Introverted technologists

How to survive in an extroverted world

Surveys show that about 75% of people consider themselves extroverts, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the majority of IT folks are introverts, struggling to deal with their extroverted peers, business partners and customers. Naomi Karten, a consultant, author of Communication Gaps and How to Close Them (Dorset House, 2003) and a self-described introvert, is currently working on a book to help IT introverts use the trait to their advantage. She talked with -- and e-mailed -- Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka about how IT introverts can prosper in an extroverted world. She welcomes feedback at naomi@nkarten.com.

Most people think of introverts as shy people. What's your definition? As described by personality instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, introversion and extroversion concern where we get our energy. Extroverts get their energy from interaction with the outer world. Introverts are inwardly focused. We process our thoughts and feelings internally and have active inner lives. But outwardly, we tend to be reflective and reserved - though we can talk at length about topics of interest. Introverts generally like working alone, prefer conversations one-on-one or in small groups and favor written to spoken communication. Although we may enjoy occasional parties, reading a good book often seems more appealing. Extended interaction with others -- even just listening -- can zap our energy, and we need lots of "cave time" to recharge, especially after a hectic workday.

Why a book on introverts in IT? IT is one of several fields with a much higher percentage of introverts than in the general population, while extroverts are represented in much greater numbers among IT customers. Numerous IT professionals have asked me for advice about how to succeed as introverts in an extroverted world. My goal is to help them recognize the strengths they have, the skills they can develop and the confidence and know-how they can acquire so they can advance in their careers. I also want to help introverts and extroverts appreciate each other's strengths and avoid common misconceptions.

Naomi Karten, a consultant and author
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Naomi Karten, a consultant and author
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If I'm an introvert, how might that manifest itself in the IT workplace? Most IT introverts are happiest when left alone to do their jobs. As a result, some don't adequately seek input from others, and some spend less time with customers, colleagues and team members than they should. Some IT introverts feel overpowered by colleagues who seem to so effortlessly speak out, offer opinions and contribute ideas without needing time to reflect.

What are some challenges an IT introvert is likely to face when working with extroverted business people? Extroverts tend to be enthusiastic and animated - wonderful qualities that many introverts enjoy, up to a point. But with effusive business people, some introverts have difficulty inserting themselves into the discussion. Because extroverts work out ideas as they speak, it's easy to confuse an idea in progress for a conclusion, which can be a potential problem during information-gathering and requirements-identification sessions.

Do extroverts understand what's going on with introverts, or do they misinterpret introversion as something more sinister? Once, back when I was a programmer, I heard that an extroverted colleague thought I was a snob. Why? I had walked past him without greeting him. Actually, as is often the case, I was wrapped up in my thoughts and hadn't even noticed him. Similarly, extroverts sometimes view some of their introverted colleagues as aloof, unapproachable and unfriendly -- and, at times, as uncooperative, unconcerned and uninvolved.

It sounds like the deck is stacked against introverts. Some IT introverts have told me they feel drowned out by their more talkative colleagues, especially in meetings. Others have asked me if they're making a mistake in aspiring to management. A few have even asked if there's something wrong with them. Yet introversion is perfectly normal, and none of the challenges it poses are insurmountable impediments to a successful IT career. These people must resist seeing themselves as victims; an "I'm an introvert, woe is me" attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How can I succeed in IT despite my introversion? Start by thinking of it as succeeding because of your introversion. In many ways, introversion can be a strength.

OK, then, what are some of the strengths introverts bring to an IT environment? Many introverts are persistent, patient, highly analytical and excellent listeners. Though they may be reserved, many introverts are highly articulate. Some IT introverts excel at gaining support for their ideas by doing so one person at a time. And their calm demeanor can help steer a team through the pressures and challenges that IT organizations routinely face.

Developing pertinent skills will add to existing strengths. For example, acquire persuasion skills to help sell your proposals and recommendations. Gain relationship-building savvy so you can comfortably build rapport and forge connections. And -- gulp-inducing though it may be -- develop presentation skills, and seek opportunities to speak at company and industry meetings. Skills such as these develop competence, convey self-confidence, build credibility and open doors. One other thought: Small adjustments in behavior can prevent the negative perceptions that saddle some introverts. Sometimes, just smiling more can help.

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