How NOT to lead geeks

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When the geeks at NCR in Australia threatened to go on strike, it was a move that could have paralyzed ATMs, supermarket cash registers and airplane check-in. This underlines the fact that IT has become so central to almost all corporations, that any disruption may cost a lot of time and money, which again means that keeping the geeks happy at work is an absolute requirement for a modern business. Happy geeks are effective geeks.

The main reason IT people are unhappy at work is bad relations with management, often because geeks and managers have fundamentally different personalities, professional backgrounds and ambitions.

Some people conclude that geeks hate managers and are impossible to lead. The expression “managing geeks is like herding cats” is sometimes used, but that’s just plain wrong. The fact is that IT people hate bad management and have even less tolerance for it than most other kinds of employees.

So where does it go wrong? I started out as a geek and later became a leader and an IT company founder so I’ve been lucky enough to have tried both camps. Here are the top 10 mistakes I’ve seen managers make when leading geeks:

1: Downplay training

I had a boss once who said that “training is a waste of money, just teach yourself”. That company tanked 2 years later. Training matters, especially in IT, and managers must realize that and budget for it. Sometimes you get the argument that “if I give them training a competitor will hire them away.” That may be true, but the alternative is to only have employees who are too unskilled to work anywhere else.

2: Give no recognition

Since managers may not understand the work geeks do very well, it’s hard for them to recognize and reward a job well done, which hurts motivation. The solution is to work together to define a set of goals that both parties agree on. When these goals are met the geeks are doing a great job.

3: Plan too much overtime

“Let’s wring the most work out of our geeks, they don’t have lives anyway,” seems to the approach of some managers. That’s a huge mistake and overworked geeks burn out or simply quit. In one famous case, a young IT-worker had a stress-induced stroke on the job, was hospitalized, returned to work soon after and promptly had another stroke. This post further examines the myth that long work hours are good for business.

4: Use management-speak

Geeks hate management-speak and see it as superficial and dishonest. Managers shouldn’t learn to speak tech, but they should drop the biz-buzzwords. A manager can say “We need to proactively impact our time-to-market” or simply use english and stick to “We gotta be on time with this project”.

5: Try to be smarter than the geeks

When managers don’t know anything about a technical question, they should simply admit it. Geeks respect them for that, but not for pretending to know. And they will catch it – geeks are smart.

6: Act inconsistently

Geeks have an ingrained sense of fairness, probably related to the fact that in IT, structure and consistency is critical. The documentation can’t say one thing while the code does something else, and similarly, managers can’t say one thing and then do something else.

7: Ignore the geeks

Because managers and geeks are different types of people, managers may end up leaving the geeks alone. This makes leading them difficult, and geeks need good leadership the same as all other personnel groups.

8: Make decisions without consulting them

Geeks usually know the technical side of the business better than the manager, so making a technical decision without consulting them is the biggest mistake a leader can make.

9: Don’t give them tools

A fast computer may cost more money than an older one and it may not be corporate standard, but geeks use computers differently. A slow computer lowers productivity and is a daily annoyance. So is outdated software. Give them the tools they need.

10: Forget that geeks are creative workers

Programming is a creative process, not an industrial one. Geeks must constantly come up with solutions to new problems and rarely ever solve the same problem twice. Therefore they need leeway and flexibility. Strict dress codes and too much red tape kill all inovation. They also need creative surroundings to avoid “death by cubicle”.

Making one or more of these 10 mistakes (and I’ve seen managers who make all 10) has serious consequences, including:

  • Low motivation
  • High employee turnover
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Lower productivity
  • Lower quality
  • Bad service

Happy geeks are productive geeks, and the most important factor is good management, tailored to their situation.

Caveats:

  • I’m not saying that all geeks are the same. Geeks are wildly different people and this post does generalize dangerously.
  • I’m not saying that all IT-people are geeks. Some are, some aren’t. I definitely used to be.

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237 thoughts on “How NOT to lead geeks”

  1. On the training point, can we say that there are two kinds of training: “fill the box full” and “inspire to learn.” Bad bosses send their employees to MS Word courses or force you to take a filing course. Good bosses create a learning environment and inspire people to spend time at work learning stuff that will be useful to them and the enterprise.

    “Just teach yourself” is neither of these, and as a hands-off approach is just plain lazy. Be laissez-faire once you have co-created the learning environment that works for everyone.

  2. We can definitely say that, Chris :o) Learning is one of the fundamentals of happiness at work, and good leaders know that and promote a culture where everything becomes a platform for learning.

    You did a great job? Let’s learn from that. You screwed up royally? Hey, it’s OK, as long as you can learn from it.

    And learning only really works when people do it voluntarily. Sending somebody to training against their will is almost always a mistake.

    In the IT-company I co-founded we had a very simple policy: Every employee had an annual training budget, that HE managed (around $7.000). The company expected the employee to use the entire budget every year, but did not control for what. We trusted people to choose what was most relevant for them.

  3. That’s great…when I worked for the federal government here I tried suggesting that all the training allowances be used like that. Spend your $700 (!) a year on woodworking, as long as it keeps you learning.

    The reply was “The Queen does not pay for knitting classes.”

    I left soon after!

  4. So – The queen does not pay for knitting classes (that’s a classic quote right there, btw), but she does pay for hiring and training replacements for the people who leave dissatisfied.

    Somebody needs to teach that queen a lesson or two on economics. And leadership. And learning.

  5. I love my geeks!!!
    I am definitely an out going person, I go through phases of being somewhat of a social butterfly but I understand and love the geek. I almost strive to be one.
    I have managed in many different industries and now manage my own employees, I don’t understand 1/2 the stuff they do in the day, but I listen and bit by bit I understand more of what they do…and learn a ton myself. They are most definitely creative in their own right, funny in their own way, and everyone I deal with has a very social side in them, it may be buried, but I love to bring it out.
    Geeks are the new black!!!

