Michael in Culture 10 minutes

The Technical Asshole Curse

I’ve seen it happen over and over again, and I fight it in myself every day. I call it the Technical Asshole Curse. We’ll illustrate the curse by following our friend Joe through his career.

It’s starts so innocently: Joe cares. He wants to make a difference. He reads up on the best way to do something, and stands up in the important notice and gives management a way out of this mess. Joe introduces test-driven development, or a better way to provision infrastructure, or a great new devops tool.

People take notice. Joe then gets promoted. People start coming to Joe for help on all things related to his expertise. Joe is now the go-to person for that topic.

It’s important to stop here and note an important truth that Joe doesn’t quite get: Joe is respected and given praise because of his hard skills, not his soft skills. In other words, people think he brings value to the organization because of his knowledge and not because of how he treats people. In fact, if people were honest with Joe, they would tell him that they are often uncomfortable with how Joe treats them. Sometimes Joe gets frustrated in meetings and talks over people. Other times Joe answers emails with no empathy or understanding.

But Joe is unaware of these problems, because everyone is so enamored with the technical value that Joe is bringing to the table.

As Joe’s career grows, the business builds a team around Joe to insulate him from those who wouldn’t get him: other teams, top management, and especially the customers. Joe doesn’t care and thinks this is a good thing. But this is not a good thing: Joe is surrounded by people that think Joe is an asshole and that it’s their job to keep that fact from hurting the business. Joe’s colleagues go home from work and talk about how much they despise Joe, but how there is nothing they can do about it because Joe is so valuable to the company. The more they feel trapped, the more their secret resentment toward Joe grows.

This is what happens over and over again when people only find their value in their technical contributions and ignore their interpersonal contributions. It’s a curse that happens to good people who stand up and make a difference, but fail to properly appreciate that the difference they seek combines an excellent approach with a group of people who feel great about working together.

Businesses will rarely tell people that they’re an asshole. Rest assured: they will talk about it when the asshole isn’t present. And many times the fix will do nothing to help the asshole get some help. Instead many times the fix will enable the asshole to become more of one, while the cycle of resentment and frustration descend into further and further depths.

It’s so easy to be an asshole in technology. In order for your idea to get through, you have to care and you have to tell people that they are doing it all wrong. If you’re not careful, you end up thinking their feelings are an unnecessary detail. That will be so destructive for your career if you let it fester. Instead, take people to lunch. Find out what they care about and empathize with their problems. Let them come up with the solutions and help them out. Make it OK to be wrong about stuff. In short, don’t be an asshole.