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The Almighty Buck

Managing Geeks 88

MindStalker writes "An unnamed friend of mine was given this article from a online mag called fastcompany, in her buisness class at an unnamed universtiy. Its entitled How to Manage Geeks. I just wanted everyones opinion on it, it seems to have some insight, while still maintaining the old dribble. " Its one of the better articles I've seen on the subject.
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Managing Geeks

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  • by Sloppy ( 14984 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @01:40PM (#1628266) Homepage Journal

    I think the industry is already doing things to prevent this from happening, and there's even a whole institution dedicated to it.

    And here's how it works... Consider the case of the medium-sized business that has a fairly easy to use computer system. But they've got one guy who runs around, reboots machines, fixes problems, etc. Maybe that's not even his full time job.

    For some reason, he leaves the company. They advertise for a replacement. But instead of trying to just get a "computer fixit dude" they decide they want someone who really knows what he's doing, so the position gets a title: IS Department. (See where this is going?) They get a stack of resumes in the mail, and pick the guy who obviously knows what he's doing: certifications like CNE, MSCE, etc.

    Alas, that guy is now going to totally fuck the company, and they don't know it. Why? Because those certifications aren't classes in fixing computers, streamlining networks, or solving problems. They are really just indoctination sessions for learning a specific vendor's products. Next thing you know, this MSCE is going around installing Windows or Windows upgrades, and replacing apps with "better" ones. Instant job security -- not for the computer guy, but for the products themselves! Also instant understaffing, because after just a few months of "upgrades", you need 3 or 4 of these guys, just to keep the same number of computers running!

    Why? Because they install stuff that sucks. On purpose. Oh, that's not really what the MSCE guy is consciously thinking, but that's what the MSCE program is designed to do.

    From the industry's point of view, who needs unions when you've got vendor certification programs? The difference is that instead of manipulating an employer into getting "locked in" to a specific labor force that will suck the life out of them (can you tell I hate unions? ;-) they get "locked in" to technology vendors who suck the life by requiring a lot more labor.


    ---
  • College education is NOT limited mostly along class lines.

    Granted... the largest number of graduates are middle to
    upper class students... but there are many MANY programs
    out there to fund education for those willing to find
    it and follow through.

    An education provides you with a greater diversity
    of thought and understanding that will help you in
    any position you may attain in life.
    Granted there are plenty of kids that get good grades and
    graduate... will still being utter morons... that
    will never change.
    For the rest of us... an education is worthwhile
    and is something everyone (that it's right for) should
    work to attain.

    Personally... it's the best decision I ever made.
    Yeah... it's 10 years after high school...
    Yeah... there are a lot of folks working towards
    the same degree
    Yeah... I love it
    The good news is that most of these kids
    are clueless punks that don't know anything.
    The bad news is that most of them will probably
    be hired first before they finally figure out that
    they wanted me for the position all along. *shrug*
    I don't mind. I have the rest of my life to do what
    it is that I've stored in my noggin... my time will come.


    As to the topic of discussion?
    Having a core geed squad would be an asset for any
    tech company... given that they maintain their touch
    with reality in the tech industry and what's happening.
    This is quite difficult to do...
    I would rather hire Geek consultants... but then
    you run into the whole "Does this guy really know
    what's up??" sorta mess. How do you know that
    the Geek you've hired is really as knowledgable as
    he says he is..?
    Are there any Geeks R Us consulting firms??

  • No, it's new about nerds [deja.com].
  • Certain personality traits make certain people best suited to do certain jobs. Nuturing->caretaker, aggressive->warrior, charismatic->leader, etc. The original article agrees with this by assuming that technologists have a personality trait of geekiness.

    If you take a cross section of any society, you will find that each personality trait only exists in only a fixed subset of the population. Therefore, it would appear that supply is limited. However, people without the desired personality traits, i.e. non-geeks, are joining the feast and the market is helping them will tools like Visual Basic. But, alas, even Visual Basic requires a certain amount of geekiness and there is a limit to the number of people even willing to try their hand at a technical job.

    So, in response to "Don't get too comfy", I disagree with the statement "we are getting these concessions only because our skills are rare, and not because we are inherently remarkable". Geeks are suited to the job and if demand goes down, the non-geeks will be the first to go. But then again, I don't see demand slackening anytime soon.

    I know this is a oversimplified argument, but it still holds. The bottom line is, I feel quite comfy, thank you very much.

  • Sorry, I couldn't resist the ol' Saturday Night line from the neclear reactor skit, and it's even a bit relevant.

    I had to bring up one point - plumbers may be under-appreciated, but have you priced a plumber lately? I think many of them might be making around software engineering level of pay, and they work hourly so they can always beef up the income if they want.

    My point here is that good programmers might grow to be more under-appreciated by the masses, but I think we'll still be able to buy the Sega VisonQuest 2020 and the Playstaion 22 when the time comes without being forced to eat Ramen.
  • I've found that a lot more geeks read and appreciate Shakespeare (and actually READ anything!) than managers and mid-managers.

    And some of the best geeks have degrees in English, Drama, Philosophy, you-name-it liberal arts.

    In my company, it's far easier to talk about the latest production of Hamlet with the geeks than with the managers, because the geeks have actually read the play.

