Seven Steps for Helping Geeks Grow

Friday Mar 9th 2007 by Rob England
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Geeks need to grow to retain their value to the business and their personal satisfaction. Here’s a guide to the process.

In a previous article we categorized people working in IT 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).

Geeks are the IT staffers who are more interested in technology than the business drivers to use it. For the health of the business it’s most important that management understand the geek mentality and manage appropriately. To get you started, we pointed out the most important threats to watch out for from geek culture. Now we move on to really managing geeks: how to get the best from your geeks and to help them grow.

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The days of the pure technologist are on the wane. Like other specialist professions before them they are slowly becoming of lower value and less esteem. As the business aspects of IT gain prominence – and as IT matures into a new professionalism – it is the analysts and architects and systems engineers who step into the limelight.

Geeks need to grow to retain their value to the business and their personal satisfaction. This growth needs to be sideways into broader skills, not deeper into technology. The ones who do not, or can not, escape the technology silo will be increasingly marginalized, and displaced by young usurpers.

Having geeks retreat into their cubicles or wander off to another employer or get themselves laid off is a terrible waste of corporate IP. Nurture them for their unique technical skills but grow them out and cycle them more, or else they will become stale and venomous and develop an inflated sense of their own worth. With proper management the corporate intellectual property grows while the individuals do too.

So here are seven steps to manage and grow your geeks. I designed and ran four-day workshops in a major corporate, combining steps 2, 3 and 4 below, which trained 88 people. Average score on “use of my time” was 4.5 out of 5; “impact on your thinking/behavior/direction” was 4; and “return on investment for the company” was 4. All managers reported an average positive change.

1) You need to care. You may care because they are your friends and colleagues. You may care because they represent a large investment that needs to make a corresponding return. You may care because losing them from the business is a loss of corporate knowledge. For whatever reason, the satisfaction and growth of geeks should be of primary concern to all good managers.

2) Rattle their cage. Geeks are often complacent, secure in the knowledge that they alone wrote the Pearl scripts, that they alone can restart the nightly batch run. They welcome the pager in the night (though they protest) because it is a loud validation of their own importance and indispensability. We know it isn’t true. We know that when they go someone else will step into the breach, learn what is needed, and after a period of chaos order will be restored. If they get too expensive and useless we take that hit. So you must shake their security.

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A round of layoffs helps. In any case, run a compulsory workshop on career planning. Make it very personal: it is for them and about them. Start by laying out the hard facts:

• Professions decline. (Look at telephonists and typists and steam engine drivers. More recently, look at DBAs and sysprogs and programmers).

• Everyone gets older and slower, yet at the same time more expensive. At what point can they be displaced by a college kid at half the price?

• A technologist will probably be doing the same thing in ten years – the career options are limited. Most don’t want to be managers and would not enjoy it or make a good job of it. Get them to visualize being in the same job.

Help them see themselves as you and the company sees them: as a productive unit. Explain how their salary must be justified by the value they return. If their value does not increase, then their salary will not either. Walk though how that value is measured: not in technical genius but in results, productivity, versatility, and keeping up with change.

Challenge them that there is a whole world they are unaware of. There are three kinds of people: those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those who say “what happened?” Geeks tend to be in the latter group. Explain that they may choose not to play the corporate power and politics games, but they owe it to themselves to at least be aware of what is going on. Test them on company directions and strategies. Examine the real financial state of the company. Reveal some power groups and games being played.

IT is about business as much as technology now. Get them to examine the questions: What kind of people does the company want in IT now? In ten years? What skills are most useful?

Discuss career options: business analyst, architect, consultant, management, dropping out (you are better off encouraging them to go than having Scott Adam’s Wally working for you)…

Finish by helping them create a personal development plan.

3) Teach them to take risks. Geeks tend to be risk averse (despite what your Change Manager says), especially outside their technical space. They don’t like operating on imperfect information (“I can’t do that, I haven’t had the training”). Run some exercises, and no it doesn’t have to be white water rafting. Impromptu speaking is good. So is throwing unknown technologies at them under pressure. Or drama. Deep end them, get them out of the comfort zone.

4) Teach them to sell themselves. Geeks tend to be quiet achievers. Because they often have a certain level of contempt for management (that’s you), and for self-aggrandizement, they don’t always publicize their own successes. They don’t present well on first meeting. They don’t inspire confidence in internal or external customers they work with. Run another workshop: how not to get laid off. When the axe falls, the people who survive are:

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• The ones that management see contributing.

• The ones that the customers give good feedback on, and ask for again.

• The ones that the CEO liked when she met them.

Practice the “elevator sell”: they meet the CEO in the corridor, or they are taken in to see a client’s CEO “just to introduce you”: what do they say? Role play it one at a time in front of the group: shake hands, the “CEO” says “who are you?” and they are on. 10 seconds, go! If they blow it, sit down to ponder while someone else has a go, but they can try again.

Practice making a pitch. Everyone sells: the project manager seeking more resource, the architect delivering their solution, the manager addressing their team. So train them in sales skills and drill them.

5) Foster the growth plans they have made. Coach the career planning. Hopefully the plans have changed after steps 3 and 4. Fund as much training as the company can bear (and buffer them from the demands of the business while they are on training – don’t let the urgent ruin the important). Make it diverse, not just technology. Help them take opportunities to try something else: temporary assignments, projects, permanent transfers. A stifled and frustrated geek is of less value to you than a free one mentoring their replacement. Now you have two geeks; the new one doing the job and the one who can step back in in an emergency. Which leads to the most important step of all…

6) Have a real mentoring program. You can’t have the same geek in the same chair for a decade. They will go feral or get bored and leave. The only way to retain their IP (despite what software vendors tell you) is to have them pass it on to understudies. This requires management support, a managed program, mentor and mentee education, time allocated, effectiveness monitoring, and reward and recognition.

7) Finally, make the best of the ones who just don’t get it. Some geeks are beyond remediation. Eventually they will become so embittered or lazy or openly contemptuous that you will have to fire them, but with careful management you can still get a long period of productivity from them first. Keep them technically challenged. Give them toys to play with.

But reward delivery of results. Slap down prima-donna behavior. Try not to let them get the wagons in a circle: don’t let a geek clique form. They must respect customers and management, or at least behave like they do. If you are fortunate enough to employ the happy, well-adjusted geek, content to potter away for ever, committed to customer satisfaction, focused on results, then treasure them. We will discuss the care and feeding of geeks in more detail another time.

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