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2014 January 1

Technical entitlement—is it a thing?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:49
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I learned a new buzzword yesterday: “technical entitlement”.  I encountered the phrase on  the blog On Technical Entitlement | Soshitech.com, though apparently Tess Rinearson originally wrote it in June 2012 and also published it on medium.com.

I’m the granddaughter of a software engineer and the daughter of a entrepreneur. I could use a computer just about as soon as I could sit up. When I was 11, I made my first website and within a year I was selling code. I took six semesters of computer science in high school, and I had two internships behind me when I started my freshman year of college.

Despite what it may seem, I’m not trying to brag—seriously. I’m just trying to prove a point: I should not be intimidated by technical entitlement.

And yet I am. I am very intimidated by the technically entitled.

You know the type. The one who was soldering when she was 6. The one who raises his hand to answer every question—and occasionally tries to correct the professor. The one who scoffs at anyone who had a score below the median on that data structures exam (“idiots!”). The one who introduces himself by sharing his StackOverflow score.

That’s technical entitlement.

“Technical entitlement” seems to be the flip side of “imposter syndrome”. In imposter syndrome, competent people question their own competence—sometimes giving up when things get a little difficult, even though an outside observer sees no reason for quitting.  “Technical entitlement” seems to be blaming those who have both competence and confidence—as if it were somehow deeply unfair that some people learned things before others did.

Certainly some things are unfair—as an engineering professor I’ve been able to provide opportunities for my son to  learn computer science and computer engineering that would not be available to a parent who knew nothing about those fields.  And some of the characteristics she lists would apply to my son—I can see him correcting his professors, and although he’d never introduce himself by sharing his StackOverflow score, he did include it in some of his college essays, as evidence that he was knowledgeable and interested in sharing what he had learned.

But Tess Renearson goes on to say

It starts with a strong background in tech, often at a very young age. With some extreme confidence and perhaps a bit of obliviousness, this blooms into technical entitlement, an attitude characterized by showmanship and competitiveness.

While my son has confidence in his abilities and “perhaps a bit of obliviousness”, neither showmanship nor competitiveness are big factors in his behavior.  I think that Ms. Renearson has confused a personality trait and stereotypical US male behavior (showmanship) with early technical education. I see the arrogance as a bad thing, but the early technical education (which she herself had) as a good thing.

The rest of her post goes on to talk about ways that Amy Quispe and Jessica Lawrence managed to increase participation (particularly by women) in tech events.  But the analysis there really addresses imposter syndrome more than it does “technical entitlement”.  She quotes Jessica Lawrence: ‘“There is,” she said, “an under-confidence problem.” But Ms. Renearson then says

Sound familiar? Yep, it’s exactly the kind of self-doubt that can arise when there are so many technically entitled people around.

Somehow blaming “technically entitled people” for the under-confidence of others seems to be imposing blame where none is warranted.

Now imagine someone starting out as a college student taking their first CS course. Imagine how the technical elite make them feel.

I can understand someone being intimidated when entering a new field if they are surrounded by people more skilled in the field—but that is hardly the fault of the those who are skilled.  Newcomers anywhere are going to feel out of place, even when people are trying to welcome them. The “technical elite” are not making the newcomers feel intimidated.

If Ms. Renearson’s point is that some of the tech communities are not sufficiently welcoming of newcomers, I agree.  I’ve seen snarky comments in places like Stack Overflow that offered gratuitous insults rather than assistance.

But Ms. Renearson seems to assume that anyone who is more experienced than her is automatically trying to put her down, and that this is the way that everyone should be expected to feel.  When one starts with that assumption, there is no remedy—no matter what those more experienced or more skilled do, they will be seen as threatening.

Perhaps she has not identified those who should be getting blamed precisely enough.  I don’t think that it is “The one who was soldering when she was 6″ who is a problem, but those who refuse to give children an opportunity to learn (no public school in my county teaches computer science, except one lottery-entry charter) or who force students who’ve been programming for 6 years into the same classes as those who have never programmed, as many college CS programs do, providing no way for more advanced students to skip prerequisites.

Unfortunately, identifying the problem as being “technical entitlement” makes the problem worse not better, as it encourages public schools to suppress the teaching of technical subjects, rather than expanding them.

If she means to attack the arrogant culture of “brogrammers”, mean-spirited pranks, and other unpleasant culture that has emerged, then I support her, as I’m not happy with some of the culture I see either.  But don’t blame it on the kids who learned tech early, nor on the parents who taught them—the late-comers are more likely to be the arrogant bastards, since that arrogance is mainly a defense mechanism for incompetents.  The competent tech people are much more likely to be eager to share their enthusiasm with newcomers and help them join in the fun.

