Press "Enter" to skip to content

Leading Geeks by Paul Glen

Leading Geeks on Library Thing

You’ve all seen the IT crowd – where a technically inexperienced new manager – albeit with great interpersonal skills – is put in charge of a cynical, often disorganised IT team. Chaos – and humour – ensue. In the real world, things are somewhat different. The fact remains that leading highly technical professionals – geeks – presents unique challenges.

Paul Glen’s award-winning tome examines these characteristics in an easily accessible, often light-hearted way. Firstly, Glen differentiates geeks from other professionals – defining them (us?) as;

…”the highly intelligent, ususally introverted, extremely valuable, independent-minded, hard-to-find, difficult-to-keep technology workers who are essential to the future of your company” (p.5)

Geeks matter – and in a world where the strongest currency is innovation – so does the way we lead – and are led by them.

Geeks are distinguished by their generally introverted nature, deep fascination and passion for technology, and impatience and cynicism in the face of distrusted or disrespected leadership. Glen characterises the special nature of geeks accurately – outlining attributes such as;

  • Passion for reason and logic – where emotion is subjugated in a Vulcan-like manner to rational thinking
  • Problem/solution mindset – where empathising comes second to framing and resolving an issue
  • Early success – where geeks are rewarded early in their career for high intellect and book smarts, and not so much for sociable behaviours – which can lead to issues once geeks enter the workplace
  • Geek love for puzzles and intellectual activities – and how this is a key attractor for entering highly technical fields of work
  • Affinity for understanding how technology works – but not necessarily how it is leveraged by the business to drive strategic outcomes
  • Different communication styles of geeks – particularly given the introverted proclivities many have
  • The intolerance many geeks have for fools – and how many geeks judge people in absolute terms – either all bad or all good – with little in between
  • How technical creations are a form of artwork – and how to criticise a system developed by a geek is to criticise him/her personally – due to the emotional involvement that geeks have with their work
  • The high esteem that those with technical prowess (and the willingness to share it) are held
  • How money is a motivator – but not a primary one. This resonated particularly strongly with me – as this is no more evident than in the open source movement – where a lot of volunteer effort expended on free and open source software and hardware projects.
  • Meritocracy – how geeks expect to be judged fairly, and for that judgement to be based on contribution to outcomes; these however are hard to assess objectively.
  • Independence and rebellion – geeks in general tend to have a lack of respect for imposed hierarchy, and will strongly resist one if applied

Glen outlines an important tripartite relationship that must be managed closely for optimal outcomes – geeks, leaders and ‘geekwork’. Geekwork is the process and outcome of creating technological products and artefacts, undertaking research and development and optimising processes. Geekwork is highly ambiguous – and a key role for any leader, Glen argues, is to manage that lack of certainty.

Glen goes on to explore geek work culture; he sees the immediate team leader having a significant impact on team culture because of the nature of the work that geeks do. He outlines the need to work collaboratively in high technology; something that can be challenging for geeks used to working independently and individually. On hierarchy, he notes that that for geeks, it is often based on technical prowess – and may bear no resemblance to the official organisational chart.

On the nature of geekwork, Glen covers more characteristics that differentiate it from other professional endeavours;

  • Failure is normal – and so the imperative of ‘fail quickly, fail better’ takes on more significance
  • Ambiguity rules – technical work is rarely straightforward because of its generally innovative and bleeding edge nature.
  • Figuring out what to do can be harder than doing it – because architecture is difficult
  • Geekwork is organised by what you don’t know – so discovery, and iterative improvement, and deviating from established processes are all part of normal workflow
  • Subordinates know more technically than managers – which can raise issues of control
  • Geekwork requires deep, focussed concentration – which can be difficult to find in a soundbite, noisy and interrupting world
  • The problem with problems – in geekwork, not everything conforms to a problem solution model, particularly where there are interpersonal issues.
  • Done is hard to do – declaring something complete and ensuring closure requires some hard choices. This is perhaps why Glen proffers projectisation as his preferred method of organising geekwork; it helps to ensure clear scope and deliverables.
  • You can’t control creativity – technical work is as much an art as it is a science; geeks must find their muse and their creative space – this often can’t be controlled
  • Estimates are always wrong – the high level of innovation and creativity make it difficult for estimation and control

With regard to performing geekwork, Glen outlines a number of competencies and a framework for skills that are technical/non technical and individual/team based. This framework provides a very strong basis for any technical manager at a loss for designing effective performance management plans for technical staff. In many ways, the framework he provides reminds me of the ‘skill trees’ that characters in Diablo and other fantasy role playing games have – where skills are built upon each other, leading to mastery.

The key competencies include;

  • Personal productivity – the speed of output and the quality it is delivered at
  • The ability to juggle multiple tasks at once – a skill which Glen advocates can be developed, even in those with no natural tendency to multitask
  • Business context – with increasingly deeper levels of understanding how technology supports and advances business strategy and functions
  • Positive politics – understanding and balancing the goals of multiple stakeholders. Glen uses the term ‘constituent’ here where many would substitute ‘stakeholder’ – and I think the choice is a deliberate one. A politician has a ‘constituency’ – where multiple needs have to be advocated for and balanced to have an optimal outcome.
  • Working through others
  • Managing ambiguity

In terms of geek leadership, Glen outlines three key areas that leaders need to focus on;

Nurturing motivation

The geek leader must create conditions for motivation and avoid pitfalls. When geeks have intellectual and emotional engagement with a problem, then it is more likely to be resolved – but extrinsic factors play only a small role – “true engagement must come from within”. Glen cautions that the leader has even limited control over intrinsic motivation – so should create the conditions and structure under which it thrives.

Internal facilitation

Glen differentiates facilitation from control on the basis that the former does not require power; facilitation is about creating social capital – a concept Jono Bacon explores further in his Art of Community book. The role of the leader is to facilitate ideas and activities – and create a safe environment for ideas to be explored. Tasks are facilitated by reducing barriers and roadblocks. Part of the internal facilitation role is to manage ambiguity; and Glen outlines three different kinds;

  • Environmental ambiguity- what is happening at a wider level? Where does our organisation fit?
    Structural ambiguity – where do I fit
    Task ambiguity – what is my role and task – what do I have to do?

Furnish external representation

The role of the leader here is to bring information, resources and attention to the group, and essentially advocate on the group’s behalf.

In summary, Glen’s book is a must read for technology managers – particularly those who have come to technology from other industries.