Many scientists have said he got the biology wrong. But the job requirements of today’s programmers show he was also wrong about working in tech. In fact, interpersonal skills like collaboration, communication, empathy and emotional intelligence are essential to the job. The myth that programming is done by loner men who think only rationally and communicate only with their computers harms the tech industry in ways that cut straight to the bottom line.
The loner stereotype can deter talented people from the industry -not just women, but anyone who thinks that sounds like an unattractive job description. It can also result in dysfunctional teams and poorly performing products. Empathy, after all, is crucial to understanding consumers’ desires, and its absence leads to product mistakes.
Take digital assistants like Google Home or Amazon Echo. Their programmers need to be able to imagine a huge variety of home situations, whether households with roommates or abusive spouses or children -as made clear when a child ordered a $160 dollhouse and four pounds of sugar cookies on the Echo.
“Basically every step is very collaborative,” said Tracy Chou, who was an engineer at Pinterest and Quora and is now working on startups. “Building a big software system, you could have dozens or hundreds or thousands of engineers working on the same code base, and everything still has to work together… But not everyone is the same, and that’s where empathy and broader diversity really help”.
The memo distinguished between empathising with other people’s feelings and analysing and constructing systems, and said coding is about the latter. It’s true that programming can be a solitary activity in college computer science classes or entry-level positions. But soon after, it’s impossible to avoid teamwork -with the business or legal departments, but also with other engineers.