Why the Preponderance of Poor Social Skills in IT Is Unacceptable

Don Tennant

It's hardly a secret that people in the IT profession are disproportionately more likely to have poor social skills than people in other fields. It's widely, openly discussed in the context of such topics as the preponderance of IT people with Asperger's Syndrome. But what isn't so widely discussed is the dark side of being devoid of those skills.


It's one thing to simply have a preference for a solitary work environment with little social interaction. But it's another thing entirely to be so detached from other people that you forget how to relate to them with a sense of decency and tolerance.

In my post, "Stealing Your Kids' Dreams-and Years from Their Lives," I expressed the view that disenchanted IT workers shouldn't dissuade their children from pursuing a dream to enter the IT profession. Citing research that shows that positive, optimistic people live longer, healthier lives than negative people, I also suggested that parents should take care to avoid passing their own negativity on to their kids.

That the post drew a rash of mean-spirited comments and baseless personal attacks didn't surprise me, because I've written on this topic in the past and I knew what to expect. But it's worth presenting excerpts from the comments of a couple of readers here to make a point that needs to be made. The first reader had this to contribute:

And there have been any number of scientific studies that show that 1) America is being duped by a NASSCOM-paid media occupied by washed up hippie-commie shills like Don, 2) there is no shortage of skilled workers in the U.S. 3) Americans who created the IT industry have been screwed out of their rightful due by the greedy and undeserving third world and social manipulators like the gov't and corporate media.

The second reader chose to be a little more directly insulting:

The bit in your article about Catherine Jewell saying that it's a mistake for parents to sway their children from any career path is a bunch of nonsense -- neither you nor her have worked in IT and are absolutely clueless about the conditions in this field. Oh, wait -- I get it now -- YOU'RE SHILLING FOR HER TOO! Hyperlink and everything. Wow Don, nothing like a few extra bucks under the table to pay for a little extra vacation, eh?

Now, the reason I'm recounting this here is that yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Handal, chairman and CEO of Dale Carnegie & Associates, and it turns out that improving the interpersonal skills of IT people is big business for Dale Carnegie. Handal noted that some of the biggest and best-known software and other IT companies are clients. But it isn't just IT vendors that are seeking to train their employees in the art of interacting with other people, Handal said:

Some of the largest clients that we have are the IT departments in very large companies. I think in large part it's because interpersonal skills are really essential to success. We all have gotten so used to sitting in front of our laptops or working with our iPhones that we're more comfortable doing that than we are dealing with other people. A lot of companies are realizing that and are encouraging their people to take the face-to-face interpersonal skills-type training that we give, because it makes them more comfortable [relating with other people]. People to a certain extent forget how to deal with other human beings. The essence of customer service and leadership is interpersonal-the skills that you learn from dealing with other people. So I think one of the reasons why IT has been such a large and growing part of our business is that there's a real need for redirecting people back to some of the basics.

Yes, there's a huge need to redirect people back to the basics-to things like civility and common courtesy that far too many IT people have lost in a profession that has tended not to provide enough opportunity for social interaction. Isolation is unhealthy, even when it's isolation in the company of a computer. Or, perhaps, especially when it's in the company of a computer. That seems to be when the darkness is most successful in enveloping us.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Sign up now and get the best business technology insights direct to your inbox.


Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jul 8, 2010 1:25 PM Blue Blue  says:

You never address any of the legit comments and dwell on anything which appears to be angry; you love building up a strawman.   I would suspect many of the angry posts are from people whom have been displaced directly by the H1b program.   Anyways, you are a shill, and you know it.  Why does that term bother you so much?  Shilling for H1bs seems to be your job.  Just admit it and go on with your life.

Jul 9, 2010 8:26 AM Blue Blue  says: in response to Don Tennant

I guess my next question is: why do you respond to a comment and then delete that very comment you are responding to?

Jul 9, 2010 8:42 AM Dan Tennant from Under Mama Skirt Dan Tennant from Under Mama Skirt  says: in response to Blue

Blue ! Don't waist your time with this guy "Don Tennant"  He loves to throw flame into the angry pile ants and take off. There are lots of important thing to pay attention, just ignore  him for the shake of  all. We should all stop response to his maniac blog posts.. The more we reply to him he will enjoy his popularity as more attentions as the result he will erect more fires into the topics. Just let it go in peace...