  6. good article, i’d like to extend on rule 9, Don’t give them tools, which i entirely agree with and when given the right tools, give geeks control over the tools/computer. I’ve worked in a place where I was limited to what I could download. I understand for security reasons but not being able to download plugins and open source tools is very demoralizing..

  7. This doesn’t have anything to do with geeks. All people expect to be treated this way.

  8. apl, thank you and I agree completely on your extension to rule 9. It’s better to have total freedom to install and configure as you like. In the IT company i co-founded, every employee had a PC budget, and decided for himself what laptop to buy. And nobody told you what to install or not to install on that laptop.

    Jay: I agree, this is true for all employees. And *especially* true for geeks, since geeks tend to put up with less bad management than other employees.

  9. Great article, Alex!
    I hope you wouldn’t mind if I make a copy (and link back) this article to my blog.
    I recently just quit my job as a so-called geek and started own IT-co. I amazingly found that my previous employer done almost all of your “10-ways to get rid of the geek”. No wonder I was so frustated ;)
    Now I feel happy as if I’ve never been.

  10. While it is true that all employees should be treated with respect, the thing that makes the geeks different is that a) they are *usually* smarter than the people leading them and b) they are often paid as well as their leaders, which makes them a lot less apt to take the BS.

    The hardest people to replace in a company are quality technical staff, who have been there a while and know the ins and outs of the environment. Generally, to get someone to replace a senior level geek and hit the ground running, you will wind up paying 30-60% more to get a person with sufficient experience and expertise.

  11. Yes, these are all points that can be applied to all employees as well as geeks. But it’s primarily the geeks that get sidelined and suffer these violations. I’m in a job right now that breaks just about every one, and I’m sending out resumes.

    If you need a #11, might I recommend “Let them get bored”? The project I’m on right now, through complete negligence on the part of management, is dead. Not dead-dead, but coma-dead. Our project is being rehosted to a new environment. We will take over operations and maintenance once it is done. In the meantime, we can’t make any changes to the baseline. We get to sit. And do nothing. It makes coming in every day seem pointless and stupid. Nothing bothers me more than doing pointless and stupid things.

  12. Seadog: Great point! Recruiting experienced tech people is often expensive, which makes it even more important to keept the ones you have happy.

    OtakuCODE: YES! If there are no pressing deadlines right now, the right thing would be to free you to dream up new projects OR to take some time off. Why come in if there’s no work?

  13. I don’t really believe in telling managers to cut back on their management bullshit, or telling them to respect their geeks more.

    Instead I believe in hiring geek certified people to manage geek staff. In other words, geek teams should be managed by people with a solid technological background as well as solid management skills. If you put that in place, I think it’ll cure most of the communication problems which you mention in your list…

    In other words, don’t try to twist or bend non technical managers into loving their geeks. Instead, hire dedicated technical managers to sort out the glitch in the communication chain.

  14. Best of luck on finding a Techie that wants to be a manager….two different mind sets. The techie manager won’t be able to keep his hands out of everyones stuff. The thing I don’t care for is Techies that don’t have previous management skills and ends up driving everyone crazy.

  15. Well Elling, I know for a fact that people with no tech skills what so ever can be great leaders for geeks. But they have to work harder at it.

    MGB: You’re right, and the practice of promoting the best techie to be a manager has resulted in some problems over time, precisely because the geek mindset and the manager mindset can be *very* different.

  16. Great post! These are probably the top ten reasons I don’t like my job, especially the low morale and constant buzzwords. This needs to be slipped into a “Management 101″ book.

  17. “Don’t give them tools”?
    I’m sorry, I either don’t understand English, or this header contradicts its content. If not, I am earnestly seeking explanation.

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  19. I just started my job at Staples, and this sums it up. I am a true geek through and through, while all my managers are pretty much retards. The worst is my one manager that thinks he is a geek, but is just a poser. I especially loved the “Don’t give them the tools” one. I am the lead tech and all I am stuck with is my brain and my hands. No internet to download drivers, new virus definitions, diagnostic programs, or just check if I need to reference something or if I am just plain stuck, but when I tell them this they are like “well you should know how to do all that stuff”. I have pretty much given up, and am just looking for a different tech job.

  20. As an IT manager can I point out that geeks are the output. They are the reason why IT managers have a job. The manager’s function is to remove the roadblocks that inhibit the geeks from delivering and making said managers look good.
    It’s important to remember who is the tail and who is the dog.

  21. Relating to 3. Often unrealistic deadlines are forced on geeks without aknowledgement of the extent of work involved. This is partly a missunderstanding of what is involved and partly management wanting to squeeze as much out of the geeks as possible as quickly as possible.

    It is not good to understate the amount, depth and breadth of work required or the importance of what is being done.

    Sometimes it is the geeks’ fault because they may understate (or feel they must understate) how difficult problems may be. And often there are many unknowns in solving new problems.

    Sometime geeks are asked to estimate time as if building software was like building a kit home.

  22. GeniusJT: The way I understand that one, it’s meaning that one of the mistakes management often makes when dealing with their techies is to not give them the tools they need to do their job effectively and efficiently. I can certainly attest to that one – I may have one of the better computers in the small company I geek for, but it’s still frustratingly slow compared to what I use at home (and I hadn’t thought my computer at home was that fantastic until I started working here!).

    That said, this was a fantastic article. I think I might pass it on to my manager…

  23. Thanks everybody for the kind words on the post!!

    It seems like this post really struck a chord with a lot of people, and I hope we can use it to bridge some of the gap often found between geeks and managers.

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  25. X has another quotable line in “Sometime geeks are asked to estimate time as if building software was like building a kit home.” This is probably my biggest beef.

    The corollary is they want the time estimate based on a 5 block, high level discussion diagram, and then they plug it into Project as if you (and your team) actually have the leeway to dedicate all your time at a given point to that project.

    Great post!

  26. Great article and scarily accurate. Every bad manager I’ve had has done most (a couple have done all!) of these and every good manager I’ve had has been guilty of none.

    Can we get this published in ‘New Media’ Magazine or some other publication where managers might read it?! I know of three people I’ve worked with who have been signed off work with Stress by a doctor, purely due to having a bad manager.

