Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Accidental techie

There's a post from Dorothea Salo on about being an "accidental techie," i.e., winding up in a technical field without a background in computer science or any of the other qualifications. Salo speculates whether gender is a factor:

Some accidental techies are indeed male; I know one or two. I do wonder about the distribution, though. The accidental techies I know typically came from pink-collar occupations, and how many men does one find in those?

I have no idea about the distribution, but I am male and my route to techie-dom was pretty darn accidental. True, I did dabble with computers through my teen years, going as far as learning a little BASIC and Pascal programming, but in the process, I decided that programming was mostly rather tedious, and so when it came time for college, I went the humanities route. That was followed by a masters degree in Anglo-Irish Literature and entering an doctoral program in English with the intent of studying Modernist poetry. Someone there got the mistaken impression that I was a computer whiz, and I spent my first year assigned as a "research" assistant to the person in charge of the department's computer labs, a job that mostly entailed following him around with a screwdriver, unscrewing cases, and disconnecting clock batteries to clear the system passwords that undergrads were constantly putting on the machines. Somewhere along the way, I got interested in hypertext theory, the web, and computer pedagogy, and those interests landed me where I am now. It was certainly not planned and never very systematic. There are embarrassing holes in my knowledge that might not be quite so embarrassing if I'd had some formal training along the way. I have felt, at times, like an "impostor," as Salo puts it, though I have mostly come to accept that I do have a niche to fill as someone who can translate between Techies and Academics. I may not know all the idioms of these two cants, but I know enough of both the allow them to communicate with each other, and that seems to be difficult for them to do on their own. In any case, my accidental journey helped my wife and me escape the curse of academic couples, the long-distance marriage, so I can't complain.

I don't know how it is in the private sector, but I see a lot of accidental techies of both genders in academia. I think that is partly because universities usually don't have (or won't spend) the money to provide the level of tech support that is really needed, so departments have to press anyone who possesses even a modicum of knowledge and doesn't know better into service. Conversely, accidental techiedom offers an escape hatch for people like me who stumble into doctoral programs unaware of the exploitative arrangement that is the American PhD program and the miserable job prospects awaiting its graduates. The sad truth is that I seem to be more employable (and better-paid) as a PhD-dropout with technical experience than I would have been with a dissertation in-hand on Ezra Pound. Quite a few of my fellow students reached similar conclusions.