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Lack of social skills for developers = disorder?

Over here:
http://discuss.fogcreek.com/newyork/default.asp?cmd=show&ixPost=5459&ixReplies=43
We were discussing why developers _usually_ (clearly not always) but usually lack certain social skills.  Come to a JOS meetup and you'll see what I mean :)  But seriously, whenever you have a large group of computer geeks gathered there always seem to be a large number of, for lack of a better word, strange people around.  These same people also usually have really insightful thoughts on really complex topics if you get into a discussion with them, but the initial social interaction of a gathering usually prevents that because they're either invading your personal space like a close talker, or wearing a tin foil hat.

The NYTimes (free reg. required) has an article discussing Asperger's syndrome which sounds awfully familiar:

"Often the new diagnoses involve people who for years have been deemed rude, clueless or just plain weird because of their blunt comments or all-too-personal disclosures. They typically have a penchant for accuracy and a hard-wired dislike for the disruption of routine. "

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/29/national/29SYND.html?hp

Michael H. Pryor
Fog Creek Software
Thursday, April 29, 2004

I call it the "social hipocrisy".

The first (and best) example that comes to mind is the "How're you doing?" question. Tha vast majority of those who ask it don't really care. It's just a ritual they're supposed to go through, so that they don't look rude. You're expected to perform your part of the ritual, which is to say "Fine", even if your life is a misery.

But then, there are these awkward moments, when you can't answer "fine" (e.g., when a close relative dies), because somehow word gets around that you're not fine, and if you say "fine", people will assume you don't find them worthy enough to discuss your problems.

And then, suddenly, no one knows what to say. People say things like "I'm sorry", or "My condolences", quickly adding "We don't really know what to say in these moments, do we?" And you are equally at a loss for words, because although  the "social skills" rules prevent you from getting too personal, there's no convincing way of handling it without getting personal (that's why these moments are awkward), so you just blurt something like "Life goes on", which triggers a stream of cliches from each part. The problem is that "these moments" require more than the superficial, always-happy attitude that we call "social skills".

IMHO, acquiring "social skills" means learning to ignore the problems of a vast majority of people around you, because you don't have enough time to dedicate to them all. It's pathetic, but that's modern life.

And, yes, before you ask, "social skills" are not my area of expertise. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I fail miserably :)

Paulo Caetano
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Being a developer/engineer/programmer means that:

1. The person would rather focus on the technical aspect (or you might call the internal working) rather than outward appearance (read UI)

2. The person is more likely to be found working on a gnawing problem than socially intermixing, be it in college or later on.

The first point means that they do not beleive in formalities and social "niceties" and would rather get down to the point. And the second point ensures that whatever limited social skills they might have, they get very few occasions to practice them and as a result they tend to rust up with time.

Of course, I am over-generalizing here, but these are, I think, the root causes.

T-90 (me neither)
Thursday, April 29, 2004

I was extremely shy until 20 years old. Going to high school and college was a pain, because I lacked social skills.

When I was 20 years old, I decided I couldn't stand it anymore, and went to a psychologist.

She used REBT (rational-emotional-behavioral therapy) and hypnosis to help me.

After 3-4 months I have seen the first signs of progress.

After 1 year of therapy, I was as sociable as other people around me, no longer fearing social interaction.

Now I am more socialble than others, because I worked at this a lot, over several years.

Derrick
Thursday, April 29, 2004

I am not rude. The others are overly sensitive.

Jan Derk
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Reminds me of...
I don't have an attitude problem. You have a perception problem.

T-90
Thursday, April 29, 2004

My social skills were incredibly diminished by my stammering.
I decided I wanted to go to a psychologist and it definitely helped me a lot. Nowadays, when the planets are on the right alignement, I can even be the clown of the class.

Or however you say it in english. I'm not fully awake yet.

RP
Thursday, April 29, 2004

"Being a developer/engineer/programmer means that:

1. The person would rather focus on the technical aspect (or you might call the internal working) rather than outward appearance (read UI)"

That's nonsense. What about the legions of developers who work on user interfaces?

John Topley (www.johntopley.com)
Thursday, April 29, 2004

> That's nonsense. What about the legions of developers
> who work on user interfaces?