    If you’re in IT or New Media management, ask yourself if any of your team have been of sick lately, yes? Then maybe, just maybe, it’s down to you…?

  27. Yeeeeaaaaahhhhh…I’m going to have to agree with you on that one and the other nine. I don’t think my last boss got this memo.

  28. Alexander: I think it IS possible for non technical people to be good managers for technical staffs. But then again, I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. In order to best manage a group of technical people (including some geeks) I think it’s smart to pick managers who have worked on the floor themselves, but who also have managerial talents. A pretty scarce resource, I know, but still I believe they do exist.

    And if they do not exist, I think the solution is to start promoting combined technical and managerial careers, since there CLEARLY is a demand for people who can understand both worlds.

  29. Elling: Excellent idea, I agree. My masters degree in computer science gave me deep insight on the tech stuff, and zero knowledge about *any* other aspect of business. That might be a good place to start.

    Managin comes easy to some people, but it’s not an impenetrable mystery. Tools and knowledge exist that can turn most techies into good managers.

  30. It’s not only about turning tech people into good managers, it’s also about attracting people with managerial talents to technological professions. And maybe that’s what it’s MOST about, actually.

    Because, in my experience, management skills ARE 90% talent. And I believe that if you only have 10% talent, it’s near impossible to fill the remaining 90% with training. Though… I guess there are some borderline cases, where there’s enough talent and where some amount of training might bring a person up to a level where he can function better as a manager than he would if he didn’t have the training.

    But still… my fundamental claim is that it’s very much about talent, and especially talent when it comes people skills and understanding other people. And these things just take a darn long time to learn… and at least it takes far longer than a couple of management training sessions.

  31. The only problem I have with the combined technical/managerial careers (having been in that kind of position about every time I make 5 years with a company) is that the technical side gets relegated to before or after the “work day”. During the normal work day I need to be flexible with open door, meetings, Q&A guidance sessions, and the like. That makes technical time difficult as multiple 15 and 30 minute blocks of time just aren’t like 2 to 4 hour blocks of concentration.

    As a Geek at heart, there are days I want to just shut the door and code. The problem is that is like shooting my manager side in the foot.

    I believe that there are good managers out there that can be taught to deal supportively with us Geeks. They can understand what we do at a “plain English” level and will support our mission (smooze with his/her boss, charm Accounting and Finance, etc.) without getting caught up in micromanagement of the technical element. I’ve worked for a couple of those bosses and it’s great. They have understood that our mission within the company is critical without having to understand the datails.

    Now, if we could get the original article into management training courses there could be more of those good ones out there.

    Of course, it may have to be translated into a true “How to . . .” as some management types have trouble turning a “How not to . . .” around and might think the above items are to be done.

    Sorry to get long winded.

  32. Reading through this I’m having a bit of an epiphany. I’m a girlgeek – had my first computer at age 14 (a long time ago) – and I rate very high on the EQ scale – so maybe I am that hard to find managerial person! But the geek in me says yuck. NO WAY do I want to be responsible for defining and managing other people’s output…though I am really great at creating enthusiam – mainly because I think people catch it by osmosis from me when I’m working on something I feel good about. I would have no time to noodle about what interests me. More money – kind of attractive – but it doesn’t make up for having a job where I regularly experience creative flow….

    and there you have it.

    Is that about right, all you potential IT managers?

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  34. I’m not sure if I agree that all creativity disappears once you become a manager. I mean, you still get to create, only that you won’t necessarily be typing in all the 0s and 1s yourself, right?

    For instance, I’m sure Steve Jobs would call himself creative, even though he’s now probably further away from the soldering iron than he ever was.

  35. In response to Elling…

    It’s all well and good hiring techie managers, but they have to report to non techie managers, and it’s oftan at this point that the problems happen

  36. Hey Elling!

    I would say there of course is a tremendous amount of creativity and challenge in being a good manager, just of a different variety. I paint as well, and I play music – I am never ‘in flow’ when I am dealing in a social space -where there’s no tunes to be played – the kind of thing Csikszentmihalyi (you bet I cut and pasted that one!) talks about isn’t really available to me when I am talking to people – though for Jobs he obviously hits it when he’s speaks in front of large crowds.

    Intersting though – he does have a book out on leadership and flow –

    :::

    Experiencing Flow

    In situations of flow, tasks demand the full involvement of the person. In these situations there is a perfect balance between the challenge of the task and the skills of the person. The so-called “flow channel” represents optimal experience, where both challenges and skills lie above the average level. More challenge than skill leads to arousal, anxiety, or worry. More skill than challenge leads to control, relaxation, or boredom. Flow depends on eight conditions: 1) goals are clear, 2) feedback is immediate, 3) a balance between opportunity and capacity, 4) concentration deepens, 5) the present is what matters, 6) control is no problem, 7) the sense of time is altered, 8) the loss of ego.

    I suppose it’s very worth it to open my head to the possibility! Especially since I am much less introverted than I was when computing became so appealing!!

    :::

    Thinking of the managers I have had some of the best and some of the worst have been techies. The best one is absolutely not – but has tremendous emotional intelligence…

  37. Elling: You touch on one of the fundamental questions of good leadership: To what degree is it an ingrained a talent and how much of it can you teach people who don’t have that talent.

    Many people feel, that it’s mostly a matter of talent, and the way we’ve been practicing and (especially) teaching leadership so far I have to agree.

    But I also believe that with a fundamental change in management and leadership training, many more people could learn to be great (or at least good) leaders.

    We’ve been defining and testing this new kind of leadership education here in The Happy At Work Project, and it ROCKS. Managers love it and the skills they learn (which are VERY far from traditional MBA and management skills) make an immediate positive impact on their employees.

    This is not to shamelessly promote myself here (OK, it is) but it’s to say that I believe that good leadership can be taught to most people. It just takes a radically different kind of training.

