Tech & Opportunity: what is "technical entitlement"?

Jan 24, 2014

"I’m the granddaughter of a software engineer and the daughter of a entrepreneur. I could use a computer just about as soon as I could sit up...I should not be intimated by technical entitlement. And yet I am. I am very intimidated by the technically entitled."
"I’m the granddaughter of a software engineer and the daughter of a entrepreneur. I could use a computer just about as soon as I could sit up...I should not be intimated by technical entitlement. And yet I am. I am very intimidated by the technically entitled."
Credit Tess Rinearson

Two related blog posts on technology and opportunity worth highlighting this week come from Tess Rinearson, a software engineer for the blogging platform Medium, and Phillip Guo, an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Rochester. 

Rinearson's wrote her post, "On Technical Entitlement," when she was an 18-year-old computer science student at Carnegie Mellon. In the piece she looks at what it means to grow up technically competent from an early age, but to have that skill undermined by gender stereotypes. About technical entitlement, Rinearson says, 

It starts with a strong background in tech, often at a very young age. With some extreme confidence and perhaps a bit of obliviousness, this blooms into technical entitlement, an attitude characterized by showmanship and competitiveness.

She's less concerned with the sexism that women face and asks women to be accountable for underestimating their skills. In the face of technical entitlement, she notices that girls and young women interested in technology tend not to put themselves forward or insert themselves into spaces where they can advance their skills or careers. She's offering an argument more nuanced than Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's popular advice-memoir, Lean In. Rinearson wants young women to have more confidence in their abilities and not cheat themselves out of opportunities in the face of others---men's and women's---technical entitlement. 

Rinearson's post, written in 2012, gained new popularity because of Philip Guo's extension of her argument in his post, "Silent Technical Privilege." Guo comes at the issue from another angle: defining the power and privilege that support entitlement. Guo didn't suffer from positive stereotyping but recognizes that,

Even though I didn't grow up in a tech-savvy household and couldn't code my way out of a paper bag, I had one big thing going for me: I looked like I was good at programming…As an Asian male student at MIT, I fit society's image of a young programmer.

"When that photo was taken, I didn't even know how to touch-type. My parents were just like, 'Quick, pose in front of our new computer!' (Look closely. My fingers aren't even in the right position.)"
"When that photo was taken, I didn't even know how to touch-type. My parents were just like, 'Quick, pose in front of our new computer!' (Look closely. My fingers aren't even in the right position.)"
Credit Philip Guo

Guo talks about the space he was afforded to learn computer programming. Ppeople and institutions that assumed, because he is Asian, that he already had a particular aptitude or skill set for programming. He's careful to note that he had to work really hard to achieve what he has---there's nothing "natural" about his technical abilities. Now, as a professor, Guo is using the privileges he has as an educator to encourage underrepresented groups to pursue education and careers in the STEM fields. 

I hope to live in a future where people who already have the interest to pursue CS or programming don't self-select themselves out of the field. I want those people to experience what I was privileged enough to have gotten in college and beyond – unimpeded opportunities to develop expertise in something that they find beautiful, practical, and fulfilling.

Have you seen technical entitlement and/or technical privilege at work? What is your school doing to encourage students from all backgrounds to pursue educational opportunities in computer programming? Any tips for making sure students don't self-select themselves out of opportunities in which they might excel? Tell us in the comments.