Companies usually have a separate design division, or if not, then at least 1 or more people who specialize in the design part. These are the people who decide the look and feel as well as the placement of controls and other layout of the application.

Take a guess as to how many of them are "developers". :-)

PS: No troll intended. I myself fall under the "developer" category.

T-90
Thursday, April 29, 2004

I think the title of this thread is far too sweeping.

Lack of social skills in some developers may well be down to the fact that they simply can't be bothered, and would rather concentrate on other things.

Those with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder don't have the choice.  They are genuinely unable to pick up on the extremely wide and deep nuances of unspoken behaviour that most people take for granted.

Both of the above types of people tend to congregate within technical fields because with these the forms of communication (computer programs) are explicit.  There are no hidden meanings to catch you out.

One does not imply the other however.

Incidentally, there is a very high prevalence of glutein and/or casein intolerance amongst people with an ASD, including Asperger's Syndrome.  We have recently had our son (who has Asperger's) tested, and have discovered he is also glutein intolerant.

England has an Autism Research Centre at the University of Sunderland.

http://osiris.sunderland.ac.uk/autism/

They are doing research suggesting a link to a metabolic disorder.  There are interesting papers on the above site, but a potted (and simplistic) summary is:

glutein/casein starts to break down in the gut.

The resulting compounds leak through the gut lining into the blood stream, where a proportion get through the blood/brain barrier and into the brain, where they interfere with its working.

In short, people with severe intolerances to glutein (grain e.g. bread proteins) or casein (milk proteins) are in effect continually doped by their diets.  And changing diets can result in improvements.

David B. Wildgoose
Thursday, April 29, 2004

I'm sure there were many people out there having social-ish jobs that didn't suit them, putting on masks of normalcy. Like those closet queens who prefer to talk in that high-pitched feminine voice with friends, but revert to an authoritative low voice at work.

Now imagine those latter people suddenly getting to work at "The Men's Store - In Technicolor." They'd go nuts. Even those who weren't really into it would. I think this is a good analogy.

Tayssir John Gabbour
Thursday, April 29, 2004

"That's nonsense. What about the legions of developers who work on user interfaces?"

There you go displaying your lack of social skills.  The inner working/UI thing was a metaphor for introversion/extroversion!

NoName
Thursday, April 29, 2004

"That's nonsense. What about the legions of developers who work on user interfaces?"

That would explain all the HORRIBLE UI's of a large portion (maybe the majority) if software.

Mr. Analogy
Thursday, April 29, 2004

On the "How ya doin'?" thing, the trouble with developers is a lot of us learned to think logically before we learned people skills; it's totally illogical that someone would ask "How ya doin'?" and not want to know the true answer.  Social skills are hard to learn for logical thinkers because such skills have no apparent logic to them.

Kyralessa
Thursday, April 29, 2004

People skills begin at infancy, an early age. You begin acquiring and developing people skills way before you even think about computers. That *logic* thing simply isn't true.

I believe techies are rude because in the 80's, when a computer was a scary monster for most people, they could get away with anything so they were being their disgusting selfs at home, at work or at play.
Because of their rare skills, they couldn't be forced out of companies, and that destroyed the only incentive for change.

Nowadays, if you're a techie without a human side, you're dead. Forget Stallman or Linus. You're not a deity. You'll be working side by side with other people, and you better have those damn people skills, or you'll be flippin' burgers.

RP
Thursday, April 29, 2004

It's sad that computers, the only refuge for these people, would now turn against them, demanding 'people skills' and all that shit.

Good hair, too?

Ignorant youth
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Looking good will take you a lot further in this world than being good in trigonometry.

RP
Thursday, April 29, 2004


"it's totally illogical that someone would ask "How ya doin'?" and not want to know the true answer.  "

While I don't disagree with you that many techies feel that way, I don't understand why it's so hard for many techies to learn that it's just a greeting, and not an invitation for a 30 minute discourse on their problems.

Perhaps colleges need a "Social Training 101" class for engineers. They could teach students that sometimes in social settings, you just have to smile and nod. As an example, they could show the tape when Clinton greeted Bush on the steps of the White House after the election. It was all smiles and politeness, although one could certainly guess they each would rather be doing something else.