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  40. I havn’t technically worked in an IT setting yet, but in my house I am the guy to come to and ALL of this applies! This is just right, except for a few things. I think some geeks work best without some non-geek leading them. Tell them what you want done and it will be done, so long as you have good geeks.

  41. Heartbreakingly true rules. The heartbreaking part is that I recognize them as practices at almost any company I work for.
    Sometimes they just don’t understand that a programmer is nothing like a light bulb that if you leave on for 14 hrs a day it gives twice as much light as 7 hrs a day. After some hours they begin to make mistakes, mistakes that can be corrected only by more work. Forcing a programmer into long overtimes can create a negative amount of work done.

  42. I would be very interested in your opinion on the proper role of management.

    We can talk all day about the ways management messes up in its relations with any social category (as if this type of conflict was anything fundamentally different than the ongoing tension between labor and management since the Industrial Revolution) but I’m afraid a lot of geeks see management as the solution to a problem that management itself created. Here’s the problem: no matter if you’re a geek, genius, or MBA, unless you’re doing the work, you’re in the least informed position to make decisions. Reports, scrums, charts – none of it is a replacement for being there, doing the work, and knowing the situation at hand. You can’t separate the experience of work from the process.

    The problem isn’t bad management, it’s the whole concept of management: the idea that decision making can be separated from the actual work. It’s ludicrous when you think about it, and the whole mythos of the managerial class is to give us the illusion that management is adding value. The problems with management are the same problems in any organization hierarchically structured where information flows between relatively more powerful and relatively less powerful people – because the jobs are on the line, and management is always playing catch up to the true situational picture, managers are simply told whatever they need to hear in order not to be fired much of the time. There’s a delay involved as well as a fundamental case of rose-colored glasses. It’s easy to see why somebody like Ken Lay could argue he didn’t know what was going on – in fact, I fail to see how any manager who isn’t getting his hands dirty on a project could possibly claim a knowledge of the project sufficient to judge it.

    Really the only use for management is to keep other bureaucracies internal to the organization (such as HR) and external to the organization (such as the IRS or OSHA) from bothering the creative guys. Other than that, I see no reason why – if we’re going to have some people doing make-work “management” – they should be calling the shots. I don’t see why we working geeks should need to ask for the right to make decisions in the first place, other than that the power relationships are severely out of whack. Maybe we should start reforming there, instead of finding better ways to use managerial voodoo to pretend like managers have some gift to offer those of us who actually do the work.

    Dunno: just a thought.

  43. Jeremy: You’re right, as long as we define management as making decisions for others. That has of course been the traditional role of management for the entire industrial age and we’re stuck with the paradigm.

    However, I think that this type of management works pretty badly in industrial, production-oriented workplaces. In knowledge-based, creative businesses it’s even worse, for precisely the reason you mention: It’s an attempt to concentrate decision making away from the people actually doing the work. In a constant world, this has at least a passing chance of working. In a fast-changing business environment? Forget about it!

    So traditional management is out. But leaders and managers are still very much needed, it just has to be a different brand.

    Yesterday it meant making decisions, allocating resources, making plans, checking quality and enforcing regulations.

    Today it has to be coaching, mentoring, teaching, facilitating and supporting.

    THAT is the role of management. One that not only makes people happy at work but also gives businesses much better results. It’s not pie-in-the-sky, this goes straight to the bottom line!

  44. 9: Don’t give them tools

    Geeks are people who take pride in their ability to use the tools of the trade expertly. They hate to see waste, especially the management habit of putting toys before tools. It’s not having to make do with old kit that annoys half as much as the marketing types given shiny new toys that are unnecessary and wasted whilst real work suffers due to false economies.

    10: Forget that geeks are creative workers
    But ‘creative’ too easily coinjures up the myth of the genius just waiting for inspiration to strike. Yes programmng is creative; in my view a form of writing like any other. But what is different from most writing (perhaps poetry with complex versification comes close) is the mastery of detail and structure that is required. Programmers tend to burn the midnight old, only in th quiet and calm of the early hours can they they be sure of the undisturbed concentration that is essential to the craft. Don’t expect good or contented work to come from constantly changing priorities and requests to ‘just fix this’, ‘we can do a proper job later’ etc.

  45. Good point, Alexander! Everywhere you look, hierarchies are breaking down or being outmoded in favor of more fluid relationships. This is a good thing for the end product, the customer, and everybody’s costs vis a vis time, efficiency/waste, morale, etc.

    And let me make clear: I have no problem with managers are you describe them – at least, when they make business sense. I have no problems with hierarchies, where they naturally occur. But as long as one has to operate in the business world, one will have to deal with those inputs and influences that drain energy from productive organizations. So if managers can keep that stuff off of the guys in the trenches, provide actual (if marginal) value to those workers, and make sure the focus is not on “command and control” (it didn’t work in the Soviet Union; it’s not going to work in the corporation) but on arriving at decisions through a process that at least APPROACHES informed consensus – while still giving individuals freedom to take risks and pursue personal visions of value-adding to the organization – then I think that’s great. And if some suit-and-tie types get a little scared in the process, well, so much the better – market corrections happen, right? :-)

    If leaders foster this environment *without* overburdening the individuals (i.e. seeing employees as “resources” whose output must be maximized rather than essential, creative, nuturing parts of an organic organization) then great. And I agree – a well managed work force is a total bottom line matter. The problems in current corporate climates rise not from the profit motivation but from the inability of management to see the long term time horizon, where the true growth and profitability occurs – usually from a lack of information, sophistication, or passion about a given project. True revolutionary, profitable value creation rarely occurs overnight or over the course of a year, even.

    The key is to get managers into a frame of mind where they don’t interject themselves where unneeded. You sound like the type of manager who manages from a position of competence and not simply “monitoring human resources”. But please be aware: you are the exception (as I’m sure you already know). There is a “class” of white collar paper pushers and timesheet minders who see the worker as an adversary, not a partner, and who try to harvest the forest rather than grow and nurture it. This is a matter of fundamentals: “Who moved my cheese” or “Fish!” philosophy and mindlessness can’t mask it.

