Good-With-Computers, Part Five: Experts

by Andrew Emmott on November 8, 2011

in Anti-Buzz

The buzz: All computing professionals share the same skill set.

The anti-buzz: The field of computing is much broader than that. Not all geeks are created equal.

So here’s the romp I promised you three weeks ago. A survey of different categories of expert computer expertise. If you don’t remember what makes one good-with-computers and what makes one bad-with-computers. A recap of the important concepts to remember:

Technophiles ie. (good-with-computers), are good at abstract thinking and problem solving.
Technophobes, (bad-with-computers), fear both failure and success.

There are good users and there are bad experts.

Expert Users

Tech Support: A year ago a student was failing the introductory computer science course, and, in a tearful admission, claimed that she just wanted to work for the Geek Squad, which is sort of like saying you wanted to race cars for a living, so you became a Physics major.

Here’s the deal: you can hire a small business consultant who can’t tell the difference between Smith and Keynes, who can’t give you good investment advice, but damn if they can’t reorganize your business better than anybody else, no matter how rusty their college economics are. Practical knowledge is, well, practical, and computing technology enjoys a huge range of fun things between the poles of practical and theoretical.

“Tech Support” is somewhat vague. Tech Support can be the college student on the end of the phone who tells John Q. Homeowner to try unplugging his modem for 15 seconds, and it can also be the sysadmin who bash scripts you into oblivion.

The catch all here is that there are jobs that entail maintaining the technical infrastructure, and these are obviously very important. Some don’t know how to program, or how to use {insert operating system here}, or why your printer doesn’t work. Their experience is made up actually interacting with the machines that people actually use, and getting them to work in the way people want them to work. This is why you want them setting up your office, not me. I’m the pompous scientist who provides the “vision”, the grand scheme, the one who never muddied his feet figuring out what really works. You want tech support. They know all the dirt. They know what you really want.

The technophiles, regardless of their specialty, learn the how and the why of what they do, and like to expand their knowledge, often into computer programming. They get into the details such that, when they need to, they can rig a solution together even when things go strange.

The technophobes, at their worst, are barely worthy of their positions, just a vessel that has memorized a policy. They know how to do the thing that they do in the same way an assembly line knows how to build a car: they are just following directions.

When tech support crosses skills with computer programming, it is often the sort of “self-made” programming skillset; the kind learned from just banging on the key board and looking at examples from the Internet. These skills are often immensely practical, but also suffer huge holes, simply for the lack of education on the subject.

Software Engineers

This is the group that more or less exclusively programs. This is the group most people are thinking of when they think of the typical computer geek. They are often conflated with, tech support.

Not unlike gaming, it can be a tricky thing defining “good” and “bad” programming; tastes and practices, as all manner of stylistic preferences abound. However, I will stick my neck out: Technophilic programmers learn many languages, and think carefully about what tools they want for what job.

Technophobic programmers become religiously devoted to one language, and fear doing things they think are complicated.

As an anecdote: in college I would be in a group setting and several times I would suggest, “Why don’t we try this?” and would get shot down because my idea was too complicated. It wasn’t too complicated; it was remarkably few lines of code, but the technophobic programmer thinks everything requires another 300 lines of code, (because they never learned to do better), and that everything sounds too hard. The technophobic programmer, in a blithering fit of irony, refuses to solve problems.

Electrical Engineers

These are the people who design all your gadgets: smartphones and tablets and GPS pathfinders. They are more concerned with what transistor does what.

When you meet a Computer Engineer don’t assume they’d be terribly interested in writing you a nice web app for the droid market, (but hey, they might), but rather they’re more interested in the actual droid itself, as in, the actual physical parts.

Scientists

A Computer Science type is not so exclusively interested in the actual software engineering, but in the abstract concepts, in the idea of computation itself. Personally, I think I’m falling into this camp, but the English major in me still enjoys the stylistic debates of the software engineering crowd.

Like electrical engineers, the scientist usually has scads of programming experience, but the big difference is that the software engineer wants to develop a better Word Processor, and leave the code in a state such that another programmer can intuit the meaning of the code, while the scientist is interested in developing a faster way to sort things, or a new way to recognize patterns, and these processes are often described in terms that generalize to any programming language. Programming itself is just the tool to demonstrate proof of concept.

The point of interest is to note that at the undergraduate level, this discipline gets mixed with software engineering. Programming itself can be a vocational skill, but instead you have one major that is sort of a catch all for two disciplines. Many Computer Science students aren’t terribly interested in the theoretical side of things; they just want to get the job done, and get it done well. The scientist is interested in mathematical proof, and abstract descriptions of algorithm speed, and doesn’t technically need to ever lift a finger programming. Certainly, this discipline is farthest removed from solving the mystery of your finicky router.

Summary

Computer experts come in may flavors and not every IT expert or computer scientist is a good choice to help you set up a dental computer system. At every level there are both good and not so good people who either really get it, are technophiles, or not, they are technophobes.

The best advice on how to make your office computer system hum may not come from a highly trained engineer or computer PhD but from a technophile who is “good with computers” and has practical experience. On the other hand don’t expect this same person to write an application or set up a web page.

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