[SIGCIS-Members] Brogrammers and other elite nerds throughout history

Marie Hicks mhicks1 at iit.edu
Wed May 2 11:48:50 PDT 2012

Hi all,

Recently there's been a bit of a press furor over the "brogrammer"
identity that's been getting louder in Silicon Valley. (Brogrammers
are half fratty bro and half programmer.) I say "getting louder"
because this trend has been evolving for quite some time; when I lived
in RTP in the first decade of the 21st century some of my best friends
were bro programmers!

So in response to all the press lately I've done a post on the SIGCIS
blog that talks about the coverage and what it's missing, in my
opinion. I argue that brogrammer culture isn't as much of a
disjuncture as the press is making it seem, and that the popular focus
on how this will affect women in computing--rather than how it affects
folks from a wide spectrum of gender and sexual identities--is helping
the public miss the forest for the trees. Most of the press has also
been somewhat humorless--a difficulty when the brogrammer identity
gets a good deal of traction from how it can flirt with campy

You can read my post here:   http://sigcis.org/node/335    Or scroll
down to the end of this message for the full text.

I've been heartened to have gotten a good deal of response on twitter,
and would also like to very much thank Suzanne Fischer for retweeting
it to her 3,000+ followers.


Marie Hicks, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History of Technology
Lewis Department of the Humanities
Illinois Institute of Technology
Chicago, IL
mhicks1 at iit.edu
twitter: @histoftech

>From Antisocial to Alphasocial: Exclusionary Nerd Cultures and the
Rise of the Brogrammer

         “Sometime in the last ten or twelve years, the stereotypical
image of the Silicon Valley programmer has shifted from a socially
awkward, Utili-kilt-wearing geek to something far more sinister, and
fratty, and sexist,” begins the article in the Sfist. Recently, a new
term for programmers in their 20s has come into the national
consciousness: brogrammer. Half fratty “bro” and half programmer, as a
whole the concept of the brogrammer is completely masculine. So is
this latest reaction to the nerdy programmer stereotype a problem?

         Many commentators have pointed out the damage that this new
type of computing culture might have on women coders or potential
coders. A recent Mother Jones article pointed out that if women are
looking for a job in an environment where interviews by a committee
can be casually referred to as “gang bang interviews,” they might be
turned off by the workplace culture of a company before they even have
the chance to work there.

         And the phenomenon isn’t limited to just a few Silicon Valley
startups. As a cultural archetype, it’s been gaining currency and
power for the last year or so at an alarming rate: “the term has
become the subject of a Facebook group joined by over 21,000 people,”
notes Bloomberg BusinessWeek in their recent article.

[Brogrammer cartoon from Bloomberg BusinessWeek article]

         It’s difficult to parse the different levels of irony—or
genuine commitment—that those thousands of individuals feel for the
brogrammer identity.  But this may be part of the problem. As the
Mother Jones article indicates, several companies and their
employees--when called on the sexism of the brogrammer ideal--excused
themselves on the grounds that they were being ironic, and that people
just weren’t getting the joke.

         If it is a joke, and much of the brogrammer identity is
certainly meant to be facetious, then “there’s also an audience that
feels left out of the joke…. Anything that encourages the perception
of tech as being male-dominated” will contribute to the decline of
women in computing, warned Sara Chipps, quoted in Bloomberg. Chipps is
the founder of Girl Develop It, which encourages women ask questions
of other women programmers to minimize the intimidation factor of
workplaces with a gender imbalance.

         One thing missing in the recent flurry of discussions on
brogramming and its ills is the fact that this issue isn’t really
about women. It’s about gender. And the image of the straight,
feminine woman the media invokes as likely to be turned off by a
workplace environment where brogrammers hold sway is actually only one
of many likely to be hurt by brogrammer culture.  A panoply of other
people with different gender identities and sexual identities--men,
women, or genderqueer--would likely be similarly unhappy in an
environment that privileges a certain kind of retro, straight,
masculine gender identity as normative or aspirational.

         The other element that seems to be mostly missing from these
conversations in the press is the historical element. Although each
article quotes the obligatory handful of stats about women’s declining
share of computer science degrees, they don’t go any further. And yet,
in many ways, the rise of the brogrammer is unsurprising to
historians: it’s just another iteration of the “alpha nerd” archetypes
that have circulated since the inception of commercial computing. From
sixties-era self-styled wizards who held the key to the black art of
programming; to mischievous whiz kids like Gates and Jobs who got
their start in the wild west of computing in the seventies; to the
scruffy, bearded, UNIX geeks who became mainstream in the nineties; to
the most recent wave of fabulously wealthy boy wonders epitomized by
Mark Zuckerberg and other start-up billionaires who fit a certain age,
race, and gender profile.

         The characters in these stories have appeared in the popular
press for decades, gaining more and more currency with each
repetition, and coming to define the narratives we tell ourselves and
each other about computing. Those who don’t fit these molds end up
disappearing, unrecognized and unrecognizable as technology workers
because they clash with the popular images conjured and reinforced by

         Historians of computing like Nathan Ensmenger, Janet Abbate,
Tom Misa, Jennifer Light, myself, and others have shown how these
images and discourses can’t be taken for granted as accurate:
computing was never as masculine as our received popular conception
makes it seem. And the recent furor over brogramming shows that it’s
still not.

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