Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard

I don’t give a shit about technology.

I think that was my primary personal takeaway from this year’s TechFestNW. It was my second time attending, and each time it’s been quite inspiring. Maybe not in the ways it’s been intended, but regardless, it’s happened.

I rolled up a little late, so my lead-off speaker was Kara Swisher. A journalist, not a developer. Her talk (which was excellent, for the record) was centered on interactions between people and technology — not just how it looks or feels or interacts with any other sense, but the feelings and presence it evokes (for better or worse).

It was an area that the majority of the event’s speakers were focused on, in one way or another. Speakers ranging from Senator Wyden (who, for a politician, gave a surprisingly unconfident speech) to Charlie Brown talked not about technology, but about humans. Technology was important to all of them, but mostly as an abstract. I think the only time I heard a programming language mentioned was when Nat Parker hustled to hire for GlobeSherpa.

And just as I came in late on Friday, I bailed early on Saturday. I was sure Tad McGeer’s talk on drones would be very informative, but I was also sure it would be about technology. I ducked out to go to the bathroom, and when I went back to the theater there were charts on the screen. Tables. Jargon.

Technology. Cold, hard, technology.

I sat in the lobby and answered a few emails instead. When the crowd spilled out for lunch, I went to Bunk with some folks I knew, and didn’t come back. I figured it was because I was on day 3 of heavy activity and I could really use a flop on the bed. But, given time to simmer, I think the apparent abrupt focus on technology itself turned me away.

When I was growing up, I had the clear Game Boy Pocket. I loved being able to see inside, to gather something about how it worked. Even though I didn’t understand it. And I was never really interested in understanding what I was seeing — I didn’t care about the capacitors, or how having those circuits there can do this or that — I was interested in the fact that it all worked together and made up the Game Boy.

I was curious about the technology, but I cared about the product.

That difference has been pretty clear in my career since. It’s why I went for Software Engineering over Computer Science. I’ve worked with people who were deeply passionate (and, I admit, deeply knowledgeable) about their favorite technologies. So much so that they gladly deride competing options, openly mocking anything else they’re made to use. The reasons they offer are often valid, and they almost never have anything to do with the actual users that they’ll potentially affect.

I care about users. I’m not great at expressing it yet, and it’s mostly selfish; I’m a user way more often than I’m a developer. (And even while being a developer, I’m a user — IDEs are products, after all.) My experience with software is the same if it’s written in C, Java, or Node. Unless the language slows down what should be a fast application, or leaves its fingerprints on the UI, I don’t care.

And most people don’t either. If an engaging, friendly mobile app is made using Ionic HTML and not native Objective-C, who gives a shit? It’s just as engaging and friendly. Preferences are fine, I certainly have preferred languages and toolkits, but they don’t matter enough to be taken too seriously. Arguments about which framework is the most awesome don’t just miss the forest for the trees, they miss the trees for the moss.

I don’t see myself getting out of writing software entirely. For one, it’s the only skill I have. But at the same time, it’s the only tool I have right now for pushing human-focused technology, which TFNW 2014 now has me thinking should be my career focus. The talks and tenor from the event emphasized that conversations about technology may be necessary, but conversations about people matter a hell of a lot more. Let’s have those chats instead. They’re more interesting.

(This article/rant first appeared on my tech blog, where I’m likely to start logging my move towards human-focused software.)

(Header image courtesy Death to the Stock Photo)

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