Charles Hooper wrote an interesting article about Letting Tech People be Socially Inept, in response to a recent incident at ThisWebHost where a technical director got mad at a customer and deleted data. There’s so much wrong here that it’s hard to know where to begin. “Jules” at This* was totally in the wrong. Charles is also wrong when he says that every position is customer-facing. Some people can do really great work only interacting with one person – usually their boss – and referring to that one person as a “customer” seems rather facile to me. Most of all, though, the puntwits on Hacker News are wrong too.
Probably the most common theme in the HN responses is that high technical skill and eschewing social niceties are closely and necessarily related because they both involve pruning away extraneous detail to get to the heart of something complex. For example, the very first comment there refers to “seemingly-meaningless boilerplate and social grease that we call people skills” and sets the tone for many that follow. The problem I have with this is two-fold. First, a lot of the bad behavior I see from my colleagues has nothing to do with social niceties. Go look at How To Ruin a Project and you’ll see that many of the items listed there don’t have anything to do with social skills. You don’t need a fine understanding of social cues to realize it’s wrong to miss the point, focus on the trivial, or wage “guerilla warfare” against a decision you don’t like. Those things might well have social effects, but they’re wrong even for purely practical reasons as well.
My other objection to the “boilerplate and grease” meme is that social cues actually do serve a practical purpose. They help to identify how strongly someone holds a belief, and how much importance they attach to the subject. Without that information, it’s easy to waste enormous amounts of time fighting wars that didn’t really need to be fought, and sometimes that leaves little time or energy – or poisons the atmosphere – for the debates that really do need to occur. One of the real problems I see with my fellow techies is a general lack of perspective, proportion, or priority. People who fail to give or read cues regarding these three important factors are demonstrating a deficiency that can affect even the most purely technical decision making. Being socially inept is not just cosmetic; it has a real and tangible effect on overall competence.
That brings me to the second most common theme in the HN responses: Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve known quite a few real Aspies. I’ve known even more people who self-diagnose or self-identify that way as an excuse for being lazy about social interaction, so I won’t claim that I’m that way myself, but I will say I’m close enough (as is visibly the case for most of the other males in my family) to understand the challenges they face. I understand the “gravity” that always pulls one’s thoughts inward, and I know the pain of having to pull one’s attention away to deal with the “noise” that other people can generate. I will gladly do everything I can to accommodate people for whom these burdens truly are greater. I’ll teach them coping strategies I’ve learned from others, act as interpreter, run interference for them, whatever. However, there’s a difference here. It’s one thing to have a hard time understanding social cues. It’s another thing to understand those cues perfectly well and use that knowledge to troll more effectively. It’s really not that hard to tell the difference between an Aspie and an asshole; those who throw spitballs from behind a shield meant for others are not only jerks but cowards as well.
My conclusion is that Charles was wrong about everyone being customer facing, but right about the more fundamental reality that we techies in general need to stop being such jerks. We need to stop enabling the jerks by applauding when they act in deliberately offensive ways on HN, on Twitter, in conference presentations, etc. We need to stop pretending that the combative style prevalent on HN or LKML is the best way to facilitate progress; there’s no empirical evidence that “culling the herd” or “honing one’s weapons” or other such bloody metaphors really apply. We need to stop encouraging young techies to expend their energy emulating those styles instead of developing real people skills. Social skills really do serve a useful purpose, and anyone can improve them. That doesn’t make you less technical; it makes you more adult.