Computer Guys vs Gadget Guys

Computer Guy

I've been reformatting the notes in my digital notebook recently for reasons that I'll eventually get to. I have a "blog ideas" folder that has been steadily growing with no signs of shrinking for a few months. This is partially because I haven't been in a place where I could "get in the groove" for while and partially because of the recent mental breakdowns and anxiety caused by people's reactions of this website in real life, but that's another article.

I noticed a bunch of my notes are about how technology has evolved and, being a "computer guy," how it has affected me. It's actually come up in conversation a few times in the past few weeks, so now is probably a good time to start writing something about it.

This will be a series of articles rather than a novella. I don't have enough wine to be Steve Yegge1 today.

Of Computers and Gadgets

PC Shapes - If You Can Do This, You Can Do This"

It's odd that when you're the "computer guy" of your family or friends, they expect you to know the answer to any tech question. If you're in this group, you've probably been asked to hook up a TV or, if you're sufficiently old enough, set the clock on someone's VCR.

As personal electronics became more common, a new breed of guy came into being: the "gadget guy." Somehow, Computer Guy was eventually compressed into Gadget Guy's mold. The Computer Guy is now considered to be a tech-savvy Gadget Guy.

I'm here to tell you that this isn't true.

Computer Guy

If this were the medical world, the Computer Guy is a paramedic. He can help you out of a jam. If he's in over his head, he knows where to look and who to call for the information he needs. He can do a lot, but for huge problems, he can't help. His tools are inadequate, he can see the problem but can't fix it, or he just doesn't know. He may be able to point you in the right direction, though.

A Computer Guy knows what things like RAM are. "2.8 GHz Quad-Core processor" is a phrase that means something to him.


The Programmer is a doctor. Given enough time, he can either fix your problem or create something to circumvent it. If something is a pain in the ass for you (i.e. repetitive and time-consuming copy-and-paste operations in Microsoft Excel, or maybe a literal pain in your ass), he will probably be able to read up on the problem and figure out a way to solve it (i.e. writing an Excel macro, or pain killers for your butt).

Programmers know the difference between a script (perl, python, ruby), a markup (html, wiki), and a programming language (C, C++, Java). He knows what a compiler is.


The Engineer is a specialist. Like other specialists, he prefixes his title with his specialty. He isn't just an "engineer;" he's a Firmware Engineer, a Software Engineer2, or countless others. Most non-engineers will ask him what that means. If the Engineer is good at his profession, he can tell you in an overly-simple sentence or two, usually involving a more relatable analogy3 4.

Like with professors and medical specialists, the Engineer fell out of touch with the general Computer Guy stuff. He'll tell you which sorting algorithm you should use when organizing your sock drawer even though you only own six pairs of socks. The clock frequency of a processor doesn't matter; how many BogoMIPS is it?

The Engineer is geniusly stupid. An electrical engineer will look at a circuit board and question if there is cross-talk in the Ethernet circuit traces before realizing that he never actually plugged the network cable in. (We'll pretend this wasn't something I actually did was a witness to and have not done myself.

Gadget Guy

In this scenario, the Gadget Guy is the patient. He goes out, buying everything and having fun. When he hurts himself in a way that needs fixing, he needs help from one of the other three. He may have heard of a few old wives' tales on how to remedy it, but he knows just enough to void the warranty.

The Gadget Guy owns an iPhone 3, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, and iPhone 5, or the analogous Android devices (I'm guessing that's the Galaxy Note series?). If any are jailbroken, he'll be sure to mention that.

The Gadget Guy doesn't know what RAM is, but he know he want a lot of them. He's willing to pay four times the price for an extra GB. A bug number in every column is what's important.

The Counterintuitive Ladder


The more advanced I become with technology, the less I want the next generation of it. When I ask around, I noticed that as people climb the technology ladder, they keep their old toys. Those who are at the bottom of the ladder buy everything.

Note that this ladder isn't the corporate ladder, where technical skill don't mean a damn thing.

Why? For the challenge. "I already have a device that can do this," we tell ourselves. "Why do I need to burn a DVD of a movie I have on the PC to play it on my TV? The TiVo is connected to the TV and the network, and my PC is on the network. I can probably stream everything I have somehow." Then, we read, tinker, and finally stream.

The X-Box can do the same natively if you have a Windows PC. If you don't, would you buy one just to watch your videos? I rather figure out how to set up uShare for free.

In college, I knew a guy who used to brag that he had a jailbroken iPhone before that kind of thing was common. Impressed, I asked him, "How did you do that?"

"I bought it on eBay."

He later dropped out of engineering to become a business major. I know correlation isn't causality; I'm just saying...

This starts to socially backfire, though. The biggest problem with "graduating" from Computer Guy to Engineer is friends and family. After years of specialization, the Engineer will still be the Computer Guy to them. It's not that he doesn't want to help; it's that he can't. He doesn't have an iPhone 9T. He still has his Android Krispy Kreme5 and is perfectly happy with it. He's tinkered enough that it works even better than the iPhone 9T.

Eventually, he'll get tired of Googling stuff for them (which is all he ever did in the first place). He'll either be nice and say that he doesn't know, which nobody will believe because they think a PC and a wristwatch are the same thing, or he'll start sending them links to Let Me Google That For You.

Either way, either start Googling and reading, or find yourself another Computer Guy. Your old one has found technical enlightenment. He's no longer a Gadget guy.

1 I would normally put a link here to an article by Steve Yegge to show what I mean, but that wouldn't do him justice. His typical style is to open a bottle of wine and stream-of-conscientiously type over 3,000 words about a topic in software. Probably the most popular is his rant on "his development experience at Google vs. Amazon. If you are a software engineer, especially in game creation, I'd highly recommend you search for some of his writing, specifically about Borderlands.

2 Software Engineers get a bad rap because Computer Guys who can program call themselves that. It's like the word "janitor" and "custodial engineer," but the term software engineer was already a real thing before someone else decided to call themselves that.

3 This is true of any specialty profession. There's a famous quote from Albert Einstein: "If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself."

4 I just realized that this is exactly what I am doing right now.

5 I really hope that by now you know that I'm making these up.