Monday, April 15, 2013

Code Monkey Scare You?

I was thinking about perceptions of Computer Science and I remembered a particular event in my junior year. A friend told me he had just heard a great song that reminded him of me, since I was studying Computer Science.

He messaged me a link to "Code Monkey" by Jonathan Coulton.
Thanks? [via JoCopedia]

The melody is great, and the lyrics are compelling—I've listened to it on repeat writing this post. But it's also a handy way to remember almost every stereotype of Computer Science work and workers.

I thanked my friend, but internally I was a touch offended at the connection being drawn between my field and primate-level glorified keyboard smashing. Even more internally though, I worried that maybe the song held some truth about my future if I pursued a job in software engineering. Are all stereotypes based at least a little bit on reality?

Code Monkey get up get coffee
Code Monkey go to job
Code Monkey have boring meeting
With boring manager Rob
Rob say Code Monkey very diligent
But his output stink
His code not "functional" or "elegant"
What do Code Monkey think?
Code Monkey think maybe manager want to write
    god damned login page himself
Code Monkey not say it out loud
Code Monkey not crazy, just proud

Code Monkey like Fritos
Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew
Code Monkey very simple man
With big warm fuzzy secret heart:
Code Monkey like you
Code Monkey like you

Code Monkey hang around at front desk
Tell you sweater look nice
Code Monkey offer buy you soda
Bring you cup, bring you ice
You say no thank you for the soda cause
Soda make you fat
Anyway you busy with the telephone
No time for chat
Code Monkey have long walk back to cubicle
     he sit down pretend to work
Code Monkey not thinking so straight
Code Monkey not feeling so great

Code Monkey like Fritos
Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew
Code Monkey very simple man
With big warm fuzzy secret heart:
Code Monkey like you
Code Monkey like you a lot

Code Monkey have every reason
To get out this place
Code Monkey just keep on working
See your soft pretty face
Much rather wake up, eat a coffee cake
Take bath, take nap
This job "fulfilling in creative way"
Such a load of crap
Code Monkey think someday he have everything
    even pretty girl like you
Code Monkey just waiting for now
Code Monkey say someday, somehow

Code Monkey like Fritos
Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew
Code Monkey very simple man
With big warm fuzzy secret heart:
Code Monkey like you
Code Monkey like you

Poor Code Monkey. He's likable as a character, but in a pity-based sort of way. He gets no respect from anyone, and his work seems monotonous, lonely, and largely pointless. Code Monkey lacks communication skills, has trouble interacting with women, loves junk food, and doesn't take much action to improve his life.

I think it's a good song about a good character, but I also think it's representative of the only narrative most people know about the average technology worker. I think we can use this song as an example of the stereotypes that discourage students from pursuing Computer Science. It's a poisonous story: nobody wants to be Code Monkey.
Hopefully you're already avoiding the word "monkey" in your recruiting brochure.

Oh no, stop the presses! While this song's been on repeat, my friend with a MATLAB-heavy medical physics background has told me he's now having second thoughts about applying to a well-paid programming job. He doesn't want to be a Code Monkey.

These YouTubers also seem wary of growing the metaphorical tail:

The specter of Code Monkey is haunting outreach efforts! Even people who appear to like programming itself don't like this idea of being a programmer!

Luckily some wise YouTube commenters (where have they been till now?) were around to put things in perspective.
Thanks for restoring my faith guys. Programming can be creative, and you can use it as a tool to do awesome things. This should be the story we tell.

In outreach, it seems that other fields don't focus on the tasks it takes to get to your field's goals. Biologists don't talk about the boring hours of pipetting and agar plating it takes to make a new bacterial mutant. Astronomers don't talk about the endless number crunching and image curation it takes to discover a new exoplanet. They focus on the wow factor of the final outcome, which everyone can understand the importance of.

In Computer Science, I think we do the opposite. Without emphasis on how computing can improve someone's life or make a new discovery, we leave potential students with the idea that computing jobs are pointless. In fact, I think for many people the work of programming and design to get to a final goal is more fun than the intermediate steps of other fields. Plus, when you get to the end, you could have created almost anything, from a hurricane simulator to a tool analyzing collaboration in the Senate to a website collecting accusations of corruption. For help on emphasizing the impact of computing rather than the process, check out

And let's work on shunning the idea of Code Monkey in physical ways too. In a primer on talking to faculty about combating stereotype threat, NCWIT describes how a male-oriented environment can make women feel less confident. I see this list of items as a description of Code Monkey's lair, complete with Fritos, Tab, and Mountain Dew. I imagine it could have a detrimental effect on anyone wary of becoming Code Monkey.
In sum, d├ęcor, language, images, or behaviors that call attention to gender increase stereotype threat for those portrayed as unsuited for a particular activity....
Classrooms, labs, or lounges with Star Trek posters, comics, video game boxes, soda cans, junk food, electronics, computer parts, software, and technical books and magazines. These kinds of environments reduce women's interest and sense of belonging in computer science[1].
Let's keep Code Monkey's shadow from climbing over our efforts to get more people better jobs, diversify those who push technology forward for all of us, and promote skills that can help everyone in whatever field they choose. Remember Code Monkey to remember what not to do.

[1]: Cheryan, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P.G., & Steele, C.M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1045–1060. doi: 10.1037/a0016239

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