[FoRK] Managing geeks

kelley kelley at inkworkswell.com
Fri Sep 18 17:30:43 PDT 2009

A friend at work sent me this and I found some of it spot on and got to 
wondering what FoRKers thought. In it the Jeff Ello argues that the IT 
leadership is about technical expertise and respect. When those two things 
are missing, it creates an organizational structure that brings out or 
exacerbates the stereotypes of IT  with which we are familiar.

As an aside on that topic, I read Managing Humans and Dreaming in Code a 
month ago or so and utterly loved both of them. Managing Humans made me 
laugh so hard when I opened the page to the first chapter title, I startled 
my neighbor who was weeding his garden while I sat nearby reading and 
laughing like a crazy person. I'll rave my praise for Dreaming in Code 
another time since I've got too much on plate right now. Just wanted to 
recommend them to FoRKers if you haven't read them.

Here's the article:

The unspoken truth about managing geeks


I can sum up every article, book and column written by notable management 
experts about managing IT in two sentences: "Geeks are smart and creative, 
but they are also egocentric, antisocial, managerially and 
business-challenged, victim-prone, bullheaded and credit-whoring. To 
overcome these intractable behavioral deficits you must do X, Y and Z."

X, Y and Z are variable and usually contradictory between one expert and 
the next, but the patronizing stereotypes remain constant. I'm not entirely 
sure that is helpful. So, using the familiar brush, allow me to paint a 
different picture of those IT pros buried somewhere in your organization.
Jeff Ello

My career has been stippled with a good bit of disaster recovery 
consulting, which has led me to deal with dozens of organizations on their 
worst day, when opinions were pretty raw. I've heard all of the 
above-mentioned stereotypes and far worse, as well as good bit of rage. The 
worse shape an organization is in, the more you hear the stereotypes thrown 
around. But my personal experiences working within IT groups have always 
been quite good, working with IT pros for whom the negative stereotypes 
just don't seem to apply. I tended to chalk up IT group failures to some 
bad luck in hiring and the delicate balance of those geek stereotypes.

Recently, though, I have come to realize that perfectly healthy groups with 
solid, well-adjusted IT pros can and will devolve, slowly and quietly, into 
the behaviors that give rise to the stereotypes, given the right set of 
conditions. It turns out that it is the conditions that are stereotypical, 
and the IT pros tend to react to those conditions in logical ways. To say 
it a different way, organizations actively elicit these stereotypical 
negative behaviors.

Understanding why IT pros appear to act the way they do makes working with, 
among and as one of them the easiest job in the world.

It's all about respect

Few people notice this, but for IT groups respect is the currency of the 
realm. IT pros do not squander this currency. Those whom they do not 
believe are worthy of their respect might instead be treated to 
professional courtesy, a friendly demeanor or the acceptance of authority. 
Gaining respect is not a matter of being the boss and has nothing to do 
with being likeable or sociable; whether you talk, eat or smell right; or 
any measure that isn't directly related to the work. The amount of respect 
an IT pro pays someone is a measure of how tolerable that person is when it 
comes to getting things done, including the elegance and practicality of 
his solutions and suggestions. IT pros always and without fail, quietly 
self-organize around those who make the work easier, while shunning those 
who make the work harder, independent of the organizational chart.

This self-ordering behavior occurs naturally in the IT world because it is 
populated by people skilled in creative analysis and ordered reasoning. 
Doctors are a close parallel. The stakes may be higher in medicine, but the 
work in both fields requires a technical expertise that can't be faked and 
a proficiency that can only be measured by qualified peers. I think every 
good IT pro on the planet idolizes Dr. House (minus the addictions).

While everyone would like to work for a nice person who is always right, IT 
pros will prefer a jerk who is always right over a nice person who is 
always wrong. Wrong creates unnecessary work, impossible situations and 
major failures. Wrong is evil, and it must be defeated. Capacity for 
technical reasoning trumps all other professional factors, period.

Foundational (bottom-up) respect is not only the largest single determining 
factor in the success of an IT team, but the most ignored. I believe you 
can predict success or failure of an IT group simply by assessing the 
amount of mutual respect within it.

