On Perceived Pain

On Wednesday, after being tortured by Attila the Dental Hygienist (who apparently uses “scared straight” tactics to get her patients to floss more), I got to experience stage I of my first crown. I am a huge chicken when it comes to mouth pain, so I approached this whole thing with the attitude of, well, a huge chicken. My teeth aren’t easily numbed, and I’ve had live nerves hit several times, so I had a valid fear of pain during the process.

During the drilling (yes, I will eventually get to how this pertains to leading geeks–have patience), I felt PAIN! So I lifted my left hand and made them stop. I panicked, thinking that THE NOVOCAINE DIDN’T WORK and I would be IN PAIN for the rest of the procedure. I asked them to wait until I could stop hyperventilating, since I didn’t want to inhale bits of filling and tooth. And, after I thought about it for a bit, I realized that the pain wasn’t in the tooth–it was in my jaw. Apparently, my jaw muscles were protesting the vigorous cleaning and the new procedure, so each time the dentist pressed down, I’d get a shooting pain through the joint. Once I realized that it wasn’t a live tooth nerve I was feeling, I could deal with the pain and continue with the procedure.

The reason I panicked was that I felt pain and I perceived that it came from the tooth itself, because that was where it had come from historically.

While I was leading geeks, I discovered a similar phenomenon: geeks would get annoyed by something, and assume the annoyance came from where it had come historically. Geeks would also assume that people who had been wrong in the past (consistently) were wrong in the future.

For example, if something came down from “on high” that the geeks disliked (e.g., we had to wait until 9:00 PM to reboot servers rather than doing it at 6:00 PM), they would assume it came from their least favorite “on high” folks, rather than someone they might like. Sometimes, this could be comical, like when one geek insisted that a ball that I had dropped was dropped by the HR Manager–even after I insisted that I was the one who dropped it!

My geeks would also assume that users who habitually “cried wolf” would never call with a valid problem. Sometimes, it took a bit of work on my part to make them realize that the user really had a problem with which we needed to deal.

As a leader, you must be aware of the perceived pain phenomenon–even in yourself–so that you can recognize it and deal with it. As with many things, the only way to deal with it is to see it and communicate about it.

On Hubris

Today, I checked myself out of CVS using one of those self-checkout kiosks. I always feel like I’m getting out of the store much faster if I do it myself. As I awaited my bus, I realized that my believing that I was faster at checking out purchases than someone who does it every single day displayed remarkable hubris on my part. After all, every good operations class points out that as people do a task repetitively, they get better and faster at it.

Where does this come from, and what does it have to do with geeks?

Well, I think that geeks and I have this in common: we were much better at certain things than people around us. These certain things likely were related to logical thinking or problem solving, which then translated to the technical world. As such, we all believe that we are naturally just better at things than everyone else.

Although this should not translate to tasks we do not do regularly, it does in our minds. This is why I call this hubris, rather than simple ability or self-confidence (where hubris is defined as excessive self-confidence or arrogance). We/they are not trying to make others feel stupid, we just have an innate assumption that if our brains can grasp the logic behind something, we can do it better.

While leading geeks, it is good to keep this in mind. It means that sometimes they need to be told–gently–that while they might be the smartest people in the room, others occasionally know how to do things.

Speaking of Socialization…

I coauthored an article on social networking called, “LinkedIn to My Facebook on My Blog,” with Doug Cornelius of KM Space (he managed to blog about it on Friday). We discuss social networking and various sites for lawyers and law firm staff. It’s not too legal-specific, however, so you might actually enjoy it.

You can find the the article in the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) white paper called Marketing Technologies–Putting Your Best Face Forward. Doug has a link to the article itself on his entry.

On Geek Socialization

One thing that surprised me about geeks was how much they actually do like to socialize.

Yes, socialize.

Maybe they’re not out at martini bars with the beautiful people, but very few of them dislike social interaction altogether. My geeks really enjoyed chatting with each other in-person (although I understand that they did even more chatting electronically), much to my surprise. Also to my surprise was that the chatter didn’t often get out of hand, especially with the amount of time they spent chatting.

By letting this chatter go (i.e., not asking them to stop), I allowed them to bond as a team and hash out problems together. I know that non-geeks can sometimes go overboard with the amount of time they spend chatting, but most geeks–especially introverted ones–should be encouraged to chat with each other.

