Friday, 1 October 2010

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I am writing this due to provocation by an number of colleagues who seem intent on labelling me as a Geek. Making claim to bullying of this character in a technical organization such as ThoughtWorks may sound implausible but my public derision finds root in the rallying call I made (on an internal mailing list): I AM NOT A GEEK.

So why would a respected developer such as myself risk a well earned reputation with such a perilous statement? And then why would I go onto circulate the claim amongst the wider community of readers on the ThoughtWorks blog roll (I am still on it aren't I?)?

It has been a dark secret that I have been keeping from all but my closest colleagues; only my friends and family have really ever known the truth. Coming out of the closet on an internal mailing list may have been tough, but - apart from the odd comment from the usually insensitive and ignorant (well emotional intelligence was never the geeks strong point) - it has been a liberating experience. No longer do I have to pretend that I actually care about the resolution of iPhones versus HTCs, no longer do I have to feign interest in the difference between the generics implementation in Java and dotnet. And, for the first time in my career, I have felt that I could style my hair in a moderately fashionable manner. And the support has been incredible: BAs and QAs and even other devs have quite literally wrapped their arms around me in deep sympathy to confess that they too couldn't work out what pub everyone was meeting at every night until they twigged that all the socializing occurred within the realms of the World of Warcraft servers.

Though one cannot make such a claim as I have without some hard evidence. After all, over a decade in the IT industry would suggest that my declaration is fraudulent. But no, the truth is that my participation in the geek subculture is limited at best. I don't like science fiction or fantasy, I find Lord of the Rings far fetched and ridiculous, I own not a single gadget (no honestly not even a fancy phone), I perceive the playing of computer games to be a waste of my life, I don't like Star Wars (but I want to ride my bicycle). On the other hand I like being outside - especially if involved sport - adore music (and no, not Heavy Metal), enjoy the company of others and I can relate to women. Some may go as far as describing me as a "people person".

To sum it up, once out of the workplace, technology plays a very minor role in my life, except in the places where I can leverage it as an enabler (for typing this blog on, or finding cinema times on the Internet). Careful not to misconstrue me: I believe technology is a great enabler for many things, from opening information to social justice. As a power in society it is arguably the single greatest development since the printing press. However, if it all disappeared overnight would I cry? If I was born fifty years ago would I have struggled to find my calling in life? No, no and definitely no. So hence my assertion: I AM NOT A GEEK.

Please, before you make your judgement to find my decision wise or foolish, let me impart you with my reasoning. Firstly I hope my actions will path the way for others, but also, I believe this selfless acts of hari kari will be the catalyst to make our industry a better place.

Within our great industry there is a template, an expectation, a stereo-type if you like, of what a typical IT worker should be. So deep it is within the culture I should not need to draw this caricature in too much detail but, let's throw some words out there: spotty, socially awkward, coffee drinking, light hating, arrogant, emotionally unintelligent male that spits when he talks and is probably wearing a t-shirt - for several days and smelling a bit - with some witticism along the lines of '/me 0mwz j00' or something equally as mystical - possibly even written in Klingon - to the majority of society. For cultural references consult The IT Crowd, that Russian guy in that James Bond film, Big Bang Theory or any other computer guy you can think of in any mainstream film or TV comedy.

Before continuing let me state, on the record, that the number of individuals I find that meet this template in IT are ever decreasing. Of course it was considerably greater a decade ago when they locked us in the basement but since we've been allowed to occupy floors that let in natural light, like Gremlins, they've bubbled up and exploded (I believe getting them wet was equally dangerous).

Regardless, the stereotype still persists. My concern is this stereotype is a barrier to the IT industry reaching its full potential. It has a number of negative effects: it deters potentially able people from the industry (women for example, but not exclusively); it normalizes a set of behaviours which are damaging; and it prevents peoples development by narrowing their horizons to a limited template.

Though there are people out there who not only relate to the stereotype but will defend its place within the unique culture of IT. They will state that the attributes to be good with technology are exclusive to geeks and therefore they are the best people to run IT - yet looking at the state of the industry I'd say you've not done a very good job so get out of the way and let someone else have a go. But this is a complete fabrication. Without trying too hard to burst the whole indulgent We are Special myth and point out that lots of normal people in other industries have these skills in abundance too there truth is that there are many skills that IT people, in particular developers need, to enable technology in a manner that brings value to the business which are both arguably more important and that the stereotypical geek lacks; whether communication skills, awareness of business, empathy and understanding for users, prioritization, even the ability to solve problems WITHOUT technology. Of all of the key skills those attributed to the geekier sensibilities are, in modern development, the least critical. Wizzy maths and clever algorithms do not form the heart of the vast majority of software. Thanks to the Agile movement and things like BDD and Domain Driven Design, the business is at the heart of software development.

Modern software places the emphasis on those other skills that the stereotypical geek doesn't tend to have. Normal people on the other hand do. And what's more, plenty of normal people have those other problem solving skills that geeks believed made them stand out - I'm sorry but attention to detail, inquisitive nature, analytical skills, logical thinking, problem solving etc. are not, and never have been, attributes exclusive to the introverted middle class white male plagued by OCD and touched by autism. The simple truth is that non-geeks can and do make great developers and often even better developers than geeks (in fact some of the worst developers I've worked with in my career have been the geekiest and the inverse has also been true).

Let me restate this for crystal clarity: you do NOT need to be a geek to be a great developer; you don't even need to be a bit of a geek - not even give into the odd geeky impulse and no, no, no you don't even need to try and fit in and do geeky stuff - 'cos it doesn't make one tiny bit of difference to how good you are as a developer.

In a by-gone age when geeks were the main consumers of technology then the natural geek instinct of the developer was enough to satisfy any demands the audience may have. One bunch of geeks produced stuff for other geeks to consume. What the first geeks produced made perfect sense to the other geeks. But that isn't true any more. Geeks are a minority of users. Do you want evidence? Go and look at how many users are running Linux (no true geek would run Windows): the number is insignificant. The majority of technology in the majority of the world is used by non-geeks.

To write effective software for non-geeks you need people who understand them, and unfortunately geeks tend not to. The things that geeks prioritize are often not what non-geeks prioritize. Remember when everyone derided Macs for being 'simple' and how dumb Apple users were because they couldn't manage more than one mouse button, whilst MS covered every possible surface of the mouse with different ways to click and Opera invented 'mouse gestures' (yes, only a geek could have done that). And then Apple go and produce a music product with only one button and a wheel? What geek would have come up with that idea? No, that required someone who understood how normal people want to interact with a music player (the geek stood back in shock that normal people could manage to rip, manage and sync their CD collection without any guidance just because were given an interface that made sense).

Now my tirade is over, my blows made, wounds inflicted, oil spilt and lit, I wish to make my peace. The future of IT and software development needs to be one where the creativity, the passion, the human element of building brilliant software and the skills and attributes required to achieve this are encouraged and nurtured regardless of it's source, geek or non-geek. The industry must stop holding the geek up as the exemplar and alienating, or degrading, those that do not meet or wish to conform with this caste. With each generation IT moves further into the consciousness of the mainstream and in doing so its appeal will grow beyond those great pioneers, the geeks, upon which today's industry is founded.

So here's to an industry which attracts the brightest and the best from the entire psychological and sociological spectrum and a long overdue fairwell to that which limits it to that one tiny, specific character with its limited range of skills.

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About Me

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West Malling, Kent, United Kingdom
I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.