> I’ve had the privilege of spending my entire career in technology surrounded by wicked smart engineers. I’ve always been drawn to their raw intelligence, Spock-like rationality, sincere honesty, dry humor and quirkiness. With the immense popularity of the sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory”, I suppose I’m not alone in my appreciation of them.
Almost none of the characters on Big Bang Theory were engineers, they were physicists. This article seems to conflate 'nerd' with 'engineer' on an incredibly surface level exploration.
... and before anything is actually stated, it moves over to use sports metaphors to accent how important teamwork is.
The awful truth is that arrogance, inability to delegate, poor communication, poor ability to react to feedback are traits that are rampant in pretty much every industry, including VC. Picking out engineers are some type of specific 'archetype' especially bad at these skills is buying into awful stereotypes about engineers as if we have no social skills.
These experiences are not easily communicated.
It's possible that we all go through similar quirky experiences that yield absurd and seemingly arrogant behavior because of these particular intracicies of working so closely with machines. It's also nice to have personal privacy when we know we are responsible for so much data and information about people.
It's possible that this winds up looking like arrogance, but isn't actually. It's just people going through a thing that honestly, most humans just don't go through.
Not every person experiences life in the following way. I'm around tons of people I could see as arrogant or judgemental or whatever ( and myself the same, if not much more so than everyone else I know ) but honestly it's more like, when software doesn't work correctly, there becomes an odd sort of recurrence relation between the source of the issue and the outlet, and how that maps onto how one sees their self and others. And I honestly think most people who work with machines are so used to seeing that pattern that they understand the dynamic enough to not judge, just slowly hope their additions to the systems they work on get noticed enough to improve the whole process.
So yes, it's an inability to communicate, but we understand one another, because we can explain it with math or code, which most people don't care about. Golden rule. You don't give a shit about my knowledge, I don't give a crap about yours. If you think I'm being arrogant, please try to figure out whether you'd actually like to experience life like this first, where everything is chaos and crazy and nothing the world says makes sense, because most people just don't want to deal with the details of actually understanding how hard it is to get a machine to do exactly what they want it to do, and how hard it is to avoid having that character defect mapping over into one's own social life at all times, as though one must be on constant guard for the oh so you're terrible exhibition of being both aware of being smart, and actually being intelligent at the same time.
We don't have social skills like most people. That's fine. Why is that a bad thing? Those people wear lack of knowledge of logic and mathematics as though it were some badge to be proud of. Which is again, fine! Just don't force me into your archetype of having social skills.
I'm seeing more and more accusations of arrogance leveled at "engineers" (but usually they mean programmers). I think this is because they're no longer allowed to stuff us in our lockers and push our heads in the toilets, so they have to be more subtle when they bully us.
These days I just laugh in such situations.
(Maybe it's a matter of perspective. I enjoy programming, but I mostly view it as a tool for improving people-things: making art, solving problems, expanding human potential. The human elements must always be at the forefront, and the machine is just not something I care very much about, except as a means to an end.)
I myself encountered a lot of bias due to the sheer fact of sharing that I am a programmer -- even if only when asked (as I get older, I more and more hate to say anything that sounds like boasting). But I shrug it off as these people just feeling insecure; most of them probably realize your brain is much better trained than theirs -- or at least in the mechanical and creative department -- and they go on an ego-saving trip trying to demean you.
Bad luck for them that I am one of the best roasters I've met for my 38 years. Some even tried unsuccessfully to turn physically violent only because I defended myself with a good roasting counter-joke that made everybody on the table laugh.
Pretty hilarious at times, I have to tell you.
But, you know, the rest 95% of the time, people just immediately put you into a group they dislike but don't have the balls to say or do anything; they just stare at you disapprovingly. Or they are actually open-minded.
The situations showed in the article don't happen that often as the author makes it sound, IMO.
Far too often, "lack of social skills" is used as an excuse for being a jerk, and refusing to think about what their words and their actions.