    The social skill thing hardly holds water anymore. Most geeks that I know are able to communicate pretty damn clearly, and are impatient with people who act like they know something that they really don't.

    Just my .02. I'm not *quite* a geek, but I'm getting there.

    -MVK
  • Rewriting that post in your so-called "geek" language served the two-fold purpose of destroying its great humor value and making it nonsensical. Keep your geeks in a subroutine? WTF?

    Wording it like a book on pet care is what made it funny - it's called a juxtaposition. You take something completely off the wall that most people wouldn't think of and slap it right alongside the original topic and people laugh at how similiar the two really are.

    A good addition might be to elaborate on being "gentle yet firm" with your geeks such as, "If your geek stops comunicating or glares at you with wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, he is probably in an unproductive mood. Smile at him and tell him he is doing a good job. This usually settles them down to write more code. If your geek displays symptoms of consciousness of his situation, such as noises coming from the throat that sound like the word 'rays' or general unwillingness to work in a creativity-choking corporate environment, more extreme measures may be required. Try not to think of yourself as being above such acts as stonewalling employees with a show of ignorance or pompous superority. Always remember that you are better than your geek and your relationship with your geek will require much less attention on your part."

    --
    grappler
  • Ever read any Norse mythology? The dwarves were these expert craftsmen who made stuff for the gods. Like Thor's hammer and nice necklaces and such. They were reputedly these twisted, obsessive little specialists who lived underground. Evolved from worms (that lived in the flesh of the body of the giant whose decomposing body became the world.). The gods gave them big $$$ for their services, so they were rich. But they were such DWARVES. As far as the mythology goes they never got laid. Hated the light of day. Crabby bastards. Just jerked at their specialty like those medical-experiment wirehead monkeys. Not pointing fingers. Been there. Am there kind of. Getting over it. But it's not cool. Specialization makes insects.
  • Being a geek, and most probably one of those "natural leaders", I've found it to be quite closely describing what's going on. I am currently a Network Administrator at a large corp and not a manager. Yet I behave like I control things. For example, I've encouraged a couple of most trouble-generating departments to contact me directly bypassing the layers of helpdesk. Why? Because I know for a fact that the helpdesk is not going to be able to handle their problems anyway (typically involving multiple points of failure) and I'll get a user who has wasted over 2 hours and is frustrated because of that. The tech support manager is not happy with that, but that's none of my concern :-). I encouraged helpdesk to forward their calls without managerial approval. I don't believe in making someone suffer because of some middle-level policy. Yes, I want money, I pay for that with lack of personal life . Can you put a price tag on that? You most certainly can. I can afford any enterntainment and I don't have time for that. Yes, I want to make impact, I see things out of place and know how to correct them, given time and resources. If I see a user using a PC that is greatly underpowered for their needs, I want to be able to suggest a replacement or schedule a replacement. I believe in constant learning and never pass up an opportunity to pick up a yet another cert or evaluate a new product. I automated my environment to a point where I don't have to waste time running repetitive tasks. No, I don't have a degree, and no plans in getting one. I'll be a CTO soon enough without it :-). Why waste time learning irrelevant subjects and experience stress? I can't remember last time I was stressed at work. Why? Salaries no longer really match the degrees. I get more than many grads. A well-written article, I'll use it for further hints on what to do next :)
    --
    Leonid S. Knyshov
    Network Administrator
  • by DunbarTheInept ( 764 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @01:43PM (#1628278) Homepage
    I think this was the best part, the one that many companies really need to pay attention to:
    • Create new ways to promote your geeks

      If you don't want to lose your geeks, you have to find a way to give them promotions without turning them into managers.

    That is the key problem with every company I've worked for (okay, so it's only two, but stories from friends at other companies have all been similar). They assume that the geeky jobs are at the bottom of the ladder and the PHB jobs are higher up. It's not so much that I want to put myself 'above' the managers, as it is that I want to see better stratification amongst the geeks. Too many companies have job titles that assume all geeks are the same. Most good managers know that isn't true, but they aren't in charge of the job titles, that's Human Resources, and so even the good managers can't do anything about the problem on their own. A kernel hacker with 10 years experience writing drivers *is* a different class of geek from a newly graduated 23-year old in need of some starting experience.

  • by ForteBravo ( 15741 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @01:45PM (#1628279) Homepage
    Many computer related specialties are the blue collar jobs of the future. Support jobs are very nearly there, only because anyone can go get an associate's degree at a local college and learn how to reinstall and reboot -- without a huge investment in education but with a pretty good payoff in the job world. Obviously some people are better at support jobs than others, but that's not really unique to geeks -- there are also auto mechanics who are so good that we wonder if they were cars in their previous life.

    The ubiquitous blue-collar programmer is a little further off, due to the currently-unique skill set required.

    But it could happen.

  • Brothers, let us join arms in The struggle for more free time, and less work! If we join together we can create a utopia on earth! Truely, Our struggle will give us...

    oh, screw it. I'm going to sleep
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • The major point, IMO, they left off is dealing with geek group dynamics. Often times there is at least on member of a intelligent and driven group that really works better independently. Some geeks can have huge ego's that can scrape together when working on projects together. I find that you run into a lot of dealing with getting them to work together without biting their heads off.

    Remember it only takes 1 or 2 immature, egotistical or all around bad attitudes to really cause a lot of problems. So I would have added look for people that work independently better than with group dynamics and see to it they get challenging projects that they can do on semi-independently, so you don't lose a talented employee.

