A few years ago, management consultant Karlin Sloan was working with the CTO of a robotics company. “His direct reports were all getting bad performance reviews,” she recalls. “The board was complaining they weren’t socially aware or good with clients.”

Sloan, who is also the author of Smarter, Faster, Better: Strategies for Effective, Enduring, and Fulfilled Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2006) gave these geeks a formula for dealing with social situations. “We got them to look at the big picture,” she recalls. “We said, ‘We want clients to gravitate to you. What’s your gravitational pull?’” Framing the issue in these terms helped. “It gave them a formula for human behavior, and they’re good at pattern recognition,” she says.

Of course, not all technologists need this kind of assistance -- some are outgoing or even charming. But, Sloan says, “If you test people who work in that environment there’s a greater tendency toward introversion and system seeking.”

“Tech folks are different,” agrees Paul Glen, principle of C2 Consulting and author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2002). “They self-select to do this work that most people find confusing or frustrating, and that we actually enjoy. We were the children who, on Christmas morning, tore our toys apart in order to figure out how they worked and possibly redesign them.”

Helping geeks feel inspired

If techies are fundamentally different from everyone else, it also stands to reason that they are motivated differently. “The same inspiration you give the sales force won’t work with geeks because they won’t be excited about making more money,” Glen says.

So how do you get geeks excited about their jobs? There’s no one answer. “Some tech people are motivated purely by playing with new technology,” Glen says. “For some, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing someone use the technology they created. Some are motivated by the role they play, the appreciation they get or the experience they gain.”

There’s really only one way to find out which aspects of a job is likely to excite which geek -- through one-to-one conversations. Glen recommends asking technology people about their favorite and least-favorite projects. “Watch their facial expressions as they respond, and you’ll learn very quickly what they consider drudgery and what they consider exciting.”

Sloan suggests starting the conversation by asking for help on a technological matter. “Once they’ve demonstrated their technological competence, they may be more comfortable talking,” she says. “First you get to know their work, then you get to know them.”

Matching the geek to the job

Conventional geek-management wisdom is that techies are inspired by the chance to learn new technology, even more than by money. But Glen says this is not true of every geek. “At one end of the scale are inventors who love new technology and will hate it if you ask them to do something they’ve done before,” he says. “At the other end are perfectors who love working on the same system for years, improving things. They get great satisfaction from perfecting rather than creating.”

Knowing which is which is important, he says, because they are each suited to different types of jobs. “For instance, are you asking a team to create a new product or provide support for it? People who create revolutionary products never want to support them. They don’t know where to start and don’t think providing support is exciting. Hiring the most creative code-writer you can find to help people with their desktops would probably be miserable for everyone involved.”

Of course, he notes, just because you find out exactly what technology workers want to do doesn’t necessarily mean you can fulfill their desires. “You can’t tailor a job to be exactly what someone will love,” Glen says. “But mix in a reasonable amount of whatever motivates them. People will go put up with a lot of crappy work if they find part of what they do inspiring.”