What is “Breaking the Tech Barrier”?

Hi, my name is Dan Choi.  

I’m a software developer by training and a business developer by trade, and I started this blog because I can fix VCRs.

Guy with VHS

“Why hello, ladies…”

Wait, wait. Let me rewind. (get it?)

In the summer of 2012, I was visiting the home of a family friend when the subject of my college studies arose. I explained that I had graduated in computer science with a secondary degree in economics, and before I could continue, my host arose with a start. Taken by the hand, I was unceremoniously ushered into the next room and propositioned thusly,

“You know, I’ve had this broken VCR for about a year now. Since you know computers, do you think you could take a look and try to figure out what’s wrong with it?”

Confusion gave way to realization as I grasped the extent of my host’s misunderstanding of the term “computer science”. My eyes surveyed the room and settled upon a partially dismantled JVC, which lay in the center of the worn, wooden floor, lazily awaiting the hands of a modern-day medicine man. 

I continued to stare blankly at the scene. Cue crickets.

true story

The funny thing is – I actually can fix VCRs. I have yet to meet a programmable recorder or an unruly VHS that has outwitted my special combination of intuitive tinkering and aggressive patience.1 But contrary to the presumptions of the well-meaning soul referenced above, my burgeoning career as a VCR-whisperer has little, if anything, to do with my knowledge of computer science.

Now, to your probable relief (and perhaps to one unlucky reader’s great chagrin) I didn’t actually start this blog just to wax poetic on the virtues of keeping your VCR heads sparkling. I mention VCRs because I believe the scenario described above – while admittedly hyperbolic – is representative of a pervasive and troublesome misconception: The belief that knowledge of computer science (and particularly, “code”) is prerequisite to a deep, working understanding of technology.

Understandable though unwarranted, this belief forms the basis of a phenomenon I’ve termed the “tech barrier2 – and I aim to break it.

On the Origin of the Tech Barrier

The tech barrier is that magical confluence of factors which causes some folks to feel excluded from or discredited in interactions regarding technology.

This feeling of exclusion makes people hesitant about asking “how” something works or “why” something was built that way, and it fosters inaccessible, insular communities of tech “gurus” who speak in tongues only they can decipher.

“Master, the oracle says we require a Base64-encoded X.509 certificate to SSH into our EC2 instances.”

Over the years, I’ve encountered countless individuals who relegate themselves to the “uninitiated” in tech. Their stories are more similar than one might imagine. They often work in tech-related fields and interact closely with engineers or developers on a daily basis, via either their personal or professional circles. They might keep up with the latest consumer gadgets and even know how to configure or troubleshoot their favorite devices, but that’s about where their technical knowledge ends. They sometimes express frustration at their inability to code or understand technology at a deeper level, and they might not articulate questions or suggestions to technical counterparts for fear of being met with ridicule or blank stares.

To these “tech-muggles“, technology – and especially the development of technology – may feel like straight-up wizardry. Those with technical knowledge are often portrayed in popular culture as sorcerers of technology, and even those who don’t buy into fictional portrayals can witness analogous examples in the real world. The modern business office would be rendered useless without IT support (have you tried turning it off and on?), and everyone knows that some vague, yet awe-inspiring level of technical know-how was involved in the enormous successes of a few enterprising techies.

In many ways, it makes sense that tech-muggles may regard technology with apprehension (or in rare cases, frenzied confusion). The tech barrier certainly appears formidable – comprised of a notoriously steep learning curve and endless layers of knowledge and complexity, not to mention a vast, esoteric culture derived from and in direct reference to that knowledge (e.g., certain internet memes, XKCD comics, etc.). As it turns out, this much is actually true.

What’s not true, however, is the popular misconception that the only route through the tech barrier is to dive into the deep end of computer science and code.

Breaking the Tech Barrier

At the end of the day, technology is just the practical application of concepts and theories that are generally understandable by non-techies, if only they are illustrated properly.

The thesis of this entire blog is that the tech barrier can be broken with two simple words and one simple concept – “plain English”. I plan to present tech-muggles with their very own Intro to Wizardry, but without breaking out the wands and potions. In other words, you won’t see any code here, and there won’t be any twenty-step tutorials that will lose you half-way through. I’ll use simple language and real-world examples to explain concepts, theories, tools, and technology. No assumptions about your background or experience, and simultaneously, no limits to what I’m interested in exploring with you.

• • • • •

People are now more than ever trying to cross the tech barrier. Especially as of late, I’ve come into contact with many tech savvy individuals who want to dig one level deeper than simply using (and troubleshooting) technology. They don’t necessarily want to learn how to code, but they’d like to know why and how technology works the way it does. Sometimes their aspirations are professionally motivated, while others are simply curious.

 

This blog is for those brave souls.

I’ll periodically review and edit past posts, especially if changes occur or I get helpful comments and feedback. Whenever relevant and possible, I’ll also include sources for digging in further.

Full disclosure: I’m not a technical genius. I am, however, a lover of tech who’s passionate about learning and teaching. This is an experiment of sorts – I’ll stop writing when I run out of things to write about. I think it’ll be fun, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

  1. Not to mention an impressively verbose Google search history that may rival that of a small country.. like Azerbaijan.
  2. Title Drop Alert! Don’t you love it when they say the name of the movie in the movie?