Identity in the Business World

Over spring break, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to work on a short engagement with Danaher. Over the course of the week working with my Danish and Polish teammates, I noticed something peculiar about our conversations. After a few days of trying to put my finger on what it was, I realized that they were treating me as an American rather than as a Chinese American. When I told people I was from the US, there were no followup questions like “What about your parents?” or the more insidious “Where are you really from?” It was simply accepted that I was an American. When discussing Danish food at lunch, I was asked questions only about American cuisine, and not Chinese. Teammates were excited to tell me about the time they went to Pennsylvania or Ohio, not the time they went to Shanghai.

While the distinction is subtle, this came as quite a shock. In the years prior to business school, I worked a cumulative one year in China, often leveraging my Mandarin-speaking ability to attain new professional opportunities. Certainly there were instances where I would downplay my identity as a Chinese American, like when I was working with blue-collar workers in the South. Nonetheless, being a Chinese American has always been a large part of my identity in the workplace.

Over the last few years, I’ve had a number of professional identities, ranging from chemical engineer to project manager to negotiator. My racial identity is just one component of who I am as a professional. In this case, the lack of a racial identity allowed me to avoid some of the stereotypes associated with Chinese Americans, but also forced me to think actively about perceptions of Americans. As businesses become increasingly global and complex, professional identity will become increasingly multifaceted. Understanding how you are perceived is important to effective teamwork and management.

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The US needs a Department of Nerds

During the recent House Judiciary Committee hearings, it seemed every other statement began with the following disclosure: “I’m not a nerd, but I think…” Through the course of the hearings, the word “nerd” was used quite often. Some were derisive. Others, respectful. However in all cases, it was an assertion of general ignorance about the matter at hand.

It has become painfully obvious that our US representatives fundamentally do not understand new technology. But who can blame them? The average age of the 112th Congress was 56.7 years at the start of the term. This demographic was middle-aged and well out of college before the inception of the personal computing era and the Internet. While many in Congress have adopted social media, nobody would expect them to understand the intricacies of IP addresses and DNS servers. Most millennials outside of the technology industry would be hard-pressed to describe these concepts.

So why then are our Congressmen seeking to enact legislation about something they do not understand? While it is certainly impossible for Congressmen to fully understand all the details of every bill they work on, it has always been their responsibility to interface with leaders of respective industries to make the best possible decision with limited information.

The problem is that technology as a whole is moving too quickly for legislators to understand the latest innovations to pass effective legislation. As technology has continued to improve, the knowledge gap between the engineer and the layman has increased. The field has become too specialized for “non-nerds” to understand well, nonetheless our representatives. Furthermore, technology is important to a number of industries, sometimes with conflicting interests. To make effective decisions in this regard would require a very comprehensive understanding of not just technology, but how it is applied in different industries.

The technology industry represents the most significant US innovation in the past few decades. It should be encouraged to grow as quickly as possible, but this growth cannot be unregulated. Nor should those who are unfamiliar with the field be the ones regulating it. 10 years from now, will our Congressmen understand enough about the complex algorithms and programs that operate Google’s self-driving car to make an informed decision about its safety and efficacy for use by the general public? Certainly not. However, this does not mean that this service should be unregulated. As technology is integrated more and more into everyday life, there will need to be people in government that do understand the intricacies of technology.

The US needs a Department of Nerds. Maybe more aptly named, a Department of Technology. This branch of the executive arm should regulate technology as a whole.  It should encourage sustained organic growth of the technology industry. It should help regulate computer security to prevent hackers from attacking America’s public facilities and crucial infrastructure. It should service other departments to improve efficiency of everything from agriculture to veterans’ affairs. Most importantly, it should be run by nerds. The appointed secretary should be someone who understands technological innovation and someone who champions its safe and effective utilization in America.

While the current Departments manage technology in their respective fields, there are significant inefficiencies that are incurred by this framework. While the Department of Defense has access to highly advanced computer security knowledge, a millennial hacker recently accessed water infrastructure management systems using just a three-character password. While certainly there should be some level of disparity between the two systems, it is clear that the latter industry could use a significant security upgrade. A centralized Department of Technology would allow for more effective distribution of technology to improve efficiency and security of all sectors.

In the future, the balanced implementation of technology will be the hallmark of all successful nations. Technological innovation and development will be necessary across all industries in the public and private sectors. A centralized authority that understands technology is necessary to regulate the introduction of new technologies to different industries. As the integration of technology into our day-to-day lives increases, the more important it will be that this technology is well understood and reviewed.

The present is being built by nerds, but regulated by laymen. The future must be regulated by nerds.