On being “technical”

What does it mean to be “technical”? I’ve grappled with this question for years, starting as early as high school. I’ve perpetually wondered about what kind of career or major is “right” for me, depending on whether I’m more of a “technical” or “non-technical” person.

Take this journal entry from January 2016, midway through my second year of college:

I always have this question of whether to pursue something more technical or more human — at this point it manifests in applying for a user experience internship and a quantum computing internship. This also relates to whether or not I should do grad school, and what field to pursue if I do.

Should I pursue a really hard-science, technical direction? Or more of a soft, social/human-based direction?

What does the word “technical” mean in the first place? Do I qualify as such a person? And how does that inform my life choices?

Definitions

The dictionary definition for technical is the following:

1. relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques.
• (especially of a book or article) requiring special knowledge to be understood.

2. of, involving, or concerned with applied and industrial sciences.

In my own experience, most people’s use of the term is loosely in line with #1. People around me say “technical” in different contexts, referring to people, ideas, projects, and fields of study:

  • (Field of study) “Physics is a very technical field.”
  • (People) “Sally has a strong technical background.”
  • (People) “I’m looking for a technical cofounder.”
  • (Ideas) “Gene editing via CRISPR is a very technical process.”
  • (Projects) “This project will be a great technical stretch for you.”

But there’s something about the dictionary definition that isn’t quite satisfying. In essence it says that something is technical if it is complicated and inscrutable to the layperson. Taking this definition strictly, a sociology paper can be as technical as a physics paper, if it uses enough jargon that the average person doesn’t know.

This definition can be helpful, but there’s something that seems to make astrophysics and algebraic geometry inherently more “technical” than sociology and history, even if they both employ sophisticated terminology.

Perhaps technical just means not focused on people. Cosmology and math are very impersonal subjects, whereas the humanities are explicitly focused on — you guessed it — humans. This was the basis of my younger self making a distinction between “a hard-science, technical direction” versus “a soft, human-based direction”.

This distinction is also helpful, but still there’s something missing. Technical cannot just refer to whether a subject is centered on humans. Computational neuroscience seems very “technical”, yet it focuses on that mysterious mushy blob inside the human skull. Many economists, psychologists, and sociologists use pretty sophisticated statistical tools, and that must certainly make them more technical, no?

This brings us yet another definition: technical just means formalized in some mathematical framework. A related word is rigorous. Once you begin to describe any phenomenon using a system of equations and logical rules, you’re taking a “technical” approach.

But why does mathematical thinking in particular get to confer the status of “technical” onto subjects and ideas? For contrast, take a totally different kind of language that could also be used to describe things: poetry. You could describe the earth’s orbit around the sun with poetry just as you could with math.¹

The crucial point is that in math and logic, definitions are much more precise and enduring than other fields. How do you define modernity, or wealth, or the industrial revolution? These and other terms in less “technical” fields leave quite a bit of room for subjective interpretation, so they can change over time. In contrast, the number three means the same thing to most people, throughout time. The concepts in math are abstract enough that they approach some sort of universality. Of course, once they’re applied to real-world phenomena, some subjectivity becomes necessary again.

So we now have three definitions of technical, all of which are valid, and some of which may be more relevant to making life choices than others:

  1. Technical: requiring background knowledge to be understood.
  2. Technical: relating to things as opposed to people.
  3. Technical: employing mathematical thinking.

Am I technical?

The definitions above apply to ideas — how do we map them to people? A simple answer is to say that you are a “technical person” if you are interested in technical subjects.

Here’s where things got tricky for me — I felt like I was both interested and disinterested in technical topics. Consider the following two summaries of my life, both of which are factually true:

  1. Kasra graduated from a high school program specialized in math and science. He took the more advanced AP classes in calculus and physics offered at his school, and self-studied calculus and linear algebra for a summer. He graduated college with two degrees in computer science, taking several proof-based math and computer science courses along the way.
  2. Kasra mostly applied to that specialized high school program because his older brother went there. He performed pretty poorly in tenth grade math so he self-studied for a summer because he didn’t want to fail the following year. He spent most of his free time in high school working on the school newspaper. His favorite high school class was European history, and he volunteered to help a sociology professor write a textbook. His favorite course in college was a seminar on philosophy.

How much of a technical person does Kasra seem to you?

Of course, interests in technical and non-technical things do not have to lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. But I still felt like I had to choose one or the other as the one I am most interested in, or most capable of succeeding at. It seemed that categorizing myself into one bucket or another would make the choice of major (between history and physics) or career (between software engineering and product management) a lot easier.

Interests versus Fears

The important distinction to make when applying the notion of technical to oneself is to acknowledge whether you’re doing it based on your interests or your fears — based on curiosity or dread.

In truth, I enjoyed learning about programming and math, and continue to do so today. What I particularly loved about math was just how precise and beautifully connected all the definitions and theorems and proofs were.

At the same time, I loved learning about humans, be it through personal relationships or through academic study of history, psychology, and other humanities. Ultimately, I’ve spent much more of my free time reading about these things than I have spent programming for personal projects.

So when it comes to my interests, I am fascinated by people, but I am also fascinated by the logical structure of technical approaches to knowledge. I am both technical and not so technical.

But what has always restrained my pursuit of technical fields — and really, the reason I kept asking myself this question of whether I was “truly technical” — was fear. I was afraid of not being smart enough or capable enough to understand the most difficult technical concepts. All the anxiety I felt in my math classes, and continue to feel to this day as a software engineer, are a reflection of some belief that I may eventually hit a wall of understanding that I simply cannot cross.

Does this matter?

Honing in on curiosity and fear helped me clarify something — I was using the label of technical and non-technical more as a barrier than as a guide for figuring out what I want to do. I was implicitly looking for a reason to conclude that I am simply not a technical person, so no point bothering with all this programming and math stuff.

When the label is used in this way, it’s not helpful for narrowing down one’s choices…and it’s probably not helpful for anything else either. A reasonable way to choose a major or career is to focus on what you tend to be interested in, and find some intersection with what society tends to pay for or what path leads to the kind of life you want to live. Not so much by applying a binary label based on what you or others believe you might be capable of.

Footnotes

  1. Of course, a poetic explanation of the orbit is less likely to provide us with empirically testable claims, but it’s nonetheless a description of it.