Saturday, February 21, 2009

Still Learning

I read a joke at a site that I frequent which made me laugh:

Q: How do you tell an introverted computer scientist from an extroverted computer scientist?

A: An extroverted computer scientist looks at your shoes when he talks to you.

The laughter was of the smuggest, most patronizing sort you can imagine. I come from an Irish Catholic family, one of six children, where it's hard to get a word in edge-wise. We all read, watch movies, love the arts, form opinions that are dearly held, and generally consider ourselves to be an outgoing, engaging, personable group.

I've always told myself and anyone else who would listen that I am a made engineer, not born. I didn't grow up fixing cars or radios. I went to school to study mechanical engineering with little understanding of what the field was about. I took calculus and physics as a senior in high school; engineering seemed to be a natural next step. I knew lots of guys who had an innate, natural insight into the way things worked. My reality was confined to the computers where I made a living running simulations.

My youth pre-dated the personal computer revolution, so I didn't discover programming by hacking on a beloved Tandy. My segue into software engineering came about because my mechanical engineering work involved working with Unix workstations and code written in Fortran and C. Those led to C++ and Java for networked PCs. The transition was a quiet, gradual one.

Programming wasn't a burning thirst to be slaked. The passions of my adolescence were playing basketball and the guitar.

One of my employers went through a phase of testing all of us. I took the Myers-Briggs test and found out that I was type ENFJ - slightly extroverted, intuitive, borderline judging, and off the scale on feeling. When I got the results for my Hermann brain dominance, they said I was almost a perfect square: equal facility in upper and lower, left and right modes.

I have proof: I'm nobody's stereotypical geek. Hence the smug laughter at the joke.

Imagine my surprise when I went to my most recent performance review. My boss told me that there were no problems with my technical performance. Everyone agreed that I was knowledgeable and competent - no worries there.

But I was sabotaging myself with my body language. Some of the business folks that I came into contact with said I wouldn't make eye contact with them. I looked down at the table and appeared to not be listening. My facial expressions were "dismissive" when other people presented ideas. My body language excluded others: arms folded, one leg crossed over the other.

My self-awareness failed me. I might have had an idea that this was true, but it hadn't been spelled out for me so clearly. The feedback from people outside my normal sphere was telling.

How could this be true? How did this happen to me?

It reminded me again how important perception is.

Technical people love to say how they hate politics, that the focus should be on the problem at hand, that technology is a meritocracy where the best argument wins. But this assumes that science and technology represent Platonic ideals of absolute truth, as objective and detached as a free body diagram.

As long as there are two people in the room there will be politics. Persuasion will always be necessary. I've been reminded that even the best argument can be undone by the other pathways that humans have evolved. Your tone of voice, your expression, your posture, your ability to pick up on the cues telling you when it's your turn to speak, etc. - all communicate a message in parallel with the words and pictures you're emitting at the whiteboard.

Gödel taught us that mathematics cannot achieve that ideal objectivity and completeness. David Wolpert is proving that the same is true of our understanding of the physical universe. How can I be so certain of my views?

I have to be more conscious of social graces. I have to watch to ensure that arrogance isn't creeping in on me. I need to remember the phrase "Have strong opinions, lightly held."

I started practicing yesterday by doing some simple things: make eye contact when others are speaking; keep hands in the lap instead of folding arms; listen attentively when others are talking; take a breath before offering an opinion.

Is it possible to rewire oneself again? I hope so.

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