How not to lead geeks

ED: I saw this in my boss’ office today, and had to Google it. I agree with the author 100%. It’s an old article, and I wonder why I never saw this before.

Original post can be found by clicking on the title below.

How NOT to lead geeks

March 14, 2006 @ 10:02 am by Alexander Kjerulf

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.