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Why the myth of the 'loner genius nerd' is dangerous

technology computer keyboard
Flicker Photo/Leslee Lazar (CC-BY-NC-ND)

There’s a stereotype of tech workers that’s been circulating for some time now. It says the programmer checklist goes something like this:

Glasses repaired with tape.

Wears shorts and sandals at all times.

Works alone, possibly from parents’ basement.

Claire Cain Miller, a reporter with Upshot for the New York Times, wrote recently that this stereotype is a dangerous myth. She talked with Bill Radke about why it’s a bad idea to assume that programmers are loner genius nerds who don’t have — or don’t need — people skills.

“This has always sort of been the stereotype ever since the computer industry really took off in the '60s and '70s and people started making movies and writing books about it," she said.

"There’s always been this stereotype. But it was never true. Programming really started in university computer labs at places like Stanford and MIT. And they were very social places.”

She said that even if coding looks like a solitary job to outsiders, it actually involves collaborating with hundreds of thousands of engineers who might use the code in the future. What’s more, the idea that you don’t need people skills to work in tech is dangerous.

“What it does is it really attracts people into the industry who maybe don’t feel so comfortable working with other people, don’t feel the need to work on those skills in themselves,” Cain Miller said. “Then when they find out they actually need to have good teamwork, it doesn’t go so well.”

She added that it can lead to products like Google Glass that don’t resonate with consumers.

“One of the most dangerous parts, in my opinion, is that if you lack empathy, that interpersonal skill that is basically trying to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling and trying to live in their shoes, it really hurts the product development,” she said. “Because you’re really building these tech products for other people.”

Cain Miller’s loner genius nerd article ran after a Google employee was fired for circulating a memo that stated women weren’t suited for tech work because they’re focused on “feelings and aesthetics” instead of ideas.

Cain Miller wrote that he got the biology of women wrong, but he also got the requirements of working in tech wrong.

“He missed the fact that the job really does require people skills,” she said.

Technology is becoming more ingrained in every part of our lives, and if the people building products don’t understand others, it can lead to problems.

“One funny example was when a child ordered a $160 dollhouse on the Echo through Alexa and four pounds of cookies,” Cain Miller said. “And she just asked Alexa to send it, and [it] did.”

Algorithms now determine what you see on Facebook, whether your resume gets through to a hiring manger, who you see on dating apps, and whether or not you’ll be approved for a loan. And there are real people and assumptions behind those algorithms.

“We have this myth that the people who make technology are these loner nerds,” Cain Miller said. “It really deters talented people from the industry. And this is not just women. It’s all sorts of people, including men who don’t think that sounds like a great job description, and who don’t identify with that.”

She added: “The more that this happens … the more that these products that affect every part of our lives are going to be built with people with only one set of experiences — that’s not going to serve any of us well.”

Produced for the Web by Amy Rolph.

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012
Year started with KUOW: 2015