When I was living in Deseret, I kept getting mail from Neumont University, a DeVry sort of university specializing in computer science. I have no idea how they found me. Though I already have a college degree, I thought it was an interesting concept. The Los Angeles Times actually did a write-up on Neumont:

“I don’t think anybody has enough fun at Neumont — it’s a bunch of people addicted to sitting in their mom’s basement playing World of Warcraft and drinking Dr Peppers,” said Murray, who himself was drinking a can of Dr Pepper at 8 a.m. on a Friday.

He might have a point. Instead of Mardi Gras, students hold Nerdi Gras, a video game party featuring “nothing that would ever happen at Mardi Gras,” according to organizer Keith McIff. And though the student commons doesn’t have couches or fast food (or for that matter, any hot food at all), it does have a “Star Trek” pinball machine, a pingpong table and a flat-screen TV frequently hooked up to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

Some of Neumont’s female students, who make up about 5% of the 266 enrolled this year, are on a mission to get their peers to tune in to the world around them. In October, one posted a message on Neumont’s Web forums protesting what she called “offensive odors.”

“The truth is there are people in this school who just don’t smell pleasant at all,” she wrote.

The post generated more than a dozen replies, with students suggesting the creation of a personal-hygiene company, a crackdown on halitosis, and a three-shower-a-day regimen.

“People (who probably just get busy and distracted by their passion for coding) need to remember to take care of themselves as well as they care for their machines,” Stacy Hughes, the school’s communications manager, wrote on the forum.

The university instituted a requirement that laptops be closed during class (there was apparently a problem with graduates typing away at their computers during meetings) and taking communications classes. Both moves met with resistance.

The students are, of course, paying (or borrowing) their way through and having things their way is one of the things that they undoubtedly believe that they are paying for. The problem is if they’re there for the furtherance of their careers, they’re going to need to learn how to integrate into normal society. Things like Nerdi Gras don’t really help much in that regard. Communications classes do.

In the comment section of Half Sigma (where, no great surprise, I found the article), Brandon Berg points out that few of the developers he knows are actually like the kids described in the article. This could be because the article is caricature or it could be because there are strong distinctions between people that go into computer science and people that make a career out of it. I think that there is something to be said for the latter. I have spent a lot of time around developers and I have spent a lot of time around people that had the skills and the brianpower to become a developer and yet weren’t. One of the primary differences between the two groups was people skills. Some will say that this only proves that society undervalues social skills and overvalues people skills. There is definitely some truth to this. However, it is also the case that developing is a collaborative exercise where you’re working with other developers and testers and managers and the ability to communicate effectively is rather important. I don’t just mean communicating their ideas, but also communicating non-offensively in other ways (including the olfactory senses). Coworkers and bosses have a right to give preference to people that they enjoy working with, follow social protocols, and so on.

I have myself thought in the past that if I ever had a software design company, I would focus on bringing in those that lack social skills in favor of technical skill and exploit their undervalue in the job market. Years later, as I have watched how workplaces actually function, I have my doubts that this is a good idea. These people not only have trouble integrating themselves into general society (which I could perhaps but not necessarily avoid with the right workplace), but they very frequently don’t get alone with one another. Their lack of social skills makes it much more difficult to smooth over these differences than it would be between two ill-matched but more socially conventional people.

Outside the world of nerds, one of the great values of college is the socialization that occurs there. This is arguably one of the many things that should be taught in high school but aren’t. But while socialization occurs in high school, it’s often the counterproductive sort that includes values that ill-serves one in later life. That’s somewhat the case in college, but less so. But this only occurs if people that are forced to go outside their comfort zones. My brother Mitch joined a fraternity in part because he didn’t want all of his friends to fall into the categories of engineers and people he knew in high school. The experience changed his life. He went in a nerd and came out an All-American guy who could make friends with everybody and could date quite beautiful women without being at an exceptional disadvantage. That wouldn’t have happened at Neumont. And while I did not have a similar transformation in college, I nonetheless came out of it (largely thanks to the Honors College) with a lot of valuable social lessons I would not have gotten at Neumont or at a community college. Looking back, I only wish that I had striven more.

So while the Neumont students might wish that they were more catered to because of the money they’re putting forward, I think that not getting what they want and being forced outside their comfort zone is one of the best gifts that a university can give its student population.


Category: School

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

7 Responses to Nerding & Socializing

  1. Kevin says:

    Interesting post. I wonder how much of the anti-social behavior you describe is caused by lack of social skills and how much is caused by lack of emotional intelligence. I think people often tend to blame poor social skill for their obnoxious behavior, when the reality is that they are just immature. Where, if at all, is the line between narcissism and lack of people skills?

  2. logtar says:

    This topic needs to be explored in many ways… it is interesting that there is such a stereotype… however in my career and college I seriously have encountered people like this in low percentages. We should do a co post about this.

  3. Becky says:

    Or, you could also run into an issue of a nerd that works in an IT department but has to get along with the rest of the company — it can be a little awkward if they lack the social skills to do so. Ted’s pretty socialized but when he’s at work (as an IT guy), he reverts back to nerd status and doesn’t realize that his communication skills need a little polishing when dealing with the masses.

  4. Peter says:

    It could be that Neumont’s students are self-selected for nerdiness. People who are interested in computer science can study it perfectly well at any number of universities that are much better known (and probably cheaper) than Neumont. Perhaps the school attracts the sort of deeply introverted nerds who are too socially inept to handle a normal college environment.

  5. PeterW says:

    I agree with you that social skills have a nonzero value in the workplace. It is necessary for your workers to be able to communicate efficiently with each other and to work well with outside clients (depending on your business model.) However, I am wary of using this as a blanket defense of the social skills premium. The reason is that there is a fine line between “we need people with social skills to perform business functions efficiently” and “we award a premium to flattery and backstabbing”, the latter of which (when performed effectively) also tracks well with social skills. The problem is that it’s hard for an anyone inside the system, even a well-meaning manager, to tell when that line is crossed, and it may be that simple selection will lead to the latter predominating except in especially well-mannered firms. Hence, yes, selection for social skills can be practical, but it is difficult to control it and prevent it from metastasizing into rewarding office politics.

    So, don’t give up on your business plan; if many firms are on the diminishing-returns side of the social skills curve, your company could still have a competitive advantage.

  6. SFG says:

    I wonder. I went to college to find that…all the nerd clubs had vanished. (Strange series of events I don’t really understand.) I tried to aggressively force myself to be normal, but I was so depressed from not having any friends that it didn’t really work. Plus I didn’t really get along with the guys on my floor because they kept partying all the time when I was trying to study (I was premed at the time) and I was stupid enough to complain about it, so I was lacking the usual complement of friends.

    So…if the nerd clubs had existed, would I have been more nerdy and even less socially successful? Or would I have at least ended college with more friends, even if they weren’t that useful career-wise? Obviously we’ll never know, and I agree that it’s good to force people outside of their comfort zone. But I wonder if there are factors that you’re not thinking of. You might force the geeks to learn some manners, etc., I could go for that, you could even make it a required course. (I’d love to see a guide to football or baseball produced by geeks, with all the standard snarky humor and cheesy references.)

    I’m not really arguing with you, simply saying…I don’t know. I really don’t know.

  7. trumwill says:

    SFG,

    Having nerd clubs is a good thing. Southern Tech University had an anime club and a Linux club and other things like that. The problem is when these clubs exist to the exclusion of anything else. I think nerd clubs would have been better for your social development. I owe a significant portion of the peer social skills I have to the nerd hub of BBS’s back from when I was in high school. Had that not existed, I may have been able to more successfully integrate into my high school… or I may not have.

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