    -- Moondog
  • The article notes "At Novell, we just added a new title: distinguished engineer. To become a distinguished engineer, you have to get elected by your peers."

    Has anyone actually seen this in practice?

    I would be very concerned that this type of popularity contest might have a negative effect in the workplace. What if Joe/Josephine Friendly wins since he is always popular in the meetings, but you have been busy fixing all the bugs he/she wrote.

    I would be more in favor of a source control sytem that allowed you to moderate and rate the last persons check-in.
  • While plumbers will never enjoy status in high society, a good plumber will always have a job and be respected by people that matter.

    I would be more fearful if I were a stock broker than a geek. His high flying job will be gone when everyone realizes that he is a glorified middleman. The plumber and the network administrator will continue to work: underappreciated perhaps, but never disposable.
    --
  • by evolve ( 100364 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @02:41PM (#1628284)

    The information in the article is good, mostly on target and all but...

    Frederick Brooks said it all 25-30 years ago in The Mythical Man Month.

    Summation:
    • "Adding Programmers to a late software project makes it later."
    • Eventually any software project reaches a point where regression exceeds progression.
    • An organization reliant on technical knowledge must have a dual ladder structure. Technical and managerial
    • Special care should be taken to equalize the rungs of both advancement ladders
      • Moves from a technical rung to an equivalent managerial rung are not promotions and should not be accompanied by a raise
      • Moves the other way should be accompanied by a raise to offset misperceptions about the equality of both ladders
  • ...and you may or may not agree, but it really is a good environment for geeks. Heck, they even let me use Linux even though it's not totally compatible with their NetWare environment. All in all it really is a geeky place.
  • Being a geek, and most probably one of those "natural leaders", I've found it to be quite closely describing what's going on.

    I am currently a Network Administrator at a large corp and not a manager. Yet I behave like I control things. For example, I've encouraged a couple of most trouble-generating departments to contact me directly bypassing the layers of helpdesk. Why? Because I know for a fact that the helpdesk is not going to be able to handle their problems anyway (typically involving multiple points of failure) and I'll get a user who has wasted over 2 hours and is frustrated because of that. The tech support manager is not happy with that, but that's none of my concern :-).

    I encouraged helpdesk to forward their calls without managerial approval. I don't believe in making someone suffer because of some middle-level policy.

    Yes, I want money, I pay for that with lack of personal life . Can you put a price tag on that? You most certainly can. I can afford any enterntainment and I don't have time for that.

    Yes, I want to make impact, I see things out of place and know how to correct them, given time and resources. If I see a user using a PC that is greatly underpowered for their needs, I want to be able to suggest a replacement or schedule a replacement.

    I believe in constant learning and never pass up an opportunity to pick up a yet another cert or evaluate a new product.

    I automated my environment to a point where I don't have to waste time running repetitive tasks.

    No, I don't have a degree, and no plans in getting one. I'll be a CTO soon enough without it :-). Why waste time learning irrelevant subjects and experience stress? I can't remember last time I was stressed at work. Why? Salaries no longer really match the degrees. I get more than many grads.

    A well-written article, I'll use it for further hints on what to do next :)


    --
    Leonid S. Knyshov
    Network Administrator

  • On a lighter tone, the Hacker FAQ [plethora.net] has provided the same sort of advice for ages. Check it out.

  • Got this. :-)


    Free lunch - sometimes

    Glass ceiling - wireless access on a beach is better ;-)

    Large desk - Check

    Allowance - Easy approval instead

    Umm let's see... Suse 6.1, NT Server, Win 2000, NT Workstation 4 and Win 95 (accessible but not close physically).


    Can you tell I love my work? :-)
    --
    Leonid S. Knyshov
    Network Administrator

  • by LL ( 20038 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @02:50PM (#1628289)
    One major problem I find is that IT professional is rather too broad a term to apply. Instead, I suspect that as the whole sector matures, distinct classes will evolve. Let's use a medical analogy to explain the point

    IT Field (Medical Field)

    System Admin (Nurse) the indispensible field support of bandaging leaky systems using the ever-present duct tape (perl) and keeping life and limb together.

    Help Desk (Public Health Education) informing the public of health issues and general reccomended practices. Greatly undervalued for their role in preventive health and reducine epidemics (viruses)

    System Analysis (GP) first call for problem diagnosis and treatment, able to assemble a team of interns (programmers) to offer prompt (well hopefully) treatment and patient care.

    Software Vendors (Drug pushers, errr ... pharmeceutical dispensary) while quality ranges from the ubiquitious silicon snake oil to peer-reviewed double-blind testing (openSource), the truely valuable unbiased ones have a mastery grasp of the industry and is able to offer a range of competitive solutions covering herbal remedies to highly engineered solutions from the bewildering range of products

    Consultant (Specialist) who understand the very detailed processes that keeps the system alive and has an intimate grasp of details. Highly trained in deep technical arcana, their expensive knowledge is highly sought to solve deep problems not normally apparent to general practictioners

    Creative Source (Surgeon) one of the rare breed that have the imagination and high talent to create entirely new fields, these individuals, backed up by the appropriate team, form the seed of every major and complex software system (e.g. kernel).

