HUMAN RESOURCES

Understanding Geeks

A field guide to your tech staff.
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You need your tech department like never before. But often, decoding what the members of your IT staff are actually saying--and getting them to understand what you want--just leaves you confused and frustrated. To nontechnologists, IT isn't just a different discipline; it's a foreign culture. So we've put together a guide to that culture, with help from developers, programmers, and tech-support staff members. We also consulted two über-geeks: Michael Lopp, a veteran Silicon Valley engineering manager and the author of Managing Humans, and J.D. Frazer, who analyzes techie culture in his Web comic User Friendly. (Geek, by the way, is no longer an insult--it's an honorific.) Here is everything you need to enter your company's dimly lit IT lair with confidence. Just make sure to knock first. --Adam Bluestein

Habitat

If there's one common characteristic of an ideal techie workplace, it's darkness. It's not that geeks are depressed. Multiple monitors bombard users with a lot of light already; adding overhead fluorescents or superbright halogens would be a recipe for migraines and madness. A small desk lamp, perhaps, is all the light most geeks can comfortably handle while at the keyboard. A dim, cavelike environment also helps programmers focus and tune out distractions; often, headphones are used to get even deeper into the zone.

"Constructing your workspace in a specific way is key to getting in the zone," says Lopp. Developers are particularly fastidious about their setup, but other techies also like their desks just so. Whether that means a pristine work surface or a desk that looks like the site of a bombing (with sci-fi action figures as the victims, no doubt), non­techies should keep one thing in mind: Do not touch anything.

Psychology

No matter what their job title or specific responsibilities, tech folks tend to have at least some characteristics in common. "If you were to put a software developer, a network engineer, and a tech-support guy together in a room, they would probably hit it off in two minutes," says Frazer. Here are some common geek character traits (gross generalizations follow):

Perfectionism. "Good enough" really isn't for most geeks. The tendency is mostly a good one, but a well-oiled tech department needs a combination of perfectionists and "incrementalists," willing to crank out necessary improvements right now, even if they aren't perfect.

Lust for gadgets. The shinier the better. Possessing the latest gizmo from Tokyo is a badge of honor.

Intellectual curiosity. Put a "regular" person in front of a computer, and he'll just sit there. A geek will dig in, figuring out what's inside and how he can tweak it. Not because it's his job, but for fun. This curiosity may manifest itself as NADD (nerd attention-deficit disorder), a compulsion to consume as many streams of information as possible at a seemingly impossible rate.

Systematic thinking. Geeks see nothing magic about technology, only problems to be broken down and solved. "They tend to view the world in black-and-white terms," says Frazer. "They're very good at looking at a problem and reducing it to its component parts."

Wrong? Never. Geeks often have a powerful intellectual vanity. That makes it hard for them to admit mistakes. Hence, the plethora of expressions that blame the victim (see glossary, below).

Competitive nature. Being smarter than their peers is really important for geeks. Developers are constantly honing their skills with the aim of doing something that no one's been able to do.

Motivation

Geeks like money as much as everyone else, but there are other ways to make sure they do a stellar job.

Give them props. "Nerds like recognition for what they've done and want to talk about it," says Lopp. He suggests taking your tech stars to lunch and getting them to tell you what they're up to. "You may not understand 80 percent of it," he says, "but it's more about the relationship and building trust."

Let them play. Giving geeks time to work on their own projects is another great incentive. Google's developers are allowed to spend 20 percent of their work time working on projects of their choosing--with the caveat that anything they produce belongs to the company. The tinkering is rewarding for the techies, and even if most of the work comes to nothing, the 10 percent that yields valuable new products makes it worthwhile.

IT Dos and Don'ts

Do try to gain a basic understanding of the technology. Though the techies will always know a ton more than you, "you need to be able to evaluate the level of truth coming out of your team," says Lopp. Having a good translator--in the form of an IT project manager with strong communication skills--is a big plus.

Do provide context. "Executives want short answers: 'Is it going to work?' To an engineer, it's never that simple," Lopp says. "'What do you mean? Is it going to work here? Is it going to work for a million users? For 10 million users?"

Don't add a "little" last-minute feature and expect to hit your product deadline. Nontechnical people often don't understand the code-checking and debugging process that even small additions require.

Don't let your employees bypass the proper channels for submitting IT requests. If you interrupt a programmer who's deep in the zone because you need help with your e-mail, you deserve his wrath.

Do cross-pollinate IT with other departments. Going out on a sales call, for example, can be revelatory for a developer. "Sales guys describe a totally different product than the one you think you're building," Lopp says. Being reminded that there are real, human customers is also good for geeks, who don't deal with them often.

Don't wait to befriend tech support. Sudden sucking up followed shortly by a request to help move your iTunes library to a new machine is transparent and will backfire.

Glossary

Techies have their own colorful jargon, often indecipherable to outsiders. Here, some terms to listen for--and hope they're not directed your way.

Caching error: An all-purpose explanation for a tech-support problem with no obvious cause

Completion date: To a developer, the date something is ready to test--not, as you might have thought, ready to launch

Empire builder: An insecure IT administrator or engineer who tries to make himself indispensable by keeping code, passwords, or other knowledge of a system to himself. Bad for morale; bad for your business

Geek: Someone with an intense curiosity about a specific subject. Not limited to tech--there are also gaming geeks, music geeks, etc.

Hardware problem: A problem your programmers want nothing to do with

HKI error: Human-keyboard-interface error (i.e., it's your fault, stupid)

ID10T (pronounced Eye-dee-ten-tee): The user is an idiot. Used in tech support when passing along said idiot to some other sucker to deal with: "I've got an I-D-ten-T coming your way."

I/O error: Ignorant-operator error. Derived from the term "input/output error"

Known issue: As in, "That's a known issue." In other words, you're the 4,000th person who's called about this problem in the past week--and no, we haven't fixed it.

Nerd: Some technologists self-identify as nerds; others find the term insulting. When in doubt, use geek instead.

NIH: Not invented here. This is language you might hear from an engineering team that will not consider working with anyone's code except its own. It's an attitude that will cost your company time and money.

PEBCAK: Problem exists between chair and keyboard (i.e., it's your fault, stupid)

PICNIC: Problem in chair, not in computer

RTFM: Read the f---ing manual!

Geek Humor

Q: How many programmers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: None; it's a hardware problem.

 
Last updated: Dec 1, 2007

ADAM BLUESTEIN | Columnist

Adam Bluestein is a frequent contributor to Inc., writing about health care, innovation, and new technology. He lives with his wife and two children in Burlington, Vermont.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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