Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Are Techies Arrogant?

Funny thing about that New York Times article. It took the position that technical support people are arrogant, and that arrogance is their default setting. So much so that, when business people find the rare non-arrogant specimen, they hang onto him or her for dear life.

I'm not really qualified to represent the suit point of view on this particular topic because, well, I married my tech support. Which I guess means that getting arrogiant with me could have consequences outside the usual range for most service geeks.

What would it be like to be a garden variety small business owner with garden variety computer problems? I spend a lot of time listening to techies complain about the clueless users ("lusers") who need to have the simplest tasks explained to them over and over, and chuckled over the acronym PEBCAK (problem exists between chair and keyboard)--explained to me by a pal of mine who spent what he thinks of as a purgatorial period providing telephone techinical support.
But perhaps I haven't looked enough at the other side of the support equation: People who aren't technologically adept, but still use computers on a daily basis and sometimes need help and advice, preferably given with patience and in plain English. Maybe if I did, I'd know whether this complaint that many support people are arrogant is based in fact or just perception.

One of the most interesting comments in the piece came near the end, when someone quoted in the article postulated that geeks would be forced to become less arrogant in future years, as they face competition for their jobs. Of course, those who live in geekdom know that they already face pretty tough competition for their jobs, much of it from some very un-arrogant people in places like Bangalore. So I somehow doubt that job competition will change things.

I think it's more an issue of geek status, which seems to go through up and down cycles. At its height, in the late 1990s, I remember reading a New York Times Magazine article about how the young geek entrepreneurs were seeking seats on the boards of powerful foundations--they wanted to make their influence felt! At the opposite end of the pendulum swing were the days when Bill's former geek colleagues found themselves selling commercial real estate or repairing bicycles because those were the only things employers thought they were good for.

Somewhere between those extremes of high and low status is balance, just as somewhere there's balance between the suits who think technical support people can't be bothered to teach, and geeks who think the people needing technical support can't be bothered to learn.

Finding that balance...that's the tricky part. And will be, I think, for years still to come.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Geek Gap quoted in the NY Times

Excellent article in the NY Times by Coeli Carr, titled Computer Support Technicians Who Play Well With Others.
She quotes us in it, go check it out.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Voting Machines are a Geek Gap Issue

Voting machines, especially the touch-screen variety, have been in the headlines for several years now, and no one seems to be able to (or, possibly more likely, wants to) resolve the problems. Voting machine maker Diebold, which donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns (and whose CEO Wally O'Dell was famously quoted saying he would "...deliver Ohio electoral votes for Bush..." prior to the disasterous 2004 Presidential vote count in that state), are now responsible for delivering more than 80% of the votes cast in US elections. These machines run on propietary software the company refuses to open for full scrutiny by impartial technologists. Need more reasons to not trust this company? The Senior Vice-President/Senior Programmer of Diebold software creation is a convicted felon (23 counts of felony theft for planting back doors in software he created for ATMs) and who also employed a number of other convicted felons in senior positions, including a fraudulent securities trader and a drug trafficker.

Then there's Sequoia Systems, another maker of voting touch-screen machines. They're majority owned by Venezuelans, and there's some question that there may be ties between the Chavez government and Sequoia management. Plus, their machines seem to be even easier to hack than Diebold machines.

But let's just forget the partisan political mistrust for a moment. All this brouhaha over the software could be eliminated in one single stroke - by using completely free, easily verified Open Source software to run the machines. Not only has this been proposed time and again, but it's already been done. Australia spent 6 months creating a Linux-based version, allowed all political groups to examine and test it before using it, then used it in a limited way (8.3% of votes cast) for a 2001 parliamentary election, which went off without a hitch. They now are using it in a national 2006 election, and no one has a single complaint about hidden agendas or secret vote fixing - at least regarding the software in the touch-screen machines they're using.

So why don't we do something similar, or for that matter just download the well-tested Australian version and use that? Good question, and I think that at least part of the answer can be blamed on the Geek Gap.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 is forcing states to replace punch ballots and (reliable, mechanical, uncheat-able) lever machines with either optical-scan (fill in the dot) or touch-screen vote tallying machines. Ultimately, the decision of which voting machines to use is being made by various state and county electoral boards. While these folks are, I'm sure, good citizens who want to do the best thing, they are also people not qualified to make this kind of judgement. These are decisions about computers. Past decisions made by electoral boards had more to do with things like how to display the candidates on the paper ballots, or how to comply with handicapped access issues, and they could rely on easily understood information to make an informed choice. Serious questions about ways voting software can be compromised is completely beyond their scope. Also, understand that, being almost completely made up of non-technological workers, they live in a world in which they trust a software maker to deliver what they say they deliver. Their Apple iMac or Windows XP computer just works, and how it does what it does is not something they need to ever concern themselves with. Same with this - how these touch-screen systems do what they do is as much a mystery as the transmission on their SUV, it just works. Why question something that just works?

Geeks have tried to make the political suits understand the serious flaws in these systems, but they seem to be generally viewed as individuals outside of the system, not ones who might actually be part of it, contributing something. While some states are delaying adopting these machines because they simply don't have the information they need to deal with this, other states are simply jumping in without giving the questions a solid look.

Neither is a good approach. Geeks need very much to be brought into the center of these issues and made an integral part of this process, not just testify a couple times and leave it at that.

So......what do YOU think?