Ruminations on "The unspoken truth about managing geeks"

Jeff Ello wrote a great piece in Computer World about managing “geeks”. It’s getting a lot of press, good and bad, and really sparked me back into this conversation. If you replace “geek” and “IT pro” in the article with “knowledge worker”, it’s almost eerie how in sync our opinions are. Jeff and I both have a lot of dual experience- seeing organizations from the inside-out as employees, and seeing them from the outside-in as consultants. I’ve written a lot about my pinings for knowledge workers, including an essay here. Jeff’s editorial really takes a good, honest jab, and one I want to “Amen” as loudly as I can:


I really want to call attention to some of the finer, most important, high-impact parts of his essay. The focus of this is management, but if you’re in a relationship, or friends with a knowledge worker, you’re generally just as likely to be impacted for all the same reasons as someone in the same IT establishment.


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.

My closest friend once warned a newcomer, “if Matt was consistently nice to you, you’d be irrelevant.” This is not a concious thing, but it is very real. Arguments, seemingly unprofessional behaviour, witty banter, are all ways of negotiating decisions and divining truth and logic. No knowledge worker wastes energy or logic on people that aren’t worth the investment. We’ll take bullets for those we respect, but wouldn’t lift a finger for those we don’t. That respect is earned by a confluence of aptitude, attitude, and appreciation. I’ll fall over myself trying to help a bright person who bakes me cookies, or someone who admits they’ve got a problem and is willing to do what it takes to solve it. But bright and ungrateful, or troubled and unwilling to learn – forget it. I’ve got better things to do.

IT pros are [not] antisocial. On the whole, they have plenty to say.

The biggest misconception you can make is that a knowledge worker’s lack of engagement has anything to do with being anti-social. Sure, there are some socially awkward people in any group, in any industry, but they’re not the mass. Again, it has to do with the value of communication. Don’t expect a network architect to ramble on about dulcimer trees and virtually redundant paths to your HR director- They can assess, instantly, the subject-matter competency of their audience and will prefer to say nothing and hover by the punch bowl over engaging people who won’t understand anything they have to say. This works the other way as well. Knoweldge workers don’t care about accrual systems nor the intricacies of handling the corporate Christmas Fund.


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.

Look at your IT group:

  • Do they hang-out voluntarily outside of work? Knowledge workers don’t generally leisure with anyone they don’t respect.
  • Do they invite managers to do things? A manager who is being included by a team has their respect.
  • Do they invite managers outside of their chain-of-command to do things? You may have a synergy there you’re not realizing the potential of.
  • Who do they eat with? Meal time is leisure time. Geeks don’t eat with people that give them indigestion.

The more synergies you see within the above dynamics, the more likely you have a successful team on your hands. If you observe these groupings happening across group-lines (server guys and network guys… network guys and programmers… helpdesk and programmers, whatever), that’s a pretty good indication you’ve got good geeks, and they’re gelling well . If you notice team members heading for the door the moment work is “over”, never involved with other members, probably they’re being shunned and you’ve got some decisions to make.

Minesweeper Consultant, Solitaire Expert

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’ve never met a knowledge worker that cares about degrees or certifications, theirs or others. Your MIS or MBA earns you no credibility. Your A+ or MCSE won’t even get you a second glance. Experience, demonstrable skill, and respect are the only currencies that matter. The worst thing a manager, co-worker, or anyone else can do is try to fake it. Fraud is always a bad decision, generally generates more work, and smacks of irresponsibility- None of those things a knowledge worker will appreciate.

It’s Lupus

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.

Would you prefer a nice doctor that cuts off your left leg to cure your broken right thumb? Or someone who barely acknowledges you exist, but seemingly effortlessly diagnoses your rare condition, and sets you on the correct treatment before walking out of the room, never to see you again? If I had a nickel for every time my mother said “no one likes a know-it-all”, I would have retired at 17. Your uber knowledge workers are always right. They are. They have to be. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t keep them around. Why would you? What’s the point in an asshole who’s wrong frequently/all the time? Showing that you have confidence in their decisions, and will back them up in between the time that they say “we should do X” and X is finally proven to be “right” means the world to them, and gains you major credibility. Throwing out illogical arguments, or pedantic edge-cases that are nothing more than theoretical CYA, loses you major credibility.

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.

Separating the Wheat from the Chafe

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.

Team members that aren’t competent and are unwilling to learn need to be reassigned away from knowledge workers. They’re poisonous, and over time will drag down morale and cause retention problems.

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

As a manager, if you have a group that actively works to maintain the status quo; not changing or evolving with the times; not improving or increasing services – then you have a problem. The problem could be you, or it could be the group, or it could be a bit of both.

Knowledge workers strive to create efficiency and to evolve their own role. Good knowledge workers will seek out new services to offer, or new ways to do old things. Great knowledge workers will continuously automate their “old job” such that every 6…8…15 months their current job looks nothing (relatively) like their old job. If they’re not doing this (re-read Self-organization, too), it’s time to shake things up.