Jul 9, 2010 12:04 PM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to Blue

If you're trying to test my civility, you'll lose every time. I deleted nothing. The comment is there and was never touched. I don't know why you would make the accusation, but I'll assume it was an oversight on your part.

Jul 9, 2010 3:02 PM supportUSworkers supportUSworkers  says: in response to Don Tennant

Mumbai Don,

I saw YOUR comment at the top of the page referring to a non-existent comment this morning.  You did something - the comment wasn't there when I looked at it but your response was.

Jul 9, 2010 3:51 PM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to Blue

Nonsense. I state my views and provide an open forum for people who disagree to state theirs. I reply to comments that interest me, but have no interest in engaging in a debate of every issue I write about.

Jul 9, 2010 3:54 PM supportUSworkers supportUSworkers  says:


You write:

"Why the Preponderance of Poor Social Skills in IT Is Unacceptable

Yes, there's a huge need to redirect people back to the basics-to things like civility and common courtesy that far too many IT people have lost in a profession that has tended not to provide enough opportunity for social interaction."

Yeah, right. A corporate shill railing about civility. What a joke.

Reality check here Bozo: This is a blog, not a corporate meeting. Do you know the difference? 

Mumbai Don, once again you are clueless. If you were in IT and you knew what you were talking about, you would know that there is plenty of social interaction in many IT jobs, especially software development. Typically people doing software development need to interact extensively with users from all over a company in order to write the user requirements that the software is to be based on. Often times this can be a long, drawn out process as the software development team needs to gather user input, user experiences, and knowledge of the business and business processes.

If companies are so interested in interpersonal skills, why do they put all their emphasis on the particular "hot skill" of the day instead of evaluating candidates based on their requirements gathering skills? Most resumes are weeded out by the HR department using keywords based on the latest "hot skill" (which for most of us does not take all that much time to learn anyway) with little or no emphasis on the requirements gathering process. By the time the hiring managers get the resumes from HR, there is no trace of resumes that might indicate that a potential candidate has good interpersonal skills or any other exceptional skills if the candidate does not have a minimum of "X number of years" in a particular "hot" skill. (EXTRA NOTE: Never mind that it takes most competent programmers a matter of a few months (rather than years) to learn most computer languages and concepts.SEE MY EXTRA NOTE ON THIS AT THE END OF THIS COMMENT).

In fact, the requirements gathering process is one of the most important processes due to the fact that if you don't get it right in this stage, the entire project can easily be a failure since it will not work the way the users desired. You can have a project that may have the best technical design in the world and one that may have an astoundingly small amount of bugs (or even none at all) but it will be a total failure if the software does not do what the users wanted it to do.

Don, the "socially awkward" stereotype for IT workers may be applicable to an IT worker picking up a person of the opposite sex in a bar, but in terms of the business of software development most of the U.S.born citizens I have seen don't have too much trouble with it. If interpersonal skills are so important and in such demand, then why is there such an emphasis in hiring people who don't understand our culture and in many cases don't even speak the language properly? Why are all the resumes filtered out based on a particular computer language skill (that doesn't take that long to learn anyway) when employers are supposedly looking for interpersonal skills and the ability to translate business knowledge and user desires into requirement specifications?

Who is better at interpersonal skills than people who are native to our culture, i.e. Reply

Jul 9, 2010 3:54 PM supportUSworkers supportUSworkers  says:
our own citizens? Everyone remember those foreign professors who you could not understand in college? Do we really think that people from foreign cultures are the best people for extracting the businesses knowledge from the users of that businesses knowledge, most of whom are native English speakers who find it hard to understand thick accents, especially while trying to convey a complex business concept or user experience?

Here's one a lot of people have run into: You say something to an Indian and he nods. Did he nod as in "yes, he understands" or did he nod as in "yes, he didn't understand you but because his culture has a heavy emphasis on "dignity" he'll make his best guess at figuring it out later"? Here's another aspect of interpersonal communications and the "cultural differences" problem in an article about working with remote outsourced development titled "True-Life Tales:Outsourcing Problems" (www.sourcingmag.com/content/c060612a.asp) about an employee at an outsourcing company in India who had left for another job: "We'd finally get a hold of the rep and he'd say that he had resigned and was no longer with the company.He'd been gone three weeks.We'd ask, "Why are you just now telling us this?" Their project leaders weren't allowed to talk to us about anything negative."

