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.