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!

On Frustration

I’ve noticed that geeks tend to get frustrated fairly easily. They especially do not like when others are pursuing or demanding courses of action that the geeks believe are clearly wrong. Add in their losing arguments about the actions with said others, and you have some really frustrated and angry geeks.

As a leader of geeks, I’ve found myself between the geeks and the “others” (any other Lost fans out there?) many times. In each case, it has been my job to make sure the geeks take the “wrong” course of action. Not a fun place to be, because pissed-off geeks can bring technology departments to a screeching halt.

I believe that much of this frustration happens because geeks just aren’t accustomed to losing arguments–especially if they believe that the other side’s opinion is just plain wrong. They also dislike when others will not listen to their logic. That it might be because the others have valid business reasons and logic for the “wrong” actions does not usually enter into their thinking, in part because the business reasons and logic have been expressed in language they do not hear or understand (see below post On Language for more on that).

So what do you do if you’re in the middle? Well, there’s no sure-fire fix here. I try to do three things: let them vent, apologize, and try to make it easier for them to carry out the “wrong” task. If they are still struggling with frustration after several days, I try to schedule a night out for the team–bitching about the “others” (and even about me) in a non-work environment often makes the task easier. Also? Many geeks like alcohol.

No geek likes doing something he sees as wrong or being unable to convince folks with his logic. All you can do as a leader is try to ease his pain and hope that your actions help the department to start running again.