If anything, Don, the assertions you have made in this article support the contention of the "disenchanted IT workers" that H-1B is all about cheap labor and that the supposed lack of skills of U.S.citizen IT workers is just a phony excuse to justify more H-1B foreign visas. After all, cultural interaction, language, and interpersonal skills are not exactly things you learn out of a text book.

EXTRA NOTE: Never mind that it takes most competent programmers a matter of a few months (rather than years) to learn most computer languages and concepts. In fact, many Indians know this is true and learn new languages and skills "on-the-fly" on a regular basis when their body shop moves them from client to client. In fact, many pride themselves on this ability to learn new skills quickly and see this as a vindication as to why they should get the job over a "lazy American". There is just one problem with this scenario-the U.S.citizen is never given a chance to prove he can learn the skills just as quickly "on-the-fly" because the ability to do this is setup by the relationship between the body shop and the client. Positions are posted with requirements specifying things like "6 to 9 years of experience" in a particular skill (this keeps older U.S.citizens from getting the position for re-training while reserving the position for a fresh out of school, cheap, exploitable H-1B). Corporate Clients, especially Fortune 500 companies, look the other way even though it is easy to see that the H-1B doesn't have any experience. Fake resumes are circulated and the H-1B is told by the body shop to model himself a fake resume off of them and make up projects and experiences. The H-1B is told to memorize lists of frequent interview questions from sites like Rose India and told to "look like he knows what he is talking about" and answer the questions with at least some response even if it isn't necessarily correct. The Fortune 500 company accepts the new H-1B with a wink and a nod and either doesn't check references or checks references that were faked.  Reply

Jul 9, 2010 3:54 PM supportUSworkers supportUSworkers  says:
This gives the Fortune 500 company "plausible deniability";after all, the H-1B answered the interview questions, right? Many times the interviewer himself has been placed in the company by companies involved with the body shop. Historically there was little risk to this approach since H-1B requests were merely "rubber stamped" with little or no enforcement, and no auditing, especially under the Bush administration (in fact, the H-1B law specifically forbids investigations unless they are specifically signed off on by the Secretary of the Department of Labor). If the employee doesn't perform as expected, he can be easily terminated and a new, inexperienced and cheap H-1B can be brought in. This is why over 50% of H-1Bs are employed at the LOWEST SKILL LEVEL, i.e.inexperienced (stated in the FLC data). Of course the Fortune 500 interviewers know what I am talking about, right? WINK, NOD.(If you don't, and you are actually being charged for someone with "6 to 9 years of experience", you really need to wake up and do your interviewing better).

Jul 9, 2010 4:22 PM supportUSworkers supportUSworkers  says:


Did everyone note how Don did not respond to many of the comments last week?

In reality, Don could not answer why the "disenchanted IT workers", which should be just a tiny portion of the IT workforce if there was nothing wrong with IT business hiring, merited the full attention of a blog article.

The real problem is that the number of "disenchanted IT workers" is not small.

In fact, the percentage of "disenchanted IT workers" in the IT workforce is rather large.

Virtually all of the people that I know in IT are telling their kids not to go into it.

Students are finding that the employment environment in Information Technology and other STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), which is vastly hyped in the media as being "desperately short of workers", is ANYTHING BUT SHORT OF WORKERS.  In fact, employers are cherry picking candidates while urging their Congressmen to increase the H-1B cap.

This has Corporate America worried, since fresh U.S. STEM graduates are also used as TEMP LABOR (temporary until they reach 40 that is, then they will be replaced with a new crop of H-1Bs and unwitting U.S. students who have studied hard and think their efforts will give them a secure and steady career, but who have instead been suckered into tech by the false and misleading "tech worker shortage" propaganda.

So Don is shilling for them.

He's probably just trying to get noticed by BP, which would be a step up to "Big Oil" from "Big Tech"

Jul 9, 2010 5:56 PM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to supportUSworkers

Nonsense. The reader's comment was untouched. Obviously this site has grounds to delete comments like that because of the vulgarity, but it should be obvious by now that we are loathe to delete reader comments, no matter how distasteful they are. In fact, I reprinted the comment in my most recent post, so it's there for all the world to see in two locations.

