Why Techs Don’t (Won’t?) Lead

Every time I read an article about the ever looming shortage of technical talent, I shake my head. Typically, a parade of comments supports the article, alongside rants about how the people who run businesses are just too dumb to understand how they’re hurting themselves by shortchanging technical aspects of their business. Really? Do we really think all those business owners are idiots? Consider another pattern here.

My brother and I often talk about the difference between the yellow shirts and the red shirts in Star Trek. Starting with The Next Generation, and going through Deep Space Nine and Voyager (reverse the colors for the original Star Trek series), the yellow shirts are engineering. They’re the geniuses that come through with an awesome solution, and are shining stars for about 2% of any given show. The rest of the time, we’re watching the red shirts sort out problems, drama, context, and mystery.

One of geekdom’s dirty secrets is that everybody understands and respects that yellow shirts make everything possible, but red shirts figure out which of all “possibles” may work best. Nobody gives a $@#% what the yellow shirts want, because yellow shirts just want to make stuff, and make it better. How much better really doesn’t matter that much to humanity in the long run. What matters more is in which direction we go, and the red shirts decide that.

So that I’m clear: For tech types, arguably the most popular, revered and oft-referenced TV series demonstrates the subordination of tech types to non-tech leaders in Every. Single. Episode. But wait, there’s more! Several episodes carry a theme of yellow shirts who think they know better and make critical non-tech decisions on their own, and seriously hurt or screw over (at best) a couple of friends, or (at worst) their whole species. Part of the time, and only part of the time, can the red shirts undo the damage.

I mention this because deep down inside, I think a lot of tech types buy into a fear that getting to unleash the passion for their projects depends entirely on people with more power and resources than the techs. Star Trek, from a technical perspective, greatly expands the limits of power and resources, and I find it really interesting that such an expansion does not change the essential relationship between the yellow shirts and the red shirts. I have to wonder how deep this theme runs through human history.

In every IT service industry, really good engineers are becoming more scarce. The best ones make a heckuva lot more money, and decide their own schedules. So did old COBOL programmers in 1999. Y2K came and went, and that was their last hurrah.

I shake my head because it doesn’t have to be like this. But most of the yellow shirts who write these articles and reply in the comments sections mourn their lost relevance in the guise of the memory of when their quality work mattered to the red shirts. For all that the the yellow shirts bemoan the “lack of foresight” and “lack of technical understanding” of their former commanders, the yellow shirts demonstrate a remarkable lack of clarity about the true strength of being a yellow shirt: yellow shirts make everything possible…until the end of that frontier. If you insist on tying your passion to a particular technology or set of technologies, their eventual obsolescence will devalue everything you hold dear when nobody wants to share them with you anymore.

Maybe the reason why so many radio stations are cheaping out on engineers is because uptime isn’t as important as it used to be. Maybe running a geographically dependent service, in a world where the internet allows for much more geographic independence, isn’t as much of a priority anymore. Maybe getting fined by the FTC for a mistake that your $15 cheap ass computer repair guy made, still keeps your balance sheet positive compared to regular maintenance from someone who charges five times that, so that mistakes and downtime are just a cost of doing business.

Maybe knowing your NC-1701 enterprise inside and out just isn’t worth it to most business owners, because the NC-1701-D can do a lot more for a lot less, and it has freakin’ holodecks.

One of my favorite examples goes like this: let’s say a temporary tech job wants someone to unbox some PCs, install them, and follow a provided procedural script to transfer the crap from the old systems to the new systems. The job description asks for extended experience, and barely pays for any of the required certification listed in the description. Comments pile up on how ridiculous that is. Now, think about that for a moment. Do we really think the project is going to be as straightforward as “unbox them, set them up, run a script, go home”? Apparently, the people hiring sure don’t think so. But they don’t know enough to ask for what they need. So, they ask for someone who can deal with the unknown, and in yellow shirt terms, that means degrees, certifications, and experience. Misunderstanding this is how yellow shirts fail.

Make no mistake, the people hiring for that job are happy to have those job descriptions weed out the kind of applicants who take the job descriptions at face value. The real question is, how can jobs like this barely earn a living wage, yet other IT people set their own pay? Yellow shirts should always ask what distinguishes those two groups.

(Sidebar plot twist: notice how the scientists and medical officers in Starfleet never wear yellow, nor red. They also report to the red shirts, but have much more power, and never experience obsolescence.)

I enjoyed the remade Battlestar Galactica series for how the show took on tangled, dark problems that Star Trek wouldn’t touch. One poignant moment in the episode “Dirty Hands” (spoiler alert for the remainder of this paragraph) involves the chief engineer Tyrol (BSG’s head yellow shirt, in Star Trek terms) getting fed up with his fellow yellow shirts’ unfair treatment from command. He creates a yellow shirt worker strike, prompting Adama (BSG’s head red shirt) to threaten to put Tyrol’s wife in front of an execution squad. Adama explains that he will go to any length to maintain the safety and well-being of his ship and its crew, even if Adama has to sacrifice some of his crew to do it. Tyrol capitulates, and calls off the strike. Broken, Tyrol is wholly unprepared for Adama’s next move — sending Tyrol to the President to address and fix Tyrol’s claims of unfair treatment.

Yellow shirts put in positions of great technical power always have red shirt oversight. Never underestimate the lengths to which red shirts will go, for the sake of everyone they oversee. Are there megalomaniac redshirts who don’t give a crap about anyone but themselves? Of course. I’d wager even a higher-than-average number of people like that end up as red shirts. But not nearly as many as some bitter yellow shirts like to think. Red shirts just seem like that because a good red shirt knows when to trust a yellow shirt with the mission, and when a yellow shirt is a threat to the mission.

In some ways, yellow shirts instinctively know this more than the red shirts. Yellow shirts are intimately aware of how much easier it is to destroy than to build. Yeah, a lot of yellow shirts are in a position to kill a project, an operation, a company, or even much more. The consequences are so dire, that it had better be damn well worth it, and very, very few problems are. We see an Edward Snowden maybe once a generation, and make no mistake, the consequences of Snowden’s leaks, regardless of how justified they were, hurt a lot of people of all shirts. To be clear, I’m not saying Snowden should or shouldn’t have leaked. I’m saying that when the vast majority of yellow shirts talk about how their access to mission-critical systems is such a big deal, they know deep down inside they will never spoil the mission, because doing so is almost never worth the threat of what ensues.

To be sure, the world isn’t as black and white (or yellow and red) as television. Leadership can and does come from anyone, including people with a technical role or background. To succeed in a technical role requires going beyond the technical skills of a role — understanding the context of technical work and communicating effectively with red shirts makes at least as much impact as the technical work itself. Remarkably few yellow shirts understand that, and therein lies the key to improving opportunities for tech workers. Moreover, therein lies the opportunity for change within companies and organizations that previously wrote off increasing technical failures as a cost of doing business.

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