I disagree. If you have a very bad model of how something is perceived by others, you will commit blunders. And if you think in a very different way than your counterpart, you often have such a very bad model.
Most people act similarly clumsily towards "engineers"/"programmers", but because they think as the majority thinks, this is not called "social inaptitude", though it is exactly the same problem (perople talking to each other who are "wired very differently").
Why does it not make sense that people like this have to be acutely intelligent super insanely fast? You've basically been conditioned to solve a problem that is np hard because every new person has different preferences and every old person eventually gets tired of you not adapting to them quickly enough.
And honestly, the bottom line is this all may happen because of something insanely stupid - like having acne, freckles, a big nose, whatever. So you can never win with these people! And eventually you realize that and find real friends, and we all live happily ever after, just like everyone else is allowed to. The end.
Once or twice is an accident. "Repeatedly" demonstrates an unwillingness to change.
This assumes that you make the same mistake multiple times. There are so many unwritten social rules (which actually hardly anybody can consciously "put into explicit rules") that there exists a giant "potential" for social blunders without making any mistake twice.
Why do you want people to change? Why is that your designation as your identity? What gives you that right?
I don't have answers for you in your life because I don't know you. But throwing out general advice to people without actually having the compassion to allow them to understand just demonstrates that you have insecurities too, and are just as unwilling to work through the really really fucking hard stuff because you can't take the time to understand the way the people you direct understand things.
Even in smaller context where we are the majority it seems the onus is always on us to adapt our model to fit the greater societies, the reverse happening seems to be some unspoken heresy. How many times have we heard "programmers need to understand business needs", "programmers need to learn to talk to stakeholders" or "programmers need to understand their users" and similar? It's always a one way street, no one is telling managers how to talk to programmers, no one is telling users to think of the business data consistency.
As software eats more and more of the world I wonder if their will be a tipping point where the wider world has to develop a model more like ours?
I often feel like carrying the weight of technical decision making on a moment-to-moment basis is what makes engineers bad at social skills. To put it another way: The technical problem is so big that it occupies your brain for weeks and months at a time. Any social interaction requires context-switching out of the technical problem, which is expensive and stressful.
Hence the stereotype that engineers are bad at social skills. If we were ever given enough time to decompress, we'd get right along.
So I don't think "our big brains are so busy" is a great excuse, even were it a reason (and I don't think it is).
I spent my years 17 - 20 doing little aside from programming. I went from having written two little things in VB to writing games and game engines, emulators, 3D model loaders etc. Whenever I was on a bus I was probably reading Real-time Rendering or the OpenGL Superbible.
I had no social difficulties at that time. And soon after I quit programming because my wrist were bothering me, and I fairly easily made a new group of friends who I started hanging out with (non-nerdy friends with no technical backgrounds or interests).
BUT, by the time I was ~27, after spending about 2 years working obsessively on a software project (it was a new way of writing code that could make it efficient to do without mouse/keyboard)—I could recognize in myself the characteristics of a more stereotypical social-skill lacking engineer: difficulty making eye contact, excessive tension, generally fumbling/passive in social interactions.
Eventually I got out of it, but my understanding of what happened was similar to what the GP posted: I always had that project on my mind. I would get deep insights about it out of the blue, and if I was working (grocery store) or watching a movie or hanging out with friends, I was still trying out different ideas related to it.
When you don't leave that abstract/analytical mind state, you can't really connect with people, and you end up approaching things with a similar conscious problem-solving mind set, which is just not effective for so many aspects of human interaction. There's also some difficulty from how other people perceive you when you're interacting with them while in that state of mind.
And there's almost certainly some connection to anxiety here: anxiety is a feeling of needing to change your situation; at its core, rational thought is our means of detaching from current happenings to form a plan for an alternate course of action. I think that if you're always thinking, you're always at least a bit anxious as well, which makes you something like more fragile in social interactions.
That's correct. The logical and emotional parts of your brain literally inhibit one another.
Edit: that being said, it means that it's hard to do both things at the same time, but you can alternate between both modes.