Jul 9, 2010 6:10 PM Chiken Hero Chiken Hero  says: in response to supportUSworkers

Last week he was hiding under his mama skirt, I decided to smack him in behind with a toilet pump, this week  he finally came out his mama skirt with bunch of rants against IT workers social skill.  I feel sorry for all the IT people because of this Mumbai Shill. Last week he attacked American parent this week he attacked the American IT social skill.

About myself , I am not even in IT fields. I have three kids, eldest lost his job outsourced to India the  second one lost his jobs twice to cheap H-1B workers. The youngest one is about to graduate in medical field. I think the youngest one chose the right direction and I am very happy for him. Watching jobs lost to cheap H-1B workers made me feel so worry about the direction our country is heading.

When I read posts written by the shill pimp "Don Tennant" made me so angry and frustrated. I don't know why this guy has big gut stepping on to the stage poking fun at American's suffering while the American workers on their knees. I don't know about this shill parent thinking. If I have a son like this guy I would roll over my grave.

Jul 9, 2010 6:48 PM John John  says:

The people you quote as being "insulting" were, for the most part, correct: You were not born with Asperger's, do not have Asperger's, you obviously have never worked in IT either and therefore haven't a clue about what you're talking about. Don't quote Dale Carnegie & Associates, go to experts such as Tony Attwood or others who have studied Asperger's, and get an education in IT. Persons, such as I, who have Asperger's are "wired" differently and don't understand the world the same as you. We got into IT not because we could be isolated from others, but because it is an area we are deeply interest ing. Get your facts first before expounding in an area where you are woefully ignorant.

Jul 10, 2010 2:32 PM Bart Bart  says: in response to Chanakiya

The need for social skills in IT runs contrary to the prevalence of H-1Bs from a certain well-known nation whose social skills, in light of American tastes and business culture, are a train wreck in progress.

Jul 10, 2010 7:15 PM Chanakiya Chanakiya  says:

I work for a global company in SA and I had a IT person embarras me in front of many people just beaciause when a new systemis introduced into a company and we train on it we sometimes have to grasp certain ascpets in more than just one training session. The one bad mannered person, however cannot tarnish the image of all IT people as there are many good, courteous and kind IT people out there.

Oct 1, 2010 8:09 AM ripper ripper  says: in response to Bart

I don't know if I has Asperger's but it would explain alot. Anyway you sound like one of our HR people. She didn't like me because I don't have social skills or have an overwhelming need for people to "love me".

I don't like being in groups of people or speaking to groups or even on the phone. With that being said, I don't need to be a social butterfly in order to solve a computer problem.

Maybe it never crossed your mind that some IT people's greatest goal is not great people skills... I'm not a car salesman, or public speaker... I type into a keyboard and make things better. Just because I don't desire to engage people in conversation and schmooze my way up the corporate ladder doesn't mean that I'm not a valuable employee or even a super valuable employee.

I feel IT people get judged unjustly because they are in the trenches with hard skills, solving very complicated issues that might bend your mind, using the God given non-social attributes that helped them gain those hard skills.

Now after solving your problems, your unhappy because I can't or won't engage with you using the social eloquence that you would prefer I'd been gifted with instead of my technical skills.

Perhaps I'd prefer that along with your soft skills, people who judged IT professionals wouldn't have the preponderance of technical ignorance...

Maybe we can't always have it both ways...maybe we were meant to be different...

Oct 1, 2010 8:31 AM ripper ripper  says: in response to ripper

Just to clarify my previous post is directed at Don Tennant and not Bart...my apologies Bart.


Apr 21, 2011 4:41 PM Business Process Outsourcing Business Process Outsourcing  says: in response to Blue

IT Business Edge delivers the information, analysis and context that business technology decision makers need to devise strategies, optimize resources and capitalize on IT investments. There are lots of resources for women who want to grow their existing businesses or start up.


Post a comment





(Maximum characters: 1200). You have 1200 characters left.




Subscribe Daily Edge Newsletters

Sign up now and get the best business technology insights direct to your inbox.

Subscribe Daily Edge Newsletters

Sign up now and get the best business technology insights direct to your inbox.