Tomatoes:

… this comedy [is] about the alternately funny and terrifying pecking order among teenage girls. Cady Heron (Lohan) is a 15-year-old girl who has spent most of her life in Africa, where she was home-schooled by her zoologist parents. When her family relocates to the United States, Cady finds herself attending a high school in suburban Illinois, where she gets a crash course in the various sub-strata of the student body: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the stoners, the “cool” kids, and so on. Much to her surprise, Cady finds herself embraced by a clique of rich and popular girls known to outsiders as “the Plastics”.

Typical teenager movie right?

Well, sort of . Tina Fey based the screenplay on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, written by Rosalind Wiseman. This Salon article critiques the movie in a self-help sort of way, but raises interesting points. Since Cady was raised in Africa, she spends several scenes looking on at the other 9th graders in the same way you would observe wild animals. This Time article has a fascinating explanation of how Mean Girls is actually an African myth about Miss Rabbit.

Where are the parallels to enterprise tech?

I’ve held for years that we are all part of a larger community, a guild. I’ve written in previous posts about the sociological definitions of a community. A group can be called a community if they are bound by place (electronic places count, also think of the conferences and meetups we all attend in meat space), interest (enterprise technology), and communion, or a sense of attachment to a group, place or idea. There are many subgroups to this enterprise community (storage, virutalization, Microsoft, Unix, linux, VMware, cloud, containers, open source, women in tech, etc…) but we all are bound to the practice of technology by place, interest, and communion.

The Mean Girls map

Cady was educated about all the subgroups at her new high school with a map. Check out the map – doesn’t it look like a conference show floor to you?

The very top of the social hierarchy were the Plastics.

They used lies, gossip, and all sorts of social control mechanisms in order to maintain firm control of the majority of social capital in their community.

In our community, we have to work with the competing ideals of collaborating and helping each other as technologists while at the same time competing with each other to make our companies successful. Sometimes companies will go the route of the Plastics – lies, gossip, social control mechanisms (AKA FUD). In our world, FUD will eventually be called out, and the group spreading it gets a pretty nasty black eye.

You’re either in or out

The Plastics didn’t just use social control mechanisms to keep control of all the social currency, they also used it to make sure no one with in the group stepped out of line. Plastics could only wear sweat pants on Fridays, had to wear pink on Wednesdays, and only could wear ponytails once a week. Cady tricked the leader of the Plastics into eating high carb bars to lose weight, and the rest of the group turned on that girl when she had nothing to wear but sweat pants (and it wasn’t Friday).

We’ve seen that in our enterprise tech community too, whether its allegiance to a product or to how to spell a brand name, don’t get it wrong or you may be out.

The danger: we present ourselves based on what the holders of social capital demand

The Plastics set the rules for how to dress, who to date, how to act at the Christmas pageant, every imaginable section of teenage life was dictated by the Plastics.

In sociological terms, how we internalize and react to this is called symbolic interactionism.  These are the key aspects:

  • We act toward others based on the meaning that those other people have for us.

  • Meaning is created in the interactions we have with other people in sharing our interpretations of symbols.

  • Meanings are modified through an interpretive process whereby we first internally create meaning, then check it externally and with other people.

  • We develop our self-concepts through interaction with others.

  • We are influenced by culture and social processes, such as social norms.

  • Our social structures are worked out through the social interactions with others.

We teach each other in our community how we will interact. It’s how we create our small world.  My question: can we stop acting like Mean Girls already? We’re the ones developing, architecting, building, managing, preserving, and protecting the world’s data.

Can we live up to that responsibility and stop acting like and responding to Plastics?

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