Why? Because when stressful times and crises occur, it is exactly those interpersonal bonds formed via socialization that will allow the geeks to work well together. If they already know and like or trust each other, they will be more likely to forgive a snippy comment or approach each other when they need help. And as a geek leader, I value that teamwork.

On Decisions

Making decisions with geeks around can be frustrating sometimes. You ask for their input, make a decision, and then (moments later), they start offering alternatives to the decision.

Hello? Did they not hear what I just said?

Well, they did hear it. But it didn’t stop their minds from working on it. And that’s what you’re experiencing when they start offering alternatives to the decision that you thought you already made.

You might find it frustrating, but, if you cannot go back on the decision, I would suggest trying to simply tell them that you’re done with the decision and can move on. Surprisingly, they usually won’t find that offensive. (That was the part I had to learn.)

You should also consider listening to them, assuming that you can change the decision. Sometimes those post-decision ideas are much better than anything that led to the decision.

On Teamwork

Many geeks have the propensity to be individualistic animals.

The geek is nocturnal and is a solitary creature that feeds almost exclusively on Doritos and Coke; the only fruit eaten by geeks is that fermented into beer. A geek emerges from its burrow in the late afternoon or shortly after sunset, and operates over a limited home range, peering at a computer screen. When a concentration of Slashdot articles is detected, the geek digs into it with its powerful skills, keeping its shoulders hunched in order to escape management notice. When successful, the incorrect people’s or troll’s stinging attacks are rendered futile by the amazing power of the geek’s brain. Its keen hearing warns it of predators: managers, directors, and idiotic users.

(Description flagrantly poached from Wikipedia’s Aardvark entry. It’s surprising how little I had to change.)

Despite the geek’s solitary tendencies, she may be required to work on projects that involve (gasp) other people. If the geek is fortunate, she will have to work in a team with other geeks, who are more likely to have the same tendencies. In this circumstance, geeks are usually capable of finding their own common ground, and your skills as a leader will be called upon in the case of conflicting ideas and solutions.

If the geek is unfortunate, she will have to work in a team with non-geeks or semi-geeks, who have vastly differing habits. For example, she may be required to attend a meeting in the morning, or communicate via telephone or face-to-face. In this case, as a leader, you will be required to prod your geek a bit more in order to make her engage in this working environment.

Whenever a geek with solitary tendencies is forced into any team environment, watch her carefully. Make sure she has your support, and do not assume she understands group behaviors that you believe to be normal. Many geeks will rise to the challenge and surprise you. Some might take mentoring in order to learn how to adapt to this environment. There are very few who cannot eventually adapt, at least for short periods of time.

On Language, Part 2

You can find On Language, Part 1 here.

If you are a leader of geeks, you will find that you often have to translate their tasks and projects to someone above. Someone distinctly NOT a geek. Someone who might think that the word “incentivize” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Clearly, this person has no idea what an IP address is, wouldn’t know a heap from a haystack, and may have put a CD in the holder with the label side down once or twice.

He and the geeks just don’t speak the same language. Literally.

So what do you do? You prepare.

If your geek has just explained something that will “massively improve business as we know it!!!” Your first inclination might be to run into the non-geek’s office and tell him all about it! The problem is that he’s not going to understand a word, and will probably just get frustrated and angry. Trust me, I’ve done this before. It works about as well as trying to use business-school speak with geeks, and the non-geek can probably make your life a lot more miserable than they can.

When you do run to the non-geek’s office (I’d actually suggest setting up a meeting and telling him what it’s about), you need to lead with the business–not the technology. Will the solution fix the painfully slow Citrix problem? Then tell him that your geek has found the solution for the remote access problem, and give him timelines and resource requirements for implementation. Can you massively cut costs with the solution? Then lead with that.

If you spend the bulk of your time with your geeks, leading with your business foot will not be your first inclination, because you spend most of your time hopping around on your geek foot. This foot, unfortunately, is more likely to step on a non-geek’s toes (geek feet being more awkward and all that). If you think about which foot you use when you walk into the non-geek’s office, you’ll be more likely to have a leg to stand on.

Really bad puns aside, this type of translation takes practice. If you haven’t had the (mis)fortune of going to business school, listen to the language that the non-geek speaks and use that kind of language when you communicate with him. It might feel annoying or awkward (try not to roll your eyes when he says “synergy”), but it will make your job, your geek’s job, and the business guy’s job much easier in the long run.

On Trading

Once I traded a bottle of vodka to a geek for a vacation day.