    Thanks for your considered thoughts!

  46. Alexander: If you were to take up a management position in a large international company and hold it for five years. Do you think you would be successful?

    I mean, do you think that your own theories would hold water in a real world environment?

  47. Elling: Would it work in the real world? Abso-frickin’-lutely. I’ve already done it: http://positivesharing.com/2005/12/the-story-so-far

    Jeremy: I could not say it better!

    ““command and control? (it didn’t work in the Soviet Union; it’s not going to work in the corporation)”. Indeed!

    One excellent leader is Lars Kolind, who just wrote a book that touches on the same points as your comments. It’s about bureaucracy and how we can stop it. From the website:
    [Bureaucracy]… leads to management developing its own agenda, increasingly detached from employees and customers. It becomes more important to win awards than to care for customers and employees. Management loses touch with the business, which becomes increasingly complacent and even arrogant.

    Which is pretty close to what you wrote in an earlier comment, no? There’s more at http://www.thesecondcycle.com

  48. Alexander: I didn’t mean 20 employee internett boom startups…… I meant large stable companies. Do you think your methods would work in such a company?

  49. Elling: Yes. I know for a fact that they will.

    We’ve been looking at happy companies and analyzing what they do and how it works, and that forms the basis for our tools.

  50. You don’t know for a fact before you’ve tried. I think you’d probably come out with a VERY different view on it if you were to try what I suggested. Get your hands dirty in a large company, then come back and write a book… That’s my suggestion.

  51. Hell, Elling, if you want to go all positivistic on me, I wouldn’t even know for a fact *after* I tried it. Maybe it was just a fluke that it worked. Maybe it could only work in that company. Or that industry. Or with those people. So I’ll just go ahead and write the book with what I know already and with the experiences of other people who have gotten their hands immensely dirty in very large companies indeed.

    I should probably clarify that when I said “I know for fact” I really meant “I very strongly believe”.

    I should also point out, that it’s OK not to believe me :o)

  52. That’s right, I think you’re attacking structures which you can do without in a small company. And ESPECIALLY in a consulting company where everyone is working on their own anyway (or in small groups).

    In a large company there’s a NEED for the structures which you are proposing to tear down. And I think you’d notice it if you spent some time as a manager in such a company.

    Anyway…. I won’t try do dicsourage you from writing your book, since I’m sure it has is value, even if some of it’s principles might not be suitable for larger scale communities or companies.

  53. Got to contradict you on that one, there is NEVER a ‘NEED’ for self-serving, ‘personal progression over departmental improvement’ style work places and managers. And Yes, not only ‘even in large companies’ but ESPECIALLY in larger companies. It’s not difficult. Managers simply need to be genuinely interested in the well being of their staff.

    As it stands a majority of managers are simply too interested in improving their own position and salary and ‘sod anyone that may have to be worked to exhaustion for me to get there!’ It’s a sorry fact to have to admit but in my experience it’s true.

    So Alex, go ahead and write that book, I could be wrong but ‘Elling’ does sound suspiciously like one of the ‘managers’ that may need the change of attitude. The problem is not the size of the company, it’s how ingrained the bad practices are. In any company, large or small, you have to get everyone to realise that it’s OK to not run your company like a primary school. It’s OK to treat people like they have value. It’s OK to look after your staff and let them know it. Not just on paper but actually mean it, it’s time the ‘give-a-toss-about-someone-but-myself’ gene was switched on in these people.

    People respond to inspiration much better than oppression and if someone feels oppressed in your organisation you are not only not getting the best from them, but you’re damaging the output of your company.

  54. Indeed! numeeja!!

    What a lot of manager’s seem not to understand in more traditional companies (and I’ve worked both for huge companies and skunkwork garage projects) is that creative people (geeks, visual people and researchers) are intrinsically motivated. If they are good, they wake up and go to bed and dream about ng things better, more elegantly – more beautifully. I certainly do.

    And that there is no better way to kill that in a person than to apply arbitrary, theory driven management methods and standards to them, or try to shove a technology you read about in PC magazine as the next big thing at them. Most managers get into their positions because of external motivational factors…. more money – bigger car, bigger house…Yes, those perks are great icing on the cake – but the best most of US hope for is a place where our talents and brains can be fully expressed.

    We are internally motivated. We are on the eternal search for the best possible work situation and we very often will leave on a dime – for less money to find it.

    I’ve never worked for a large company that got it…but I’ve heard Google does – and look at how great they are doing.

    They give each techie a time pie — 20% of that time can be allocated to ‘personal’ projects. Many of these personal projects have emerged as the leading edge tech that Google is famous for. That does NOT come from the top down, but from the bottom up. Tech teams are very small and pretty much self managed. Where do all the techies want to work today? Google! And how well is Google doing?

    It’s hard for a manager to hear that for the most part they are often irrelevant to the productivity of the techie. But it’s pretty much the case. I spend about 70 hours a week. 40 required by my job, the rest – because I am insatiably curious about technology and how to do things better. It is my nature. You want to encourage me to be myself in this regard or I am unmotivated to use my extra cycles for YOUR bottom line. With proper care and feeding I wish to make that MY bottom line – but that doesn’t happen if I’m a just cog in your plan for world domination or at least a Lexus by end of next quarter.

    Do I occasionally get stroppy about being “managed.” Yes. Do I keep it to myself – most of the time. : )

  55. In a large company there’s a NEED for the structures which you are proposing to tear down.

    Elling, can you elaborate on this “need”?

    I mean, I can anticipate some of this need – the need to account for diverse costs accurately and thoroughly, the need to maintain a standard of output for workers in an organized, fair fashion, etc. – but these play to the weaknesses of large organizations. In other words, large organizations SHOULD be at a disadvantage, and the structures we’re proposing tearing out actually add value only in the sense that MegaCorp is inherently inefficient and out of scale with the market.

    So I’d take exception with numeeja: the need for management – and the organizational pathologies that accompany it – are symptoms of the problem of scale, not the problems themselves.

