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The Key To Success in High Tech

It has become a commonplace observation that the tech industry’s missteps are not due to greed, callousness, or failure to look past this quarter’s results, like those of previous business giants, but caused by the peculiar makeup of its leadership: STEM majors, every last one of them, with no higher goals than pushing the boundaries of what their idiot-savant toys can achieve. If only they were replaced with (or at least advised by) people with classical liberal educations, humanity might be saved.

As a STEM major myself, I am dubious. The best way to make the counter-argument would of course be via mathematical proof, but as a good-faith gesture towards meeting the other side half-way, I will instead do it in verse. (You’re welcome.)

When I was a lad, I bucked the herd
And took humanities ’cause I’m no nerd
I read Delany’s Jewel-Hinged Jaw
And I mastered deconstruction a la Derrida
(He mastered deconstruction a la Derrida)
I practiced deconstruction so avidly
That now I am a tech Executive VP
(He practiced deconstruction so avidly
That now he is a tech Executive VP)

If keen insight is what you seek
You’d be wise to study Latin and the Ancient Greek
Tacitus and Thucydides,
Are the key to leaning the eternal verities
(Are the key to leaning the eternal verities)
I studied all the classics so carefully
That now I am a tech Executive VP
(He studied all the classics so carefully
That now he is a tech Executive VP)

Greek grammar moves one to persist
The imperfect and the perfect and the aorist
The genitive and dative case
As evolved in all the dialects that stem from Thrace
(As evolved in all the dialects that stem from Thrace)
I learned the third declension so thoroughly
That now I am a tech Executive VP
(He learned the third declension so thoroughly
That now he is a tech Executive VP)

Philosophy is not a sham
It’s important to know “If I think therefore I am.”
Synthetic a priori thoughts
Are the ones a human has but not an ocelot
(Are the ones a human has but not an ocelot)
I read epistemology
And now I am a tech Executive VP
(He read epistemology
And now he is a tech Executive VP)

My bachelor’s thesis soon came due
And I wrote about a topic causing quite a stew
When you want to understand a book
Should you learn about the author or you shouldn’t look
(Should you learn about the author or you shouldn’t look)
I discoursed about the question exhaustively
And now I am a tech Executive VP
(He discoursed about the question exhaustively
And now he is a tech Executive VP)

In short, my friends (we’re almost done)
Avoid the calculus and CS 101
The crucial lesson of this ode
Is shun all math and never, ever learn to code
(Oh, shun all math and never, ever learn to code)
If you’ve never heard of a balanced tree
Then you could be a tech Executive VP
(If you’ve never heard of a balanced tree
Then you could be a tech Executive VP)


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Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever. ...more →

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28 thoughts on “The Key To Success in High Tech

  1. Bravo.

    Ideally STEM majors should have some basics humanities courses, but frankly most do (at least all the colleges my kid is considering for a comp sci major require core courses that include English and social science and/or humanities).

    Otoh, I once had a ‘senior engineering manager’ whose degree was a BA in English Lit. It took only 2 months to realize I needed to put my resume out again because I was going to bite through my tongue trying to keep from calling my manager a complete moron in IP meetings.

    Now, it’s pretty likely he had the position because his wife was related to someone much higher in the company, or possibly that plus the TQMS idiocy (“any manager can manager anything”) that was all the rage back then, so maybe he isn’t representative. However, I will never choose to work in a place where the management has no basic knowledge of the product.

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    • The whole thing about “any manager can manager anything” was a major pain in the butt there for a while. I came up in a fairly Peter Principled environment. Every single one of my bosses was better at my job than I was. Whenever I had a question or a concern about what I was doing, they set me right or figured out that I was on to something and we kept stuff up and running and oiled. And, occasionally, my bosses’s bosses would show up and help my bosses with stuff that had them flummoxed.

      The whole “managers don’t need to know how to do your job, they just need to know how to manage your job” thing was awful.

