Meritocracy in the IT Industry
CHARLES BABBAGE INSTITUTE
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Meritocracy in the IT Industry

Many engineers, programmers, and other computer workers today insist that their field, unlike others, is a “meritocracy,” where the best inevitably win. Yet others, both within the field and from outside, point to continuing discrepancies based on gender, race, or other factors. In the 2000s, for instance, Google, Apple, Intel, and other firms initiated a wage-fixing scheme that, when discovered, led to a pay-out of $324 million, while gender discrimination lawsuits in Silicon Valley have in recent years made national news.

While the belief in meritocracy is widespread in contemporary American society—whether as a reality already achieved, or an ideal to be sought—the idea seems to be particularly concentrated in computer-related fields. My research charts the evolution of this ideology, both as an idea and as a practice, from the 1940s to the 1990s. Some chapters of my dissertation focus on intellectual history, education history, and political history. But my ambition has always been to follow how meritocracy was put to work—and there seemed to be no better place to pursue that project than in the history of computing.

The archives at CBI proved to be extraordinarily helpful because of their astonishing breadth. While it has proven relatively easy to chart the rise of meritocratic discourse among leading CEOs such as Andy Grove at Intel (whose speeches are held at the Silicon Valley archives at Stanford), it has been far more difficult to find material about how these ideas were implemented at the ground-level, for example, among human-relations officers or middle managers.

The collections of the Control Data Corporation, which include several boxes from the human relations division, proved particularly rich. But of equal importance were CBI's collections from a wide range of middle-managers at a panoply of firms and divisions. On my visit I was able to work in more than 25 collections—thanks to the unmatched help of CBI interim archivist Amanda Wick—and found early excursuses on the distinctive nature of managing computer work, dozens of personnel evaluations covering every decade from the 1940s to the 1990s, explicit directives documenting changing ideas about “merit pay,” handwritten drafts of stock option agreements (with speculations about options’ motivating effects), and detailed charts demonstrating how HR professionals changed their approach to determining compensation from a focus on age and seniority to a focus on specific claims of ability.

All of these materials will be crucial as I begin to track the rise of meritocracy in the postwar United States.

Charles Petersen
charles.a.petersen@gmail.com



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