Freelance technical communicator to the stars. Podcaster, video maker, writer of interactive fiction
I make no pretence that I am a generalist and get bored quickly. I have written before about how this sometimes makes you feel left out, or worse, an idiot who has wasted their life. I want to explore this topic in more detail, and that of ‘tech tribes’, that I feel it relates to.
I think it’s accurate to say that many of us working in tech, at least those of us who have been for some time, grew up as outsiders to the mainstream. For many years our choice of interest and work was generally regarded as the domain of awkward ‘nerds’, when ‘nerd’ was a term of vitriol. In the past few years us ‘awkward nerds’ have been increasingly joined by those who would have been put off by this image. In an ultimate twist of irony, likely some of those who used to make our lives hell when we were younger.
This is because the tech sector is booming, technology is king, it’s largely profitable, pays well and never stops demanding talent.
In short, (for the time being) we won. And the previous winners want in on the game of those they called ‘losers’ before.
A lot of these points could do with further explanation, dissection and analysis, but that’s not the place of this post and maybe not me.
What I want to focus on is how this has affected us.
We may choose to deny it, but breaking into tribes, gangs, teams, clubs or groups (along whatever divisions) is human nature. As intelligent people we think we don’t do it, but we do, and we try to make excuses and intellectual arguments for what is basically joining a gang.
It’s a defense mechanism, we felt isolated and different as youth, so forming into strongly identifying groups gives a strength in numbers that is comforting.
Peruse a forum or reddit thread or sit in a room of tech enthusiasts and you will see it.
My Linux distribution is better than yours, because…
My text editor is better than yours, because…
Your choice of programming language is dumb, because…
And these are tame examples, at the extreme end these attitudes have manifested into controversies like gamergate and the general denigration of minorities in the tech world. We like to pretend that these arguments are justified and backed by reasoned, informed experience or knowledge. Sometimes they may be, but most of the time it’s plain and simple posturing. A modern equivalent of squaring up your chest to a rival.
This is all fine in principle, as I say, it’s human nature. If you care so much about something to get involved in such a heated discussion, then good on you, most of the time. When it’s not OK is how you treat people who don’t share this opinion. There are those who will have an equally strong opinion that is contrary or different and will either never associate ‘with the likes of you’ or will enjoy the challenge of trying to change your opinion. But it does not excuse treating someone badly because they don’t share an opinion with you.
More subtle than this is the way people who don’t care, or are more pragmatic are treated. At the more ‘geeky’ conferences (such as FOSDEM) you see this all the time, groups swarming off to their tribe of choice to seek a bit of self-congratulatory confidence boosting. When you’re asked which tribe you identify with and you don’t identify with any because you have a more broad range of interests, it can be isolating and lonely. When everyone vanishes off to their ‘project x’ dinner or drinks that you knew nothing about, but might have had something to contribute to, it feels a lot like those cold dark playgrounds of your youth all over again.
Having a general interest in lots of things amongst some more extreme tech people is often seen as a bad thing. Surely you must have an opinion, you can’t have a balanced view of everything, come down on the side of something!
Maybe I am indecisive, in fact I am. Maybe I fear committing myself to any one thing and use it as an excuse to flit from project to project. But there are a lot of people like me, especially beginners who haven’t formed an opinion yet. Alienating them from day one is not a sustainable approach to project growth.
To these same groups it can also come across as snobbery or over confident and as success grows in the tech world, these attitudes are increasing. Not only do we think we are right, we feel we have increasing evidence to prove it.
I am trying hard to not make this post sound like a rant because I sometimes feel left out. In every situation when I have experienced these attitudes or been ignored, I try to step back, take a balanced and objective look at things and keep being friendly. But you know what, generally being the one who approaches people, instigates conversations and tries to engage with others gets exhausting.
I have noticed some cultural differences between European events and events in the USA and Australia. Especially at events in the USA, where I was rarely left alone in a room of strangers for longer than 5 minutes before someone would approach me and introduce me into their circle. At European events I can stand in a room alone for an hour and few will make a move to greet you. It’s hard to say whether relationships made at European events may end up being more meaningful over US events. That’s a difficult theory to test.
On the flip side, I find that US attendees at events are far more geared towards personalities, expecting you to have heard of someone they mention. Maybe this is just a different method of forming ‘gangs’ amongst groups.
I’m not sure what my conclusion or outcome to this post is. Despite being offended by many attendees at events, I am trying to remain open minded and positive on this issue. I guess all I am asking/saying is that when someone approaches you who doesn’t have an opinion you share, be courteous. They are trying to understand why you have formed your opinion and why you are passionate about something. Help them understand it, but don’t cast judgement on why they haven’t formed the same opinion (yet).
When you see someone struggling to fit in, remember those times in your life when you were rejected or ignored and how you felt. It wasn’t great was it?
And finally, remember that treating someone nicely might help them agree with (or at least see) your opinion and welcome a new contributor into your community.
All of the Weekly Squeak posts are accompanied by a podcast where I go more in-depth into the topic, subscribe here or listen to the individual episode to the left.
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