The idea that coding is an activity only for shy, reclusive nerds is a cliché which mostly belongs to the elder days of tech. Yet even as the workforce has diversified and come to embrace all sorts of personality types, there is still a wide consensus that programmers are, on the whole, more likely to be introverts than extroverts.
This is not completely baseless. While coding projects are most often developed in a team, much of coding itself is, strictly speaking, a solo activity. Furthermore, since coding still isn’t widely taught in schools, for many the first encounter with the discipline will come from personal initiative rather than collective effort. For these reasons, programming often attracts people who grew up enjoying time by themselves.
But might it be the case that it does not attract enough people of the opposite kind? Would the world of programming be better if more extroverts joined in?
That’s the question we’re going to try and answer today!
Just to be clear
Before starting, it’s probably worth pointing out that being an extrovert or an introvert doesn’t really mean that you’re good or bad at socialising. Your “skills” at talking to or befriending other people, or your general charm, aren’t really the metric here.
Instead, the definition has to do with energy levels. Introverts placed in large groups of people and asked to interact with many of them will typically find the experience exhausting and overbearing, regardless of how well they can or cannot “navigate” it. Extroverts are the opposite: they will feel pumped up and exhilarated in the above-mentioned situation, while their energies will deplete very quickly when doing stuff by themselves.
While not the object of the article, this distinction is worth drawing and bearing in mind throughout, because it’s what separates an actual psychological definition from simply a collection of stereotypes.
Questioning the numbers
With that in mind, researching how many introverts and extroverts populate the tech industry proved to be surprisingly challenging. Anecdotal evidence – speaking with other programmers – would seem to suggest that introverts make up the overwhelming majority of the programing scene. But proper studies and surveys on the subject were surprisingly difficult to find, and those I did find suggested the ratio was not quite as clean cut. This study, for example, tells us that introverts make up 58% of the total workforce – a majority for sure, but hardly an overwhelming one.
Given the resilience of the “programmers are shy nerds” cliché, it seems reasonable to suggest that extroverts in tech may not be quite as uncommon as many believe – and that perhaps the “need” for more of them is overstated, even granting the undeniable benefits of diversifying a workforce.
At the same time, the career of a programmer is not a static thing, and it’s quite possible that introverts and extroverts may both start out as developers but simply take different paths from there. In other words, perhaps as many outgoing people enter tech, but more of them end up in management or customer-facing roles, reducing a disparity which is retrospectively (and fallaciously) rationalized as “extroverts are just not attracted to tech”.
A lot of speculation, but where does it leave us?
Well, if there’s any point in investigating whether tech needs more extroverts, it’s to figure out an action plan. Is there a shortcoming, or a problem in our (sub)culture? And if there is, what should we do about it?
Based on what we have said so far, it seems that there is indeed a problem – but not the one we expected to find.
What we should focus our energy on fixing is not so much the ratio of introverts to extroverts in tech, but the diehard idea that coding is primarily or even exclusively something for introverts. This idea stubbornly refuses to go extinct, even though it is manifestly false.
While significant parts of the job of a programmer are solitary, there is also very much that is done in a team. No less importantly, and as we have seen above, anyone who starts as a junior developer will have a wide variety of career outlets, many of which not only accommodate but require extroverted personalities.
Would the world of tech be better with more extroverts? Perhaps. Or perhaps we have already reached the sort of natural ratio you would expect for this type of industry. But what is certain is that there is no one kind of personality that does not have a place in tech, and combating clichés and stereotypes that say otherwise is a much more important battle, at least for now.