Get to know a techie

“Knowledge workers are the career wave of the future.  Knowledge workers gather, analyze, and otherwise make data do tricks that supposedly lead to profits.  They converse with computers and cruise the internet.  Someday, everybody will be a knowledge worker, and civilization will collapse because no one will be left to cook dinner.” –  Hal Lancaster, The Wall Street Journal

For the past 20 years I’ve worked with technical people, and, frankly, I’ve loved it.

I like the fact that the mind of a technical person is clean.  It’s refreshing.   It’s free from distracting details.

I like the fact that techies think in clear sentences devoid of embellishments.  A technical person never has use for superfluous adjectives or adverbs (adverbs like “never” or adjectives like “superfluous”). I enjoy the fact that the minds of highly-trained engineers and programmers move at the speed of light.  Technical types are passionate about their work.  They want to make a difference.  I find them delightful.

You may be groaning as you read these words, wondering what techies I’ve been dealing with all these years.

You may be thinking the ones you know are introverts, terrible managers, lost in jargon, anti-social, or all of the above.  If that’s your experience, I’ll bet you’ve never approached techies informally and tried get to know them as people. Try it. I think you’ll be surprised.

Bridging the so-called “cultural” gap between technical and non-technical staff seems like a tall order. But there’s a big need for it in work settings worldwide today.   The issue is growing, and it’s one we need to address. Bridging the gap could prove both surprising and fun.

Let me tell you the story of how I learned to appreciate techies.  Not surprisingly, mine is a story with an international cast.

I once worked with a consulting firm that had been brought in to install a new IT system at a Fortune 500 company.  The client company was headquartered in Europe, but our team was based at its main U.S. office.  My job was to write and edit internal communications.

The consulting firm I worked for had offices around the world.  The partner heading up our engagement decided that five technical experts from the firm’s European offices should be assigned to our team and live in the U.S. for the 18-month duration of the project.

The client company’s Chief Technical Office (CTO) was delighted.  He knew he could relate to the technical guys coming in.  He also knew that bringing in experts from Europe would look good to his boss.

Though the CTO was happy about the news, I was bummed.  It was hard enough working with American techies, I thought, but trying to get through to guys from overseas would be a nightmare.  Not only did I not speak their technical language, but the newcomers wouldn’t necessarily be speaking English.  I dreaded the arrival of five weird nerds with poor language skills.

Well, was I wrong!  The guys who showed up were fabulous!

The team the firm sent consisted of five tall young men who arrived on their first day of work sporting long hair, leather jackets, and shades — and driving leased red convertibles.  (This was California, after all, and they so wanted to be like Bruce Willis).  All five were outgoing and witty, spoke perfect English, and loved my favorite music.

“How could these guys be techies?” I wondered. “Where are their pocket protectors, baggy jeans, and PDA’s?  Can it be true that they’re looking people in the eye and beaming friendly smiles? Is my stereotype of a technical person something I got from (God forbid) Dilbert?”

For the next year and a half, I had a great time working not only with the European technical experts, but also their American counterparts.  I found the European crew to be sharp problem-solvers (as well as sharp dressers), warm and funny individuals, and spot-on observers when it came to U.S. popular culture.  One guy was shocked that the parking lot at Frye’s Electronics was full every Saturday night.  Another remarked that the most surprising thing he’d noticed about Silicon Valley was that “there are no gardens here.”

And so it turned out that when technical people from another country entered my life, they destroyed my stereotype of techies in general.

The experience proved to me that the stereotype many Americans have of programmers, software developers, and hardware engineers is just that: a stereotype.

If you’d like to be able to talk more easily with technical people, ask them about their dreams for the future.  Ask them to describe their favorite music. Ask them to tell you about their families.

And if they should get started talking in too much detail or becoming too analytical, just give them a grin and ask them to lighten up.  Techies want to be taken seriously and have their work respected, but they also want to belong and have fun. Just like you.