      They stopped being able to provide resources. They stopped being able to get the right people in a room together because they didn’t know who the right people were.

      I’m just glad that I’m back in a place where my bosses are better at my job than I am.

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      • The Peter Principal has it sown problems. Management is a skill of its own, and being good a technical job doesn’t necessarily mean you can manage well.

        That said, it is really important for a manager to really understand what their team can do, even if they can’t do it themselves.

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          • For part of my technical career, I worked beside-but-mostly-not-with another guy. We both built one-off test gear for odd problems, with radically different styles. I will probably never forget when Joel explained the difference to a department head who was trying to decide which one of us to use. “So here’s the deal,” said Joel. “If you give me the problem, I’ll start hacking things together this afternoon, writing quick-and-dirty glue code, pulling one part from this old project and another from some project that I know was done at a university lab. You’ll get something held together with baling wire and chewing gum, but that solves your very specific problem, in a month. If you give Mike the problem, he’ll take long walks by the river and glare at stuff on a white board for three months. Then he’ll announce that your problem is a special case of a general principle, and he’ll bang out something totally original in another three months. Not only will his thing solve your problem, next year it’ll solve problems you don’t even know you have yet.”

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        • I’m just happy that we seem to have settled into a space where it’s perfectly acceptable for someone like me to spend my entire career as a systems administrator with my hands on a keyboard rather than being forced into accepting a promotion simply because that’s the expectation. My mentor, who retired three-ish years ago, was exactly what you’d picture when you think of the “grumpy old man.” He was an excellent admin and he had been since before the Earth cooled and he had zero aspirations to be anything but. I’m going to be him when I grow up.

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    • “any manager can manager anything”

      False in the wider sense, but true as you get a bit narrower. My wife has a BA in History and a MS in Library Science, but she manages tech writers for an aerospace giant. She was never trained as a tech writer, and knows very little about aerospace engineering*, but her education is close enough to the ball park that she gets the job done and is on the promotion track.

      Clearly she shouldn’t be put in charge of engineers, or software developers, or lawyers, but it also doesn’t mean she should only ever be in charge of library staff.

      *Despite being married to me. When she’s having trouble falling asleep, she has me tell her about my day, in detail. She’s usually out in minutes.

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  2. This really doesn’t get to the liberal critique of Silicone Valley. We were recently discussing Theranos scandal on LGM. The anger at Silicone Valley wasn’t that the people running it are idiot savants that need a good liberal classic education. Its that a lot of money gets invested to what the average LGM protestor sees as something that either caters to upper middle class or wealthy, eats into what they consider a government function (ride shares undermining transit), and that so many of them seem to fall for big scams like Theranos so easily when money could be spent wiser on public health. Its more of a market vs. non-market form of thinking than STEM vs. liberal arts.

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  3. I used to be the type of person who adopted the attitude this OP is lampooning. Maybe I didn’t have that attitude specifically about silicon valley, but I had it as a generalized critique of everything, especially things I knew little to nothing about. The focus of my critique was what I presumed to be what “business majors” and “engineers” (a category of people I looked at with disdain or condescension) studied. In the one case, I presumed they just did soft “projects” or line up numbers on a ledger and added them up. In the other case, I thought they were professional word problem solvers and nothing more, the kind that “didn’t really think things through” but just solved math problems presented to them. I probably looked at computer programmers as something like engineers.

    Two things changed my mind.

    First, I started to learn how little I knew (and how little I still know) about accounting, marketing, management, engineering, and computer programming.

    Second, I somehow eventually remembered to retrace my steps and reconsider why I liked the humanities in the first place. When I was quite younger, say in high school or the first couple years as an undergrad, I believed the humanities encompassed “the way the world works” and varied philosophies to explain that way. In other words, a true humanities person, I believed then (and believe now, though there was a period when I stopped believing it), at least acknowledged the need to learn math, the sciences, and even things as allegedly mundane as accounting or marketing.

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