Published 7th May 2017 by Andy Connelly
“Do I count as a technician?” I was asked this question by a colleague wanting to join the University of Leeds Technicians’ Network. As we are an inclusive group I said “Of course you can join, the more the merrier” and so avoided the question as, to be honest, I didn’t have an answer. In case I get asked this question in the future I decided to set about trying to develop a test to help identify technicians.
Being a dictionary lover my initial starting point was to try and define a technician formally. One writer on the subject suggested the following formal definition: scientists have the knowledge; engineers design; technicians test and repair; and operators run and monitor (see Figure 1) .
Following this hierarchy you could assign yourself in a title, put yourself in a box, and my problem is solved. However, this seems rather unsatisfactory and old fashioned. The four roles defined seem unrealistically sub-divided. What technician has not been an operator? or a designer? and we certainly have knowledge. This is too cold and clinical for me especially in the messy real life with overlapping responsibilities and skill sets. Clearly my love of dictionaries was, as usual, of little help in the real world. It was while reading another book that a possible solution from real life present itself.
Adam Smith lived with his mother, Margaret Douglas, most of his life. Smith was a genius theoretical economist but struggled to put his own socks on. His Mum famously cooked his dinner and looked after the house . A very practical person, she was an expert at balancing the budget at home, and ensured there was enough money left for his socks. However, it is often claimed that she had little or no understanding of the theory behind how the financial system worked.
It could be said that Margaret Douglas was Adam Smith’s “support staff”, she made it possible for him to do his work and put on his socks. However, most people would not call her a technician.
This got me thinking that technicians seem to sit in between these two extremes. They have advanced practical ability but with a theoretical understanding to go with it. So, the second metric I will try is a scale based on Adam Smith and his Mum.
At the far left is Margaret Douglas a practical person, a good operator of household matters but, it is claimed, with little technical knowledge. At the other end is the theoretical economist.
As a test it feel more satisfactory as there are overlaps between the roles. However, I am still not happy with this test. It is very unfair to Margaret Douglas as it suggests she had no understanding, which I don’t believe was true. I do not believe that she didn’t have technical skill and understand in keeping the household accounts. Also, on some areas of my work, I probably score around a 6.5/7 in others 3, it just depends what I am doing that day. So, back to the drawing board.
How about another historical example, Robert Hooke, the famous physicist? He started life as a technician . He worked initially as a chemical assistant and later in the Royal Society laboratories as “curator of experiments” setting up other peoples’ experiments and demonstrating experiments, his own and others, to members of the public—a kind of experimental officer of his day. He had the technical skill and knowledge to supported other scientists but then later became a scientist in his own right and that is how we remember him – as a scientist and discoverer of Hooke’s law, not as a technician.
So, can we use Robert Hooke’s life as a test? Are you more like baby Robert Hooke the operator of physics (bouncing on a spring); like young Hooke demonstrating and setting up experiments; or like old Robert Hooke the rival of Newton?
I am a little uncomfortable with this test as it suggests that technicians are just young academics who have not grown up yet; as opposed to people who have chosen to do something different, to be a technician. It is also not very kind to operators!
All these ideas and I don’t feel any closer to having an answer for the next person who asks “Do I count as a technician?”. Also, I have grown more and more uncomfortable with placing workers in boxes creating a separation between operator, technician, and academic. In the modern workplace these delineations are very difficult to make.
I decided to make a final attempt but this time something simpler. Like an Inkblot Test, the metric is this: If the the following diagram feels familiar then you are a technician.
If you, as the orange person, were taken away from your workplace, what would happen? Does this feel familiar? What do you think?
 S.R. Barley “The professional, the semi-professional and the machine: the social implications of computer based imaging in radiology. (1984)
 S.R. Barley & J.E. Orr (Ed.), Between Craft and Science: Technical Work in U.S. Settings, ILR Press, 1997.
 Who cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal, (2015)