What I’ve Learned Working With Techies

Photograph by Timothy Archibald

I got my first taste of the quirky and sometimes infuriating digital culture when I joined U.S. Robotics (once a leading modem maker) in 1988. Although we associate technology with rules and logic, many of the brilliantly nerdy people in product development were as right-brained and whimsical as any poets or musical-theater majors.

The notion that IT and engineering work are data-driven and process-based is laughably untrue in the trenches. Tech inventiveness, thank goodness, relies at least as much on flights of whimsy and random inspiration (not to mention instinct and pluck), as on the rational problem-solving with which tech work is usually associated.

It also matters why the person got into the field. If I were still interviewing software engineers and hardware designers, I’d ask every applicant, “Why did you choose this field?” There are people who chose the career path the ways their dads and granddads chose drafting or plumbing: it’s a trade, it’s respectable, and it pays a decent wage. There are others who chose technology for its creative possibilities—to make a mark and explore their problem-solving passions. A techie’s ‘origin story’ is important because there are tech jobs that require crafts-people and others that call for artists.  The gap between them can be as great as the gulf between the person who sets up music stands at Carnegie Hall and the one who conducts the orchestra.

Another thing I learned working with techies is that some have a strange and wildly inappropriate-for-work taste in humor. Like anyone, I’d expect to have to visit the loading dock and tell the folks there to take the tool vendor’s calendar off the wall. I didn’t expect to have to do that in the engineering labs, vetting displays of humor—the kind that shows up after midnight, when employees are drunk on pizza and Izze.

What’s more, techies have no patience for mindless bureaucracy. (God bless them.) More than one research and development director has told me: “My job is keeping the rest of the company off my team’s back so they can get their work done.” Woe to the HR or finance person who saddles techies with pointless forms and policies. They won’t revolt; they’ll ignore you or sabotage you—and they’ll win.

Finally, techies ask questions no one else does—about unexamined and frankly idiotic HR policies, as well as questions about what qualifies a certain vice president for his or her job. Questions like that can be infuriating, but they’re refreshing, too. It is a wonderful thing to be around people who look at the world not from the standpoint that “these are the rules, so let’s just follow them,” but with the question “why?” in mind.

If you haven’t yet been in that sort of work environment, I hope you’ll experience it one day. I know it changed me for the better.