    Anyway, I'm sure there are other appropriate analogies people can draw. While Geek/Nerd may be a subcultural badge of distinction, in the long run it denigrates the immense levels of skills and undermines the credibility of the profession. One observation is that the IT field needs much better structure, training and certification to ensure people understand what they are getting and improve the confidence they have in the skill and/or advice they are receiving. In particular, IMHO eliminating the dominance of unnecessary administration management and returning to a more natural pyramid of talents might achieve a better job of professionals providing cost effective solutions (good information infrastructure design) instead of wasteful addiction to expensive and overrated drugs (software).

    LL
  • Sadly, I must disagree with the first part of your post. My brother-in-law is a 17 year old HS senior. He is by all accounts an "average" kid until you put him in front of a computer...then his genius comes out. Now, I began programming as a kid in the early-80's and later went to school for it, but this kid can program circles around me. I have actually struggled over the old "what is the best way to implement this?" problem for hours, only to have him walk in and suggest a perfectly logical solution in minutes. If there's such a thing as a natural, he's it.

    Now you want to know the sad part? He's having a hell of a time getting into college. He maintained a B average through HS, so he can't get any "exemplary student" scholarships. He's a white male, so he doesn't qualify for any of the minority stuff. While his parents aren't too badly off, they definitely can't afford to put him through school, and he get's turned down for every loan he applies for. He's actually considering military service so that the government will pay for it, but that's definitely not going to cover a full tuition at a school with a decent CS department (he want's to go to Berkley).

    So please don't automatically assume that "anyone" who wants to attend college can. It's actually depressed me so much, watching him struggle to come up with a way to go, that I agreed to front him $20k for living expenses to ease the load a bit (over four years of course). I find it extremely sad that there are still highly talented young geeks out there who are stuck because of financial situations out of their control.
  • I have seen so many bad projects from lack of communication, or simply inability to communicate among large numbers of people. If Schmidt reckons never more than can fit in a conference room, but I bet he wishes he could make his conference rooms smaller.

    Novell have some truly large projects, but one person teams are the real powerhouse of a development effort. To make them practicable you need to have a great framework for their work to fit in.

    Only when each individual can be productive with a minimum of communication can you have start to have larger groupings which achieve more as you add more members.

  • Well maybe /. could have a pseudo-random reposting strategy based on the number / quality of comments on a previous article, it could come under the heading "Redux" so we all know its been up before, help keep debate alive on "important" topics.
  • I don't actually like that much of the article, come to think of it.

    Which card did they have in mind for "Schmidt, 44, is a card-carrying geek himself:"?

    How does it go from talking about geeks to talking about him having been CTO at Sun?

    As we all know, geeks use find . | cpio -pdv dest-dir to copy stuff back & forth, 'cos nothing else kicks like cpio.
    They don't hire someone else to do it for them! ;8]
  • Just a couple of points, first there is a huge difference between being able to operate any technology and the ability to use it creatively. Its the people who can use it creatively, those that can open up new areas the "renaissance geeks" as one of the other posters put it are the ones that are always more in demand than the technicians ( see the previous /. article on The Programmers Stone for a look at the differences ). Second there are currently something like 1 million unfilled tech vacancies around the world which is projected to increase to 2 million in the next few years, so there will be more demand and supply will not keep up in the short term, and with the rapid acceleration and proliferation of new technologies the situation is likely to keep on getting worse for the rest of my lifetime, so dont worry, be just happy, you're one of the new priesthood.
  • I would say use your university years to explore many subjects in as many different ways, see the connections, marvel in the things you see others are good at, learn to think like an individual, question, prod, poke and generally have fun with it, then you'll walk out into the world with not only a peice of paper, a few ex-s and a good appreciation of beer, but the ability to absorb knowledge and to solve problems in any area you wish to pursue.
  • Funny you should mention Shakespeare, dilettante. A couple days ago I saw a guy touting his new book on a talk show, and he was a REAL dilettante. I recognized him from his frequent appearances during the Reagan administration, which he served as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He used to come on TV and say that Congress should support our policy, because it was a good policy, it was a strong policy, we've worked very hard on this policy, all loyal Americans support this policy, etc. He would appear at congressional hearings and go on like this. Total contentless airhead. His name is Kenneth Adelman. Had a batchelor's degree in religion. No apparent qualifications for the job except loyalty to the chief. Evidently a consummate political asskisser, he was one of those antigovernment ideologues brought in from left field (uh- right field) to take charge of a government department and keep it from doing anything. He was a regular on the talk show circuit, and all he ever said was that you just don't understand it; Father Knows Best. I started to notice him because of this flabbergasting arrogance. I used to think they should change the name to Arms Control Dismemberment Agency, because their motto was 'all the arms money can buy'.

    Well, now this guy thinks that was a mistake. Now the Reaganites brag about Reagan's decision to pursue an arms limitation treaty with Gorbachev. Of course, this was a complete repudiation of their position and their dire warnings about the Evil Empire. Now Reagan's greatest legacy consists of embracing the advice of their enemies, the liberals. Just like Rosanna Rosannadanna: "...oops, never mind".

    Well, Kenneth Adelman's a new book is called something like _Management Lessons from Shakespeare_. He said he's always been a fan; again no professional qualifications, but WTF.

