And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

The love affair of the tech nerd with themselves

We in the technology world are a self-centred bunch of people.

I recently attended a training course where we were asked to complete Myers-Briggs tests to figure out our personality types. I’d never previously completed one and was initially sceptical, but after receiving my result I was a little more convinced. I’ll spare you the details of reading my psychological profile, but essentially, it described a person keen to work alone and formulate ideas with analysis, pragmatism and creativity. This is a persona I imagine many geeks, nerds and general technologists exhibit. It’s more than just a cliché to acknowledge the link between steps on the autism scale and attraction to computer-based roles. We all seem to have these aspects, to one degree or another.

There are no shortage of famous modern tech geniuses who exhibit these characteristics: Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are amongst the obvious names that come to mind, with their famous alienation of others and singular focus on their ideals. The other common factor here, though, is the obsessive adulation these type of figures are laden with, and the wider tech society enjoys describing itself in similar terms.

Our community has a tendency to talk itself up. Paul Graham’s widely-read Maker’s Schedule essay refers to the reasons programmers struggle to work in traditional business setups, and describes the annoyances and challenges caused by interruptions like meetings and other “process”. Graham writers:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

I don’t disagree with anything Graham says here or in the rest of the essay, and indeed, I’ve felt frustrated at interruptions disturbing what I’m working on. But this self-worship concerns me too. Developers (“makers”) aren’t some special race of superhumans, whose every sensitivity and quirk needs to be preciously catered for. We’re normal people and shouldn’t be made to feel otherwise. Developers love to scoff at project managers and HR people, clogging up important coding hours with pointless meetings and busywork. Again, while there’s some truth to that, it’s also supremely arrogant to label ourselves as somehow above the systems everyone else works with (grudgingly or not). Without those people and their work, what’s left? Who does the often-unpraised legwork in putting the right people together, rescuing failing projects and facilitating disputes? It’s not the maker.

It’s not just Graham either. Michael Lopp (aka “Rands”) has written several times on nerds and “the Nerd Handbook“. In that essay, designed to guide “the nerd’s companion” through life with them, Rands discusses the unique nerd temperament. Here’s an extract:

First, a majority of the folks on the planet either have no idea how a computer works or they look at it and think “it’s magic”. Nerds know how a computer works. They intimately know how a computer works. When you ask a nerd, “When I click this, it takes awhile for the thing to show up. Do you know what’s wrong?” they know what’s wrong. A nerd has a mental model of the hardware and the software in his head. While the rest of the world sees magic, your nerd knows how the magic works, he knows the magic is a long series of ones and zeros moving across your screen with impressive speed, and he knows how to make those bits move faster.

As with Paul Graham, Rands isn’t wrong here, either. But it’s another step along the road of self-aggrandizement. By again implying that nerds and geeks are, in some sense, intellectually superior, Rands runs the risk of not only alienating non-nerds, but overloading his poor subject matter’s brain with delusion. Any nerd reading the article will immediately nod knowingly, thinking “Yeah, I do that”. Great. Aren’t we geniuses for knowing what binary code is? But what are we doing with that knowledge? Feeling smug for amassing trivialities is ridiculous, whether those trivialities are cutting-edge and current or thousands of years old.

Finally, we have the god complex once more. This is where Steve Jobs’ legion of followers have form. I spotted this tweet only today:

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Once again, the sentiment of the tweet is sound. But the accreditation it assigns, again, to tech nerds, is hyperbole. If we continue to sit around and pat ourselves on the back for “changing people” or “knowing how the magic works”, we’ll lose sight of the fundamentals: we should be making stuff.

Of course, Jobs, Zuckerberg and co — they all “made stuff”. But maybe they wouldn’t have had the creative breakthroughs they felt if they’d been surrounded by smug yes-men, echoing praise and grand compliments while forgetting the whole point of being a “maker”. We’re not intrinsically special or gifted, whether we’re INTJs, ESFPs or WTFs. We’re simply given the opportunity to collaborate with others and build on their skills and output to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. Let’s not lose sight of it.