while true; do printf $RANDOM; done # Poor man's Matrix screensaver...

Explaining That Computers are Science, not Magic

Date/Time Permalink: 09/16/08 07:40:13 am
Category: General

I while ago when I was talking about the San Francisco rogue admin story, I mentioned that IT workers and upper management are often at odds in their world-view and that this seemed to be coloring the accuser's attitudes towards their former employee in that case. Now comes a Slashdot story asking about that same Tech vs Business front.

Briefly, managers and techies just don't seem to see eye to eye very much in the business world. Note those first two comments on the Slashdot thread, where they say it for me:

"I've found this to be true in almost every company that I've worked for. tech workers are looked down upon, because people only ever come to us when things go badly..."

...and...

"I've often considered tech to be like plumbing. The users of both have no idea how it works, basic knowledge of how to use it, and only care when it stops working. Users expect it to work like magic all the time..."

And of course, the issue begs comparison to the famous Dilbert comic strip. It's the same old story over and over again: The tale of the clueless pointy-haired boss who nevertheless inexplicably manages to maintain his position as head of a technology-based company, and the smart, savvy engineers who laugh up their sleeves at his incompetence. Things just go on that way.

One thing to point out, is that I don't entirely blame the manager. Geeks, too, are short-sighted in several ways. This is why I freelance. I'm great at the technical stuff. But the thought of filling out paperwork for incorporating a business looks like mindless tedium to me, I'd hate to be in a position to hire and fire employees, and discussions of marketing makes my eyelids heavy. I'd rather be at my desk coding up some wonderful engineering solution, where I can then hand it off to the boss who magically turns the technology into money and pays me a share.

So you see, it's the same problem on both sides of the fence; business is magic to an IT worker, computers are magic to a business manager. Engineers speak of MBA degrees in sneering tones and disdain wearing a suit and tie and having a power lunch. But that stuff is science to the business manager. We're all muggles to some kind of wizard.

For my part, I make every effort to explain technology clearly to those who didn't understand it before. That's the biggest motivation for me to maintain this site; explaining Free and Open Source Software to the masses and helping beginners get more savvy with tech, at the same time helping slightly more advanced techies learn a bit more.

It's taking longer than I thought it would.

One person at a time. That's our only choice. Since I quit working in cubicle land and started working online, I've found it immensely easier to explain technical issues to clients. Face-to-face, all you can do is talk. Over a network, you can slap together a whole presentation, with diagrams and images and links to citations online. Frequently, I've had to pause a job and do just that for clients. The clients appreciate it immensely, because I can patiently explain anything as long as I know where the other person's starting point is. It helps to have writing skills and broad general knowledge, so you can talk about a subject without sounding like a Harvard professor and you also know a few subjects outside your field so you can pull up a handy analogy.

When geeks get exasperated and run out of patience, it isn't with the user. It may seem that way, but it's actually the fact that for so many people out there, the only place to start is square one.

Technology education sucks. Horribly!

Look at how other disciplines are handled in school: you're not expected to be a chef, but at least you get a home-ec class where you learn how to bake a sheet of brownies without burning the house down. You're not expected to be a race-car driver, but everybody gets enough drivers-ed to pass a license test. To get back to business, school is chock full of business education. You get story problems about lemonade stands, you learn how to compile statistics into a graph in math, a life skills course teaches you the basics of handling credit cards and checking accounts, and you're taught how to write a business letter in English class.

Cooking, driving, and holding down a job. Basic skills that you need in order to function as an adult in society. Yet here we have the Information Age upon us, where every person will be expected to deal with computers at some level or another all their lives. Where's the comp-ed courses at the high school level?

That's where you hear all the abuse hurled on "newbs" comes from. Computer professionals get sick and tired of having to fill in for all those comp-ed courses that the educational system didn't provide. When they come off all superior and condescending, well, that's them being human.

It's slowly getting better. I review my own kid's school activities, and I must say I'm impressed with how technology is at least brought into the classroom to teach other subjects. The students might play an educational game or have a class lecture delivered with notebook computer on every desk to aid in presenting the lesson. There is even the occasional dip into how computers work, along the way to illustrating a point about logic or science. The next generation of students might accidentally pick up a few computer skills by sheer osmosis, at least.

So there is hope for the next generation. But even if we get this situation fixed, it says dark things about our culture that it took so long to fix it.

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