The command line interface is where real work gets done. If he touches the mouse too many times during the day, he starts to feel like a sellout. GUIs are for wussies. He’s used vi exclusively for editing since 1980, and he thinks the whole concept of WSIWYG is a sham. Social Media? What’s that!? He is – The Techurmudgeon.
They say that most people listen to new music only until they reach age 21. After that, they keep listening to the same music they loved during the 16-21 years – over and over again for the rest of their life. Apparently, the theory goes, those “coming of age” years are tightly connected with people’s musical sensibilities. The songs of our youth become the songs of our lives.
I’m going to claim that this same thing is true for many people with the adoption and understanding of technology. Our minds start out open – and we find joy in each new innovation and every fresh idea. When the latest tech trend comes around, we are ON it – early adopting everything from Quadrophonic to LaserDisc to Newton. We spend hours learning the detailed ins and outs of the latest gizmos, and we are absolutely certain that the M4102-JB is far, far better than the M4102-JC – even though the “C” model is more expensive. As teenagers, we save every spare penny so we can get our hands on that awesome new Fratzitron on the FIRST DAY it’s available. Ramen for weeks? Who cares! We are on a mission.
Engineers (and aspiring engineers) experience this phenomenon more intensely than most. More than one of us reading this article will have spent time on the back porch with a blowtorch unsoldering components from somebody’s throw-away circuit boards so we could build some new project that caught our eye. We have spent a life stalking the latest and most obscure new technologies – not just to enjoy them, but so that we could find a way to hack them – to take them to the next level – to make them “our own.”
Then, something happens.
One day, we wake up and find ourselves in a new place – and we don’t know why or how we got there. Perhaps it is caused by too many years of refining that timing-driven placement algorithm. Maybe it’s the kids and the soccer practices and wanting to get away for the weekend for the occasional bike ride or camping trip. Whatever it is – it robs us of our spark. Our creative passion for the new, our drive to solve the next problem, our ability to think outside of the proverbial box suddenly fails us.
The first symptom might show up away from our actual work. We hear about … Twitter? “Why the heck would anybody want to use something like that? 140 characters? Sounds like a bunch of cryptic noise. Nobody will ever use it. Give me good old Usenet any day. Facebook? That’s for college kids, right? It’s just a bunch of half-baked hooligans trying to invade our privacy, if you ask me.”
Then, the virus slowly creeps into our own engineering work. “SerDes? Nah, we can do it all with parallel busses. Too much latency in all that serializing hoo-hah. Nobody can debug it, and all that signal integrity stuff will drive you crazy.”
We begin to avoid the new – even when it will help us do our jobs better.
Why? As engineers, we like to dive in deep. We want to solve problems, and the best way to do that is to learn. We start at the bottom and work our way to the top – conquering every obstacle along the way. By the time we are “expert” at something, we have earned it. We are proud of our accomplishments. We are the black-belt samurai grand-master warriors of our specialty area and nobody can touch us. Those young whipper-snappers can’t hold a candle to our awesomeness.
We are the undisputed KINGs of cassette tapes… and then CDs come along.
Our first reaction is denial. Those fancy things will never work. Nobody will actually ever use them. We support our argument. We make a list of all the ways the new thing could fail, and we spread the word as far and wide as we can – to anybody who will listen.
In truth, we are frightened. We are afraid that this thing that we have worked so hard to learn, to understand, to conquer, and finally – to master, will quietly disappear. It will fall into the forgotten annals of obsolescence, and we will go with it. For, with the new technology, we have no advantage. We start out from zero just like the new kids. And – we fear that they are smarter.
So, we cling tightly to our past accomplishments, and that desperate act is our ultimate undoing. For, in so doing, we make the most critical error an engineer can possibly make – we close our minds and we stop learning. We tell ourselves that we are in the right – that the things we know and understand with such confidence are the real things, the things that will last. We deceive ourselves into thinking that the amazing discontinuous change that we have struggled to create in our early careers is the last amazing discontinuous change. When the next one arrives at our doorstep, we deny its existence. In a way, we are victims of our own arrogance.
For the passionate engineer, change is everything. In a sense, engineering itself is nothing but the creation of change, so when we grow to fear change, we stop engineering. We may go through the motions, but we are really doing nothing but working on an assembly line – applying the same tired solutions to the same tired problems.
Then, at some point, we fall victim to corporate restructuring, downsizing, or some other contemporary euphemism that means, “you’re fired.” It’s not our fault, of course. It’s the company. With all the politics, the bureaucracy, the weird new legal stuff – there’s just nobody left that even has a clue that they just lost one of the world’s greatest engineers. It’s their loss, really. No matter, we’ll just waltz over to the competition and they’ll be dancing in the aisles when they find out the massive blunder their rivals just made. We’ll show them!
For some reason, the callback never comes.