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5 Comments »

  1. What does it really mean for a child to be at fault? There aren’t many cases where a child’s behavior is a root cause of evil.

    But I think Ms Renearson makes relevant points.

    I teach science and math to 3rd graders. I have very bright kids, and ones who are less so. Levels of confidence don’t seem to have an obvious correlation to brightness.

    But the way that confident children express their confidence often impacts less confident children negatively. It takes constant vigilance on my part to keep the less confident kids from shutting down when a confident child always has his/her hand raised. Do I blame the confident child? Well, not in the sense that I think they have negative intent or are “guilty”. But, they are insensitive to how their behavior impacts other children so I do take steps to improve sensitivity.**

    Confidence in children is great for the confident child — but other children do suffer in that climate and so there is an actual cost to raising very confident children that is absorbed by children who for whatever reason are more easily intimidated. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t try to raise confident children. I don’t have the solution. But perhaps it begins with not only trying to give our children confidence, but also the empathy to understand how their behavior impacts others.

    -Ron

    ** Just thinking about other places this crops up… you may not agree with the analogy, but I think of people who drive cars and bicyclists… people who drive cars often have no clue about how their behaviors on the road affect cyclists. Yet the impacts are real. Are the drivers malicious? In the vast majority of cases, no. But in an ideal world, would drivers consider the impact of their road behavior more?

    Comment by Ron Goodman — 2014 January 2 @ 00:51 | Reply

    • Ron, I agree that “Levels of confidence don’t seem to have an obvious correlation to brightness.” That applies not just to 3rd graders, but to college students and grad students also. Some of the most confident students I’ve seen have been incompetent and some of the brightest have been very unsure of themselves. (I don’t think that there is a negative correlation, just not a large positive one between confidence and competence.)

      There has, I think, been an over-reaction against the confident children, though, where their enthusiasm is suppressed to reduce the teacher’s discomfort, not to help other children. Squelching the enthusiastic students does not lead to increasing enthusiasm on the part of others—it just makes certain that everyone is careful not to be enthusiastic.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 January 3 @ 10:56 | Reply

  2. Well, one of the solutions is staring us in the face. No forcing experienced students into introductory classes. Finding tests to allow students to enter a new school with placement based both on past experience and speed of figuring new things out.
    Prepare students that courses will involve other students of different backgrounds. Both on-line courses and in-person courses.
    and “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”.
    Reminding all students that learning is not about competing, it is about bettering your own abilities.

    When it comes to chat rooms/on-line interactions/technical support forums, the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” comes into play to an even stronger degree. And there exists both nice and mean ways to say the same thing: “RTFM” and “you are likely to find the answer to that question and several others in the manual: if you have more questions after reading it, please PM me” are very different in tone, but are telling the person the same thing.

    As the US is more diverse and more individualistic now and likely to keep growing in both traits, this is going to need to be addressed with every grouping of young people.

    Comment by Kirsten Frank — 2014 January 4 @ 09:33 | Reply

  3. I see it a bit differently. It’s what “others” see that make up technical entitlement. If you see the white (or Asian) male doing all the answering in class, others are more likely to believe what they say (and think they know more than they actually do) because of *how they look*. As opposed to an African-American female doing all the answering – they are likely to be questioned or scoffed. More than a “what they’ve been exposed to at what age” it’s a “what they look like” perception. As a female computer science instructor, I’ve had many occasions where the young male has questioned my knowledge openly in class, and I’m not sure that would happen if I were a male (at least as often). And unfortunately this technical entitlement perception also plays directly into the stereotype of the profession: if the technically entitled are all Asian and white males, then who else wants to join the group?

    Comment by Bri Morrison — 2014 February 16 @ 08:40 | Reply

    • I agree that CS has a problem with dominance by white and Asian males, and that as white male I may not be in a position to observe the problem clearly. I think that you are right that the “what they look like” perception is a strong one, but I’ve not had much opportunity to observe it (my senior and graduate level courses are so overwhelmingly male that it is clear that most of the gender-selection has already happened).

      This year, for the first time, I’m teaching a class that is more female than male (a new non-required freshman design seminar). I’m hoping that I can get the women to continue in engineering, but I’m not sure I’ll make that much difference.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 February 16 @ 10:20 | Reply


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