The Enigma Of The Socially Awkward Software Developer

The playground of software developers, especially throughout education, can be a very insular yet reassuringly comfortable place to be, a private world of problem solving with all cognitive sense fastened to keyboard and monitor. Achievements can be private too, non celebratory, at least not to the outside world.

Once software development is seared into the psyche, peddling code for cash becomes an intuitive next step, yet what happens when the bridge over the canyon to a career looks a bit too overwhelming? Socially awkward developers may not know where to start with creating productive, genuine and enduring friendships and relationships, communicating as human beings, but they are not alone, much less with the outside world but more amongst themselves.

The gap between the introvert and the extrovert is only as big as the people present in the room and most Meetup hacker gatherings, for example, will usually have a comparatively higher percentage of introverts than, say, a room of performing arts students, but how important is that gap?

In short, probably much less important than being an introvert in a lot of other industries, but there is still a streak of much less critical importance. By it’s nature coding requires some of the behavioural characteristics of being an introvert in order for people to be effective, that is, preferring to spend time alone or with a close friend, concentrating better when alone, being quiet and appearing to be mysterious and also drawing strength and energy from being alone.

Essentially, it is more than fine for a developer to exhibit social awkwardness but I still think that it is important to be aware of where one is vaguely pitched on the awkward scale and at least know what sort of behaviours are going to make that slider move in either direction.

I was reading an article on Psychology Today which I thought gave some really good pointers for software developers that might need to be nudging that slider in the less awkward direction. The more obvious reasons for this, unless you can get away with sitting in your bedroom until you are 80 with headphones on punching out code, will likely be interviews and networking, aspirations to step into a lead position/career ladder, or being able to show you’d be a good pair programmer.

Dr Alice Boyes Ph.D, an expert in cognitive behavioural therapy, authored the simple tips which look as though they are almost taylor written for software developers. Developing a positive overall view of your personality is a really good starting point, realising that it is ok to be introverted and it is not a character flaw and I think people can feel reassured from the developer community that it is a very common and beneficial trait to have.

Boyes goes on to pitching which I think is absolutely relevant to anything from interviews to pitching for funding for a business idea. I have observed people here in Melbourne, usually when they feel vulnerable in their jobs, that have forced themselves to talk at Meetups about whatever area of technology interests them. The results are astonishing, not only in elevating confidence levels but also with getting feedback and pushing your own brand slightly deeper into the community.  You’ll always be uncomfortable at first doing this, nay, nervous as hell. The return on investment however can be incredibly lucrative and the best way of getting hired is to be approached directly.

Variety of introversion goes back to the sliding scale analogy, understanding where you are in between extrovert and introvert and Boyes advises to cherry pick the advice that you find helpful/ignore that which you don’t connect with.

Also, refer to a separate article by Boyes which looks into self regulation. There will often be a product of certain actions, for example things that overstimulate you or stress you out, perhaps feeling that you are being rushed into answering a question where normally, it is in your nature to digest a question before coming up with a measured response. This articles looks into stress relief tips and work arounds.

I think one of the final points is the most important which is adopting a growth mindset. Going back to the start, developers would need to completely un-condition themselves and relearn if they were ever going to be extroverts, which by definition could likely make a less effective developer. If social awkwardness is something that needs to be addressed a mindset needs to be adopted which says that ‘I can improve networking skills’ and improving is just fine, you don’t have to be perfect at it, and you don’t need to be outstanding at everything.

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About Gary Donovan

Machine Learning and Data Science blogger, hacker, consultant living in Melbourne, Australia. Passionate about the people and communities that drive forward the evolution of technology.
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