I don't know whether this is true or not. But I am sure that when I do mathematics, I have very strong emotions. These are of a very different kind than the emotions that you find described, say, in a novel. I came to the conclusion that neither the English nor the German language have words for these emotions.
The emotions you describe are reminiscent of the "Martian colors" described by a colorblind synesthete who could see words in colors, including colors his eyes could not trigger in his brain.
Richard Feynman was notoriously synesthete. He could see math in color (builtin syntax highlighting :-).
(1) As a sibling comment said, many engineers are quite confident and charming, men and women -- and you cannot determine they are engineers even if you talk for hours on end with them, without them sharing their occupation. Many people told me the latter about me post-factum as well. I simply don't tout it even though I feel it gives me more credentials to talk on certain topics. But I still prefer to invite discussion by expressing healthy skepticism instead of arrogantly claiming that I am the authority on the topic.
(2) Those who have trouble socializing usually have a teenage trauma of some sort. I legitimately only met 2 programmers in my entire life who looked and sounded truly malevolent; 99.99% of all engineers I've ever met were normal human beings struggling to overcome their limitations.
But I get pretty tired of being a trauma surgeon. I think I'd rather be more like a PT.
For example, I think "remembering what you have agreed to do" is a rather important social skill, and I don't think it's one where engineers are by any means below average.
It also doesn't explain how salespeople can socialize while thinking, or why engineers don't suddenly improve social skills at night and weekend.
These were the things I found myself categorizing the post into as I was reading it.
My argument is that organizations, and most strikingly in technology startups & Venture, generally place no value on leadership ability. VC's and others will claim that they "invest in people." In my experience that simply means that "people," poorly defined, are one of the many vectors for which a company is judged. Primary of which is whether people get along well together, rather than if they can make hard leadership decisions in a way that is constructive and progressive.
As a result, while "team" is a consideration, no qualities of leadership or management will be able to compete for venture dollars or talent with a company that is growing like crazy. Said more concisely:
"Investors will always take an A+ Product with C- leadership over a C- Product with A+ leadership."
That seems to make sense in the short term, but at scale, when leadership and management matters, things historically get hairy. In the even longer term, this attitude shapes an entire culture where covering bad management over with growth and revenues - something not unique to technology certainly.
The primary argument I see in valuing traction over leadership in the early days, is that it's Hard to judge someone's leadership without working with them. I would agree with that, but I don't think it's any harder than any other level of technical due diligence. Where I think it's intractably harder, is when the person or team has absolutely no track record of leadership or management, like many young founders.
The community assumes you can teach or coach your way into Leadership, and that's certainly true to some extent, but it underestimates how hard it is to do well, and how catastrophic it is when it goes really badly. On the other hand the old trope of "bringing in adult supervision" really undermines the concept of founder run and employee owned companies.
I think the market would be better off in the long term funding and supporting founders with track records of leadership, but I honestly don't see that happening anytime soon.
If I were a VC I can imagine wanting to stay away from people who can talk me into anything. I might end up funding another round after the building is already on fire.
So I wonder if they are always clear on the difference between leadership and salesmanship. I'm not sure I can always distinguish the two, more's the pity.
I've heard that before. It smacks of confirmation bias promulgated by envious people.
I have no doubt it is "reasonably well accepted" that it is "common" for business leaders to be psychopaths, because it's what people want to believe, but the cited evidence for it doesn't show that at all.
With 203 samples, all it would take is a couple people one way or the other to get that 1% rate of the general population. How accurate is the test, even? There's also selection bias in who consents to the test - I wouldn't consent to a psychoanalysis test because of privacy issues. Lastly, I bet a few of the participants were able to see what the researchers were driving at and had a bit of fun with the answers.
I.e. the conclusion is simply junk science, even setting aside the notion that 3% makes it "common".
I once had an HR team give a talk to a bunch of engineers. They opened up with "Who watched Judging Amy last night?"
