Is there a natural IT type of person?

Are certain “kinds” of people right for IT jobs? In the US there is a strong IT stereotype. Can we explain this with a test? What are the effects of the stereotype? What benefit can be gained by understanding the link between personality and profession?

Recently an inquiry came to me from a graduate student at another institution. The student was asking for my help in gathering evidence to confirm his theory that certain personality “types” from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test may be better suited or more successful in an IT curriculum or in IT jobs. I rejected the request immediately.

At Globe schools, all of our students presently take an exam called Insights, which is similar in methodology to the MBTI. In fact both tests are based upon the personality theories of  Carl Gustav Jung. Insights is used in our curriculum to draw attention to different communication styles and provide students with a framework to use to adapt their communication to people who have various styles. Similarly the MBTI was created to classify personality types so that therapists could help their patients understand how to successfully interact with people, and do other things like select appropriate careers.

However, care should be taken to not over-estimate the importance or scope of the results of tests like Insights or the MBTI. Casually using these test results outside of a theraputic setting is pure hokum. Using such results to generalize human behavior or reach broad conclusions about people harms people and our society by creating social pressure to behave within the norm for your “type”. This pressure could  “tell” some people to avoid IT professions, much like other stereotypes have done in the past and continue to do today.

Why do we have pressure for some folks to avoid IT jobs? There is a broad variety of well-paying IT jobs and these jobs are in high supply and come with opportunities for rapid advancement. Who benefits if some folks get the message that IT jobs are not for them?

Presently, IT suffers from a lack of diversity in the US. According to the National Center for Women in IT, women are greatly under-represented in IT professions. Although women comprise almost half of all professional workers in the US, they are only 25% of all IT workers. I believe that ethnic and racial minorties are similarly impacted in the US, but time constraints have prevented me from finding solid demographic evidence to support this claim. I welcome posts to prove or disprove this claim.

The opportunities in IT are real. IT includes but is not limited to network administrators, database administrators, database developers, desktop administrators, user support specialists, IT trainers, IT managers, software developers, web developers, content managers, software engineers, IT project managers, and business-to-business customer managers.

Sustained growth in IT is expected. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has consistently ranked jobs in IT as some of the most plentiful and well-paying for the past several years. In the 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook the BLS reported that the demand for many jobs is expected to grow much faster than average over the next 10 years. Additionally, median salaries for these jobs are between $45,200 (computer support specialsts) and $81,780 (computer programmers).

The need to broaden our perception is real. Humans, including Ph.D. and masters students, have a tendency to try to find simple relationships or theories to describe not-so-simple phenomena. The myth that there is an IT “type” (read “stereotype”) is perpetuated by the media, including popular television shows. It is further perpetuated by the popular “Geek Squad” division of Best Buy (yes, shame on you, Best Buy). We must be skeptical of simple theories and marketing gimicks. When we passively pass on the notion of an IT stereotype to our children and others, we are providing the ingredients for prejudice and hurting our society. (Although some folks may benfit. Can you guess who?)

 Recall that the inquiry before me is whether or not I should support a research effort to correlate the MBTI results with success in IT. Although the motive behind the effort may be innocent, it is likely that the researcher has selected IT for this study precisely because he expects to find significant results. It is clear to anyone who takes a look that IT jobs are disproportionately filled by men and likely white men. An inquiry to claim that this is anything but the feedback caused by a strong self-fulfilling stereotype would obfuscate the real problem: negative stereotypes caused this. Searching for the IT “type” would only reinforce the harmful myth that there is some genetic, or natural right for certain kinds of people to hold these jobs.

IT jobs are for you and for everyone else too. I welcome your responese.