Someone recently asked a very interesting question over at programmers.stackexchange.com. Unfortunately, though somewhat predictably, people jumped all over it and it ended up getting closed and then deleted within 20 minutes of being asked. That’s actually happening a lot recently, to the detriment of the community IMO, but that’s a subject for another time. But I think there’s some actual, worthwhile discussion to be had in this deleted question, so I’m preserving it here, along with the answer I would have posted. Hopefully it’ll be of interest to some people.
I have heard a lot of people say this:
Programmers can’t get a girlfriend easily because they mostly lack social skills (i.e only a programmer or a genius can understand what they say usually). Is this really true for an average programmer or its just a misconception ?
It seems to me that this is just another case of society (and particularly pop culture) being slow to catch up to reality. It’s only in the last couple decades that computer programming has really emerged as a serious discipline with real benefits to society. Back in the day it was a lot less understood and less accepted. For example, Edsger Dijkstra had to officially register as a theoretical physicist when he was required to declare his occupation because the registrar didn’t believe that “computer programmer” was even a real job. (Ironically, the declaration was part of the process of obtaining a marriage license. Perhaps computer programming was so much in its infancy back then that geekdom and the stigma attached to it hadn’t been invented yet?) 😉
And like any other subculture existing on the fringe of society instead of at the mainstream, people who move in those circles aren’t well-understood or well-accepted socially. They have problems with social interaction not because they lack social skills, but because they lack the same set of social skills that most people consider normal, because they move in different social circles.
We’re really seeing a shift in attitudes in recent years, though. Bill Gates proved that it’s possible to make a whole lot of money as a programmer, and that’s always been something that improves one’s legitimacy in the eyes of society. (For good or for bad. Just look at the way the concept of legalizing illegal drugs in the USA has recently made the jump from “lunatic fringe” status to “idea that actual politicians will talk about.” Anyone who doesn’t think that the promotion of this idea is being very quietly financed by people who are already making obscene amounts of money selling either illegal or legal drugs is either deluding themselves or simply hasn’t thought about it much.) And Apple’s “iProducts,” with their decent quality and absolutely brilliant marketing, have led people to understand that technology can be “cool” and mainstream and not just something for geeks.
And we’re definitely seeing the concept of geeks as cool make its way into the mainstream lately. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the recent treatment of geeks by entertainment media produced for mainstream consumption. Live Free or Die Hard gave us a computer hacker, played by a good-looking, well-spoken actor, teaming up with Bruce Willis (the epitome of MANLINESS!) to save the US’s electronic infrastructure, which we can all agree is critical to our modern way of life. One episode of the excellent but tragically cancelled FlashForward had a hilarious scene in which self-proclaimed “quantum physicist genius” Simon Campos uses quantum physics to seduce a hot girl on a train. And the just-released X-Men: First Class gives similar tricks to the young, charming Charles Xavier, retroactively applying modern society’s attitude towards geeks to the 1960s as Charles uses his knowledge of genetics and mutations to sweet-talk cute coeds, which he’s apparently pretty successful at. This is a very different depiction of geeky characters being fed to today’s rising generation than the one I grew up with. In my childhood, the image of a geek was quite memorably codified in pop culture by Steve Urkel!
And even programmers who grew up under that image seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Where I work, most of the developers are living pretty successfully in traditional families, married with multiple children. And Jim McKeeth, who used to work here before going to RemObjects, has a lovely, intelligent wife with four wonderful (if overly energetic!) children. If I can do half so well I’ll count myself a lucky man.
So no, I don’t think that the image of the computer programmer with poor social skills is a valid one. It’s just a stereotype left over from an earlier time that just hasn’t managed to die yet. Certainly the runaway success of StackOverflow has demonstrated that it’s quite possible for large numbers of computer programmers to have an excellent degree of facility at communicating effectively, the most fundamental of all social skills! By the time today’s children have children of their own, this attitude will be a quaint cultural relic of ages past that they’ll look back on with amusement, much like the way we tend to regard the culture depicted in Leave it to Beaver today.