Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to Manage Geeks

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? Here are some top ways that managers can lead geeks effectively and respectfully.

Value training. If a boss thinks that training is a waste of money and expects you to teach yourself, you feel pretty de-motivated in any job. 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. Also, if you pay them well and have good benefits, they won't go somewhere else.

Give 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.Keep overtime down. Avoid taking the approach of wringing as much as possible out of IT employees just because you figure they don't lead a normal life. Wrong! That’s a huge mistake and overworked geeks burn out or simply quit. It's a complete myth that long work hours are good for business.

Avoid using 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 plain English and stick to “We gotta be on time with this project”. The latter makes total sense to everyone involved.

Don't 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.

Act consistently. 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.

Don't make the mistake of ignoring 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.

Include them in decisions. Never make decisions without consulting geeks. Geeks usually know the technical side of the business better than the manager, so making a technical decision without consulting them is one of the biggest mistakes a leader can make.

Give them the tools needed. 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.

Remember 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 innovation. They also need creative surroundings to avoid “death by cubicle”.

Recognize the outcomes of not treating geeks with respect as outlined above. Happy geeks are productive geeks, and the most important factor is good management, tailored to their situation. Doing the opposite to what has been outlined in this article has serious consequences for your organization, including:

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

Advice

- Caveat: not all geeks are the same; geeks are wildly different people and this article does generalize dangerously. And this article is not saying that all IT-people are geeks. Some are, some aren’t.

- This advice would work well with most employees, not just geeks.

- The word 'geek' in this article is not used in a derogatory manner.

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