If the problem is you, shore up your support for them. Make a real, sustained effort to get in their corner- to show them you have their back. It’s amazing how quickly a good group can turn around with a little consistent, positive focus. An obtuse group won’t respond at all to TLC.

Some people will still think I spelled chaff wrong.

You’re Paying Money For That?

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.

Nothing sets a knowledge worker off faster, more viscerally, or with less ability to restrain, than making an illogical or over-valued acquisition. If your team says “we can do that with open source software” or “we could do that in-house”, you need to listen. What they’re really saying is “only an idiot would go and spend money on shit… Money you’re not putting into our salaries”. Knowledge workers want to provide great services. They’re not going to suggest a product that stinks, or won’t meet the needs- it would reflect poorly on their decision-making skills. The more upset they are, the more you need to listen. That nice shiny new pair of shoes with all the bells and whistles will cost you dearly in morale. Dearly.

Pointless administravia like meaningless “evaluations”, paperwork, etc. are similarly likely to receive push-back.

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… It can cost an organization literally millions of dollars.

When HR goes out and buys a new HR system that’s “easy to use” and “won’t burden your IT people” and wizzbangwow without consulting IT on several levels, this is a bad thing. Of course, when you bring in your knowledge workers, and they say “this really shouldn’t be purchased”, you need to listen to them. Again, I’ve never met a knowledge worker that gives a care about their own workload: they care about making sound decisions, and helping the organization succeed. HR may be impressed with the marketing glitz surrounding the nice shiny new pair of shoes with all the bells and whistles, but that doesn’t mean the organization should acquire it.

Management Behaving Absurdly

Good IT pros are not anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity.

Sun-Tzu said (out of order) “Defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win, while victorious warriors win first and then go to war”.

Mat-Thew said “A manager takes a collection of resources and accomplishes work, while a leader fosters accomplishment by inspiring their resources toward work”.

If you feel your knowledge workers have problems with authority or don’t respect you because you’re bureaucratic, you could be right. However, Occam’s Razor tells us that if you see this problem in more of your workers than you don’t, the problem isn’t them… It’s you.

Even marginal knowledge workers acknowledge the need for, and willing to participate in, logical bureaucracy. They want to get paid, so they account for their hours and report them. They want to have a record of work, so they will use ticketing systems. They want the organization to succeed, so they will provide truthful expert knowledge when called upon (a manager would call this a “meeting”), as long as there is logical purpose for the provision.

Arbitrary or micro-management, illogical decisions, inconsistent policies, the creation of unnecessary work.

If you have personnel who need micro-management, they’re not knowledge workers – but smart (ostensibly) people there to collect a paycheck. You’ll also notice through self-organization, that they’ll be on the “outside”. Micro-managing knowledge workers is detrimental, because it steps on self-organization, shows lack of understanding, and most damningly- it causes a knowledge worker to question your motives, and increases the likelihood you’re a credit whore.

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.

As a manager, nothing will create an image problem for you faster than if those over you don’t feel they can get the answers they need from you. If executives are talking directly to your subordinates, you’re getting side-doored, and are becoming irrelevant. Once this hits a critical mass, expect to be relocated or removed altogether. IT managers must have awareness of what’s going on now, what technologies are being used, and where your knowledge workers are leading into tomorrow. If you don’t know those things, or can’t communicate them up the ladder, you’re obsolete.

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.

I can’t expand much on this. If you’re managing systems people, learn systems- constantly. Programmers? Network analysts? Doesn’t matter- you need to stay current with their world. You do not need their depth of knowledge, but they need you to understand that C is more than the third letter of the alphabet, that linked-lists should never be used outside of a computer science class, that flow control is good but flow constraint is bad, that X is something more than the 24th letter of the alphabet, and you damned-well better know the non-paged memory limit of a 32-bit system architecture.


IT pros would prefer to make a good decision than to get credit for it.

I was having coffee with a colleague earlier this week (discussing management pitfalls, ironically), when a woman I took classes with many years ago walked up and said “I didn’t know you worked here!” My colleague smiled at her and said “You really just made his day by saying that”. It’s true. Knowledge workers want to be involved in sound decisions, and furthering goals, mostly eschewing credit as long as internal respect orders are maintained. Knowledge workers will chew on their tongues until they bleed to avoid  saying “I told you so” (although it’s always on the tip of their tongue, and do come out, occasionally); they’ll credit “the team” when a spotlight is on them.

If you have people that say “I” instead of “we” frequently, there are two reasons. Either the person is there for just a paycheck, or there is concern that management will take credit for their work. Don’t do that. If you look at self-organization, you should be able to spot where they stand.

Making Management Matter

The primary task of any IT group is to teach people how to work. That’s may sound authoritarian, but it’s not.