    Should Shakespeare afficianodos take up arms against this endorsement?
  • This ran on /. last spring; CmdrTaco should get a memory upgrade for his implanted Itanium... :)

    That said, it's a fine article. I sure wish some old bosses of mine had read and applied it...
  • I use name-calling and sheer physical intimidation to keep them in line.

    Just like I did in grade school.
  • by Oxryly ( 35098 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @11:56AM (#1628300)
    So it probably bears repeating.

    Its more of a line of common sense, for those in whom sense is not so common. I appreciate the point that good technology is more of an art than a science -- at least that's the engineering aspect of it. Oh yeah, and geeks need to respect their managers for there to be a even semi-decent relationship between them... very true.

    Oxryly
  • Maybe his neural functions weren't re-written properly he should switch back to the old code and use a "Sledgehammer" (K8).

    AMD Rulez
  • (Some old readers report seeing this article remarked on /. before. I didn't, so I'm going to pretend it's fresh news anyway.)

    I was pleasantly surprised. I got through the first few paragraphs and felt that old sinking feeling whenever a social group gets pidgeonholed. Gross generalizations break down so easily, they're rarely useful outside of humor.

    On the other hand, when I got to the actual advice, I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the advice given described the way I generally prefer to be treated. I've complained many times before, "Tell me where we need to go, not how I should get there." (FYI - I'm not a techie, I'm a secretary. Even if I am a geek.)

    It's good advice, and like all good advice, isn't going to change the people who really need it anyway.
  • It should be posted on every manager's bathroom mirror, next to the "Perfect Software" listed here earlier in the month. Actually, I think I saw this article out here on /. Duplicate article maybe, but probably worth repeating (or at least into it's own category).

    Although, my main advice to most managers is "retire." The response I usually get is "I did." ;)

    _____________________
  • by Zebulun ( 14800 )
    just a quickie: Fast Company has been in print for quite some time. My dad's been trying to get me to read them for quite some time.

    -Zebulun.org
  • It's here [slashdot.org]. (Posted by CmdrTaco even!)

    Regards, Ralph.

  • As someone quickly pointed out, this is a re-run.

    Last time it ran, I forwarded a link to my company's HR manager, and she thought it was really eye-opening; she forwarded it to the whole executive team.

    Then again, I haven't noticed any tangible results of the widespread exposure to the article. C'est la guerre...

    Bravery, Kindness, Clarity, Honesty, Compassion, Generosity

  • Yep. Old info. Been covered before [slashdot.org]. But then, its one of those texts that should be in all IT folks' digital library. But unlike other "must have" works, I don't see it referred to very often. Since I'm sure /. readership has expanded since this piece's last mention, it might be worth mentioning again.

    Granted... this won't stop a flood of "this is OLD NEWS!" posts. :)

  • by fremen ( 33537 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @12:05PM (#1628309)
    Remember, geeks do well when put in cages for the night. They should be fed twice a day, but not overfed. That could lead to collic and the possible need for a veterinarian.

    Be firm, yet gentle with your geeks. If a geek has lost it's temper, do not make eye contact. That could cause them to attack you. Instead, talk in a soothing voice and hope that the geek goes back to what it was doing. Have trainquilizer darts if necessary.

    A clean geek is a happy geek. They should be washed regularly, and their cages should be kept clean and neat. Feed your geeks deworming medication daily to keep their intestinal tracks free of parasites and other pests. Having them checked up twice a year will also give you a happy healthy geek that has a shiny coat and bright teeth. A rabies shot is a must.

    Positive renforcement is good for your geeks. Try using biscuits or other treats when training them. Negative renforcement can also be effective. Shouting "No!" in a clear voice will carry the message of dissatisfaction.

    But, don't forget. Years of love and care for your geek will give you a geek that loves and cares for you!
  • by Suydam ( 881 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @11:56AM (#1628310) Homepage
    Ok....so if this is how you manage geeks, and (stretch) most geeks are really just autistic, then I think we've figured out how to solve the problems teachers have with autistic kids in school! I'm going to be rich! ;-)

  • by coaxial ( 28297 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @12:08PM (#1628311) Homepage
    "If management didn't give you engineers early deadlines, you'd never get work done."

  • by Clairvaux ( 98631 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @12:08PM (#1628312) Homepage
    Today innovation drives any business. And since you don't want to outsource your innovation, you need to have your own geeks.

    My first thought was that this claim, on the surface, seems to be an argument against vertically distributing your enterprise.

    But on rethinking it, I recognized that a specific statement is being made here -- the value of controlling your information infrastructure. In a world where the variables defining the digital universe are constantly in flux, it helps have permanent core crew members who are in touch with them.

    The truth is, you need to have a stable of technologists around -- not just to run your systems but also to help you figure out which strategies to pursue, which innovations to invest in, and which partnerships to form.

    I have only found this to be true when two conditions are satisfied:

    a) These technologists must have a grasp of the larger strategic business picture - they should understand concepts such as the technology adoption life cycle, Ronald Coase's theory of transaction costs, the theory of "network externalities" (whether you subscribe to it or not) and other realms typically outside off the scope of your average geek.

    b) If (a) is true, management must also commit in a powerful way to trusting and embracing the input from these "renaissance geeks". In fact, such geeks should be a part of the core management team, perhaps not necessarily at a president/ceo level, but at least at a CIO/CTO level.

