A shout out for the introverts

It’s not news that a lot of IT folk are introverted. But let’s acknowledge what a good thing that is.

Young man at desk while in the process of programming.
Archiboldian (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Developers like to think they’re extroverted. Chances are they’re not. A recent IDG study, Introverts vs. Extroverts: Is There an IT Personality?, found that just over half of IT workers are introverts. Only those engineers who mistakenly think they’re extroverted would find that surprising.

Now, before you take offense, to say that most IT workers are introverts (as defined by HR’s favorite personality inventory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI) isn’t to say that they are the stereotypical computer nerd.

You know the stereotype I mean: An extremely bright, badly dressed, pudgy man with all the social graces of a bad-tempered alligator, who plays Dungeons and Dragons twice a week, can recite Monty Python skits and Star Wars scenes from memory, and can passionately argue that vi is better than EMACS and that only lusers run Linux since FreeBSD is the one true geek operating system.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Indeed, that rather, ahem, describes me. But, while that may be the idea people have in their heads when they think of an introverted, computer-savvy IT person, that’s not the real story.

As Susan Cain wrote in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the key differences between introverts and extroverts in the workplace come down to three points:

1) Introverts tend to become drained by external interaction, whether it’s a team meeting, loud music or a large crowd, while extroverts thrive in those situations.

2) Introverts tend to work more slowly and deliberately, while extroverts tend to tackle tasks headlong.

3) Introverts may have strong social skills, but they listen more than they talk and often express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They also tend to dislike conflict.

That’s it. That’s all being an introvert really means. So if you’re the kind of person who likes to work in an office by yourself or after hours, who takes your time with your work, and who would rather email or IM than pick up the phone, congratulations! You’re likely to be an introvert, and you can do just fine in IT.

There is one major problem lying in wait for you, though. As Shawn Eadens, a senior management consultant at JLA Consulting, said in the report, “The introvert is significantly undervalued and under-appreciated for their multi-faceted contributions.”

Indeed, I strongly suspect that’s why the open-source approach has come to dominate not only programming but also technical collaboration initiatives such as OpenStack, for cloud computing; OpenDaylight, for software-defined networking; and the AllSeen Alliance, for the Internet of Things. The open-source world is a code-driven meritocracy where being able to speak up at a meeting counts for far less than delivering efficient programs, and where claiming credit for an idea on a teleconference won’t get you as far as delivering a well-explained, pithy idea on a developer’s email list or IRC conversation.

When IDC looked at what’s really what in IT, using MBTI results from almost 20,000 IT employees, they found that these were the top three personality types:

ISTJ (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Judging), 19.4%

ISTJs tend to be quiet and serious, and to earn success through their thoroughness and dependability. They are practical, matter-of-fact, realistic and responsible. Interestingly, ISTJs are also the most common personality type in the general population, which gives the lie to the idea that IT people are somehow “weird.”

ESTJ (Extrovert, Sensing, Thinking, Judging), 13.6%

Yes, that’s right: The second most common IT type is an extrovert. ESTJs tend to be practical, realistic and matter-of-fact, all things held in common with ISTJs. But they make quick decisions organize projects well and focus on getting results in the most efficient way possible.

It isn’t surprising that many ESTJs are IT managers. What may surprise you, though is that an IT manager is more likely to be an ISTJ — just as ISTJs are the most common personality type in IT, they are also the most common in IT management.

INTP (Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) ), 7.9%

INTPs are the best fit for the popular stereotype of tunnel-vision scientists and techie nerds, a stereotype that has thrived at least from the boffins of 1950s’ British science fiction movies to Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. And yet INTPs are only the third most common type working in IT. These are the sorts of people who seek to develop logical explanations for everything that interests them. They tend to be more interested in theory and abstractions than in the practical, and find ideas more engaging than social interactions. That’s not to say INTPs can’t be social. But the conversations that engage them are more likely to be about how warp engines could really work than about Sunday’s football game.

The report sums it up nicely: “There is no typical IT personality, but there are different ways of working and engaging with others. And today, as the role of IT develops, IT leaders are increasingly required to move outside the narrow remit of IT in order to sell the benefits of their department into the wider business. This could prove a double-edged sword, but it is worth remembering that you don’t have to be extroverted to sell, although you may need to be introverted to spend 12 hours doggedly pursuing one single detail-orientated development task. … There is nothing to say any personality-type can do this less well — only that different aspects of the task will prove harder than others to each individual involved.”

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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