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Being a humanist technologist

An abstract image of a semi-closed laptop in a dark room

I was very taken by Robin Berjon’s description of technologists:

Someone needs to navigate the digital world (for a business, a project, any institution) without blind deference to vertical experts, and without monkeying dumb Silicon Valley tropes or giving credence to breathless LinkedIn thoughtleadering.

The full post is a solid description of the sort of generalist who can write code and understands product principles but can also gather multidisciplinary threads together in order to help an organization understand and navigate technology more holistically. I see myself in it, and I see a lot of other people I’ve worked with. I’d love to see a dedicated position for this kind of person, because, selfishly, it’s exactly the kind of thing I do.

The closest I’ve probably come is as a founder, where you have to be a generalist; a CTO at a non-technical organization, where you necessarily have to understand technology holistically to build and advise on strategy; and as a Director of Investments, where you invest based on your understanding of these trends. It’s not surprising, then, that those are my favorite jobs over my career.

It also brought up something else for me. It’s never been obvious that I’d fit well into a larger tech company. My interactions in those environments have left me with an understanding that their cultures are largely logical and analytical. That’s not a criticism any way; you’d probably expect that from a largely engineering-based organization. But it’s also not quite how my brain works, and I’ve been unhappy when I’ve tried to force myself to be that person.

Myers-Briggs is astrology for business and should never, ever be used to hire or assess a team member. Still, I’ve found it to be a useful way to think about my own traits, alongside other tests I’ve taken along the way (the CliftonStrengths test, Dimensional, and so on). Consistently, by every measure, I land more on the feeling-perceiving line: some version of INFP. My experience of the world is in line with this: I’m interested in abstract ideas and human impacts more than details and logical intricacies.

Don’t get me wrong: I can code productively, and have built entire companies by doing so. But I’m not motivated by the code or the fundamental problems themselves. My motivation is always human. That inevitably means I’ve become more of a technical generalist than a deep expert on any particular technical topic; more or less the kind of person Robin described.

I was originally more drawn to coding as self-expression than coding as formal engineering. It took years for me to understand the difference, but there’s a gulf in approaches. An expressive coder will often get to great results but is nowhere near as disciplined. I had to forcibly retrain myself to be comfortable with style guidelines, code review, and all the belts and braces that make great engineering teams really successful. They’re really important, but as someone who wanted to short-cut to the human impact, it took me a little while to come around.

It’s not just me, by the way: often mission-driven teams are lean towards creative coders rather than engineers. I’ve found that, when I’ve come across a team that’s grown around creative coding rather than engineering, it’s taken a lot of time, effort, and practice to reframe the job and grow those skills.

I’ve learned how to help teams do that. I’ve also become good at supporting engineers as three-dimensional human beings, and intuitively understanding their needs. I’m also good at finding the needs of people we’re trying to help, and wrangling some of the existential problems that lie at the heart of building a productive team culture. Being successful, for me, has been about accepting my INFP-ness rather than trying to shoehorn myself into another shape — and partnering with great, detail-oriented engineers who I can deeply support.

Long before Robin’s post, I was describing myself as a “humanist technologist”. I eventually took it off my profiles because I don’t think anyone but me knew what it meant. Here’s another attempt:

  • Humanist: someone who is motivated to improve personal and social conditions
  • Technologist: a generalist whose expertise spans engineering, product, and policy, who can use multidisciplinary skills in order to help organizations to navigate technology issues and build a strategy

A humanist technologist, then, is someone who uses multidisciplinary skills to help organizations use or understand technology in order to improve personal and social conditions.

  • We’re not primarily engineers, but we can read, write, architect, and evaluate code.
  • We’re not primarily product managers, but we can navigate trends, human needs, and organizational priorities in order to set goals and build plans.
  • We can develop and communicate strong policy positions based on our understanding of the technology, business, and human sides of a problem.
  • We can rally a community and help galvanize our colleagues around a solution that makes a human impact.

I think it’s a better description of what I do. I think I’ll return it to my profile; I wish there was a way to make the description more mainstream. If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder that there’s plenty of room for people in technology who are motivated by people more than the technology itself, and that they should feel welcome.

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