    I've seen cases -- large companies in PARTICULAR -- where the CIO/CTO did NOT come from a technology background! These people, while hard working, smart, and enthusiastic about learning, simply don't have the gut level immersion in technology that I believe it takes to have a chance at really understanding it.

    It's a fact of life: If the technologists in your company invent something ahead of everybody else, then all of a sudden your business will get bigger.

    Again, only subject to condition (b) above. I'm sure that we've all had personal experience with companies within which some innovative group devised a genuinely creative and powerful concept, only to be squashed by the skepticism and lack of support from non-geek brass.

    I can see how this perspective arises from the fact of Eric Schmidt being something of a geek himself.

    Perhaps the last commandment missing from this article should be:

    "BE a geek."

  • by patSPLAT ( 14441 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @03:02PM (#1628313) Homepage

    Getting a professional education does not in and of itself insure anything. So what happens if 99% of the population gets a professional education? Wages for professionals go down b/c there is a greater supply of 'professionals'. The real answer, at least in our economy is to be unique. The more unique your skills, the more likely you are to get a higher paying job.

    Education in this country is limited mostly along class lines -- most rich kids + the token brilliant poor kids. By limiting the availability of education, a college degree still "means" something.

    If you disagree with me, consider the high school diploma. Once, it was a sign of some level of education. Now, it is considered a given that anyone should have a high school diploma--you can't even join the army without one. The cost of a high school graduate, though, is minimum wage--as low as possible. A college degree once meant you were a professional, but now B.A.'s etc. are so common that post graduate studies (M.B.A, M.F.A., etc.) are considered the signifier of the professional.

    It's not the just the learning of education that creates the well paid professional -- it's the uneven (and othen unequitable) distribution of that education.

  • Two or three people invent a brilliant piece of software, and then, five years later, 1,000 people do a bad job of following up on their idea. History is littered with projects that follow this pattern: Windows, Unix, Java, Netscape Navigator.

    I don't think Schmidt meant that these are brilliant projects, but rather that they are all bad follow-ups. The language is ambiguous.

    So, either he thinks Unix is a sorry followup to MULTICS, or he's rightly upset with some of its poorer implementations...

  • ... it helps to have permanent core members crew members who are in touch with [the larger computer universe]

    This simply isn't possible. The longer they're "permanent," the more they lose touch with the rest of the world.

    The sole exception, and it's only a partial solution, is someone who's active with OSS in addition to his day job. He'll be aware of new ways of fixing the nasty problems that never seem to go away, but it won't have the same impact as actually working on 6 contracts in three years. I have a fairly good idea of how things are really working in the world today (and the fact that only one project in 6 really had its act together is sobering), but I also know that if I stay at a single job for only 12-18 months I'll lose my touch on the tech pulse.
  • Hey, I've been there.
    There are places you can go. In any medium to large city there are going to be 'help desk' positions. It means dealing with a large number of technologically impaired people, but you can do it.
    While you are there, make friends with the netadmins, or sysadmins, or whatever. Start a conversation, or a debate about something geeky. Pretend to be swayed, come back later with another point.

    Above all, keep learning.

    When the time comes, you can put everything you know into the current job, and move on.
    Starting out sucks regardless. Starting out as a clerk that does some computer stuff when the help desk is busy or clueless sucks even more. It can be done, though, it just takes work.

    Hermetic - no degree, no schoolin', just hack for fun and profit.

  • The general attitude of this article seems to regard the geeky populous as inferior. From what I can tell, there doesn't seem to be much respect for the abilities that geeks do posses, and that we are merely to be manipulated and controlled.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but this article _does_ regard us as unintelligent individuals, unable to detect condescending attitudes. It may have been intended to be humorous, but a similar article about, say, blondes or people of African descent would have been considered biased or racist.

    Attitudes like this are what cause geeks to be considered as mere hired hands, to do the work. As already stated, we may become unimportant in the work environment, merely because there are too many of us. (if it were possible)

    However, I don't think this to be the case. There just aren't enough technically inclinded individuals that like computers. Most people just aren't interested in computers - they're good for games, email, and writting papers, but that's about it. People see something and don't appreciate the artistic or technical tallent behind a piece of technology, and just think it's neat, something else to make their life easier.

    Darn it, it's just cool! That's why we do what we do.

    -------
    CAIMLAS

  • "But, as important as money is to tech people...

    I love how it puts all tech people into one pot in one nice, neat sweep. Maybe money's important to some of you /.ers, but it isn't important to THIS "tech person". Blech. I love how businesspigs^H^H^Heople love to generalize.
  • Actually, I think he was refering to a GUI, not Windows imperticular (but, supposing this was written for amnagers, probably Windows is the only GUI (with the exception of Mac) that they are familer with). Anyway, he also meant it was a great idea, not nessecarily (sp?) that the actual implementation was that good.

    That's my $(2^4*3+1/7%3*2/100)
  • Hi,

    So please don't automatically assume that "anyone" who wants to attend college can. It's actually depressed me so much, watching him struggle to come up with a way to go, that I agreed to front him $20k for living expenses to ease the load a bit (over four years of course). I find it extremely sad that there are still highly talented young geeks out there who are stuck because of financial situations out of their control.

    I'm going to say something evil... Community College. If he can live at home and doesn't mind working during college or taking 5+ years its very easy.

