Trust the Maintainers

Since cyber attacks, a building collapse, and an infrastructure bill have been in the headlines recently, I think the time has come for us to re-assess our relationship with maintenance.

While I work in the "tech" field, I don't align myself with inventors, entrepreneurs, or green-field software engineers. I align myself with the whole spectrum of "maintainers", like civil engineers, power plant operators, janitors, building inspectors, security compliance officers, mechanics, etc. These jobs are mostly all considered respectable, but a building inspector will never get the same prestige as someone who invents a new gadget, founds a new company, or develops a new popular app. Why is that?

There's an organization called The Maintainers which has a comprehensive list of reasons why we don't value maintenance, ranging from cognitive biases to historical reasons to financial incentives. But I'd like to focus on trust, and how mistrusting maintainers can lead to putting off maintenance.


Trust has been dropping across the board according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. I think the ripple effects of this are also being felt by the maintainers of the world. Maintainers are always vying for the trust of decision-makers to get anything done. That leaky pipe won't get fixed unless the suits approve the purchase order. But this imbalance of power is so frustratingly misplaced. The plumber who noticed the leaky pipes is the subject-matter expert. They are well-aware that new pipes cost money, but they've seen (or learned about) the risk of leaving it unfixed. The person holding the checkbook hasn't. But somehow they get the final say? Why is the subject-matter expert not trusted to make the cost-benefit analysis?

The world of software security is another example where trust is lacking. In my experience, half the work is just convincing leadership to care the tiniest bit about security, which requires trust. Since it's difficult to explain e.g. a side-channel attack to someone non-technical, your chances of getting resources devoted to fixing the issue are slim, unless they trust you already.

I'd say usually this mistrust is unfounded (based on bias, misunderstanding, or otherwise). But it's true there are some untrustworthy maintainers in our ranks. When kids get their first car, they're often warned of crooked mechanics. Or in the software world, "resume-driven development" is similarly a problem. Perhaps some kind of formal licensure could help build trust, like requiring adherence to the ACM Software Engineering Code of Ethics.

There's no doubt that maintenance is necessary and that we can never seem to do enough of it. But setting aside the cognitive biases or financial incentives against it, consider how trusting subject-matter experts plays into it. Think of the last time an outsider completely butchered an explanation of your hobby or field of study; that's how maintainers feel every time they get overruled by laymen.