Twelve Tips for Managing Geeks

Thursday Feb 8th 2007 by Rob England
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A guide to supervising the all-important hardware and software experts who keep the IT infrastructure working smoothly.

Hopefully most readers will agree that people working in IT can be broadly categorized into two groups: those who are oriented around action (process, business, projects) and those who are oriented around things (hardware and software technology, documents, data).

The term geek is usually attached to the hardware-software group, so while it’s not universally viewed as a positive term, we use it here to describe the IT staffers who are more interested in technology than the business drivers to use it.

Because of this group’s focus, they tend to lack respect for many of the imperatives that matter to the business. In the extreme this is manifest as undisguised contempt for the sordid business of making money, derision of project managers’ obsession with time and completeness, and disgust with management’s pragmatic compromises and expediencies. To the geek mind only the core is important, and there is only one way to implement it: the correct way.

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Those who run the business lack affinity for technology so they need the geeks, but they get frustrated by sloppy procedures, slipped deadlines, tactless communications, mystifying documents, warped priorities, lack of respect, non-compliance and stubborn resistance. Geeks, in the minds of business types, just don’t get it.

I once interviewed a Unix systems programmer in a bank about the machines he “owned.” I asked him what applications ran on them. He started listing HP-UX, Oracle, OpenView… No, I said, applications; what business processes? He looked surprised and slightly embarrassed, because he had no idea.

For the health of the business it’s most important that management understand the geek mentality and manage appropriately. This is a huge topic beyond the scope of one article. Please do make a study of it as effective geek-management rewards the effort. In the meantime we can help by pointing out the most important threats to watch out for from geek culture.

1) Assessment of Risk
Geeks tend to underestimate risk outside of their technical domain because they are dismissive of all but the components that matter to them. Make sure assurances that it will be alright are backed up with some evidence. Get a second opinion.

2) Return on Investment
This may not even be considered in a request. Geeks think the company should spend whatever it takes to achieve a technically perfect outcome. Get architects or business technologists to translate geek-speak and evaluate the business benefits.

3) Compliance with Policy, Rules and Standards
Geeks don’t like bureaucracy, and they don’t like dotting “I”s and crossing “T”s except when comparing technical specs. Get someone else to make sure it meets all the non-technical requirements.

4) Business Impact
To geeks, the business is an abstract entity “out there” that does not understand what is important, nor the burdens they have to bear. Implement change control over infrastructure and have a non-geek review and approve the timing and implications of changes.

5) People
Known to geeks as “wetware,” people are perceived as a major impediment to their effective functioning, second only to security. Buffer end users from geeks with a Service Desk. Invite them to meetings when you have to. Don’t expect them to wear silly hats or go rafting or other “team” activities. And don’t let them near… 6) Management
Geeks make bad people managers. Do not allow them to ascend by sheer force of seniority into management or even team-leading roles. Even worse, do not commit the cardinal sin of pushing them into management roles they do not want (usually through lack of other career paths). Sometimes geeks experience a ‘road to Damascus’ revelation and suddenly begin to understand the other half. Most don’t.

7) Project Management
Geeks make bad project managers. Recall they are thing- not action-oriented. They do what they must to get it done. The actual doing is an ordeal to be endured and minimized. Only the essentials matter, but the technical essentials must be done right: they can’t be rushed. Coordinating other people, ensuring all the bases are covered and everything fits together, driving for deadlines, coping with adversity, expedient adjustment, keeping records, reporting and analyzing – these are not geek skills. PMs are a specialized group of unique people: hire them.

8) Politics
There are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who say “what happened?” Do not expect geeks to be attuned to corporate politics, or even to know what is going on in the business at large. Make sure their manager is filtering their communications and proposals. A geek will demand a new SAN just as the business reports earnings 50% below estimates, or complain that the team is under-utilized and not appreciated just as layoffs are being planned, or tell the new CIO who moved across from Finance that the users are idiots and never know what they want anyway.

9) Estimating
Everything looks like “a couple of days” to a geek. They are always 90% done. It is the last bug. How anybody who spends their life immersed in technology (the home range of Murphy’s Law) can be so optimistic seems mystifying until one recalls that process and action and time are off their radar. Double everything and get the project managers to look under the hood.

10) Hoarding Knowledge
To geeks, knowledge is personal power, not a group asset. Technical cleverness and indispensability are their antlers, their tusks, their dominance display. Once they return from conferences or training courses, any intellectual property to be disseminated into the rest of the organization will need to be surgically extracted. Systems of Byzantine complexity will be constructed and nobody else will know how to operate or fix them. Make sure you reward people who share knowledge (“of course she’s going to the conference again this year – look at all the good training she ran for us after the last one”). Assign young apprentices to study at the feet of the master. Decline transfers and promotions citing undocumented systems that will fail without them.

11) Greed and Envy
My old boss, Charles Wang of CA, spoke of how most business decision-makers are driven by the old Fear Uncertainty and Doubt, but technical decision-makers (or recommenders) are driven by Greed and Envy. FUDGE. Geeks are technophiles. Watch out for the vendor-crafted business case that conceals the only real driver being that somebody wants one because everyone else has one.

12) Starting with Stuff
There is a wonderful IT implementation model: People Process Technology, in that order. Geeks implement Technology, in that order. Get business analysts, architects and other damage controllers involved in any project, especially one that is a geek’s idea. Find the stakeholders (the geek won’t have) and see what they think. Don’t let the geeks rush off and talk to vendors until the people and process aspects are sufficiently advanced that the organization can specify what it needs from the technology.

In Closing…

Geeks are sensitive, delicate creatures, easily ruffled, in many ways helpless. They can also be infuriating, petulant, stubborn and seemingly thick-headed, sometimes destructive. But if you take the time to understand them, know their priorities, and find their motivators, they can be effectively managed to give them personal satisfaction while returning great value. Perhaps we can explore that more another day. For now you can use these 12 watch points to keep them behind the fence, to move breakable objects out of the way, and to minimize damage to the business.

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