    Later,
    MarkV.
  • As a geek I am quite tired of the notion that any company owns me or my brain. At most companies the infrastructure level that I am most interested in hacking/improving and the general software environment are actually pretty common to tons of specific companies and applications. I would much rather develop improvements at company A and see them implemented and then go do something similar at company B and spread the knowledge to others to disseminate the techniques more quickly. Being the property of a particular company generally limits the good stuff to that company's property. This is wrong. Also being attached permanently to one company subjects one to cycles where they want to use the talents of their geeks to fight current fires without giving the geeks room to deal with what the really important issues are. This frustrates mightily. I am not sure precisely how to structure my career yet but I do not wish to ever be in a position again where I produce something that I truly believe in only to have one company own it and mothball it if they don't understand what to do with it and are afraid to spin it off.
  • Good comment on the "royal proletariat."

    As a matter of fact, I've been interested over the last couple of decades in how often it is that some people look down on "programmers," for many the generic name that covers anyone connected with computers. And in my lifetime (I'm in my 50's), auto mechanics have gradually moved from being respected professionals to the modern-day equivalent of the "peasant," symbolic of anyone that that is dumb, ignorant, philistine and conniving.

    There might be something rather deeply psychological at play, here -- I understand that engineers and master mariners are considered lower middle class in Britain, and musicians were among the lowest denizens of traditional Korean society.
  • Yeh, I was wondering if I was the only one who noticed that.

    Honestly, though, it was a good article. Once in a while, reposting something that people who are new might have missed seems like "not a bad thing to do."
  • Two or three people invent a brilliant piece of software, and then, five years later, 1,000 people do a bad job of following up on their idea. History is littered with projects that follow this pattern: Windows

    Um. Say what?

    If anybody did the inventing, it was Xerox PARC inventing the GUI with the GEM desktop. I used GEM way back when with apps like Ventura Publisher .. and the sad thing is, Windows has not really articulated the fundamental value of the GUI much more than GEM did.

    More accurately (in my memory) the Lisa and the Mac advanced the GUI a step beyond GEM, but Windows never moved it much beyond that -- at least from an interface standpoint.

    I had to take issue with that statement by Schmidt!

  • Fast Company's servers have been Slashdotted but this article (along with most of the freakin' Internet) is mirrored at Google:


    http://www.google.com/search?q=cache:5806895&dq=ca che:www.fastcompany.com/onli ne/25/geeks.html [google.com]


    Russ Mitchell, the author, was my editor when I was writing features for Wired, and he's got a pretty solid handle on west-coast/SOMA geek culture.

  • Since I can't read it I don't know if it's the same article, but Eric Schmidt (head of Novell) was interviewed about this subject many months ago and had great ideas.

    Stuff like: keep focus groups small and use peer review since geeks are best qualified and are prone to correct other geeks.

    I submitted that article to COO of a software development company and he found it really helpful toward understanding how to best motivate techies. That is something most managers are clueless about. The more we see about this topic the better management and engineering will coexist.

  • by konstant ( 63560 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @12:29PM (#1628333)
    Our current situation at the pinnacle of the labor force reminds me a lot of the "royal proletariat" of the 19th century. Since the majority of workers during the industrial revolution were unfamiliar with the new machinery, they were qualified to do little more than pull levers and run thread through spindles. But a handful of these workers were prized because they had acquired a familiarity with the workings of the machines. They were the artisans who could fix a mill when it broke, or adjust a boiler, or plan a mine shaft, etc.

    These workers were highly paid and greatly catered to by their employers, but they ultimately remained working men. Their social standing was not greatly changed by their wealth. As the technology gradually became ubiquitous, more and more of these skilled workers were needed for their maintenance. This proliferation diluted the value of the skill, and the lofty position of the "royal proletariat" disintegrated. Consider the lowly plumber of today: he is lampooned and considered inferior by those not in the know, but he quite probably is indispensible to our civilization.

    If computers undergo a shift towards simplification, or if they become as common as some people predict, then our own cushy posture might have to change as well. Ultimately, it's important to realize that we are getting these concessions only because our skills are rare, and not because we are inherently remarkable. If the supply ever exceeds the demand, some of you might start reconsidering JonKatz's endless calls for geek unionization.

    Hey, so I'm a pessimist. Sue me.

    -konstant
  • by dilettante ( 91064 ) on Friday October 08, 1999 @12:31PM (#1628334)
    At least this was less offensive than the article that appeared in the employment section of my paper a few weeks ago by an employment consultant who explained how he had to teach all of his high-tech clients basic social skills. He also insisted that they learn some Shakespeare, because this is the sort of thing that geek types don't grok. Of course, the suits all keep copies of "The Tempest" tucked inside their Franklin Planners.

    Although i'm sure it's old to this audience, i still prefer Orson Scott Card's take on managing programmers like bees. I found the text of it here [things.org]

  • It might just be me, but, most of the `programmers' and `Sys Admins' I see going around are people who can program one language on a Microsoft computer (they just happen to get a MCSE somewhere along the way). They aren't geeks, they see it as any other job.

    However, I do know a few who truly love compurters. They can program in numerous languages on numerous platforms (and don't need certification to prove it). But, Corprate America dosen't like them, they don't understand that they can do hundreds of times more work then other people and can administer whole networks all by them selves. All they see is a self-taught social outcast who dosen't have any certification to back him up.