    What a lot of manager’s seem not to understand in more traditional companies (and I’ve worked both for huge companies and skunkwork garage projects) is that creative people (geeks, visual people and researchers) are intrinsically motivated.

    I think this applies to production and line workers, too – it’s just that management likes inculating a culture that prevents them from expecting the right sorts of incentives for efficiency. Whenever possible, management wants a bunch of predictable, homogenized worker “units” rather than having to deal with people with different talents, motivations, etc. It’s just easier if you’re gonna do central planning.

  56. Sorry I should elaborate further.

    My point is that for the typical manager, a workforce of 100 people who all produce at 80%, who all have the same world view, and who all have the same capacities – that is FAR preferrable to a workforce with some people who are 100% prouctive, some who are 60% or 70%, and who are diverse and have different goals in life.

    That’s why in the blue collar industries, the goal is to deskill labor by making everything an “assembly line” process. If they can get labor to do just what’s necessary for production with no creativity – and have management direct all production centrally – they prefer it even though it’s less efficient because it makes them necessary.

  57. Wow. Great essay.

    I want to emphatically add my two cents: even if an organization is not guilty of mistakes one through nine, but tries to manage knowledge workers like production workers (mistake number ten), its geeks will be unhappy.

    The place where I work is managed by good people who don’t want to be bureaucratic jerks, but they can’t grasp one simple concept: they are giving me money in exchange for doing something I love–they don’t have to shackle me with schedules and policies to get me to produce! I will be here working my little heart out because *I want to be*. I try to block out the memos and TPS reports and remind myself that those things aren’t really changing what I get to do here, but damn, every time the red tape is thrust in my face it just deflates me and I don’t even feel like trying to design or build something.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

  58. What I mean is that large companies need to have a hierarchical structure. And in such companies there need to be people assigned with jobs to “manage” groups of other people. If you do not organize it this way, it simply becomes impossible to handle.

    If you have 20 people which you want to pull in the same direction, you NEED to have a manager who’s job it will be to try and ensure that the people in the group DO pull in the same direction. Of course, in this process, you will have to step on a few toes, and a few of the workers won’t be able to work on the things which THEY think are most important. But that’s just how it is…. You cannot have a group of 20 people work in the same direction without doing some compromising. That’s just the way it works.

    On the other hand, I do realize that there ARE idiot-bastard-managers out there. And I’m not defending them. But what I think people should realize is that cooperation DOES require a bit of sacrifice by each employee. And it DOES mean that each employee won’t be free to do exactly as he wants himself.

    Btw. I’m NOT a manager myself. I just happen to have an appreciation for the inherent troubles connected with managing groups of people and getting them to pull in the same direction.

  59. Elling…small tech teams in my experience – when left to their own devices do a GREAT job of pulling in the same direction, getting behind technical strategic priorities that they have been part of developing. I think you are really over emphasizing the ‘renegade’ feeling of some of these posts….

    I can tell your not a manager…. no offense but it doesn’t seem like you’ve had experiences that might temper your tone…

    no offense intended.

    Can I ask what you do? Are you a techie?

  60. Elling…small tech teams in my experience – when left to their own devices do a GREAT job of pulling in the same direction, getting behind technical strategic priorities that they have been part of developing.

    Amen, Jane!

    The problem for large organizations with this model is that it’s hard to guarantee reproducable results, NOT that it’s unworkable. The key is the control issue – they’d rather have control than success when it comes down to it. It seems perverse and counterintuitive but it’s true – when your job is on the line and you don’t have control over all the factors of production, you can be incredibly risk adverse, to the point of defeating the whole reason you exist: profitability.

    Large organizations need to moderate the volatility of human factors such as creativity, personal lives, touchy-feely concerns, etc., which is why they higher managers to turn us all into “human resources” that are rationalized and understandable. They’d much prefer a decrease in productivity to a decrease in forcastability because of the inherent problems with large scale organization (it’s the same with a government, an educational institution, etc.). This is largely due to an entire class of people who see management as a task distinct from the actual productive work, which as I said before is ridiculous. They are scared on some level because they often simply don’t understand what it really means to produce good value. How can they – human motivation and ingenuity is not something you can break down into a cut and dry formula and “institutionalize”!

    Since large groups can’t internalize the decision making necessary to engage in authentic risk (like individuals can) they are doomed to continuously direct workers by fiat, micromanage strategies where they do exist, and collect copious amounts of metrics to systematize what is essentially an entrepeneurial, personal, passionate endeavor that really can’t be quantified.

  61. Jane: Well… maybe I need some tempering of my tone…..

    Anyway, I’m sure you’re right that small technical teams can “manage themselves” in many situations. Especially in situations where the team has a stable and well defined role within the company. Also, I believe that older workers will do better at managing themselves than younger workers.

    And yes, I am a “techie”. Specifically I work as a software developer.

  62. You say you were once were a geek. How does that happen? How did you transform from being a geek to not being a geek? Doesn’t make any sense to me…

  63. Good question Chris. I guess I still am a geek in many ways.

    What I found was that when we founded our own IT-company, I found myself growing less interested in the tech side of business and more interested in the people side. Over time I became less of a geek and more of a facilitator and leader inside our company.

    Today I’ve abandoned tech completely (except for the occasional php-coding for this site).

    Does that make sense?

  64. dude… u kick ass! this is a great article that I will be promptly circulating to my management people ;-)

  65. Neat list you got here, it compliments one I wrote awhile back called 10 ways to motivate geeks. I find the “use management speak” and “try to be smarter than geeks” points quite amusing. I really can’t ever emphasize enough the importance of leading geeks with other geeks that can relate and understand what you’re going through.

  66. Teach yourself often works better than a formal training. I prefer giving extra time for learning, give informal feedback and help them learn to a class-room kind of learning.

  67. “Since managers may not understand the work geeks do very well, it’s hard for them to recognize and reward a job well done, which hurts motivation.”

