Saturday, January 16, 2010

Changing Tastes

When I was a kid, I hated onions, green peppers, and mushrooms. I used to tell people I was allergic to mushrooms so they wouldn't try to make me eat them. I hated any sort of chunky sauce or really textured meat. I think I wanted everything to have either the consistency of a chicken nugget or ketchup. My parents used to tell me that when I was older my tastes would change. That I liked crappy food, disliked good food, and eventually I would realize it. They were right.

So kids like chicken nuggets and ketchup. Wow, huge revelation. What does this have to do with technology? I'm on the steering committee for an internal conference on software engineering that my employer is holding. I'm the most junior person on the committee, and most of the members are managers who have more managers reporting to them. Our technical program committee (separate, more technical people on it, but all very senior) just finished abstract selection and we've been discussing topics and candidates for a panel discussion. During this process I have been absolutely shocked by how my tastes differ from those of my colleagues.

I've noticed that within the presentations selected topics on process, architecture, and management are over-represented. On the other side, many of the abstracts that I thought were very good and deeply technical fell below the line. I can't quite say there was a bias towards "high level" topics, because I think they were over-represented in the submissions. Given the diversity of technology that's almost inevitable. A guy doing embedded signal processing and a guy doing enterprise systems would most likely submit very different technical abstracts, but ones on management or process could be identical. It's almost inevitable that topics that are common across specialties will have more submissions.

There's a similar story with the panel discussion. I wanted a narrower technical topic, preferably one that is a little controversial so panelists and maybe even the audience can engage in debate. My colleagues were more concerned with who is going to be on the panel than what they would talk about, and keeping the topic broad enough to give the panelists freedom.

What's clear is that my colleagues clearly have different tastes in presentation content than me. I think they are genuinely trying to compose the best conference they can, and using their own experiences and preferences as a guide. I think their choices have been reasonable and well intentioned. I just disagree with many of them. If I had been the TPC chair, I would have explicitly biased the selection criteria towards deeper, technical topics. Those are the topics I would attend, even if they are outside my area of expertise. I would use my preferences as a guide. But that leaves me wondering, in another five years or ten years are my tastes going change? My tastes have certainly changed over the past decade, so I have no reason to believe they won't change over the next. Will I prefer process over technology and architecture over implementation? Will I stop thinking "show me the code!" and "show me the scalability benchmarks!" when see a bunch of boxes with lines between them? I don't think so, but only time will tell. When I was a kid, I would have never believed that I would ever willingly eat raw fish, much less enjoy it, but today I do.

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Craig Brown said...

It seems like the panel are setting up a conference for themselves.

Who is going to actually attend?

What is the purpose of the conference?

How does the selection committee ensure that it understands it's target audience's needs and wants?

C R Rampson said...

Ah yes, the inevitable clash between the J-type personalities and the P-types (see MBTI). In-the box vs. outside. Breadth with little substance vs. In-Depth. Organized vs. Freestyle. Morals vs. Ethics.

Organizational skills are key to management - and J-types have this skill. This means that there are precious few P-types in management (and most of them would prefer it that way). I have always advocated the mythical "technical track" where techies could advance up the hierarchy in parallel to the management types. This would culminate in the CTO position (head techie) - which would be subordinate to the CIO.

I guess what I'm saying is that you THINK DIFFERENTLY than most of the others in the room. You could try to push your ideas into a wall, or learn how to phrase things in ways that the others understand (or identify with). Are you ready to become a semi-expert on psychology or F-it?

Erik Engbrecht said...

I don't think it's that simple. Knowledge is more like a big directed graph than a tree, but people tend to learn and build their conceptualizations in a more tree-like manner and the concept of depth implies a hierarchy. So as you move through your career the node within the directed graph that you consider your root shifts. If the shift follows the directedness of the graph "backwards" it may appear that breadth is being favored over depth, but really from the perspective of the new root the depth is the same.

In fact I would say the people who genuinely pursue breadth are more likely to see the value of depth (at least if they are competent), because they know someone needs depth - just not them. But the ones who just shift according to changing demands are more likely to see depth that is different than theirs as unimportant.