Twelve Tips for Managing Geeks

A guide to supervising the all-important hardware and software experts who keep the IT infrastructure working smoothly.


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Posted February 8, 2007

Rob England

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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.

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