    I’ve encountered the opposite: Coming from the technical side I was set to lead a group of newly employed with a higher education but very little experience from the field. The funny thing was that some of them then tried to pretend they knew more than me, and disrupted the work. The one that was sticking out the most I quickly recommended to a management training programme, so I got rid of him :).

  68. I was aghast to read that the motivational speaker/writer on the tip to work less went to one of her reports every day at 5 PM suggesting she need HELP getting her work done..and/or TAKING IT AWAY FROM HER COMPLETELY.

    This is fairly rigid in making everyone march to the 8 to 5 bells that used to ring at many large companies across the USA; my co-workers (engineers) would stand next to their desks, lunchbox in hand, 5 minutes before the lunch bell and the end-of-shift bells rang (yes they did). We shared mainframe “computer time” and those with a higher priority could submit jobs at will, whereas we newbies had lower priority and our submitted jobs would sit in queue (if they could even get submitted). I learned THEN to “stay late” and the computer was like a freeway at 3AM.

    Hence, today, I prefer to avoid heavy traffic by STAYING at work until about 6:30 PM, I LOVE the quiet of the giant cubicled room we all share, and I can actually get 10 times as much done as when there’s conversation, interruptions (esp. heavy between noon and 2 PM). When the “crowd” goes home at 3, my productivty skyrockets. And my perception of these conformists is that they live by a schedule, a speed limit, and (in my mind) do things by rote, not by smart or creative.

    Her values fly in the face of my 20 years’ SOP and harken back to totalitarian militaristic mentality.

  69. I had a non-geek manager once who was one of the best managers I ever had. He understood the business very well, was a good leader and very personable. He knew nothing about technology and he openly acknowledged this fact.

    He ended up relying on and trusting us geeks for the tech side of things. He actually listened to us and acted on our suggestions.

    When he started leading the IT department, he hit the ground running expecting to be able to pick things up in a short period of time if he ran at full bore. Two years later he was still running at full tilt. He was trying to learn in months what the rest of us had taken several years to learn and he simply didn’t succeed.

    Last I heard the poor guy’s health gave out (several serious medical problems) and his marriage ended. To top it off the company fired him. By that time I had been long gone from that place (the 55 hour weeks finally got to me and, worse than that, a moron had been appointed as CEO).

    The strange thing about all this is that it was at this place that I had some of my happiest times at work. I think the reason was that the company was an aggressive user of technology and used it to gain competitive advantage. While we were over-worked and under-paid, we had the best toys to play with. We were always at or near the leading edge and that made up for a lot.

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  72. I work in an organization that builds managers from existing workers. We have a ‘Management’ growth path (MGP) and a ‘Technical’ growth path(TGP).

    It takes years and lots of effort to be promoted in the TGP but promotions in the MGP are very quick.

    Most promotions in MGP I’ve felt are too quick; we have young people who’ve been in the org for 2-3 years fresh out of college, and who’re promoted to Team Leads. You’d expect them to understand the people they lead because they’ve been in their shoes before, but no; I’ve found the first year as ‘Team lead’ for the new guy is also the most stressful for the team.

    So basically we have ‘techies’ taking orders from these ‘newbies’. I was all for the ‘finding and nurturing new leadership bit’ till I had to work for someone whose technical or people management skills I don’t trust.

    Everyday I pray I don’t have to have any contact with the person in question. I can’t work like this, I used to enjoy my job and was proud to be a part of the organization. Now I just feel let down by senior management, as I no longer trust them to give me good leadership. Because choosing the TGP means I will never have any say in the workings of the organization.

    I am having some pretty unhealthy and depressing thoughts, and I don’t like the person I’m becoming. ‘Should I stay or should I quit?; is the question I wrestle with everyday.

  73. Switch growth path.

    If you dislike the direction in which your group is moving, ask to be transfered from the TGP path to the MGP path. If you feel you have some talent for management, and if you think you can manage to convince your senior leaders that your ideas for change are good for the company, I see no reason why they should deny you an attempt in a role as a team leader.

    I mean…. if you have potential as a team leader, they should let you have a try, even if you selected the other development direction earlier on.

  74. My view on what geeks like in good managers is summed up in this quote about the sign that CNN media magnate, Ted Turner, apparently kept on his desk:

    Lead. Follow. Or Get Out of The Way!

    Any IT engineer who’s been through implementing an emergency change fix during production hours can probably relate.

  75. “I had a boss once who said that “training is a waste of money, just teach yourself”. That company tanked 2 years later.”

    Very True – else why would a degree matter for a management or skilled job of any kind?

    Nice blog.

  76. As an HR spoc, I always had good relations with the Geeks at all levels.
    I used to think like Geeks and act like Geeks. If management used to have lay back attitude and defer the decisions, it used to get on my nerves. I would initiate and think proactively and do things in an organized manner and communicating to every Geek in the organization. This made not only to put my thoughts across and in the success of our decisions but always to have a long standing healthy relationship between the Geeks & the management.

  77. My only comment is that using the term “geek” serves as a form of reinforcement of the notion that somehow those who specialize in the use of their technical talents to make a living are odd or strange. The term, if used in a sales meeting at the corporate management level, could only be construed as a form of disparagement.

    The trick to keeping technical staff members happy is to treat them like people. They have families, aspirations, and goals that often do not necessarily coincide with the limited objectives of a management team that only looks at short term revenue streams. Their dream jobs are likely not pounding on keyboards for the rest of their lives. God forbid, they might even want to move up into management or sales or customer relations. Unfortunately, technical personnel, perhaps more than any other class of employee, have a very thick glass ceiling that hovers over their careers.

    So, is it any wonder that a programmer or network engineer would become disinterested in the objectives of a company when he or she is used solely for the purpose of typing endless lines of code or when he is expected to come in early and stay late without any hope of receiving additional compensation or even a simple “Thank you” because the sales department overpromised a client that some feature or task would be completed in 24 hours? Is it any wonder that the utter boredom and pointlessness of most IT jobs eventually drives out the most talented people, causing them to seek either a project that challenges them in a different way or work completely unrelated to a keyboard and a mouse?

