What do you consider “an interest in technology?”

Living in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area can really screw up your perspective. Take, for example, what average people consider “an interest in technology.” We finally finished filling a position in our office and let me just tell you, interviewing really does reveal a lot about the interviewee and people in general. After about six months of on and off searching to fill the administrative support position in our office, the lesson we (or least I) were quickly learning was that to work in our office and to really make the most out of this position, the ideal candidate would not only be good at pushing paper, but also have a genuine interest in technology and related issues. Now, I’m not saying the candidate has to be extremely technically skilled or even have an overwhelming passion for technology, but he does have to at least be genuinely interested in technology, including both the nuts and bolts (“techie”) and relevant social issues (“fuzzy”). While most of our days are filled with technical tasks– writing code, tracking down problem computers, imaging public computers– our eye is always on the prize, so to speak. The heart of our program’s mission isn’t the technical ins and outs, but the overarching goal of supporting the use of technology in the residences and student life in general. It’s college application time right now and as high school seniors wonder where they’ll spend the next four years of their lives, we must remember that most of the Class of 2009 (who will start their freshman year in the fall of 2004) will have been born around 1987. They will have never known a world without a microcomputer, they will barely remember a world without the Internet, and an overwhelming percentage of them will have come from homes with at least one computer and even a broadband Internet connection. These are kids who grow up typing on keyboard, gliding around mice, and surf the Web. Cell phones, IM, and email are native fixtures in their lives. Technology is embedded in who they are and how they live their lives– if we don’t remember that and share an interest in those technologies, we can’t do our jobs as part of an educational institution.

So, the question is, how do you tell if someone is genuinely interested in technology? Just because someone is interested in technology doesn’t mean the words come falling out of their mouths all the time, especially if an interview is focused on evaluating organizational skills, attention to details, or the ability to communicate effectively. So, at first, we asked questions like, “what’s your comfort level with technology? How do you find answers to your technical questions or learn how to do something new on a computer?” Unfortunately, this line of questioning usually ends with a shrug and “I’m comfortable with computers” or “I call the Help Desk” or “I ask someone for help” or “I just figure it out on my own.” So we started asking more specific questions like “How interested are you in technology? What kind of technology issues or topics are you interested in or do you try to keep up to date with?” And living in Silicon Valley, working in this office, and constantly reading sites like Slashdot, you expect answers like “Oh, well, I find the whole file-sharing phenomenon interesting and the rise of digital media” or “I think it’s very interesting how we balance personal privacy with information security in a world with an increasingly dangerous computing environment.” But no, we got answers like, “Well, I don’t really write software or buy the latest gadgets, but I like technology.”

To many people, “technology issues” means things directly related a specific software program or piece of hardware. I think our question was a pretty broad one, but very few people responded with answers about how technology affects your life, your personal relationships, how you learn, how you think, and more. Very few people talked about how technology fits into student life and not just how they submit their homework assignments or visit their class Web sites, but about how email and IM and cell phones have changed the way in which students communicate with their peers as well as professors, how computers and the Internet have changed the way in which students learn and get information about anything and everything, and how technology can be used to enrich academic and residential life. The answers are not so much “How do you set up a wireless network?” but “How would wireless networking benefit students?” You don’t have to necessarily know how to set up the wireless network– there are people for the technical how-tos– but you should be thinking about how 75% of students have laptops, how wireless network access would allow students to work and study in different places, how it affects group study opporunities and team efforts, etc.

Certainly, there will always be people working on the hard technical issues– how do you build more secure operating systems, how do you develop great human-computer interfaces, how do you break technical barriers– but the social issues of tomorrow will be inexorably tied up with technology issues and socially aware and involved people of tomorrow will have to be interested in, curious about, and aware of technology.