On Managing Geeks

This evening was my company's annual holiday party.  While many would expect groans, I actually had a decent time.  It was a pleasant evening, seated for dinner with my counterpart, his brother (who will be joining the team in a slightly different capacity soon), and some other company employees who work on different 'assignments' than I do.

During the course of our dinner conversation, I had reason to mention that I'd recently read some articles about Managing Geeks (IT types).  After the initial shock, and maybe a comment about herding cats* (which admittedly may have been in my mind), I told them about some of the high-points that I could remember off of the top of my head.  Surprise, once they saw that I was not making an elaborate joke, was soon followed by legitimate interest and curiosity.

I had already been composing a blog post about these findings, and this gives me a smaller (or nicer, anyway) kludge as an intro...

I read a couple of interesting articles this evening by Jeff Ello (j.ello, as he signs them).  I don't remember what pointed me to them, but the first is called "Opinion: The Unspoken Truth About Why Your IT Sucks", which led me to the second, "Opinion: The Unspoken Truth About Managing Geeks".

I don't have much to say about the first article, except that there's a great quote in the section called "Mediocrity" where he says that it "is the collision of two different realities. Executives see savings in budget line items and value in a bill of services. IT sees savings in the things no one has to do anymore and value in the things no one could do before."  I can agree with this wholeheartedly.  My time perfecting a script to find and handle stale user and computer accounts in the domain to me far exceeds the 'cost' of my time developing that script.  Fewer unnecessary objects in our LDAP domain makes for happy LDAP servers.  (Easier management, more-efficient scripts/programs, better life.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the second, as it pointed out very accurately what drives IT Pros to become antisocial BOFHs.  As he puts it "Geeks are smart and creative, but they are also egocentric, antisocial, managerially and business-challenged, victim-prone, bullheaded and credit-whoring."  He goes on to point out that "that perfectly healthy groups with solid, well-adjusted IT pros can and will devolve, slowly and quietly, into the behaviors that give rise to the stereotypes, given the right set of conditions. It turns out that it is the conditions that are stereotypical, and the IT pros tend to react to those conditions in logical ways. To say it a different way, organizations actively elicit these stereotypical negative behaviors."

We, the geeks, work off of respect.  Competence is key.  As j.ello so eloquently puts it (a talking point at the dinner table) "I think every good IT pro on the planet idolizes Dr. House (minus the addictions)."  This is part of a point that doctors and IT workers often work in a close parallel.  I especially found this section amusing because during my Iraq deployment I became closer friends with my Doc, Vijay Hegde.  One slow afternoon for him, he was hanging out in my office for a few when I was hit up by several people complaining (sometimes rightly so) in rapid succession.  He made a quip that my 'customers' were worse than his!  (I think the word "whiners" may have been used, but I can't recall for sure; it's been over 4 years...)  I'd also pointed out to him that the overall diagnosis process is largely the same in medicine as automotive mechanics as in IT.  They're all systems of interconnected sub-systems.  When you can intelligently isolate the components that make the whole work, and have a set of symptoms, symptoms will point to a sub-system that's misbehaving.  Diagnosis is a lot easier to figure out this way, rather than if you think of it as a black box that's broken.

But, I prefer the stakes that I play with in IT-land rather than the medical profession.  If I'm wrong, seldom could someone die.

Anyway, the further point (with Hugh Laurie's Dr. House character), was that we as geeks would prefer to work for a dick who's correct all of the time than a nice person who's always wrong.  We're a meritocracy.  Which leads me to the final point which I could remember over dinner, that we self-organize.  John Gilmore from the EFF said that "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."  As a collorary, I would say that "IT Professionals treat bureaucracy as a defect and route around it."  This can have the effect of frustrating management when we self-organize into roles suited to the individual's strengths (I see this in our Tier 2's ticket assignment) or when we 'step outside of the management chain' to the person who can help us accomplish our task.

I've gone on quite long enough about this subject.  j.ello is much more elegant at making these points that I am, and pulls the article together nicely.  I heartily recommend it for any IT worker or manager.  Really, anyone who has ever had a disparaging though about a geek at work (that didn't relate to their competency.)  (OK, so everyone.)

After this article, I though of a possible modified Objective Statement for my resume:
I want to work as part of a long-term team that Gets Things Done, where my particular skills and talents are appreciated and leveraged effectively.  A miniumum of corporate politics is appreciated.


*This is not an endorsement of EDS, whom I have had the misfortune of dealing with previously.  This is just a funny advertisement.  The EDS Airplane ad is also amusing but more representative.  My late friend Raymond Ramos (Bless) pointed this tragedy out to me.  On your second viewing, pay attention about 30 seconds in.  Notice the passengers (client company) trying to get work done.  They can't read their paper or documents, drinks spill in their face.  The customer is miserable.

I can admit, whatever my past pain, that EDS did hire some good people (some horrid ones, but let's not dwell), and that they have/had a penchant for amusing commercials.

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