Paul's Internet Landfill/ lj/ The INTPs Strike Back

The INTPs Strike Back

I suspect most Normal People tend to lump all computer geeks together: as socially-inept folks who will get rid of your spyware if you ask them nicely and put up with their sermons. Certainly, I think that perception is largely accurate, but it dawned on me that computer nerds are not really a homogenous group.

In the one corner, you have people who love computers for their own sakes. Computers are this amazing toy that you can manipulate in all kinds of interesting ways, and these people delight in using this tool in clever ways. Let's call these people "puzzle-driven".

In the other corner you have folks who love computers as amazingly useful tools. With computers, you can store the entire Library of Congress, talk with people across the world, and collaboratively build a world-class encyclopedia. Let's call these people "application- driven".

To outsiders these two sets of people are pretty much indistinguishable. Certainly, the sets are fuzzy: a given nerd will have some degree of membership in both sets. But many nerds tend to be dominant in one set or another, and this can cause problems.

Perhaps the easiest way to determine which property is dominant in a given nerd is to query the nerd's motivations for working on his or her latest project. For example, imagine the following conversation between you and a nerd:

YOU: Hey, nerd! What are you geeking away at now?

NERD0: I'm installing a voice/data/fax modem in my box so that I can run vgetty and turn my computer into an answering machine!

YOU: That sounds very interesting. But don't you have an answering machine already?

NERD0: You don't understand, dude! Now I can do it in Linux! Plus it uses vgetty, and maybe I can set up VoIP later!

This nerd would appear to be puzzle-driven -- he or she sees an opportunity to use Linux in a new way, and this drives the nerd to figure out the puzzle, using this wonderful device to do something neat.

Contrast this to the following conversation:

YOU: Hey, nerd! What are you geeking away at now?

NERD1: I'm installing a voice/data/fax modem in my box so that I can run vgetty and turn my computer into an answering machine!

YOU: That sounds very interesting. But don't you have an answering machine already?

NERD1: You don't understand, dude! I do have an answering machine, but I don't have as much control over it as I would like. This way, I can customize answering messages to different callers, and I can store the messages on my hard drive forever.

This nerd would appear to be application-driven -- he or she sees a need not served by the current answering machine, and is setting up this new device to get around the problem.

The output of the geekery will likely be similar, but the process and motivations will be different. The puzzle-driven soul will delve deep into the depths of answering machines on Linux, learning about every neat thing that this new thing could possibly do. The application- driven soul will set up the modem and then -- as likely as not -- lose interest in the project.

Here's the key difference: for puzzle-driven nerds, the computer is interesting in itself, independent of its applications. The computer is the motivator. To application-driven nerds, the computer is a means to an end. The problem being solved is the motivator.

I don't think this is a wholly accurate model, but I do think it is a useful one. It explains some of the uncomfortable exchanges I see at LUG meetings. Nerd A will tout some topic: "Now you can install Linux on an X-Box!" Nerd B will raise his/her/its eyebrows and ask, "How is this useful?" Nerd A will then stare at Nerd B as if he/she/it has just eaten a kitten. Nerd A can't make sense of the question. Nerd A might be used to hearing such questions from Normals, but shouldn't one expect a higher level of understanding from a fellow nerd?

Similarly, Nerd B might be discussing a solution to making presentations. "In the end, I just wrote the equations out by hand and scanned them in," the nerd might say. Nerd A might then gasp in horror. What a horrible solution! Nerd A would suggest learning LaTeX and typesetting the equations, then generating proper image files from that. Nerd B wouldn't understand the resistance. The nerd found a solution to his/her/its problem that was good enough. Why spend the time learning a brand new software package to get similar output?

Similarly, this explains crackers and script-kiddies pretty well. Most script-kiddies have little real reason to root machines and deface them -- they just use computers to solve puzzles, which in this case happen to be corporate security measures.

This also explains that mysterious class of nerd that knows a lot about computing (and uses computers every day) but doesn't really like them. I think I fall into that set.

My guess is that employers want to hire puzzle-driven nerds, because these are the nerds who will spend hours learning about new technologies and trends and cool new ways of doing things. They will learn new areas in depth just for the sake of the knowledge. The downside to hiring a puzzle-nerd is that inelegant solutions and technologies (e.g. Visual Basic) will totally demotivate such people, and it is hard to keep them focussed on your business goals. But if you find such a nerd who is interested in an area relevant to your business goals, you are golden. I imagine puzzle-driven nerds have more buzzwords and know their buzzwords deeper.

Employers probably do not value application-driven nerds as much, because their knowledge is shallower (they will learn just enough to get their work done) and they aren't driven to make sure their solutions are elegant and efficient. However, if you have a lot of problems you can express to these nerds, you can keep them busy and happy.

A virgin? Still living in your parents' basement? Suffering the fear
that not only are you a geek, but you may not be the useful, smart
kind? -- R. K. Milholland, Something Positive, April 14 2002, used without permission. Original comic

My problem is that I am the wrong kind of nerd. I pretend to be puzzle-driven, and I wish I was puzzle-driven, but really I'm not. This is one of the reasons I did so poorly in grad school; in order to get results and publications you need lots of practice in thinking and doing experiments and writing theorems. It's hard to discover useful results in CS, and if you limit yourself to working only on important problems you won't get any publications -- your brain will not have the exercise that comes from working on intrinsically-interesting puzzles, and so you won't be smart enough to get the results that matter.

Similarly, I don't have a good set of techno-buzzwords on my resume because I would rather surf the Internet and read books than learn about the latest and greatest technologies. Maybe now that I understand myself better I can find some career where I can contribute some nerdly skills and be happy, but accepting that I am not puzzle- driven has not been easy. For one thing, it means that there are many things (learning number theory, getting a PhD, learning Perl, etc.) that I will never "get around to". For another, I worry that I am not all that application-driven, either. If that's the case, then my chances for future employability look rather grim indeed.

The odd thing is that until third-year university I lapped up knowledge. I loved to learn, no matter what the subject or application. It would appear that I used to be a puzzle-nerd throughout my childhood and adolescence. So what broke?

Fortunately, my model is not very good, and it doesn't explain large classes of nerds. Perhaps the most prominent is the artistic nerd: those who use computers to express their creativity. You find these people gravitating to Perl and Ruby a lot. They write Perl poetry and Poignant Guides to Ruby -- not for the technical challenge, but because the result is beautiful. Such nerds are not really application-driven (what problem does a Perl poem solve?). They are closer to being puzzle-driven, but there is something different between them and hard-core technology geeks; I think the puzzle-nerds tend to look down on the artistic nerds, and consider them flaky. No doubt there are many other facets of nerd-dom as well.

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