Wednesday, February 17, 2010

06. why your IT department hates you volume I: social swiss army knife theory

first in a series.  "volume I" because i'm provided with a near infinite supply of ammunition.  but this one is just a primer.  things you (should) already know, to get you started.

the fact that a large percentage of people really don't see why IT, tech people, and i'll even throw mechanics in here, are bitter in general (especially off the clock)is part of the problem.  stop for a second to think about the last tech person you've talked to (if you are reading this and are a tech or tech-inclined, don't worry about this, as tech to tech communication runs through different protocols).  what was the first thing you said after hi or hello? was there even a hi or hello?  you ask about how they're doing or maybe their weekend plans?  i'm guessing not.  though i've heard it phrased differently almost each of the thousands of times, the direct theme remains wholly unchanged -

"i have a problem, can you fix it for me?"

and most of the time, sure, we can.  but the problem lies not in what we're asked for, but in how we're asked, why we're asked, and on a lot of occasions, the expectation that we can perform magic to fix someone else's screw-up or lack of foresight.

how:  using phrases like "thingy," "box," and incorrectly using names of parts or software interchangeably.  we understand you're not experts, but we're expected to speak your language to solve your issue.  the very least you can do is try to explain your situation to us as clearly as you can.  ambiguities like "it doesn't work" or "it crashed" open up causal chains of, and i'm not exaggerating here, over 100 things that may possibly be wrong with whatever may or may not be working, and on occasion this turns a simple issue into a wild goose chase.  another pet peeve of nerdkind everywhere is casually asking for something ridiculous, and the accompanying surprise when we say no.  "we need the entire thing re-done by tomorrow morning?  what?  you can't?  but it shouldn't take that long!"  if the tables were turned, with a major project within a very limited timeframe, you'd likely tell me to go to hell. 

why:  while this one gets irritating, looking back on it you really have to laugh.  the annoying "why" factor comes more into play as the position of the person requesting help rises.  these are situations where the problem at hand is advertised to be of great importance by someone very high up, so naturally one would have to drop whatever they were doing to go address it.  you put on your game face, grab your tools and get ready to assess the situation and then you learn the grim truth - you just got called away from tracing through a rat's nest of cabling or starting a deployment or recoding the website because someone needs a flash plugin - to watch their kid/grandkid/relative sing/dance/do something funny.  awwww.  magical.

there is, and will always be, some sort of division between two these types of people in the sphere of business and the world and at large - the masses, so called for a reason, and the technocracy.  the masses generally view the technocracy as largely awkward, irritating, and anti-social, and figure that it's "just the way they are."  this adds another layer of exclusion to an already embittered service-oriented social class.

these combined attitudes of many of the masses lead to a belief that technical people themselves are tools to be used, and not actual humans, and makes up what i call social swiss army knife theory.  we have a particular set of skills that allow us to help people make their lives easier, and are many times viewed as those skills only, not actual people.

enter level 2 bitterness.

i know plenty of tech nerds that could carry on detailed and intelligent conversations about politics, philosophy, or economics with anyone who majored in any one of those topics.  on the other hand, i know a ton who like to go out and party and could probably drink you under the table.  on the third hand, i know plenty who can do both.  the funny part is that not a lot of people would know it or really care to find out.

now i'm not whining.  i don't suffer from the stereotypical awkwardness or social ineptitude, and i'm not trying to make the technocracy look like a victim.  like i said, this is first in a series of posts.  there will be one calling for the de-sissyfication of the american nerd.  but in the spirit of this whole damn thing,  i'm just providing you with a viewpoint you may not be used to.  i speak for much of nerdkind, because all they'll really do is curse you under their breath.

so be a little nicer to your local nerd, and remember that he or she isn't a swiss army knife, just a person who knows how to use one.


  1. tech nerds and lawyers have plenty in common: both are service industries, and both involve special knowledge that is fetishized or blackboxed by those who simultaneously don't possess it but expect it to work in their favor magically.

    you go, nerd.

  2. this should be a quarterly GMP training article. you'd see some pretty swift attitude adjustment.

    also, i heard your girlfriend is awesome.

  3. you're absolutely right tim - law and i would even guess medicine are falling victim to the same problem - it seems to me we're getting to a dangerous intersection between the following two things:
    1. the perception of specialized skills as commodities
    2. the unwillingness of the general public to try and understand the world around them.

    #2 scares the hell out of me, since the internet age was supposed to give people access to more information and more ideas and more culture. instead what they're finding are half-assed "i want it right and i want it now" replacements - a lawguru/webmd generation with the attention span of a mushroom.

  4. and indeed jessica, my girlfriend is, where did you acquire this information?

  5. This post reminded me of Big Bang Theory. Although I haven't yet seen it, I've talked to people who have. Currently it's one of the hottest sitcoms around, but it has a caveat.

    BBT is a show about nerds. The problem, according to my wife, is that the show is clearly not written by nerds, such that the characters are merely stereotypical examples of what "normal" people think nerds are... or should be.

    So while the hope might be that BBT would help make people think of nerds more as "people", the show instead revels in the belief that "nerds aren't like the rest of us".

    Come to think of it, one of the few shows that accurately portrayed nerds, Geeks and Freaks, didn't do well. Which I guess goes to show that most people don't WANT to think of nerds as "real people".

    It's easier to keep using (abusing) them if they're just tools.

  6. First time poster here at your blog --- please keep it up! I'm enjoying the reads.