What happened to all the non-programmers?

March 2015

This week I found myself at yet another dinner party that mysteriously contained only two people who were not involved with the tech industry in some way.

As I looked around and realized for the hundredth time that I was surrounded by people exactly like me, something inside me snapped. I downloaded the latest American Community Survey microdata, fired up R and started calculating feverishly.

It turns out that among people who

about 10% have a computer-related occupation. An additional 5% are employed in some other capacity by a strongly computer-related industry.

That’s not nearly large enough to explain how saturated with coders my social groups are. I have plenty of social circles that are (at least nominally) totally different from my work: contra dancers, people interested in effective altruism, folk musicians, friends from college, and so on. And yet I keep finding myself in the middle of a programmer monoculture. Why?

As Randall Munroe recently suggested, suggests, maybe taking up a sport would help expose me to a broader range of people. But which one? Obviously not football, since I’m barely 150 pounds and don’t like traumatic brain injuries. Preferably a more elegant sport that doesn’t require a bunch of awkward equipment. Maybe Ultimate or rock climbing–

Wait, crap.

Part of the problem is that my taste in hobbies is influenced by class lines and subculture in ways that I hadn’t realized before.1 It turns out that even when it’s totally up to me, most of the things I’m interested in are strongly associated with a very particular band of socioeconomic status–a much smaller band than the set of “all bachelor’s degree holders” in my ACS analysis.

This stronger selection sneaks in when I try to pick a sport based on things like “elegance,” instead of “size of community” or “what I’ve been playing since I was five years old” or whatever other things people might pick sports for. In fact, just the fact that I’m interested in doing sports for leisure is associated with class, since it’s not something that would be so easy for, say, manual laborers or shift workers.

But I don’t think socioeconomic selection explains all of it. My parents’ friends were similarly selected, but they didn’t all have literally the same job, and the ones that did were usually coworkers–not people they had met socially who bizarrely all happened to work on the same stuff. My friends in other occupations with similar base rates–say, school teachers–don’t wonder where all the non-teachers are at social events. And I don’t even feel like I’m from a similar subculture to many programmers. What else could be going on?

Unless I’ve miscalculated pretty badly, though, it’s clear that these social bubble effects are way stronger and more tenacious than I would have expected. And this is just one of the axes where it’s obvious that all the variance is being selected out. I wonder what more subtle facts are being selected for this strongly in my social groups?

  1. When I lived in Boston, the people I associated with were determined mostly by my parents or my private high school/college, which is plenty enough to explain a monoculture without getting into class effects. 

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Do what I did. Take a ballet class.


Wrong football :-). Try soccer or volleyball as they’re pretty safe, good exercise and real popular where the weather’s good (is Ultimate Frisbee still played?). If you grew up in Boston, you can always try street hockey but there’s more equipment and more risk of injury.

They told me as a kid, and I believe it to a degree, that you should be careful working in your hobby. Lose interest in one and you’re screwed. Things like history, politics or other disciplines have a broad range of interest, a long publication history and lots of interested people involved. Many of whom will have other professional interests.


Try curling. Curlers are generally very welcoming of new players, and you don’t need to be big or even particularly athletic to play. There’s a club in your area.


Greg Thole

Slight biases in demographic preferences build to large systemic segregation.

See the wonderful Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart and Nicky Case insight into the phenomenon.


I am a programmer and try really hard to avoid this. I find the conversation with other programmers to be monotonous. Two good sources of contacts with normal people that I came upon: being on the board of a non-profit, and weight lifting. Listening to metal and bro-ing out with gym rats gets old very fast, but I find a few hours a week of it grounding.

Don’t try backpacking. You can be in the middle of absolute nowhere, and the first soul you come upon will be a programmer half the time.


Find someone that’s not using a Mac/iOS device and strike up a conversation.


You’re assuming that people who don’t work in tech in the Bay Area have leisure time and disposable income. Between paying exorbitant amounts for rent and being paid a comparable pittance in wages most people can’t even afford savings, let alone leisure activities. If you want variety in your social circles, get out of the bay.


At 150 pounds I bet you would find flag football to be not much more dangerous than Ultimate.

And it might lead you to a different crowd of people than playing Ultimate would.


Football isn’t a game people normally play, they just watch it. But there are lots of softball and basketball leagues for adults if you really wanted to pick up a sport. If you were just looking for an opportunity to express your concern for the health of football players on the other hand…


Your frontal cortex has taken over and is ruining your social life. Go to a rave and hang around people with tattoos and get completely high as a side hobby. They need more of you and you need more of them.


Pretty sure Mac and iOS are only token indicators for hipster web devs. The general public’s deification of Apple devices would seem to counterindicate such a suggestion…


I’d recommend reading Distinction by Pierre bourdieu


Could it also be that the different people in your demographic have started to marry and have children, and so the people who are available for quite dinner parties tend to have similar backgrounds?


How innate is the property of “being a programmer”? At this time, the tech industry is having a lot of success, and, being in the Bay Area, there are a lot of well-paying, exciting jobs in the area.

If it were some other time in history and/or some other location and a different industry was the new hot thing with high paying jobs, do you think that the distribution of programmers would be different?


I devised this three-step program to connect better with non-programmers and it works really well for me.

(1) Keep thinking like a programmer.

(2) Learn to communicate your thoughts with extremely few, colorful words.

(3) Use urban counterculture appreciation as a common interest to meet people.

Some explanations:

(1) I found that thinking like a salesman or a mechanic or a barista was a very interesting way to understand people better. I also discovered how important it was to return to my programmer thinking because it makes me feel at home.

(2) Nonprogrammers express themselves with a lower cognitive but higher experiential density . Makes sense, huh? They spend most of their time in the physical world. You can still apply your high-level cognitive powers to your communication as long as you express yourself using emotional, sensory language. Choice of words implies tribal affiliation; chose them appopriately. Metaphor is your friend (chose pleasant ones)

(3) Knowing facts signals tribal affiliation. Tabs vs spaces will befriend drunk programmers, but “Bored to Death” vs “Louie” will almost certainly get you down with interesting drunk nonprogrammers.


If it’s not too hard, what’s the breakdown of the other 85% as far occupation?


Go to a rave and hang around people with tattoos and get completely high as a side hobby. They need more of you and you need more of them.

Not a terrible idea. I did that very thing several years ago and it was certainly an enlightening experience that greatly diversified my social circle.


Your error may stem from your reliance on the ACS as an accurate representation of society.

How many programmers are too busy to respond to such surveys?

How many programmers are not represented by ACS data because they choose not to submit to government questioning until the threat of incarceration is clear and present? Count me as one.


How does this relate to gender balance of a social group? I find it pretty common to be in a group where most or all of the men are programmers, and most of the women are not. A lot of this is probably that the programmers are often in romantic relationships with non-programmers.


I suspect part of it has to do with the conflation of interest and occupation in tech. We have this narrative of the programmer who loves his work. So when two programmers meet, they talk shop for much longer than the non-programmers nearby care to wait for the topic to change.

I like to leave my work at the office, which among other things means I do not talk shop in social situations. Perhaps relatedly, my social circles are a bit closer to the 10% mean you’d expect.

Not sure if you’re seriously thinking of taking up a new hobby just to meet non-programmers, but in case you are: Of all my hobbies, biking is probably least programmer-heavy. Don’t know why. It doesn’t seem any less inherently nerdy than, say, weightlifting, which is full of Crossfitter-programmers. A close runner-up is English. That’s probably because programming as a profession is relatively young and the local English dancers are relatively old.