Inside the Geek

Tuesday Apr 10th 2007 by Rob England

A fearless journey inside the psyche of the technology specialist.

Continuing our series of articles on geeks (which began here and here) today we look further into the mind of the geek to understand what makes them tick.

Every discussion of human behavior requires simplification or generalization. Stereotypes can still be useful models. One such model is the geek. Many IT people fit the model, even if each one brings their own individual twist to it.

Behold the geek
It does not speak
Social skills it lacks
It attacks

It is particularly charmed
By a server farm
And when things abends
It mends

(With apologies to Ogden Nash)

So let us examine the stereotypical geek. How can we separate out the simplified model from the complexity of observed behaviors? To carve an elephant from marble, remove everything that is not-elephant. Put another way, there are two kinds of people: those who divide the human race into two kinds and those who don’t. So we look for some characteristics that distinguish the geek from the not-geek.

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Here are some models for categorizing people:

• People process technology: no question where geeks fit in this popular model.

• Masculine / feminine: there are a few female geeks, but there is something very male about geek: analytical not instinctual, logical not emotional.

• The Irish-based TAS Group use a system called TAS (Target Account Selling), which looks at what motivates people to make a decision. In an earlier ‘classic’ version of TAS, people fell into four groups, driven by relationships, business, technical, or money. Geeks fall neatly into the third category.

• The Disc Profile (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness) is a more fundamental parser of people, and geeks show up less clearly, but they do tend to cluster around “C”: strongly skewed toward introverted, less clearly so toward task-oriented.

• The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator suggests 16 possible profiles. Of the 16, geeks fit the following … oh forget it. MBTI is very useful when you can spend a day on it to build a team. For casual discussion like this it is over the top.

One characteristic of the geek is a low Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Whether it is a blindness or a naivety is debatable, but they cope badly with complex emotional situations: conflict, power struggles, divided loyalties, suffering. They will withdraw, and put up shields of cynicism, callousness or aggression.

Geeks are politically naïve. Not only do they not participate in office politics but they seldom see it, let alone understand it. I recommend TAS or similar training for all geeks, whether they work in sales or not, as a system for dissecting political structures. The lights go on for many geeks (including this author) when politics is subject to logical systematic analysis.

Geeks eschew the sordid business of money, especially of selling. But everybody sells (or needs to sell): ideas, projects, themselves. Geeks tend to be awful at sales. Any logical system that teaches them why and how to sell will open their eyes and expand their world view, thereby benefiting the company and their own personal development

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A distaste for capitalism doesn’t mean geeks are always left wing. They can be somewhere to the right of Margaret Thatcher. But extreme positions are typical: it is all symptomatic of that simplistic world view.

Geeks think everything can be resolved with logical analysis. They think if they show a clear logical argument why it ought to be this way, and say so loudly for long enough, people will suddenly see the light.

“It ought to be this way…”

“Sure it should but it isn’t”

“But it should be! If only people would…”

Then they get frustrated and decide everybody is stupid when this doesn’t work. Eventually this develops into terrible cynicism and in the end they dissociate from the community of the business.

Geeks respect knowledge. To establish pecking order they play that machismo playground boy thing of who can out-fact the other.

“No, Jupiter comes before Saturn, dummy.”

“I think you’ll find the Camaro has the 352 engine.”

“Gimme a non-directional 17 inch flange, and make sure it has the knurled outer lip.”

“That model Compaq has a 100MHz front side bus, so this isn’t going to work.”

On first meeting they quickly determine whether one is speaking geek, and whether one expresses an interest in important subjects, i.e. things. If you attempt to speak in geek, some will be honored by your efforts but most will, like the French, treat your stumbling with contempt. Don’t try to bluff it.

Prima donnas are common among geeks. When I managed a team of technical people there were geeks. I was inclined to indulge the prima donna complex for a quiet life, but having raised a child, I’d be less inclined to tolerate it now. Humor them and they’ll just get worse.

Another aspect of the geek is arrested development: they can be quite immature. Prima donna-ism is just spoilt childishness. Grow them up a bit. One way to do that is to fire them: geeks don’t get enough of that.

Geeks love problems. They savor them, relish them – they are connoisseurs of problems. Like a tiger hunter they admire them before killing them. Then they re-tell the story for years to come. The best problems are technology ones because they are almost always solvable by rational analysis and the application of the geek’s skills and experience. Process problems are good too, because problems are good, and because process can be deconstructed rationally. People problems are less good, because people, are messy unpredictable creatures, so geeks tend to shy away from such problems, which is one more reason why they often make poor managers.

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One unfortunate aspect of their affection for problems is their delight in sharing them, even at the most inappropriate moments, such as in meetings with clients or executives.

What are their strengths?

Intelligence: geeks often have a high IQ (but see EQ, above)

Problem solving and general analytical ability: if you want something fixed or dissected, put a geek on it.

Diligence (if they haven’t been spoilt): geeks hate being beaten by inanimate objects or processes – they will gnaw on a task until it is resolved.

A delight in delivering an outcome: the tougher the better. Geeks are finishers.

Honesty and openness: lack of guile. What you see is what you get, which is not always an attractive prospect.

It will be evident that the author has quite a patronizing attitude to geeks. They do themselves and the organization harm with their conviction of their own brilliance and their stubborn inability to see how narrow a field they excel in. One of my job tasks has been to find career paths for geeks. The truth is there are none beyond Senior Geek until they can grow up.

As we have discussed in previous articles, steps must be taken to protect the organization from the geeks, and then to protect them from themselves by helping them to grow beyond geekishness. Or to minimize the damage if they cannot and will not grow.

Geeks are real. Understand them and they become useful contributors to the business, and you can manage their personal growth. Next time we will discuss an effective process for expanding the world-view of the geek.

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