I keep hearing the topic of diversity raised at regular intervals since moving to the SF Bay area. Having moved to what is unarguably still the center of cutting edge innovation in software development, it’s impossible to avoid references to “this thing we do.” I imagine this must be what it’s like to live in Los Angeles or Mumbai and work in the film industry. There are other industries around and plenty of people making money in other ways … but what you do is so vitally important to the local economy that industry insiders are local celebrities. All that was by way of giving context for why I can’t drive into work or watch television or attend an evening lecture without standing a better than average chance of being subjected to a talk on why there are so few [fill in blank] in the software industry. It’s gone from interesting to amusing to noise. Mainly because I think the entire premise is wrong.
To explain what I just said, I’ll refer you to a seminal work authored by Psychologist Howard Gardner back in 1993. The title of the work is Frames of Mind and Multiple Intelligences and the concepts if not the work itself should be required for any manager working with any team. The basic theory proposed by the work is that everything you know about intelligence is wrong or at least very narrowly defined. Dr Gardner first asked the question that had plagued psychologists and behavioral analysts since the adoption of the “intelligence quotient” in 1912 when the German psychologist William Stern first proposed using it. The problem was namely one of description. If the intelligence quotient (IQ) was a good descriptor of intelligence and cognitive ability, why did some people who scored high never seem to do well while others who scored lower seemed to excel? The attempt to reconcile this seeming problem lead people to such ideas as “cognitive maturity,” “fluid intelligence,” and a host of others all premised on the idea that IQ was not a flawed theory in itself but rather had a problem with a lack of tools to help explain it.
Dr Gardner took another approach. He proposed the whole concept of how we looked at “intelligence” as a hierarchical structure with certain cognitive abilities at the top was essentially wrong. The problem as he stated it was that there were/are approximately seven distinct types of cognition rather than one. The intelligence tests and point system were designed to only measure and grade one type, meaning people who excelled in the others were ranked as having low or lower cognitive reasoning ability.
The seven types proposed by Dr Gardner as as follows:
- Visual-Spatial – think in terms of physical space, as do architects and sailors. Very aware of their environments. They like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles, read maps, daydream.
- Bodily-kinesthetic – use the body effectively, like a dancer or a surgeon. Keen sense of body awareness. They like movement, making things, touching.
- Musical – show sensitivity to rhythm and sound. They love music, but they are also sensitive to sounds in their environments. They may study better with music in the background.
- Interpersonal – understanding, interacting with others. These students learn through interaction. They have many friends, empathy for others, street smarts.
- Intrapersonal – understanding one’s own interests, goals. These learners tend to shy away from others. They’re in tune with their inner feelings; they have wisdom, intuition and motivation, as well as a strong will, confidence and opinions.
- Linguistic – using words effectively. These learners have highly developed auditory skills and often think in words. They like reading, playing word games, making up poetry or stories.
- Logical -Mathematical – reasoning, calculating. Think conceptually, abstractly and are able to see and explore patterns and relationships. They like to experiment, solve puzzles, ask cosmic questions.
Those of you who work in software development or IT in general can probably see where I am going with this article now. Those of you who don’t or can’t, let me spell it out clearly.
The software industry is almost completely dominated by people with deeply evolved logical-mathematical cognitive abilities. It is nearly impossible for anyone else to even enter this work force, much less rise to a position of authority. Over the past few decades I’ve seen a lot more people with highly evolved cognitive abilities in linguistic cognition start to make inroads, but they are still a deep minority.
And to the people who correctly for some reasons want to see more [fill in the blank] represented in the software industry, I say go for it but stop saying hiring more of said person will result in “diversity of thought.” If your entire culture is geared toward training, recruiting, promoting, and rewarding only one sort of intelligence then the only solutions or innovations you will generate are the ones available to that sort of intelligence.
It’s also an issue when you start looking at who you can make a team lead or a manager. You can’t train someone to have high levels of interpersonal cognition with a few weekend seminars anymore than you can teach them to be a mathematician with the same … and yet that is exactly what we do in the software industry because we cannot conceive of anyone except a logical or possibly linguistic thinker being of any worth.
So if you want our industry to move into the 20th century you should stop trying to make everyone just like you and start looking for people who are not like you at all, but still have something to offer.
And in closing, here is the Ted talk by Temple Grandin that started congealing these ideas in my head back in 2010.