Left to their own devices, non-knowledge workers (inside, and outside of IT) will maintain the status quo. They’ll do the minimum necessary to collect their paycheck, and never work any smarter. As a manager, it’s critical that you realize the value of your knowledge workers beyond their cubicle walls. Your top people can raise the bar across the organization, provide strategic visioning, and fundamentally improve (which means “change”, a scary thing) how the organization functions.

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.

As said previously, knowledge workers will take bullets for those they respect. Once you’ve earned it stay engaged, take non-managerial interest in what’s going on, keep them excited about working for you even when the work they’re doing isn’t.

Favor technical competence and leadership skills.

When you notice a knowledge worker take the reins in a crisis and pull the whole group – possible even other groups – through it, that should leave an impression with you. That worker should be your right hand. If they aren’t in your team, maybe you need to figure out how to change that. When you notice a knowledge worker disavow responsibility for a failure – personal or team – or come up with lists of excuses, that too should leave an impression with you. Irresponsibility is not a trait of a knowledge worker. Not ever.

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.

Delegating chores and administravia to knowledge workers is a waste of money, brainpower, and above all: Respect. Insulate your brainshare from these items and let them provide you value.

When it comes to performance checks, yearly reviews are worthless without a 360-degree assessment.

Everyone hates performance checks, whether knowledge worker, clock-fodder, runt or luddite. The key item is that knowledge workers are all for assessments if they’re purposeful and logical. Having a manager rate a subordinate (generally higher than they deserve), write some courteous crap (because their MBA professor told them that positive rewards work better than punishments) and give them goals to work on (because there’s always room for improvement), is an illogical, purposeless system that doesn’t result in the subordinate understanding any more about themselves or their performance. It’s total crap. Total. Crap.

Multi-factor assessments (such as the 360, the author mentions) are actually logical, have defined purpose, and result in a fairly consistent understanding about how their performance is perceived. MFAs involve diagnostics by superiors, subordinates, peers, and others with sufficient contact and experience: Sometimes major clients, organization psychologists, whomever. This takes a lot of work, but I’ve seen it correct some fairly chronic problems in short-order. Seeing that everyone thinks you need to shower more, generally has some impact.

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.

I, like a lot of knowledge workers, wear two hats: We’re an employee somewhere, and we’re consultants. As employees, often, we’re undervalued, underpaid, and our opinions don’t matter outside of niche topics. As consultants, often, we’re prized and paraded, CEOs and CIOs hang on our recommendations, technical staff cower knowing our every gesture will generate work for them, and when the sizable invoice arrives the payment clerks make sure it is turned around immediately.

It’s a surprisingly sharp dichotomy to live with, but those of us that do this understand it: As employees, we make hundreds (thousands, sometimes) of decisions a day, fifty weeks a year, the vast majority of them silently making things better from the shadows. As such, the organization doesn’t really value our individual decisions. As consultants, we make a handful of decisions, all of them pedantically documented and justified, and our clients revel in the certainty that their consultant just made some amazing decisions, and will put together working groups to implement them post-haste.

I had a consulting gig a few years ago where I quickly identified a knowledge worker who was pretty much a subject matter expert in what I was there to do. I separated him from the greater group and we had a discussion over lunch, where he eventually confided his frustration that I was there at all. I told him, essentially, what was in the previous paragraph, and said he should start making all of his decisions out loud while I was there. It would be obnoxious, abrupt, and I would end up getting sick of it – but it served the intended purpose: He knew what he was talking about, and was making congruent decisions to my own. They didn’t need to pay me $5k/day to do what their in-house SME could do for far less. That was the last time they called me in for that topic, and last I checked, the SME was a division head.

As a manager, you need to pull your knowledge workers out of their zones. You need to get their opinions on greater organizational issues. Not only will they respect you for it, but the successes they breed will be attributed to your foresight in engaging them.

A Nice Little Bow

Taking an honest interest in helping your IT group help you is probably the smartest business move an organization can make.

I sound like a broken record, but it all really comes down to this: Engage, listen, learn, support, encourage, repeat.

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.

If you have subordinates unwilling to do new things, learn new things, or avoid work- they’re not knowledge workers, they’re there to collect a paycheck. Where you should see heated battles is over the details: Which technologies should be used to solve a problem? Which systems should be involved? How will it be pathed? Where will it have dependencies? How will it survive global thermonuclear war? Can it be prototyped? Can it be virtualized? Should it be virtualized? Synchronous or asynchronous? Threaded or processed? Static or dynamic? Database or flatfile? Which database? I feel a lot better just writing out all those things. That’s what matters.

Our most dynamic group has taken a “build it, and they will come” mentality for numerous services that eventually became focal-points for the organization. They go out of their way to do “unofficial” development work, subversively at times, knowing that in the end they were making good decisions, and providing valuable solutions. That’s what a real knowledge worker does, and that’s really all they care about.

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