The rise of the introvert: Is there an IT personality?

IDG Connect looks beyond the cliché of the ‘introverted’ IT geek…

If clichés are to be believed, all IT professionals are ‘introverted’ geeks… but what is introversion and how common is it in the IT department? Independent IDG Connect research looks at the types of personalities that really make up the IT workplace. 


“We’re in the midst of an introvert craze,” opens a PBS Idea Channel video from a few years back. “For as long as there have been distinctive groups to look up to we have been doing exactly that. There has been a time and a place for a great many people. In early history it was the philosopher…” and now apparently, it is the introvert.

The terms introvert and extrovert are consistently misunderstood, suggesting by popular consensus, two polarised pictures of the extremely shy and the extremely confident. “[Instead] introverts can be as social as extroverts,” explains Roel Castelein, membership director of the Green Grid “but when their batteries are drained they need solitary down time. Extroverts need people to recharge their batteries.”

This means introverted people are generally more comfortable with solitude, which explains the idea of an “introvert craze”. The argument goes: in the digital age the skills for success are often solitary and have therefore suddenly gained credence.  Whitney Erin Boesel describes this with some scepticism as an “Introvert Fetish” on the Cyborgology website, whilst numerous individuals have weighed into the debate on opposing sides, arguing either that the internet is for introverts or extroverts.

Perhaps Susan Cain really did start a movement with her 2012 non-fiction book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking’? #QuietRev certainly aimed to. This suggested that the world, especially the US corporate workplace, is all geared up for extroverts and that all those introverted qualities of thinking and listening have been ignored. “[Quiet is] a ‘Female Eunuch’ for anxious nerds,” said Jon Ronson in the Guardian. “I'm not surprised it shot straight to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list.”

There is no doubt this book has generated some pretty impassioned views. And whilst most of the comment on the subject has come from self-confessed introverts, the Global Tech Women blog did feature some pretty engaged commentary from an extroverted mother of an introverted child. “Sometimes, I can clearly see that my daughter is getting the message from all sides (the school counsellor, her mom, her friends) that she should want to join all these things – Speak up! Take your seat at the table! Put yourself out there! Get involved!” she wrote: “This is why reading [this book] was so powerful for me.”

The Myers-Briggs personality test is one of the biggest staples of modern corporate training schedules with the “I” or “E” categorising you as either an introvert or an extrovert. This helps to explain motivational structures to both yourself and your colleagues. Castelein, who is rare type (INTJ), believes his introverted personality has had “both a good and bad” impact on his career. “I do what I like, and what I am good at, but rarely get the credit for it.”

“Having [an] understanding and open minded person to report too, makes a big difference, but they never stay forever. So my strategy is slowly building up experience, knowledge and insights that few people possess. This body of knowledge and experience gets me promoted, not the socialising or politics favoured by most. The introvert path is harder, but ultimately more rewarding. I relate to Howard Roark in the novel Fountainhead, for good reasons.”

In relation to the tech industry generally, Daniel Tenner, a programmer and Founder/MD of GrantTree, which works with a lot of tech companies to help them get government funding takes a different angle and is keen to stress: “I think the stereotype of tech people all being introverts is false, coming more from movies than from reality.

“Highly technical people tend to be more capable of being quiet and focused on what they're doing - because if you can't do that regularly,” he adds “then you're not going to get very far with programming. So that rules out a number of extreme extroverts who feel de-energised immediately if they're not working with people. However, the general perception tends to be that geeks are all extremes in the other direction - socially maladapted and unable to handle human interactions.”

Castelein suggests: “[In tech] it depends on job type. Marketing and sales people are more likely to be extroverted. And even in big organisations, extroverted characteristics are favoured in groups working on technology. This [is] despite the fact that I have seen most creativity and great ideas come from introverts.

“The best example of each extreme is rivals Thomas Edison and Nicolas Tesla,” he continues. “Edison was an astute business man, [the] founder General Electric, but the true inventing genius was Tesla [who was behind] AC/DC current, remote control, remote electricity and hundreds of patents to his name, still in use today. It goes without saying Edison was the extrovert, while Tesla was the introvert.”

Tenner believes: “The only aspect of being an introvert which helps with tech is the ability to spend time by yourself and get stuff done without feeling overly uncomfortable about being alone. You don't need to be an extreme introvert for that though, [you] just don't [need to] be an extreme extrovert. In my experience, extreme introverts are poorly suited to business (tech or non-tech) because a lot of business requires dealing with people. Failing to make a good first impression means missing out on good business deals and opportunities, and that hurts any kind of business.”

Maybe this is precisely the point of Cain’s book? “When digging in modern ICT,” suggests Castelein “you will [sometimes] find this coupling of quiet genius with extroverted salesmanship. Both need each other, but I agree with Susan Cain - extroverts get too much credit for their contribution, because ultimately it’s the introverts who are better tuned in to ‘the source’ of all creativity.”

It is certainly an interesting subject, but in the end it is extremely easy to degenerate into blanket generalisation: “I love parties and do snowboarding, kite surfing and play capoeira,” concludes Castelein. “This does not fit into the stereotype of introvert, yet, when batteries are drained, I prefer being alone with a book to recharge.”

Or as Ronson puts it: “[Susan Cain’s] thesis – built on the assumption that almost everyone in the world can be squeezed into one of two boxes – may topple if it turns out that loads of us are essentially ambiverts. I suspect there are a lot of ambiverts out there.”

I also researched the topic in a bit more detail to produce a full independent report: Introverts vs. Extroverts: Is There an IT Personality?