Certainly, techies are wired differently than other people. But it's a bit ironic that many techies will mock other people who aren't intelligent, or who don't understand technical things or show technical prowess, but at the same time they themselves often have serious shortcomings in their own skillsets; namely social skills.

Mark Hoffman
Thursday, April 29, 2004


No, it isn't a disorder.

Nowadays, nobody lacks any skills, but rather they suffer from a "disorder" or "syndrome"

It's about as much as a disorder as the reason that non-techies can't figure out how to set their clock on their VCRs.

Or perhaps that's a "disorder" too. Stupiditis or something.

O'tay!
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Otay- I agree there is a tendency to treat every weakness of character as a disorder but there most certainly is such a thing as "Asperger's Syndrome" and I think the OP was just wondering aloud if many of these anti-social geeks we all see in the field might have it.  The answer is that probably some do and some don't.

The brief description of some of the consequences of the syndrome is misleading and should not be considered diagnostic of the condition.  Heck by those criteria I think I have it.

name withheld out of cowardice
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Wouldn't, by definition, it be a disorder if your behavior is not within "the norm". Whether it be programming your VCR or something more traditional like Asperger's it all boils down to a physical deficiency, right? I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of people who could not learn to program a VCR even if they went thru extended periods of "treatment" and "therapy". BTW, I think in today's society, knowing how to program a VCR means *you* have the disorder.

Anon-y-mous Cow-ard
Thursday, April 29, 2004

While O'tay's comment may come off as sounding simplistic to some people, I think it's fundamentally true.

Also, I question whether not lacking social skills, which often involves pretending to be something you are not, is really a "disorder" at all.

Now there are other baselines skills that Michael mentions which are legit.  Specifically, speaking too closely is a good example.  That's a physical thing.  However, learning to spin bullshit into gold via your tongue is something different.

Crimson
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Crimson- you are missing the point a bit.  Asperger's patients don't lack "social skills" which are things they can, to some extent, be taught to fake.  The idea here is that there is, to over-simplify, a part of the brain that allows us to pick up subtle cues from other humans.  This kind of thing goes way back in evolution.  Wolves probably have the same thing.  There is some primitive non-verbal communication that goes on between pack animals and these patients lack the ability to participate.

This is completely distinct from just bein a jerk or choosing to be blunt or phony.

name withheld out of cowardice
Thursday, April 29, 2004

name,

The source of the "social disorder" is almost irrelevent in my view.  Whether it's AS or simply not being taught the right way to interact, it's not important.

The important thing is whether the person himself is happy.  If he's not happy, then maybe start looking at AS treatments.

If he's happy, I say he should take the attitude of f*ck 'em.  If he's happy, then stop trying to teach him to make other's happy all the time.  He'll be fine.

Crimson
Thursday, April 29, 2004

I think very smart people have dificulty relating to those below their intelligence. I don't know why but I noticed back in college 10 years ago.

Since we're a computer crowd here we tend to only think of those in our field, wheras this kind of behavior is present in all areas where the average IQ (for lack of a better standard) is high.

Chi Lambda
Thursday, April 29, 2004

>> but the initial social interaction of a gathering usually
>> prevents that because they're either invading your
>> personal space like a close talker, or wearing a tin foil hat.

Ha! I had to laugh when I read that.

Well, here's my thoughts on this.

First: Lack of social skills could not possibly be a post-industrial revolution phenomenon. It must have existed since time immemorial. There have always been ALL personality types and there always will be. When you read the oldest stories told by peoples around the world, you find the stories peppered with all personality types. There are no new stories. No new characters.

Second: Certain tasks, interests, hobbies, passions, vocations, etc., attract certain personality types. Have I done a detailed analysis to prove this? No. Do I need to? No. It's obvious. Are ALL the people who have an interest, say, in SW development, EXACTLY the same kind of personality type? Of course not. There is a wide variety of personality types. But clearly by anecdotal reference alone, a certain "social-skill-challenged" personality type is attracted to that field. Or somehow winds up in that field.