We were in the midst of our second water disaster in five days, and I knew we would need to support sneakernet (where documents were dumped to USB drives and run to local printers) the next day, so I needed all hands. He wasn’t leaving town, and I was perfectly within my rights to simply revoke the day, but I didn’t–I said, “Can I trade you a bottle of vodka for your vacation day tomorrow?” Two weeks after he gave up that day, I showed up with a bottle of Grey Goose, and handed it to him.

Did my company reimburse me for the vodka? No. Did the vodka’s cost in any way resemble the cost to him for the day? No. Neither of those was the point.

The point was to recognize that I was asking him to sacrifice his personal benefit for the good of the company. I knew that he would lose the vacation day, since it was December and he couldn’t carry any over. He knew that I definitely needed his help. The vodka was a tangible recognition that he was doing something explicitly to his cost and for my benefit.

Overall, it was likely more of a “thank you” gift than an overt trade, but it is the most explicit example I have of a small way to make a geek feel appreciated when he goes above and beyond.

On Prioritization

One thing that I had to learn about leading geeks was how differently each geek treats self-management. Some geeks preferred that I list out every possible task I wanted them to do and then chat about general priorities, leaving them to prioritize specifically for themselves. Other geeks wanted just a few projects at a time with specific priorities, allowing them to methodically match my requirements.

My difficulty with the latter type of geek was that I have a personal weakness when it comes to specific prioritization: I’m not specific within my own mind. I build clouds of projects of varying priorities and then try to utilize my staff to have all the projects in the top cloud covered immediately, and go from there. If I’m asked about the priority of project 1 vs. project 2, I find it easy to answer, but I find it more difficult to prioritize the gigantic list of projects and requests that an IT department encounters daily.

So what did I do? I learned. I realized that it was horribly inefficient for me to cling to my abstract thinking at the expense of assisting my team to perform at their best. If someone needed explicit priorities, I would either figure them out before assigning tasks, or (more often) actually sit down with the geek and determine precise priorities together. The latter approach had the advantage of bringing another brain into the prioritization process, and that different perspective led to better overall priority decisions.

It’s not all about manipulating the geeks; often, it’s about changing oneself.

On Frustration and Listening

Eric pointed out, in a comment on my previous post:

I think another key component is to make sure they feel like they are heard. This goes beyond letting them vent, and making sure that you can state back to them why they feel that the chosen course is wrong. Nothing is more frustrating and disempowering than feeling like one’s expertise (because every geek is an expert in his or her own mind) is being overlooked.

Once they believe that you understand their position, then you can explain the reasons why their position doesn’t address the other concerns of the company. They may not care about those concerns, but I think it does help for geeks to hear that there are reasons for the decision, even if the geeks don’t agree with those reasons.

To really get them on board may require several repetitions of this cycle.

And he’s absolutely right. I alluded to this a bit in my post On Praise, where I mention that the geek must accept the thought that she is not talking above my head. Another way to put that would be to say that it must be clear to the geek that I have listened to her and understood what she said.

So how do I make a geek feel heard?

Step 1: Step away from the Blackberry/telephone/computer. I know you’re too busy for words, but parallel processing while a geek is trying to talk to you is insulting to him at best. If you’re expecting a vital call, warn him early in the conversation that there will be a call that you have to take, and apologize. If you have to answer an email (or need to finish the thought you’re typing), ask him to hold on a moment while you finish your thought so that you can pay attention.

I used to turn myself towards my geek while I finished typing. It usually caused amusement that I could keep typing while looking at him, and gave me a chance to finish my thought. Oh, and if you must fidget? I’d ask if it was okay if I opened my mail while we chatted, or I’d play with paper clips or various office supplies. Some of us just can’t be still, I suppose, but don’t fidget with your Blackberry.

Step 2: Make eye contact. Okay; so your geek might not be pretty, or he might tend to stare at the floor as he speaks, but you should at least be looking in his vicinity so that he notices that you’re paying attention when he glances up. Besides, if you’re not looking at him, I’ll bet you’re looking at your Blackberry, aren’t you?

Step 3: This one’s classic: paraphrase back. If you don’t like sounding like you’re waiting for your pirate to give you a cracker, you might find that paraphrasing back via asking questions is easier. For example, “So if SP2 might break our document management system, which of your two avoidance ideas seems best to you?”

These are the three steps I’ve learned the hard way are effective for making geeks feel heard. I’m sure I’ve missed some steps and suggestions–I’d love to hear about them!