    When technical people are stopped being treated like people with only a left brain, it just might surprise everyone as to how great the wealth of talents are that a company actually has at its disposal. Entrepreneurship, market savvy, and a sixth sense with respect to what clients want are all waiting to be shown the light of day if only management and managers would stop engaging in the most feudalistic notions of once a “geek” always a “geek.”

  78. Try being a government geek. Even worse, how about an engineering geek.
    The first has an over abundance of control, obsfurcation rules the day and evidence to support the unsupportable must be produced.
    The second is often worse when programming systems and buildings only takes 20 hours (apparently), provided it is wired correctly. This is after and every man and his dog who has online gaming experience will have a go. Someone has to make poor engineering designs work.
    Most time is spent fixing everyone elses mistakes.
    The best part is occasional delving into leading edge and having more information than is ever available to anyone else. Contrarily the capacity to learn is unrestricted in government and controlled in engineering.

  79. Please be nice and not overgeneralize whoever wrote this.
    I have Aspergers syndrome and I think some others who have the brain diffrence have been grouped in with geeks and know it alls.
    I could be wrong of course and I don’t know everything.
    Actually people like me have trouble understanding unwritten rules of social and might have to be reminded of the rules over and over..
    Even then it might not stay just because it’s hard to process words.
    Otherwise we’d follow that rule strictly if we knew ahead and it was concrete maybe.
    Leave the socially awkward alone or geeks as unfortunetly commonly called.
    It’s bad enough this idea of geek in the school system promotes bullying and an easy target, we don’t need it in the workplace too.
    I agree calling someone a geek is disrespectful, like calling an african american the N word isn’t.
    The social world is already too much to handle and managers saying socially awkward types” are like herding cats are rude” people.
    I’d stay away from them.
    The managers need to get real about all the diffrent people in the world and do some reading up on all the diffrent ways of thinking and learning.

  80. Opps I meant “N word is” disrespectful comparision.
    Wrong word.
    There are just smart and know it alls without Aspergers Syndrome.
    I’m speaking for a minority.
    But geek is not a nice word, period.
    No matter who it’s talking about understanding and being assertive is the answer to whatever conflict this is between managers.
    That’s all I’ll say.

  81. I disagree with you Lynn. I know some people who use the word geek to describe themselves.

    There’s nothing wrong with being a geek, plenty of people are. if you can’t deal with being called a geek then thats your problem and nobody elses.

  82. Be proud of being a GEEK. I am! Geeks are a special breed of people that are hard working, intelligent and creative. If you’re not a geek you are one of them (ordinary). They can not use the word disparagingly if you say “Yes I am a geek and I am proud of it!”

  83. The thing is that geeks are usually very smart and very smart people often have problems in social skills. Manager just has to understand, that interacting with smart people is difficult.

  84. Great post, and some interesting responses.
    As a Geek, complete with social awkwardness, running my own IT business, I understand the cultural tension between structured management, and the geek’s need of freedom.
    If you want to seriously cramp your geeks, then structure their workload, give them tight time frames. The most important tool you can give a geek is intellectual freedom. As stated, in general geeks have an innate sense of fair play and if they feel that they are bing treated fairly, they will return the results. If they feel ‘managed’ in the strict sense of that word, you will soon loose them one way or another.

  85. You nailed this one. I manage geeks and you are right on every point. I would add one more which is:

    Geeks don’t really like being called geeks because truth be told they are usually much hipper than managers. :)

  86. Love this post! I just found your site but will be a regular from now on.

    I work with alot of high-tech clients, training their engineers and tech support reps in communication skills and positive management(http://tinyurl.com/26qspvq)

    Understanding and respecting the “geek” mentality is critical to success as a manager in today’s biz world.

  87. Brilliant article, deserves an award.

    Some people here have wished that more managers became technically skilled so as to get a clue and lead geeks the way they want to be led.
    This was my journey – from MBA, to sysadmin, networking and security type, to CIO. The best thing I learned on the way is that pressuring creatives/knowledge workers is almost always counterproductive.

    We run very lean (less than half the IT:user ratio of our ‘lean’ competitor), but it all works because we are a bullsh|t free zone where we’re not trying to apply rigid management ideas that date back to the pyramids.

    Despite excellence at the core (WAN/LAN, procurement, licensing compliance, security etc), and major deliveries (ERP, BI, CMS, VOIP, videoconferencing, mobility etc) this does mean we are a bit of a ‘black box’ that looks undercontrolled to the ‘management by objectives’ apostles in our business.

    Recently this saw a (construction) manager suddenly being shimmed in between the CEO and myself. I am now fighting to keep things going, while also coaching this new manager and doing more internal marketing so the black box looks shinier.

    From a small, focussed, hardworking but happy team, we’ve recently gone to having top technical staff who’ve been here for years telling me they’ll walk out as soon as their house sells.

    If we can’t resuscitate the team, our company will end up spending two or three times more per year (not hard with consultants and vendors setting the agenda) while wondering why things still aren’t going as well as they used to. Unfortunately, this will hurt the managers far less than it hurts the owners…

  88. Nice to be visiting your blog again, it might be months for me. Adequately this post that i’ve been waited for that long. I need this post to complete my work in the college, and it has same topic with your post. Many thanks, great write about.

  89. Great blog. IT workers are very necessary to almost every business, and while these workers may not share the same backgrounds as other workers, they are vital and you must keep them happy. The outlined techniques sound like they are very effective and I plan on trying them in my workplace environment.

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  94. I experienced number 9 recently. I started out at a big company, which definately had resources, but manager, who was techie himself, told I will get better computer, when I deliver better results, but how can I deliver results, if 5 times a day I get not responding in my tools because of bad computer’s performance. If I must deliver results and learn new stuff quickly, computer perfomance should be last thing, that holds me back. By the way, he was around 40 years old, with microsoft certifiactions. We were like 18 people in room. Overall in office 90 people. Clients all over the world. And such a weird mindset ?. It is like, I am the big man. It will go my way. Such a BS. Big ego I guess.

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