Third: If you are "social-skill-challenged", if you find that the only way to deal with other people is through logic and logic alone, then you *must* deal with people like Dr. Spock would. No emotion. No feelings of superiority or inferiority. You don't feel good for them. Or bad for them. Nothing. However, if in fact you are *not* treating people like the good Dr. Spock would, then you are an emotional being. And, in turn, if you are an emotional being and you are social-skill-challenged then you either a) don't have the skills or b) don't care to use the skills you have. The latter case would widely be recognized by reasonable people as being rude. The former case is -- in my opinion -- not usually the cause of some genetic predisposition but rather the result of how -- or by whom -- you were raised.

That's my 2¢. And if you disagree then go suck a rock. (I am, of course, kidding.)

George Illes
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Chi,

What? You didn't get on with the smart people? No wonder with an ego like that! Of course, you meant you were the smart one....

If you went around saying that in public to people who didn't know you *very* well, you surely wouldn't make that many friends.

This is what seperates people "with" socials and those without; the ability not to overstep and brag a bit too much about ones own abilities, even if they are ever-so-true. People don't need to be reminded that they might be inferior to someone else in a certain aspect.

one meeeellion dollars!
Thursday, April 29, 2004

So the arrogant lawyer who sneers at everyone is just being a lawyer? The top surgeon that all the nurses dread is just being perfectionist?

The beautiful model is just being a bit precious? The timber worker who can't stand Jane Fonda, Democrats etc is just rural?

I think the people on this border need to get out a bit instead of analysing developers to death.

.
Thursday, April 29, 2004

"First: Lack of social skills could not possibly be a post-industrial revolution phenomenon. It must have existed since time immemorial."

Agreed.

But we can also agree (I hope) that the last 100 years (at least) have placed an enormous social pressure on mankind.

I believe the theory that says our "wiring" hasn't evolved for the last few thousand years, when our worries were more along the lines of following the seasons and the herds of wild animals.

"Life In A Big City" (TM) is way above the social limit for most of us. Some cope with it better, some worse, but we all let it get to us, occasionally - how else can you justify people shooting each other because of road rage? For that matter, how else can you justify road rage?

Paulo Caetano
Thursday, April 29, 2004

"People skills begin at infancy, an early age. You begin acquiring and developing people skills way before you even think about computers. That *logic* thing simply isn't true."

Logic skills begin pretty darn early too.  I was in the "gifted education" program already in the first grade.

Kyralessa
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Indeed, the million-people-in-a-few-square-miles thing is a phenomenon of the last 100 years or so.  Our great-great-great grandparents and their ancestors didn't have to deal with all these people on top of people on top of people.

T. Norman
Thursday, April 29, 2004

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aspergers_pr.html

www.MarkTAW.com
Thursday, April 29, 2004

^ ^

The Geek Syndrome

Autism - and its milder cousin Asperger's syndrome - is surging among the children of Silicon Valley. Are math-and-tech genes to blame?

www.MarkTAW.com
Thursday, April 29, 2004

Lots of comments, but not a lot of understanding.

One quick comment is that an Autistic Spectrum Disorder is just that - part of a *Spectrum* of severity.  It has been said that we are *all* somewhere on the spectrum, however it is only recognised when it is severe enough to interfere with our social interactions.

Incidentally, the best description I have heard of what an ASD is like is to imagine that you are communicating by passing postcards to each other.

At first, you are handed a postcard, understand it and respond.

But the rate at which postcards are handed you overwhelms you.  You simply can't deal with the volume of cards you are being given.

So you drop all the cards and give up.

David B. Wildgoose
Friday, April 30, 2004

Fascinating.

The same people who say that 'How are you doing' and 'I'm fine' are pointless and redundant as conversation openers would - I strongly suspect - totally freak out if you ignored the handshaking aspects of some arbitrary protocol. If you said, 'come on, I know the client is there most of the time, why can't I just send my stuff ?' your credibility would be zero.

Conversation has a protocol too. These niceties don't cost anything and are ways of intiating. If you feel crap, you can say you feel crap but thats like a NACK or something and the other persion will back off.