The elements of the stereotypes

Ego -- Similar to what good doctors do, IT pros figure out that the proper 
projection of ego engenders trust and reduces apprehension. Because IT 
pros' education does not emphasize how to deal with people, there are 
always rough edges. Ego, as it plays out in IT, is an essential confidence 
combined with a not-so-subtle cynicism. It's not about being right for the 
sake of being right but being right for the sake of saving a lot of time, 
effort, money and credibility. IT is a team sport, so being right or wrong 
impacts other members of the group in non-trivial ways. Unlike in many 
industries, in IT, colleagues can significantly influence the careers of 
the entire team. Correctness yields respect, respect builds good teams, and 
good teams build trust and maintain credibility through a healthy 
projection of ego. Strong IT groups view correctness as a virtue, and 
certitude as a delivery method. Meek IT groups, beaten down by inconsistent 
policies and a lack of structural support, are simply ineffective at 
driving change and creating efficiencies, getting mowed over by the 
clients, the management or both at every turn.

The victim mentality -- IT pros are sensitive to logic -- that's what you 
pay them for. When things don't add up, they are prone to express their 
opinions on the matter, and the level of response will be proportional to 
the absurdity of the event. The more things that occur that make no sense, 
the more cynical IT pros will become. Standard organizational politics 
often run afoul of this, so IT pros can come to be seen as whiny or as 
having a victim mentality. Presuming this is a trait that must be 
disciplined out of them is a huge management mistake. IT pros complain 
primarily about logic, and primarily to people they respect. If you are 
dismissive of complaints, fail to recognize an illogical event or behave in 
deceptive ways, IT pros will likely stop complaining to you. You might 
mistake this as a behavioral improvement, when it's actually a show of 
disrespect. It means you are no longer worth talking to, which leads to 

Insubordination -- This is a tricky one. Good IT pros are not 
anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity. The 
difference is both subjective and subtle. Good IT pros, whether they are 
expected to or not, have to operate and make decisions with little 
supervision. So when the rules are loose and logical and supervision is 
results-oriented, supportive and helpful to the process, IT pros are loyal, 
open, engaged and downright sociable. Arbitrary or micro-management, 
illogical decisions, inconsistent policies, the creation of unnecessary 
work and exclusionary practices will elicit a quiet, subversive, almost 
vicious attitude from otherwise excellent IT staff. Interestingly, IT 
groups don't fall apart in this mode. From the outside, nothing looks to be 
wrong and the work still gets done. But internally, the IT group, or 
portions of it, may cut themselves off almost entirely from the intended 
management structure. They may work on big projects or steer the group 
entirely from the shadows while diverting the attention of supervisors to 
lesser topics. They believe they are protecting the organization, as well 
as their own credibility -- and they are often correct.

Credit whoring -- IT pros would prefer to make a good decision than to get 
credit for it. What will make them seek credit is the danger that a member 
of the group or management who is dangerous to the process might receive 
the credit for the work instead. That is insulting. If you've got a lot of 
credit whores in your IT group, there are bigger problems causing it.

Antisocial behavior -- It's fair to say that there is a large contingent of 
IT pros who are socially unskilled. However, this doesn't mean those IT 
pros are antisocial. On the whole, they have plenty to say. If you want to 
get your IT pros more involved, you should deal with the problems laid out 
above and then train your other staff how to deal with IT. Users need to be 
reminded a few things, including:
    * IT wants to help me.
    * I should keep an open mind.
    * IT is not my personal tech adviser, nor is my work computer my 
personal computer.
    * IT people have lives and other interests.

Like anyone else, IT people tend to socialize with people who respect them. 
They'll stop going to the company picnic if it becomes an occasion for 
everyone to list all the computer problems they never bothered to mention 

How we elicit the stereotypes

What executives often fail to recognize is that every decision made that 
impacts IT is a technical decision. Not just some of the decisions, and not 
just the details of the decision, but every decision, bar none.

With IT, you cannot separate the technical aspects from the business 
aspects. They are one and the same, each constrained by the other and both 
constrained by creativity. Creativity is the most valuable asset of an IT 
group, and failing to promote it can cost an organization literally 
millions of dollars.

