Geek Cred (or: An Argument for Encouragement)

What is a geek?

Everyone defines it a little differently.

I think that nearly everyone has an inner geek. We all have some weird quirky thing that we get really excited about and have specialized knowledge of that most others don’t. Perhaps we could talk all day about Shang dynasty bronze or the films of “Gabby” Hayes. Get us going on our topic of choice and we’re at serious risk of finding that new acquaintance staring back at us with glassy eyes.

In the past I spent a lot of time with someone who used the “geek” label as a divider—they had an extremely narrow vision of what they thought a geek was and wasn’t…and I wasn’t it. In that sense, that person was using the geek label as an excuse to make someone else (me) a social pariah. My deep knowledge of The Monkees, music, theater, and history? Completely irrelevant since I couldn’t remember for certain which planet Alderaan was. (He acted like millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced… Yuk yuk yuk.)

Recently I had a conversation with one of my coworkers, a software developer for our company. He was telling me that some text I had provided had rekindled a debate with one of the other programmers about the purpose of various coding languages (specifically HTML and CSS). Chuck started telling me about his days working on SGML for the military, and about its original purpose to be a “container” language so it could adapt to various formats.

I asked: hey, isn’t that a lot like XML?

As it turns out, Chuck retorted, SGML essentially got eclipsed by HTML and XML, and yes, XML does the very thing SGML was supposed to do.

Didn’t I feel smart! Not only had I followed a conversation about things I am only barely schooled in, but I was able to connect it to something I was slightly more schooled in (MPub covered some rudimentary XML as it is the format most ebooks use, enabling them to work on a variety of devices). Adding to my imagined geek cred, I told Chuck that in MPub we had been lectured at by a gentleman (Keith Fahlgren) on the working group developing the next version of XML. Please—no autographs.

As it happens, my job is presenting plenty of opportunities to deepen my technical knowledge. Do you think that I would have felt encouraged to seize these opportunities if, say, Chuck had the same exclusionary attitude towards me as the other person? (“You’re not a coder—you couldn’t possibly understand.”)

Women get this message enough from society at large—we don’t need it from our peers and colleagues as well. This is one of the many reasons I get so excited about Ada Lovelace Day each year, which aims to raise awareness of the plight of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. You don’t have to be a professional engineer to see how underrepresented women are in certain fields, nor to have experienced some of the societal programming behind it. (Anyone remember the Barbie who exclaimed, “Math class is tough!“)

It often takes courage to keep pressing on with a challenge, and it’s doubly tough when the people around you say you can’t do it. Insults and condescending attitudes are not what is needed to cultivate an individual’s expertise in an area that may be challenging to them. This quasi-geek would like to see encouragement and a spirit of cooperative cultivation over negativity and squished promise.

That seems like a mundane idea, right? Yet looking around, the reality makes it seem pretty radical.

Want to read more about about women in tech and the publishing industry? Try “Pink Collar Geeks: The ‘Ladies Problem’ of Publishing” by yours truly…
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