Monday, October 06, 2008

On the Super Geeks and Management

A response to Simon Stapleton's question:

@Chris - how much of the problem is caused by management challenge (ie. how do we manage geeks), and how much of is social (ie. how do geeks fit into society)?


This is a very heavy subject. The management challenge is that the geeks are in many ways much smarter than management, much more logical, much more rigorous in their thinking. The geeks operate in the Real World much more than management. Technical geeks are very good at knowing what can and what can’t be done in the physical world. They are closer to the metals, so to speak.

Management is more into what can and can’t be done in the social world, the human interaction, human motivation arena.

In the world of programming and hardware, the laws of physics absolutely dictate. There is no getting around them. For programmers specifically, the ones and zeros are immutable. They are subatomic particles. There is no getting around them. The trick is to take these ones and zeros, and make smart applications out of them. This requires rigorous thinking.

As Brian Kernighan wrote: “Controlling complexity is the essence of computer programming” (from

There is a black-and-whiteness to geekdom that’s hard to avoid. It either works or doesn’t. It either compiles or doesn’t. It either conducts current or doesn’t. There’s not a lot of gray area. In management, however, it’s all grey areas; nuances upon nuances. It’s a balance of power, where neither side is either right or wrong, where people measure effectiveness by the ability to influence by the gentlest of prodding. Geeks aren’t about that. The world of geeks is cut and dry.

Now, society needs geeks. Someone invented fire, the wheel, the boat, the sword, the bow, the nuclear reactor. These are all geeks. Look at Einstein: He was downright weird. Right, but weird. Deep down, society respects the geek, because it needs it. The geek is the guy who tinkers and comes up with what makes life easier. Management may have the idea of coinage, but the guy who figured out how to make the actual coins, he’s the geek. But geeks are not especially social company.

The problem with managing geeks is that geeks explore. Exploration is a faith-based process. Faith in the ability of the human mind to come up with concept and apply them to the real world. Now how do you quantify that in dollars? It’s really hard to put in a projection, a simulation, a project plan. What the geek really says when he says “I’ll look into it” is that he is going to rely on the unexplainable abilities of his brain to generate good ideas to solve the problem. He will rely on his past experience, his know-how, shall we say, to solve the problem. Can he write a manual of how that process works step by step? No.

When unshackled from the chains of management process, and keeping to his own rigorous thinking and mental rational triage, he will much more effectively identify optimal real-world solutions that address real-world problems.

The process that management would place on the geek is but a pale shadow of the geek’s own logical thinking capabilities.

And since the geeks are already some of the smartest people on the planet, how can business school graduates possibly come up with something better?

This is why they are generally disregarded by real geeks as incompetent and meddlesome.

Now, why do business people insist on fostering processes on the geeks? Because it works in manufacturing and fast-food. Process-lovers think that written-down, formal procedures are the ultimate in “management”. Geeks don’t. Geeks rely on the power of the trained human brain. And when the disagreement is framed this way, most can readily agree that the geeks just might be right.

Essentially, geeks self-manage. Placing management on them only frustrates everyone involved, and leads to sub-optimal performance.

SO this is my answer: Geeks self-manage. Traditional management doesn’t work on geeks.

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