yours truly, circa 1994

On Technical Entitlement

You know that kid who’s been coding for, well, forever?

Tess Rinearson
Jul 3, 2013 · 5 min read

By most measures, I should have technical entitlement in spades.

I’m the granddaughter of a software engineer and the daughter of a entrepreneur. I could use a computer just about as soon as I could sit up. When I was 11, I made my first website and within a year I was selling code. I took six semesters of computer science in high school, and I had two internships behind me when I started my freshman year of college.

Despite what it may seem, I’m not trying to brag—seriously. I’m just trying to prove a point: I should not be intimidated by technical entitlement.

And yet I am. I am very intimidated by the technically entitled.

You know the type. The one who was soldering when she was 6. The one who raises his hand to answer every question—and occasionally tries to correct the professor. The one who scoffs at anyone who had a score below the median on that data structures exam (“idiots!”). The one who introduces himself by sharing his StackOverflow score.

Photo by ARGmonkey

That’s technical entitlement. It starts with a strong background in tech, often at a very young age. With some extreme confidence and perhaps a bit of obliviousness, this blooms into technical entitlement, an attitude characterized by showmanship and competitiveness.

It’s easy to dismiss technical entitlement. People often cite social ineptitude as a reason for unpleasant behavior in tech. But, frankly, I’m tired of that excuse. The fact is, the behavior that comes from technical entitlement is poisonous. It can really ruin someone’s introduction to computer science.

Let me frame it this way: I know logically that I’m pretty good. But I never feel like I’m as good, or as experienced, as everyone else.

I always feel like I’m behind, trying to catch up to a group of super-elites who’ve been programming since they could walk.

Now imagine someone starting out as a college student taking their first CS course. Imagine how the technical elite make them feel.

“Oh, that’s not for me.” I’ve heard this more times than I can count. Or, “I’m not that kind of person.” Or even just sheepish laughter. I have several extremely sharp, logical friends who won’t even think about CS because it’s not “right” for them. (How can you know this if you don’t try?!)

At the NY Tech Meetup’s “Conversation with Women in Tech” (which is 100% worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet), my friend Amy Quispe talked about her experience studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon. She didn’t like it—at least, not at first. “I felt like an outsider,” she said.

As an aside, this is patently absurd. Amy is the kind of person who everyone knows and adores. Amy is at the heart of Carnegie Mellon’s CS community, and is a pillar of the CS student community for students everywhere–even if she hasn’t always felt like that. In the fall of 2011, Amy decided to organize a hackathon. Hackathons weren’t popular at CMU, she explains. But her hackathon was a huge success. Why?

She broke down the entitlement barrier. “We told people, ‘You are exactly the kind of person who does this kind of thing. You’re exactly the kind of smart, creative people who like to solve problems. So why not?’”

Amy’s hackathon, TartanHacks, had a turnout of over 150 students. Most other CMU hackathons had no more than 50.

At the same event, Jessica Lawrence, who organizes the NY Tech Meetup, told a similar story. And hers illustrates the real danger of technical entitlement: It discourages diversity.

One of Lawrence’s roles is finding startups to demo at NYTM, and she had trouble getting women to demo, she explains. She’d invite women and most of them would turn her down. Out of curiosity, she decided to organize an event just for women—and they applied in spades. She had so many female founders apply that she was turning them away. “Why?” she asked them. “Why did you never apply to the full NY Tech Meetup?”

Their responses were astonishingly consistent. They didn’t apply for NYTM because it was big, and intimidating. They felt like they “weren’t ready.” Women in tech, Lawrence concluded, don’t have an under-aspiration problem or an under-competence problem.

“There is,” she said, “an under-confidence problem.”

Sound familiar? Yep, it’s exactly the kind of self-doubt that can arise when there are so many technically entitled people around.

So why does this happen? Why does it persist? Technical elitism seems like the kind of thing that could knock the entire industry flat. Why do we keep scaring everyone off?

I have a couple of ideas.

For one thing, precocity is rewarded in tech. We all swoon over the guy who started programming robots when he was 6. Growing up in tech, I took this as a constant in life—if you’re doing cool things, the younger the better. But it’s become obvious that this is more unique. One of my friends working in finance put it this way: “If I told people I started shorting stocks when I was nine—not that I was, by the way—people wouldn’t be impressed. They’d only say, ‘Who was stupid enough to give you their money?’”

Additionally, there is a certain machismo and bravado associated with success in tech. I watch my classmates one-up each other day in and day out. (Occasionally, rarely, I do a little one upping myself.) Why is this the case? Well, that’s a whole separate question. But it certainly contributes to the way that technical entitlement turns “outsiders” off.

That’s not something I want to do. I love computer science, and I’m a huge advocate of everyone giving it a shot. (Just ask any of my friends who are studying political science.) So when I realized what a problem technical entitlement was, I momentarily threw my hands up in the air.

And then I remembered that many people probably see me as incredibly technically entitled. Many people probably see Amy as very technically entitled. (We both started writing code in middle school.)

Technical entitlement is all relative.

Odds are, if you’re in CS, someone sees you as being technically entitled. I’ve realized I have to keep this in mind. This is worth keeping in mind for everyone in tech.

My officemate is the son of a software developer, and when I asked him about the technically entitled, he said he’s made a conscious choice “not to be one of those people.” This is, at the very least, a good start. (And I can personally attest that he’s a very welcoming person.) This is a start that we can all make.

So, what will happen if enough of us make that choice? Will it be enough? Will that make computer science a friendlier field?

I sure hope so.

I originally published this post just over a year ago, on June 29, 2012. When I wrote it, I was a Penn student and a Microsoft intern, and I was kind of angry.

I’m reposting it to Medium, unedited, and using Notes to add commentary from where I stand now, in July 2013.

Tales from the Front

Stories about being a computer science student

    Tess Rinearson

    Written by

    Engineering at @Interstellar, via @Chain. Previously at Medium.

    Tales from the Front

    Stories about being a computer science student

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