Monday, 17 March 2008

The rise of the Nu-Geeks

At QCon last Thursday Kent Beck gave a keynote on Trends in Agile Development.  There were lots of interesting slides about the rise in tests, quick releases and lots of other agileness but the most interesting aspect of the talk for me was the rise of the new generation of tech savvy business professionals.  The old "wizards" detectable by their strange socially inappropriate behaviour are out as a generation of Nu-Geeks with social skills like listening, team work and emotional intelligence are rising to the challenge of making businesses happy.
I've never been one for the old skool geek, I'd go as far to say I am a NAG (Not A Geek) and have found myself often frustrated by people trying to tar me with the brush of demeaning stereotypes - the most extreme example being a senior manager who put the IT department in the basement believing we would be more comfortable far from the real world of human interaction (no clients were ever bought to the basement by the way: except if they were techies themselves) - so I identify strongly with this rise.   This is one of the many reasons I was attracted to Agile, listening to Kent Beck talk reminded me that what I found refreshing about Extreme Programming Explained was the focus on the social side of development and the reason I signed the Agile Manifesto was the belief in "people over process".

This all supposes that the stereotype ever existed.  The feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir (friend and influencer of Jean-Paul Sartre) argued that stereotyping is a form of subjugation and always done in societies by the group higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy so that the lower group became the “other” and had a false aura of mystery around it.  How accurately does that describe the IT industry with the exception that perhaps there is a bi-directional purpose to the stereotype: one from outside the group to keep the geeks in and the other from inside to keep the women out?

Hopefully as the geeky male image melts faster than the ice caps we will start to see more women join the fray.  Recent news seems to offer a strong promise of this trend.

Girl's found computers too macho back before the turn of the millennium and research blamed the strong male images and metaphors such as pirates, ships and planes opposed to softer, feminine images (apparently teddy bears  and flowers).  Now the tables have turned and research by Tesco found that girls are more computer savvy than boys.  So as the last bastion of strictly male territory falls so will the old stereotype of the geek-knight on a white mac coming to the rescue of the maiden caught by the evil Word dragons.  Unfortunately this will leave a horde of male geeks without any chance of female contact.

The trend is fierce and girls are not only better at computers than boys but are also more prolific with it.  Apparantly the growth of social networking and blogging is "almost entirely fuelled by girls".  Gaming is another area which women are conquering with girl gamers being the fastest growing group in the entertainment industry.  Not only that but there are more Nintendo DSs sitting snuggly in the hands of the fairer sex (54%) than the soft unworked hands of the coffee crunching, light fearing, cellar dwelling male geek of old (only 46%).  Nintendo's own research show that it "continues to reach more women ... a significant percentage of all Touch Generations software buyers are female".  No wonder the new face of Nintendo is Nicole Kidman.

ThoughtWorks is taking the challenge on to help resolve the problem.  My suspicion is that Agile itself may be the greatest weapon in the battle: a development methodology with a more people centric, reality focused approach which values the softer skills and attempts to bridge the gulf between writing code and actually creating real things.   It is those real things I am motivated by and I know that personally, without Agile, I would be struggling to maintain my sanity in the IT industry of old.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, because using Facebook and writing build scripts is the same... you might as well argue that playing Pro Evolution Soccer is the same as coding.

Other than that flawed logic I do think that the main point Kent was making was the technology is not something you "choose" to get involved with these days, it's not "computers or people?".. both are unavoidable aspects of our lives. So yes, hopefully this will suit more people.

We need to be careful to avoid 'bigging up' positive traits that are typically feminine while happily devaluing the typically male traits that are common in good technologists. We should just identify the positive characteristics and be happy when we find them. wherever that might be.

JupiterMoonBeam said...

I don't think I ever claimed that using Facebook and writing build scripts is the same. What I stated was that a domain that has historically been male dominated is changing. The flaw in my logic maybe that interest doesn't lead to involvement and this may prove to be true.

The Tesco survey wasn't purely about social networking but quite direct skills such as using a search engine, writing a document, and use and manipulate photography, it is a shame that "write a shell script" (maybe they did and no 7 year olds could).

I also dismiss that the positive traits are typically feminine: I am male and yet I can listen, have an appreciative attitude, emotional intelligence and integrity (all the values Kent cited as positive). Having those traits neither makes me a bad technologist or a good female.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I didn't mean that positive traits are typically feminine. I meant that there is a tendency to trumpet these and to talk shamelessly about the things that women apparently excel at and that men are useless at. These are then forwarded as reasons why we need more women in IT.

My argument ties in very well with the last point in your reply: we generalize about 'feminine traits' and 'masculine' ones. Phrases like "women make better managers because they are better with people" are perfectly acceptable to most people. Yet to say that "men make better coders because they are more focused" is a big no-no.

