Why I disapprove of terms like “Code Monkey”

Originally written in 2015 in a private correspondence.

In our line of work, we have a wide array of tasks that require some degree of specialization. Keeping Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment builds green, monitoring the complexity of code, observing the trends on the Kanban wall, guarding against too many meetings, even keeping a watchful eye on the team’s stationery or snack supply — all these tasks require diligence, tenacity, and foresight. When people sign up for tasks like these, it is natural to co-opt a short, pithy term to describe one’s role. Thus you may have a Build Meister who is a first-responder to red CD builds, and a Meeting Czar who ensures that the number and duration of meetings are kept to a minimum.

Words like “Czar”, “Guru”, “Ninja”, “Runner”, “Sensei”, “Warrior”, “Whisperer” are often used as suffixes for such role-names. Most such names embody a deliberate play on words: a Snack Runner optimizes buying and stacking the team’s supply of healthy snacks; and a Spring Sensei is someone who has mastered the arcane and multifarious suite of annotations in the Spring framework.

In general, I like most of these suffixes. However, there is one suffix that I disapprove of: “monkey”.

It would be nice to assume that words are ahistorical. It would also be nice to assume that in a highly specialized, jargon-laden, nuance-infused industry like ours; we could detox the cultural detritus that certain simple English words have accumulated over centuries of wider usage. It would be nice to assume all that; and it would be grievously wrong.

“Monkey” as a word to refer to people has lost none of its sharp edge over centuries. It’s the slur-of-choice for people who exhibit racist tendencies. It is used in many cultures as an offensive ethnic insult, alone or in combination with other words. To assume that it’s been defanged in contemporary times, or that privileged people using modern technology would never be exposed to it, is also wrong. The president of the United States gets called by that slur on Twitter. So much for the immunizing effects of modernity or privilege!

There is one sense in which I find the term “monkey” motivating and inspirational: when it is applied to automated processes and not people. If you are going to have a “<something>-monkey”, make darn sure it’s a tool, not a person. Do all that it takes — including freezing hell — to ensure that no human but an automated software process is what’s doing the monkeying.

The folks at Netflix have done it: they have a whole Symian Army of bots that do all sorts of wonderful things. If you cannot achieve that, you haven’t earned the right to use the term.

Our profession has enough problems attracting women and minorities of all kinds — people of color, people from LGBTQ community — for us to blithely assume that we can use terms like “monkey” for people. Let’s be better than that.