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Philly Tech Week / Roundups

Why you should totally call yourself a technologist (but never a ‘techie’)

It has everything to do with the origins of the word, and your expertise with the technology you use.

At work. (Photo by NESA by Makers via Unsplash)
That familiar little suffix sound you use to convey cuteness (horsey vs. horse, piggie vs. pig) has a telling origin story.

It tells you something both about language and about the common otherness of technology.

A few thousand years ago or so, speakers of a proto-language near present day Ukraine would have used a pair of words roughly translated to “babe child” to refer to a newborn. Over time that second word was used so commonly that its usage eroded and became a simple sound, forming the word “baby” we know so well today. That’s why the blanket your toddler has is called “blankey” and why your childhood friend “Timmy” would much prefer to be called “Tim” now in adulthood. (For linguistics nerds like me, John McWhorter’sLexicon Valley” podcast devoted an entire episode to this concept.)

It’s also how another word was coined: “techie,” a contemptible bit of language I am here in part to dismantle.

In common usage I’ve seen, “techie” is the spelling of the imprecise noun to refer to a person generically involved in technology, in contrast with “techy,” which I’ve seen used as an adjective to refer to a product or concept with new and innovative features.

Techie is also a word that is essentially banned in our newsroom. Hidden there in the word’s origins, as a call for diminutiveness, is the conjuring of a stark sense of distance. More importantly, I’ve only ever seen, read or heard the word “techie” used by someone who, at best, is just intimidated (“oh I don’t understand any technology, I’m not a techie”) or at worst is referring to people themselves as tools to command (“I’m here at this meetup because I want to find some techie to make my app for me.”)

Technologist is good when it empowers people. It's not when it scares them.

Instead, when in need of a broadly encompassing word to refer to the more technically adept of you, our readers, we more commonly use the word technologist. Technologist, with a suffix that stands for professionalism, is a sturdier word — in my trade, the word “journalist” conveys a degree of expertise that the more junior “reporter”does not.

I even have my own use of the word: a technologist is anyone who is expert in using a technology. That might in fact mean a software engineer or a data scientist, but I think a filmmaker who uses next-generation equipment or a machinist who is trained to operate and maintain advanced equipment is, too.

I tried this definition out with Greg Ebbecke, VP of business intelligence for Harmelin Media, the influential media planning company headquartered in Bala Cynwyd near Philadelphia.

“Technologist is good when it empowers people. It’s not when it scares them,” he said, just after stepping off a panel discussion on the same topic he was a part of during the Introduced conference we at organized during Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast. Ebbecke is called a technologist at his company, brought in because of his subject matter expertise on data and dashboards.

Stephanie Humphrey is a media personality who has made a specialty with advising parents on teen social media trends — that’s @TechLifeSteph. (She’s done spots on “Good Morning America” nationally and Fox 29 locally.)

“I say if you call yourself a technologist, then you are one,” Humphrey said, while moderating the panel.

All words are changing at all times. All definitions then are snapshots, not immutable rules.

Turning to her panelists, which included Ebbecke, Venture for America Executive Director Amy Nelson, Genzeon Corporation Chief Software Architect Vikram Pendli, and David Dylan Thomas, a content strategy principal at Think Company, Humphrey said: “I think you are all technologists.”

That expansionist mindset is one has followed. Grow the tent. But better to make the skills more accessible to bring more people into that tent, rather than simply encouraging the bloating of the term.

For instance, I don’t personally consider myself a technologist — not because of otherness or self-confidence issues but because I don’t consistently leverage advanced technologies. It’s just simply not how I identify. I do still very much consider myself a journalist, even though in my role at I do less reporting.

A theme from the discussion was that the importance of talking about words is to recognize their power. Humphrey expressed she had felt unwelcome at tech events in the past, something too common for women of color. Interestingly, David Thomas expressed his own sense of otherness, not just as a Black man but as a content strategist, a role that hasn’t always fit nicely in conversations of technology and innovation.

That made me think back to Ebbecke. He likes the “technologist” moniker. It conveys command and control of complicated issues. That can give power to those who possess it. It can also intimidate those who don’t.

All words are changing at all times. They always have, always will. Trillions of interactions add subtle nuance and shifting pronunciations. All definitions then are snapshots, not immutable rules.

For now, then, trash “techie,” and if you’re reading this, you are almost surely a “technologist.”

Companies: Harmelin Media / Think Company
Series: Behind the Scenes
People: David Dylan Thomas
Projects: Philly Tech Week

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