So, what's wrong with being an introvert?

Ira Winkler asks whether social 'ineptitude' is such a bad thing

Let me start this week's column off by stating that security is very much a people issue. That said, I expect to offend many groups of people, as well as some of my editors, with this week's column.

Don Tennant's July 31 editorial, in which he sharply criticized the Carnegie Mellon University professor who said the computer profession deserves its reputation for attracting socially inept introverts, surprised me and drew a lot of outrage from readers, and a bumper crop of messages in our mailbag. What upset Tennant about that assertion? In my opinion, the reputation is largely earned. We might as well accept that and deal with it.

Randy Pausch, who made the comments, is a professor at one of the most prestigious computer science programs in the world. He regularly encounters hundreds of the best and brightest emerging computer professionals and has probably met tens of thousands throughout his career. If he believes that the stereotype for computer professionals is accurate, I'd say his opinion has merit.

It's not unusual for controversy to erupt when educators make generalizations, and sometimes the logic or experience behind such observations gets lost in the uproar. Take, for instance, former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who so famously remarked on possible reasons why there are more men than women working at elite levels in the sciences. The reasons he suggested included genetics, upbringing and family responsibilities. The ensuing firestorm ushered Summers out the door in Cambridge, Mass.

My educational background is in psychology, and a long line of studies in my field shows that men and women use different areas of their brains to make decisions. Likewise, they take different approaches to making decisions. There is nothing objectionable about these facts. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus was a bestseller and social icon because women (yes, primarily women) bought the book to understand how differently men and women approach relationships. Many women gave the book to their spouses or significant others in an effort to have them better understand their feelings and decision processes.

Difference isn't wrong; it simply exists -- and acknowledging and understanding differences is an important step to addressing problems. If you acknowledge that there is some factor that causes women to be less inclined to go into sciences, you can begin to address that issue, without implying that there's somehow something wrong with the difference. For example, if you determine that the way sciences are traditionally taught (for example, the mechanics are taught without the application) dissuades women from pursuing the sciences as a career, you can modify teaching methods to keep women in the sciences. Criticizing someone simply for floating a difficult hypothesis silences other people and discourages people from researching the possibility -- or developing methods for correcting complex problems.

The same applies with our industry's "socially inept introverts." Just to demonstrate how complicated the issue can be, Pausch's students are disproportionately foreigners. As such, they are less familiar with the English language and U.S. culture. Therefore, even people who may be otherwise socially functional in their home countries will likely be perceived as socially inept here because of the linguistic and cultural differences. So Pausch's observations may be perfectly accurate, but his conclusions -- that it's a question of individual personality rather than of culture shock -- might not be as widely applicable.

However, I still believe that even computer professionals who are born and raised in the U.S. are disproportionately introverted. My own observations and research agree with Pausch's opinion as well. Again, I am not stating that all computer professionals are socially inept but that there are enough people to justify the stereotype.

Several studies have been conducted on the personality types of computer professionals. One study used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and found that 25% of computer professionals fit either the INTJ (introverted-intuitive-thinking-judging) or INTP (introverted-intuitive-thinking-perceiving) personality types. Statistically, however, INTJs and INTPs make up only 2% of the general population.

Both INT personality types imply that someone is methodical and logical in his approach to things -- ideal traits for understanding how computers work. Likewise, INT people are also characterized as socially inept. These studies are at least 10 years old, and maybe there has been some shift as the job market has changed, but the precedent is there.

Carnegie Mellon University's computer science department is a leader in the development of computational theory and does cutting-edge research. I suspect that the students who successfully perform this research are inclined to enjoy working long hours focusing on how computers process information, as opposed to interacting with diverse groups of people. I believe that if we relied on extroverts for computational theory breakthroughs, the breakthroughs would never happen. As a profession, we owe a major debt of thanks to introverts who can sit in front of computers for hours rather than seek regular social interactions.

Tennant states that computer professionals "don't hug walls; they break them down." Again, that doesn't mean that they aren't introverted. It does mean that they sought out a profession where they regularly deal with the binary logic of a computer.

Tennant also states that he is attracted to the dynamism and sheer magnetism of the people in the IT community. As journalists, we often deal with the people who are authorized to talk to us. Large companies have policies to prevent random employees from talking to journalists, and they put people in front of the media who are most likely to give a positive impression of the companies. Journalists don't usually get to talk to the millions of computer scientists behind the scenes. That's not to say there aren't dynamic and magnetic individuals in that population [and every tech journalist knows that it's more fun to talk to the hands-on geeks -- Ira's editor], but the behavioral skill set that makes for a good spokesman aren't always coexistent with those that make for a good computer scientist.

Frankly, Tennant's comments and the premise of his editorial are insulting to introverts. There's nothing wrong with being an introvert, just as there's nothing wrong with being a woman. Everyone has his own strengths and weaknesses, and we must appreciate the strengths that come with being an introvert. (Or a woman.) Again, I don't believe that we would have the breakthroughs that we have had in the computer profession without introverts. I am not an introvert (nor a woman), but while people who are can sometimes drive me crazy with their idiosyncrasies [back at ya, pal -- Ira's introverted lady editor], I appreciate them for who they are.

In the computer profession, we have learned that we need to promote a dual career path -- managerial and technical -- to grow individuals. For example, an outstanding programmer doesn't necessarily make an outstanding manager of programmers. (As a matter of fact, it's almost unheard of.) Publications such as Computerworld could show the diverse jobs within the computer profession to attract different types of people -- both introverts and extroverts -- to different jobs within the profession.

This is also a relevant issue when it comes to security. For example, people designing security controls need to realize that they might not be well accepted. Introverts need to acknowledge that not everyone behaves logically; complaining about the end "lusers" may help blow off steam, but it doesn't excuse security professionals from trying to understand how other people are likely to interact with security controls.

Likewise, security-awareness programs must realize that their campaigns need to account for the entire company. This means that they need introverts who understand the fundamental processes of security and extroverts who can understand dozens of diverse types of people in the population and how to translate the processes to the entire organization.

I could go on, but fundamentally there is nothing wrong with introverts. We need to understand that there are basic differences in people and that these differences do not make anyone inferior, just different. People are just different. Deal with it! And as the French say, though usually they're not referring to the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, "Vive la difference!"


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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