Most IT pros support an organization that is not involved with IT. The 
primary task of any IT group is to teach people how to work. That's may 
sound authoritarian, but it's not. IT's job at the most fundamental level 
is to build, maintain and improve frameworks within which to accomplish 
tasks. You may not view a Web server as a framework to accomplish tasks, 
but it does automate the processes of advertising, sales, informing and 
entertaining, all of which would otherwise be done in other ways. IT groups 
literally teach and reteach the world how to work. That's the job.

When you understand the mission of IT, it isn't hard to see why co-workers 
and supervisors are judged severely according to their abilities to 
contribute to that process. If someone has to constantly be taught 
Computers 101 every time a new problem presents itself, he can't contribute 
in the most fundamental way. It is one thing to deal with that from a 
co-worker, but quite another if the people who represent IT to the 
organization at large aren't cognizant of how the technology works, can't 
communicate it in the manner the IT group needs it communicated, can't 
maintain consistency, take credit for the work of the group members, etc. 
This creates a huge morale problem for the group. Executives expect expert 
advice from the top IT person, but they have no way of knowing when they 
aren't getting it. Therein lies the problem.

IT pros know when this is happening, and they find that it is impossible to 
draw attention to it. Once their work is impeded by the problem, they will 
adopt strategies and behaviors that help circumvent the issue. That is not 
a sustainable state, but how long it takes to deteriorate can be days, 
months or even years.

How to fix it

So, if you want to have a really happy, healthy and valuable IT group, I 
recommend one thing: Take an interest. IT pros work their butts off for 
people they respect, so you need to give them every reason to afford you some.

You can start with the hiring process. When hiring an IT pro, imagine 
you're recruiting a doctor. And if you're hiring a CIO, think of employing 
a chief of medicine. The chief of medicine should have many qualifications, 
but first and foremost, he should be a practicing doctor. Who decides if a 
doctor is a doctor? Other doctors! So, if your IT group isn't at the table 
for the hiring process of their bosses and peers, this already does a 
disservice to the process.

Favor technical competence and leadership skills. Standard managerial 
processes are nearly useless in an IT group. As I mentioned, if you've 
managed to hire well in the lower ranks of your IT group, the staff already 
know how to manage things. Unlike in many industries, the fight in most IT 
groups is in how to get things done, not how to avoid work. IT pros will 
self-organize, disrupt and subvert in the name of accomplishing work. An 
over-structured, micro-managing, technically deficient runt, no matter how 
polished, who's thrown into the mix for the sake of management will get a 
response from the professional IT group that's similar to anyone's response 
to a five-year-old tugging his pants leg.

What IT pros want in a manager is a technical sounding board and a source 
of general direction. Leadership and technical competence are qualities to 
look for in every member of the team. If you need someone to keep track of 
where projects are, file paperwork, produce reports and do customer 
relations, hire some assistants for a lot less money.

When it comes to performance checks, yearly reviews are worthless without a 
360-degree assessment. Those things take more time than a simple top-down 
review, but it is time well spent. If you've been paying attention to what 
I've been telling you about how IT groups behave and organize, then you 
will see your IT group in a whole different light when you read the group's 

And make sure all your managers are practicing and learning. It is very 
easy to slip behind the curve in those positions, but just as with doctors, 
the only way to be relevant is to practice and maintain an expertise. In 
IT, six months to a year is all that stands between respect and irrelevance.

Finally, executives should have multiple in-points to the IT team. If the 
IT team is singing out of tune, it is worth investigating the reasons. But 
you'll never even know if that's the case if the only information you 
receive is from the CIO. Periodically, bring a few key IT brains to the 
boardroom to observe the problems of the organization at large, even about 
things outside of the IT world, if only to make use of their exquisitely 
refined BS detectors. A good IT pro is trained in how to accomplish work; 
their skills are not necessarily limited to computing. In fact, the best 
business decision-makers I know are IT people who aren't even managers.

As I said at the very beginning, it's all about respect. If you can 
identify and cultivate those individuals and processes that earn genuine 
respect from IT pros, you'll have a great IT team. Taking an honest 
interest in helping your IT group help you is probably the smartest 
business move an organization can make. It also makes for happy, completely 
non-geek-like geeks.

When you need to communicate, Ink Works!
(757) 717-9969 (cell) 

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