There are more analogies. Collision detection, for example. Many developers just start talking when someone else is talking, or else are shrinking violets and back off too long after a collision and never get airtime. Have you ever seen a room full of quiet people when there is an uncomfortable silence, people start opening their mouths and going 'aaaaaaaaaaaaa' very quietly. That's the carrier.

To give everyone airtime, a talking stick (token ring) is better.

This makes me wonder how techies ever invented TCP/IP.

WoodenTongue
Friday, April 30, 2004

Chi, "one meeeellion dollars" - what you have to remember is that half of the people have below average intelligence.


Friday, April 30, 2004

"blank",

I guess I'm one of those with low intelligence because I certainly don't understand your reply.

one meeeellion dollars!
Friday, April 30, 2004

"what you have to remember is that half of the people have below average intelligence."

- to be pedantic, that's not strictly true.  There are far more people with very high I.Q.s than those with sub-normal I.Q.s, e.g. there are more people with an I.Q. of 140+ than with an I.Q. of 60 or below.

Thus, although the "mean" I.Q. is 100, the median and mode I.Q. for the general population is around 95.

Which paradoxically means that the majority of the population are actually below average I.Q.

Or whatever "I.Q." means in any event...

David B. Wildgoose
Friday, April 30, 2004

So what you are saying David is that, say, 55% have below average IQ. Since 55 invludes "half" I maintain I was correct :-p


Friday, April 30, 2004

Quite right.

But in my defence, I didn't deny the veracity of what you were saying, just that it wasn't the whole truth.

It's not for nothing that in a Court of Law you have to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth...

David B. Wildgoose
Friday, April 30, 2004

Has it ever occured that maybe, just maybe the pharmaceutical companies are inventing these disorders so they could sell more drugs?

In some cultures it is absolutely normal to only have one or two friends and it is OK to be very timid and shy for example. In USA, if you are not socially active, it is looked down upon and god forbid you tell to your doctor that you are not happy with your life once in a while. That can be a depression. As a matter of fact, in certain areas of the world, they have never even heard of any of these psychological disorders that our western society uses as crutches.

IMO as long as you are doing what you love to do, that is all that matters, and if those kids from the wired article love to be in their "fantasy" world, let them be. Just look at the main game designer at Nintendo, the reason he can create such games that kids love, is because he uses this ability of going into the fantasy world as an asset.

FullName
Friday, April 30, 2004

I don't know why we computer people are wired different, or why we people who are wired different magnetize towards computers, but we can all agree it's true.  I was told recently that some high school kid showed up to a programming contest wearing a chainmail shirt.  Who else but computer people have that ability?  Nick Burns (your company's computer guy) is one of my favorite SNL skits--not because it's funny, but because it's painfully true.  The theme song goes: "He'll fix your computer, and then he's gonna make fun of you!"


I love that Michael (at the very top ofthe thread) used the greeting example.  I am simply unable to answer the question with "Fine. How are you?"  Instead, I use things like "superb", "most excellent", and more recently, "busy".  Like they care.  What they didn't mention, though, is that I am also unable to follow up the greeting with anything else.  Again, I don't know why, but I don't seem be able to generate conversation myself.  I just can't, or I don't care.  At least now I know that it's a problem.  Like Zalinsky, the auto parts king said on Tommy Boy, "Great, you've identified the problem.  Step two is removal." 

It's crazy that I learn new concepts from a Chris Farley movie.

Anyway.  No one else seemed to mention this: since we're (most of us) introverts, even if we have the ability to talk to everyone in the room, we don't usually want to talk to anyone in the room.  I generally hate parties that include more than twenty minutes of socializing--after a short amount of time, I'm ready to DO something.  Also: I absolutely abhor instant messengers and chat, but I love forums.  Go figure.

pds
Friday, April 30, 2004

pds,

Well said. I'd venture that you prefer forums to instant messenger and chat because the timing, frequency, and content of what you contribute to the discussion is entirely at your discretion AND comes without the same level of social convention. Moreover, you're anonymous. With IM and chat you're not. Someone has consciously communicated with you -- pds; it's a one-on-one conversation.

George Illes
Friday, April 30, 2004

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