Doctor McCoy, on the original Star Trek series had a signature line — he was forever complaining about this or that with the exclamation that he was just a doctor, and not a… Well, whatever, from shuttle driver to politician.
And how many times, in my career, have I wanted to stop in the middle of some meeting and scream, “Jim — I’m an engineer, not a politician!”
After all, there’s some sense in which engineers become engineers because we’re focused on the problem at hand, we’re focused on the technical issue, not the people issue. I once saw a cartoon that expressed the feeling in the technical community almost perfectly — an engineer talking to her manager, who has apparently just been told she needs to work on her “people skills.” Her answer? “I only went into computers in the first place because I don’t like people.”
And there used to be a time when engineers could get away with this. There was once a time when IT was in the basement (we used to joke about putting on the asbestos suites when going down to the basement to get to our desks in one large company). There was once a time when It was somehow magical, something behind the glass wall, something you were either “in” or “out” of.
Whether or not we like it, those days are gone.
Today everyone is in IT. At least some companies are starting to realize that all companies are information companies, even if they’re not information technology companies. IT has moved out of the basement, and into the boardroom.
What am I saying? That you have to be a socialite? No. I’m widely known as being antisocial — I don’t do event socials, I don’t go out on the town at night, and I don’t really talk about myself at a personal level to very many people. But you don’t have to be an extrovert or a socialite (or a partier) to be social. You don’t have to be world’s biggest sports fan to talk to people (even though, yes, there are services where you can keep up with the sports world without being “involved” in sports). But just because you’re not an extrovert, or a partier, doesn’t mean you can’t be social in a normal, polite, ordinary way. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk to people on a normal basis, or cultivate a social network. We often lose the distinction between being “popular” and “social.”
Am I saying you have to be a politician? No, not really — though we do need to realize that IT is now about people, and people are naturally political creatures. Most of the problems we really face are, in the end, political problems, rather than technical ones.
Or am I saying we need to “blend in” to the “corporate culture?” Not even this, really. It’s okay for engineers to have a different culture — honestly. I was once asked to make certain I didn’t wear a suite and tie to a particular customer because if I did, they’d think I was just another salesman. Good thing, because I don’t really own much in the way of suits and ties anyway (and the ties I do own are all cartoons). But having a different culture doesn’t mean engineering has to be the sort of culture that breeds in the dark on top of leftovers in the refrigerator. Different doesn’t have to mean “toxic,” or “gross,” or…
So be proud of your choice to be an engineer. Revel in your logic. Being Spock is okay (for even Spock was social, in the end). But the next time you get the urge to scream, “Jim, I’m an engineer, not…,” think twice. It might be better to suck it up and listen. You might learn something.