    In conclution, while there are a few companies out there (like Novell) who hire true geeks, most companies choose their computer personel just like any other job, who has certification, experence, can spell their name correct on a job application, etc.... What people need to realise it that the self-taught geek is a whole lot more valueable then any MCSE anyday.

    That's my $(2^4*3+1/7%3*2/100)
  • by QuasEye ( 98125 ) <prussbw @ y a h o o . c om> on Friday October 08, 1999 @12:44PM (#1628337) Homepage
    Sounds like the best way to prevent this from happening to yourself is to be a professional. In other words, even if you have enough self-taught computer skills and talents to get a job, it's still best not to skip out on a quality education.

    Professional education is what differentiates an engineer from a technician. It involves not only learning the skills of your job, but also the theory and ethics of it. Engineers do not learn a laundry list of languages, operating systems, hardware types, etc, but rather we learn everything behind it.

    I would say the biggest difference is, it's a lot harder to replace an engineer.

    Comments welcome!

    bp

  • Please. There are lazy people and there are industrious people. There are people who bite off more than they can chew and there are underacheivers. I personally like to start a project, do the project and finish the project. Dragging it on and on and out and out and back and forth....(well, you get the picture) just isn't my style :) Well considered deadlines (read that as deadlines agreed upon by many involved) force decisions based on current information and help to keep a handle on workflow and workload.
  • and youre haning out on /. ? damn.
  • Things in the article were going along just fine until I saw this ...

    "If the technologists in your company invent something ahead of everybody else, then all of a sudden your business will get bigger. Otherwise, it will get smaller."

    True only in short term ... but not in the long run. Think of the first digital Computer ... first networking protocol ... first personal computer ... first GUI ... first web browser.

    The list goes on and on. Seems to me that what managers need to get over is the all too obvious fact that "first to market = prototype" in the long run second or third to market wins.
  • dont forget those jerks actually *pay* us to write code.
  • We separate extremely large projects into what we call "Virtual CDs." Think of each project as creating a CD-ROM of software that you can ship. It's an easy concept: Each team has to ship a CD of software in final form to someone else -- perhaps to another team, perhaps to an end user.

    This is how all the successful OSS projects are run. Even Linus generally gets chunks of "separate" projects to integrate ( I.e. "SCSI" doesn't really care what "USB" is up to and neither looks at Memory management except as a finished platform to build on.

    He just explained how to scale large projects and you had all better listen.

    PS : It may be old but some things are worth repeating every time the number of Slashdoters doubles because we all need to read them and 2X the crowd means >50% are new ( some people leave too :)

  • Our experiences at the Linux General Store are just as this document describes. We run an almost pure-geek shop, and we've run into a lot of the problems that this report describes. It's definitely worth paying attention to if you want to start a computer-related business.

  • Reminds me of the Dilbert strip where the PHB asks what he produces, since all the decisions are made above him and all the "real" work is done below him(that must've been his most complicated thought ever). The only real answer is carbon dioxide.

    Windows NT crashed.
    I am the Blue Screen of Death.
  • Remember, geeks do well when put in locked subroutines for the night. They should be fed twice a day, but not overfed. That could lead to software bloating and the possible need for a complete code-rewrite.

    Be firm, yet gentle with your geeks. If a geek has lost it's temper, do not make vocal contact. That could cause them to attack you. Instead, e-mail them in a soothing voice and hope that the geek goes back to what it was doing. Have Quake 3 CD's if necessary.

    A clean geek is a happy geek. They should be washed regularly, and their locked subroutines should be kept clean and neat. Feed your geeks antivirus definition files daily to keep their intestinal tracks free of viruses and other pests. Having them checked up twice a year will also give you a happy healthy geek that has a shiny code and bright keyboard keys. A Linux shot is a must.

    Positive renforcement is good for your geeks. Try using computer chips or other treats when training them. Negative renforcement can also be effective. Shouting "Microsoft!" in a clear voice will carry the message of dissatisfaction.

    But, don't forget. Years of love and care for your geek will give you a geek that loves and codes for you!
  • Oh, you meant drivel. ;)

    I was wondering where basketball came into this.

  • Sorry, PARC did the Alto. GEM was another Windows wannabe. It worked better than Windows 1.0, but both were mostly just GUI ports of DOS.
  • Thanks - I stand corrected!

    ^_^

  • The day they make Oracle simple enough for your mom to use it the day that geeks will be useless.

    Hey, it could happen!

    Seriously though, things will get easier and harder. It's not like technology is standing still. I don't think there will be some grand sweeping simpilization that will breeze through and invalidate techincal competance.

  • Well said.

    I'm not overly comfortable with the idea that I have personality quirks which must be pandered to before I become fully productive in any company, and that I have the right to be treated this way because I have certain skills and knowledge. Elitism sucks.

    Maturity requires some flexibility. Not that you have to become an ass-kisser, but it's not impossible to consider other people's styles of working and meet them halfway.

    Taking a professional attitude to your work, keeping your skills and knowledge up (I've worked on mainframes, Unix, and Web programming, and I've never noticed these cliques the author talked about) and not acting like an arrogant prima donna should keep you in secure employment.

"More software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined." -- Fred Brooks, Jr., _The Mythical Man Month_

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