Wouldn't it be better if we just thought in terms of the skills that make a good coder, tester, colleague etc? If a man has them, great. If a woman does, great. If they both do, great.

Ask any man if he'd prefer to work with more women and there's a good chance he'll say yes. Ask him if he'd prefer a more understanding environment, what do you think he'll say? Would he like a more appreciative approach to his work? More interaction with people? I think you'll find that very few men meet up every month to discuss how to curtail women's rights and keep our geeky superpowers "in the brotherhood." (Meetings are first Saturday of every month if you are interested ;o)

So I'm afraid I must call bullsh*t on your romanticization of the great male conspiracy to keep women out of IT. You're not striking a blow for anybody, you're sounding a little foolish.

What if, just what if... a lot of women aren't interested? I've no doubt you'll argue with this point but if you would just admit that it's a possibility you might start to sound like someone who has at least thought about these issues and has not just reeled off the results of a survey and whatever your employer has told you to say.

JupiterMoonBeam said...

My point is not that there is a conspiracy to keep women out of IT but more the imagery and stereotypes around IT are unappealing to women. You are quite correct to state that it may be a case that women simply aren't interested. In the surveys made in 1999 this was just the case: women believed IT was too macho.

When those images and metaphors change, as they have over the last few years - with things like social networking and Nintendo DSs - then women enter the markets. If you had said in 1999 that women would be the fastest growing market in the games industry and the highest users of the internet you'd be laughed out of the room.

The truth is that the IT industry has been built by a specific set of people (predominantly male) who demonstrate specific characteristics who have reinforced (probably inevertantly) those characteristics in the games, tools, languages, methodologies etc. they have created: no wonder anyone (male or female) who isn't motivated in the same way isn't interested (any pacifist with no interest in cars has their gaming market shrunk dramatically) . As you rightly say positive characteristics should be identified wherever found, however the positive characteristics of these founders and their followers should not be considered the most positive, essential or exclusive qualities desired in all IT workers.

To simply state "women aren't interested" is rather ridiculous and even if true is not argument to simply walk away from the issue. The same and similar arguments have been used against low numbers in every industry from medics, politics, the forces, sport, music, literature etc. If we take that argument to every place it has been raised (and mostly proven wrong) we would only conclude that women aren't interested in anything! Also, lack of involvement isn't limited to women it is also low with African-American and Latino people and the number of men entering IT and science in general is at all time lows (in the US students enrolling in computer science has halved since 2000): does that simply mean no-one is interested?

I also deny the charge of romanticization of a conspiracy: I haven't stated that there is any sort of conspiracy merely a harmful stereotype which some, both technologists and business people, like to reinforce. I am simply calling into question both the accuracy of this stereotype and the damaging effects it has including deterring able women but also deterring able men as well.

Anonymous said...

"stereotyping is a form of subjugation and always done in societies by the group higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy so that the lower group became the “other” and had a false aura of mystery around it. How accurately does that describe the IT industry with the exception that perhaps there is a bi-directional purpose to the stereotype: one from outside the group to keep the geeks in and the other from inside to keep the women out?"

Sounds like here you claim that it's an active thing, implying that men are guarding their position in the hierarchy.

The thing is, your post started off well, talking about a new breed of geeks - fine. Then it changed tack and started talking about getting women (not people who don't conform to the old style, but specifically women).

Basically, we're both happy that the culture is changing. I prefer to work in Agile environments. I'd prefer a less "traditionally geek" culture.

But I have to take exception when facts are distorted just because people are frustrated by the slow increase of numbers of women in IT. Changing what we look at when we recruit, paying more attention to softer skills etc is definitely a good thing. But that's about characteristics not gender. We can certainly be too heavy handed with this, and letting someone's gender play too large a role in our perceptions of their worth as a colleague or employee is, in my humble opinion, a dangerous thing. Should a woman who is "masculine" in her approach to work be chosen over a man who displays more traditionally feminine characteristics just because she's female?

And, I never said that "women aren't interested". What I said was that maybe a lot of women aren't interested, meaning less women than men. Not all women. Not women in general. Some. Are men denied the opportunity to work in childcare roles because of discrimination? Because the sisterhood want to keep them out? Is it because of stereotypes perpetuated by the ruling classes of the creches?

Is it soo ridiculous to suggest that different people are motivated by different things, and that maybe there is at slight gender effect on this? Are you hoping to see a day when men and women are equally distributed across *all* job roles?

As long as there are no barriers to prevent people from getting into a given sector then where's the problem? And given that most men would prefer to work in a more mixed environment what is actually, solidly preventing women from choosing IT if they so desire? Because it certainly isn't the recruitment policies of most IT shops. It's not me. It's not you. Where is the Big Bad Man?

So if the only people who are joining the IT industry are those women and men who want to be there... where's the problem?

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West Malling, Kent, United Kingdom
I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.