yesterday i spent a couple hours at the national museum of the air force in dayton ohio. military design and engineering is always a fascinating topic because of the varied constraints they deal with which are much less important for civilian designs.
This post is coming to you from my transatlantic from Dublin to Orlando on Aer Lingus – coming up over the Canadian border right now. I just finished watching the movie, “The Internship,” about two middle-aged guys who are complete technology outsiders but apply for jobs at Google. It sparked some thoughts so I thought I’d respond.
Movies like this didn’t interest me that much until I joined the big hip clique that is the tech startup world. Now it piques my curiosity concerning how it, like most vocational-specific films, misportrays the industry.
Apart from the way it casts Google employees vis-a-vis programmers in general as soulless heartless machines, it does bring out how important human relationships are to all fields of engineering. Here is an example:
The two protagonists form a team with the other remaining misfits during their internship with Google where they have to prove their merit in competition with the other smarter and more educated teams. One night, while struggling to come up with an idea for a new app they need to develop, diving into statistics and user behavioral metrics and market research, these two guys kick their team out of the think tank and force them to engage in the local San Francisco culture, to experience some local interaction, to push their comfort with face to face social encounters, and to soak in the beauty of the bay. Only after this breath of fresh air do the kids get inspired to build an app that prevents people from sending embarrassing messages while drunk (you can imagine how that inspiration hit them).
Engineering, software, and technology is best when it meets a real human need – when someone says, “wouldn’t it be nice if you could ―?” Then someone meets that need and it improves someone else’s quality of life. I’m trying to do that at Automattic: bridge the digital divide between people in a way that encourages them to write and share their stories.
We geeks are actually people though, we’re not just your local free tech support. The movie highlighted our demographic’s problem of overworking, of blurring the line between practicing our hobbies and doing our jobs. Those human connections are quickly severed when we retreat into our caves, as I call them – rooms of isolation where we can work in the zone for hours or days on end. Some of the best benefits of these types of jobs – the free food, the games, the massages, the great equipment Google buys you – these can kick back by making the office so appealing you never want to leave.
It really messed up one cool aspect of Silicon Valley though, the interpersonal competition between the programmers. Most people I have encountered would have a harder time not helping out their colleagues and competitors than to lend a hand. We all have business needs, but we do it for the greater good so helping each other out means helping out the bigger community and there’s lots of love.
Also, the hiring process in the film was really terrible. That’s not the way Google or any other reputable company hires.
My favorite part was a short back-and-forth between these techo-klutzes.
Nick: “You grew up in the 70s. There weren’t any computers…or bike helmets or sunscreen or seatbelts…what was your seatbelt?”
Billy: “My mom – she went like this [Billy extends his arm in a protective gesture]”
Nick: “Yeah, and how did that work out?”
Billy: “You remember…I went through the windshield.”
It’s easy to remember the past as better than it was and to see technology as evil, but technology done right makes lives better.
Help me out a bit here!
Have you seen a movie or show recently that portrays your field of expertise? What kinds of responses did it provoke? How did they get it right, how did they get it wrong?
Please share by commenting below, maybe we can get some new insights into each others’ lives.