Why are we here?

I have the pleasure of having worked in technology for at least three hundred years.

Some pretty exciting technologies with which to play have appeared on the horizon during my odyssey. From the Mosaic web browser and HTML version 1 hits of the early nineties, through some interesting search-engine software that used web services before they were called "web services", Java, .Net, LAMP and MEAN, to today's cross-platform presentation technologies Xamarin and React, the commoditisation via simple APIs of cognitive services such as machine learning and artificial intelligence ... to name but a few and do an injustice to many by omitting them. 

However, the best times have been working not with the technologies but with the teams of people that work with the technologies. The band of brothers and sisters that have the knowledge and talent to actually make things happen on the vast multitude of databases, services, browsers and devices that serve, and shape, our lives.

Why do technologists—software engineers, QA engineers, DevOps engineers—do what we do? Or, to put it another way, why on earth do we do what we do? Why are we here? There must surely be some good reasons.

To explore the questions, I spoke to colleagues in Chelsea Apps Factory’s technology team. I also circulated a questionnaire to colleagues present and past, the latter group now scattered across various parts of the world.

The questionnaire invited not multiple choice but freeform answers. There were no right or wrong answers to any of the questions. The questions were in two sections. The first section asked respondents how they came to be working in technology, what motivates them to keep working in it, what motivates one’s colleagues to do the same, what favourite technologies they have today. The second section explored the respondents’ cultural interests and hobbies.

A small but representative number of respondents took the questionnaire as an opportunity to have a little or a lot of fun at my expense. Their answers were all highly entertaining, some literally making me laugh out loud. But in the spirit of serious research I taped my sides back together and plunged in to some of the more edifying responses...

Surprisingly few people, roughly 10%, started in technology owing to their choice of university course—indeed, many of my colleagues in software over the years have taken degrees in physics, languages, and the arts. Very few, less than 5%, cited money as the reason for their joining the community of technologists. For at least 80% of respondents programming and/or hardware engineering started as a childhood hobby, before developing into a better-remunerated hobby in adulthood, sometimes via a university degree in a computing-related discipline, sometimes via a degree in something ostensibly unrelated.

An individual’s motivation to remain in technology aligns with their assumptions about why their colleagues are also motivated to do so. Techies seem to have a mutual understanding about what is important to them, what drives them. And only rarely was the motivation set out in Dollars or Euros. Over 90% of responses showed that our primary inspiration comes from factors such as being challenged intellectually, learning about new technologies, solving problems, being creative. An enjoyable response was, “I'm not sure I can explain it ... I just do it because I feel the desire to do so.” But some were more descriptive, a representative sample is the following.

  • “Really enjoy solving problems and puzzles.”
  • “Exciting pace of the industry. Rapidly evolving.”
  • “Just naturally inquisitive. I like learning.”
  • “It's my primary hobby.”
  • “I'm lucky in that my job lets me make things that people want to use and that have a large impact on their lives. That's pretty motivating.”
  • “Coding is a bit like reading a good book, it takes your mind somewhere else, in a good way, and the hours, sometimes, fly past.”

In answer to the question “Do you love it [working in technology], like it, just do it, or hate it?” 64% said they loved it, 36% said they liked it. Just doing or hating did not come into it at all. Over 95% of respondents said they saw themselves working in technology for the whole of their career.

Our cultural interests are eclectic indeed, with favourite cities in every continent, books written in many languages, artists from Cezanne to Kandinsky to Banksy, hobbies ranging from “rollercoaster riding” and “raves” to “chess” and “cricket”.

Why are we here? I set out on this conversation with my colleagues confident we could agree on some good reasons. It turns out we can, and that those reasons are very good indeed, borne out by both what motivates us at work and what stimulates us in our cultural lives.

We are intellectuals, explorers, idealists – and, possibly in some cases, dreamers too.