technical work

by Sebastian Benthall

Dipping into Julian Orr’s Talking about Machines, an ethnography of Xerox photocopier technicians, has set off some light bulbs for me.

First, there’s Orr’s story: Orr dropped out of college and got drafted, then worked as a technician in the military before returning to school. He paid the bills doing technical repair work, and found it convenient to do his dissertation on those doing photocopy repair.

Orr’s story reminds me of my grandfather and great-uncle, both of whom were technicians–radio operators–during WWII. Their civilian careers were as carpenters, building houses.

My own dissertation research is motivated by my work background as an open source engineer, and my own desire to maintain and improve my technical chops. I’d like to learn to be a data scientist; I’m also studying data scientists at work.

Further fascinating was Orr’s discussion of the Xerox technician’s identity as technicians as opposed to customers:

The distinction between technician and customer is a critical division of this population, but for technicians at work, all nontechnicians are in some category of other, including the corporation that employs the technicians, which is seen as alien, distant, and only sometimes an ally.

It’s interesting to read about this distinction between technicians and others in the context of Xerox photocopiers when I’ve been so affected lately by the distinction between tech folk and others and data scientists and others. This distinction between those who do technical work and those who they serve is a deep historical one that transcends the contemporary and over-computed world.

I recall my earlier work experience. I was a decent engineer and engineering project manager. I was a horrible account manager. My customer service skills were abysmal, because I did not empathize with the client. The open source context contributes to this attitude, because it makes a different set of demands on its users than consumer technology does. One gets assistance with consumer grade technology by hiring a technician who treats you as a customer. You get assistance with open source technology by joining the community of practice as a technician. Commercial open source software, according to the Pentaho beekeeper model, is about providing, at cost, that customer support.

I’ve been thinking about customer service and reflecting on my failures at it a lot lately. It keeps coming up. Mary Gray’s piece, When Science, Customer Service, and Human Subjects Research Collide explicitly makes the connection between commercial data science at Facebook and customer service. The ugly dispute between Gratipay (formerly Gittip) and Shanley Kane was, I realized after the fact, a similar crisis between the expectations of customers/customer service people and the expectations of open source communities. When “free” (gratis) web services display a similar disregard for their users as open source communities do, it’s harder to justify in the same way that FOSS does. But there are similar tensions, perhaps. It’s hard for technicians to empathize with non-technicians about their technical problems, because their lived experience is so different.

It’s alarming how much is being hinged on the professional distinction between technical worker and non-technical worker. The intra-technology industry debates are thick with confusions along these lines. What about marketing people in the tech context? Sales? Are the “tech folks” responsible for distributional justice today? Are they in the throws of an ideology? I was reading a paper the other day suggesting that software engineers should be held ethically accountable for the implicit moral implications of their algorithms. Specifically the engineers; for some reason not the designers or product managers or corporate shareholders, who were not mentioned. An interesting proposal.

Meanwhile, at the D-Lab, where I work, I’m in the process of navigating my relationship between two teams, the Technical Team, and the Services Team. I have been on the Technical team in the past. Our work has been to stay on top of and assist people with data science software and infrastructure. Early on, we abolished regular meetings as a waste of time. Naturally, there was a suspicion expressed to me at one point that we were unaccountable and didn’t do as much work as others on the Services team, which dealt directly with the people-facing component of the lab–scheduling workshops, managing the undergraduate work-study staff. Sitting in on Services meetings for the first time this semester, I’ve been struck by how much work the other team does. By and large, it’s information work: calendering, scheduling, entering into spreadsheets, documenting processes in case of turnover, sending emails out, responding to emails. All important work.

This is exactly the work that information technicians want to automate away. If there is a way to reduce the amount of calendering and entering into spreadsheets, programmers will find a way. The whole purpose of computer science is to automate tasks that would otherwise be tedious.

Eric S. Raymond’s classic (2001) essay How to Become a Hacker characterizes the Hacker Attitude, in five points:

  1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
  2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
  3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
  4. Freedom is good.
  5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

There is no better articulation of the “ideology” of “tech folks” than this, in my opinion, yet Raymond is not used much as a source for understanding the idiosyncracies of the technical industry today. Of course, not all “hackers” are well characterized by Raymond (I’m reminded of Coleman’s injunction to speak of “cultures of hacking”) and not all software engineers are hackers (I’m sure my sister, a software engineer, is not a hacker. For example, based on my conversations with her, it’s clear that she does not see all the unsolved problems with the world to be intrinsically fascinating. Rather, she finds problems that pertain to some human interest, like children’s education, to be most motivating. I have no doubt that she is a much better software engineer than I am–she has worked full time at it for many years and now works for a top tech company. As somebody closer to the Raymond Hacker ethic, I recognize that my own attitude is no substitute for that competence, and hold my sister’s abilities in very high esteem.)

As usual, I appear to have forgotten where I was going with this.