It did not go well after that, in fact it was a horrific couple days of "training" where everything went wrong communication wise, for a lot of reasons ... one dude effectively ended his time at the company on one of the first days when he got into an argument with HR. (Granted that wasn't Judging Amy's fault).
People usually have a shock when they start their PhD and find they have to learn to program, fast.
So do a whole host of other people.
Dijkstra would have had a fit.
It was interesting software (finite element analysis) but until it was just about completely rewritten absolutely un-maintainable. Which was a bit of a problem because it was also buggy.
In my experience, the problem rather is that in science, the intention of the code is to be able to run well enough such that one or two papers can be made out of it and after that, it may be forgotten.
For this purpose, this kind of coding is actually decent and (unluckily) investing time in good software engineering practises would mean that you have less time for writing papers.
In this sense, I would be cautious to call this kind of code "bad", but rather say that if you write code for a company, the priorities are very different.
In the end it all worked out and it was a very good lesson in trying to keep the output stable while refactoring the code. This was well before 'TDD'.
That's because every one of those "observations" applies to most everyone. It's the same reason why astrological horoscopes apply to everyone.
Example from psycholoy:
By the way, the statements in the
paragraph actually describe me rather badly (I am badly described using "wishy-washy statements"), so I believe this effect hardly works on me.
Sounds like that arrogance didn't necessarily get fixed....
If somebody comes off as a jerk and doesn't appear to listen to you, it's almost certainly not because that is their "nature". They likely have reasons and incentives for acting like that. Possibly other people really _aren't_ helpful to them, and they haven't yet learned the fine political art of pretending otherwise.
If you want to hire a bunch of very smart people who are also very pliable, and won't question you even if they disagree- well, good luck. Start with naive college grads, probably.
> I spent part of my childhood dreaming of being Captain James T. Kirk… I seriously believe that I became a better teacher and colleague by watching Kirk run the Enterprise. Kirk was not the smartest guy on the ship.
And that's the main reason I never liked Voyager. Kate Mulgrew's character was the smartest person on that ship, and she made sure everybody knew it. Which is a shame because I always thought she deserved more screen time.
That all being said... it appears that you're assuming facts not in evidence.
This, after all, is a guy who works for pmarca, who, having achieved the status of "rich white person", went on to posit in public that the end of colonialism was bad for India: "Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades." It's possible there were some nuances he was missing.
What's your dismissive line this time?
I've certainly run into arrogant engineers in the past. I spent the 2-3 weeks after the worst of them left cleaning up his bug-ridden, brittle code. If he had worked more collaboratively, it wouldn't have had to be that way.
Insisted that certain metrics should be recorded, ended up identifying massive gaps in SLA, improved overall QoS.
Was asked to give SRE and Devops advice to a team. Told them to document their "regular tasks"; that is, to write down a doc "How to Upgrade Frob Databases" so that they would have a way to do all the "Upgrade Frob Database for Customer #xxx" tickets on their kanban board. Got pushback. Wrote the docs for them anyway. Their kanban board drained over the next two sprints.
Edit: In all cases, got massive pushback from management and never from devs nor engineers. Was called "arrogant", "troublemaker", "enabler", reprimanded, etc. You asked for examples, you get examples.
Maybe you achieved these in an arrogant way? I'm not going to deny that you can get things done being arrogant. But I don't think it's necessary to getting things done right.
People calling other people offensive names in offices happens way too many times. Way too many managers and teams got too warm & fuzzy & comfy (and unproductive) and any newcomers who want to get shit done are labelled as "rocking the boat" although not literally but with a ton of euphemisms to conceal the core idea -- like those your parent commenter already mentioned ("troublemaker" etc.).
Being arrogant and being perceived by other people as arrogant are two completely unrelated pairs of shoes.
I personally would assume that many "nerds", for a lack of "social fluency" (I want to avoid the term "social skills", since in my experience they are not socially "unskilled", but rather think differently from many other people, which makes them often act somewhat clumsily), are perceived as arrogant, while they actually are not. On the other hand, I observe that many people who play the "acting humbly" game are actually deep inside quite arrogant and narcistic.