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"Tech's Damaging Myth of the Loner Genius Nerd" - NYT Article

juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 11,483 Super Moderator
Hey all! Thought I would post this article here, as many students talk about their major choice as directly tied to their college search process and many students these days are interested in computer science and engineering majors for tech careers.

Tech's Damaging Myth of the Loner Genius Nerd

I work in the tech industry myself - at Microsoft. I've often heard students ask people what they should major in if they are socially awkward or want to work alone a lot, and people often respond by telling them to look into computer science or engineering majors. That's always been super frustrating for me to see because it's so patently untrue, so I'm glad I now have an article to point people to.

Tech work - especially at big companies that pay high salaries - is very collaborative work! If you're a software developer/engineering working on a project most likely you are on a team of developers who are coding pieces of the project. (For example in games, we have people who are responsible for different parts of the game - some people may do character mechanics, some people environmental effects, some people UI, etc.) All those developers have to communicate with each other to get work done - and that's not including all the designers, artists, community managers, producers, program managers, marketing specialists, lawyers, HR, and other people you need to liaise with to get the work done!

Replies to: "Tech's Damaging Myth of the Loner Genius Nerd" - NYT Article

  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 28,740 Senior Member
    Amen. My job is herding those nerds -- it is a pain in the neck to deal with people who can't coordinate and work with others. I just spent weeks working through a problem that could have been fixed in a couple of days without prickly personalities and poor communication skills.
  • roethlisburgerroethlisburger Registered User Posts: 1,574 Senior Member
    I agree with about half of the above. A entry level coder will often have layers of technical leads and managers between him or her and legal, marketing, etc. To reverse the question, are there any fields you think would be a good fit for someone with high functioning ASD?
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 28,740 Senior Member
    My coders can't even talk to each other. :(
  • whatisyourquestwhatisyourquest Registered User Posts: 580 Member
    edited August 13
    My 30+ year experience in engineering supports the "myth" of the "loner genius nerd." Lots of my colleagues with poor social skills spent their entire career running simulations and conducting analyses in a very solitary environment. Of course, some interaction with others was required to coordinate results, but this tended to be a small part of the work experience. More commonly, in a typical day, one worked in an office in front of a computer screen and didn't talk to a soul.

    My colleagues with strong social skills got out of the realm of solitary analyses after a few years (everyone had to begin their career doing this kind of work) and moved into program management or engineering line management -- jobs that require good interpersonal skills. A few left for academia. I have one very sociable friend that started out as an excellent analyst, then moved into program management, and is now executive Vice President of the company.
  • whatisyourquestwhatisyourquest Registered User Posts: 580 Member
    My main beef with the article is that it ignores career progression. The article is focused on coders and their interactions with each other and with customers. In practice, that kind of work is done by the folks in the trenches.

    However, advancement is important to many people, and those that climb the corporate ladder surely leave actual coding behind -- that's done by the employees that they manage. Without saying so, the article is evaluating the "loner genius nerd myth" with respect to newbies and career coders -- only a subset within the CS corporate culture, I believe.
  • simba9simba9 Registered User Posts: 2,629 Senior Member
    edited August 13
    @whatisyourquest, do you work in software development, or some other kind of engineering and analysis? Whether it's right or not, I usually think of techies as programmers.

    My 30+ years in the software biz supports a lot of what the author of the article was saying. I've worked in groups of developers from my very first job. Techies don't need to be bubbly, back-slapping extroverts, but they do need to be able to communicate what they're doing and work collaboratively with others on the team.

    A bigger problem than "loner-males" are alpha-males who need to prove they're the best programmer in the group. They usually do that by criticizing the work of their teammates, which turns the team dynamic from collaborative to confrontational, and prevents the team from making progress. That's why, occasionally in job ads, you'll see a statement like, "No Know-It-Alls."

    I've also found that most programmers don't aspire to be managers. They're more interested in their craft. That's why "tech leads" came about. They tend to be senior programmers who lead a group of other programmers on a project, while still doing some coding. They will be involved in hiring and coordination among team members, and often represent the team to upper management and customers, but aren't normally in charge of budgets or other administrative issues. They do need good interpersonal skills to be successful.
  • whatisyourquestwhatisyourquest Registered User Posts: 580 Member
    edited August 13
    @simba9 , no, I don't work in software development. I'm a recently retired aerospace engineer. I worked most of my career at a large R&D firm (about 4000 employees) that supports national space programs. My experience may not overlap with Silicon Valley -- although my company does employ lots of computer scientists, and the corporate culture that I described applied equally well to them too. The article frequently mentions "engineers" and "tech", so I thought that I'd comment on my experience with "loner genius nerds."
  • simba9simba9 Registered User Posts: 2,629 Senior Member
    @whatisyourquest , Thanks for the clarification.
  • Rivet2000Rivet2000 Registered User Posts: 214 Junior Member
    I wonder if this has anything to do with industry sector and associated corporate cultures. My first experience in software development was in a diverse team that included 2 PhDs in physics, 5 BSEE, and 1 BSCS. The work was conducted in high security clearance environment and we did not experience any of the issues described above. All on the software team were men and the hardware team was lead by a woman.
  • simba9simba9 Registered User Posts: 2,629 Senior Member
    @Rivet2000 , sounds like you were fortunate to be on a good team. Not all teams working on tech projects are bad.

    The best software group I ever worked in was at Boeing. No big egos, the work was interesting and everyone on the team got along well. It was led by a guy with a PhD in Fisheries. (He was great at statistics.)
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 11,483 Super Moderator
    I agree with about half of the above. A entry level coder will often have layers of technical leads and managers between him or her and legal, marketing, etc.

    Probably, but you'd be surprised.
    To reverse the question, are there any fields you think would be a good fit for someone with high functioning ASD?

    There are lots - it all depends on the person. We have lots of people on the autism spectum here at Microsoft and across the field in various different roles. People with ASD are all different. I've known some who have voluntarily gone into roles (and enjoyed them) that require a lot of daily interaction with others. We accommodate like we do any other disability. In fact, I have to say that working here has busted a lot of stereotypes I've seen about people on the spectrum.
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