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Why and How to Destroy the “Antisocial Engineer” Stereotype

Throughout my undergraduate career, nearly every time I’ve told someone that I’m a computer science major, it seems like they picture a mysterious hooded figure, hunched over a PC during the wee hours of the night, their face barely illuminated by a screen covered in ferociously typed green commands (click on it—it’s worth it). And when you consider that, it’s no surprise they seem shocked that I’m a CS major.

I’ve always thought this was funny, but I’ve recently realized that as a computer science community, we’re underselling ourselves when we let these stereotypes carry on, or worse, when we become them. While security, networking, and even software development are huge parts of the computer science community, computer scientists can just as easily apply their knowledge to so many other unique fields—from research, to architecture, to product management, to IT, to business.

Even within more traditional applications of computer science, computer scientists are obviously people—people with opinions, personal lives, and hobbies, which the “antisocial engineer” stereotype doesn’t quite allow for. I’ve known many computer scientists who went into the workforce and felt frustrated when they were excluded from important decision meetings because their peers assumed they didn’t have opinions or preferred to work alone.

In my experience, any engineer will say that almost no degree can teach students how to be excellent software engineers. Computer science majors learn wonderful skills about how to problem solve, think about computation, understand how computers work, and understand the tools that exist to solve problems. But degrees don’t teach students how to explain why implementing a feature will take 6 months. Degrees don’t teach students how to solve a seemingly simple bug buried in thousands of lines of code written over the course of years. Degrees don’t teach students to develop and manage relationships that can launch their career and help them navigate tricky situations within a company. Many of these are simply implementations of hard skills, but many of them require softer skills of understanding how people work and think.

As computer scientists advance in their careers, they become increasingly involved in people management, because they have the unique ability to understand how long things take and communicate complicated ideas to leadership. Even experienced individual contributors have to communicate as subject matter experts. Soft skills become paramount, and it’s in our benefit to start developing them now.

What does this mean? In my opinion, it means that controlling our portrayal is up to us. As students, it means we should really take that design or English class we’ve always wanted to take. As adults, it means we should express more interest across different fields, talk about our multifaceted personalities, and learn from others’. At worst, well-roundedness makes us more intelligent and more interesting to talk to. At best, it makes us better engineers, allows us to speak the languages of different sides, gives us power in all situations, and makes us more innovative. As a side benefit, the more engineers are seen as the multifaceted people we are, the easier it is to accept and welcome new identities—because breaking away from the mold widens the possibilities. This change allows us to better understand what new identities bring to the table, and bringing in diverse identities has been proven to make the output better. Isn’t that what computer science is all about?

-Rafah Ali, RTC Fellow + Northwestern Student

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