8 biggest myths about managing geeks

Eight common mistakes to avoid if you want to retain IT talent

From Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory" to Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons" to Urkel, we know all we need to know about geeks, right?

They eat nothing but pizza and care about nothing but technology. They live by night and are rarely seen in daylight. They're barely able to communicate with other bipeds. They'd spend all day playing with their toys and getting nada done if you let them. They're the antithesis of creative.

[ Test your geek cred with InfoWorld's Geek IQ Tests: Round 3, Round 4, Round 5 | Also on InfoWorld: Beware the nine circles of IT hell, and steer clear of 20 common IT blunders and IT's 12 worst "best practices." | For more IT management wisdom, sign up for Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

While some of these stereotypes may seem true at a distance, up close they tend to fall apart. Tech pros are more than the sum of their stereotypes, though they are definitely different and need to be managed accordingly, says Eric Schlissel, founder of tech services provider GeekTek IT Services.

"Managing a geek is different than managing other employees," says Schlissel. "If business owners want to retain the top talent, they should treat their geeks as a different class of employee. Respect their proclivities, within reason, and judge them based on their work product instead of their tattoos."

The trouble is in separating the myths from the wisdom when it comes to getting the most from highly trained technology professionals. Here are eight commonly held misperceptions about managing the techie set. If you're among the (mis)managed, perhaps you can persuade your boss to read this.

 Geek management myth No. 1: Pizza in, code out

Though pizza may appear to the culture at large as one of the four basic geek food groups (along with Chinese takeout, microwave popcorn, and Red Bull), stocking the development department with junk food and caffeinated beverages, locking the door, and waiting for a finished product to emerge in the wee hours of the night doesn't cut it, says Johanna Rothman, management consultant and author of "Hiring Geeks That Fit."

"Every so often you might encounter someone who can create production-quality code in this kind of environment," she says. "But I've been in the business for over 30 years now and I've only met three of them."

The pizza-in, code-out (PICO) rule usually results in an inferior product, in large part because good code requires collaboration between multiple teams, adds Bruce Eckfeldt, managing director and CEO of Cyrus Innovation, an agile software development firm. (Eckfeldt also recommends an alternative diet of fresh fruit and herbal tea.)

"Developers perform better when working a sustainable pace and collaborating together, as with pair programming," he says. "This provides a constant rotation of new ideas and distributes knowledge of the system, which speeds up innovation and reduces risk."

 Geek management myth No. 2: Geeks need communication coaching -- like Koko the gorilla

It's a well-worn cliché that technologists have difficulty communicating with the rest of humanity. But the truth is not that IT pros can't talk to normal people -- it's that they often prefer different modes of communication.

Geeks may be reluctant to speak up in group meetings (because they've been told all their lives they're bad at communicating), or they may talk too much, getting bogged down in technical details, simply because the minutiae are important to their work. Worse, they can at times be savagely blunt, skewering the opinions and/or egos of coworkers, thereby unfortunately fueling communication stereotypes.

"Many 'geeks' score higher on analytical intelligence than conceptual or social intelligence," says business coach Nora N. Simpson, principal of Simpson Strategic Solutions. "The analytical thinker craves knowledge and assumes everyone else does too. To prove their worth to a manager, they will often demonstrate their knowledge by providing too many details, which can confuse the issues at hand."

For techs who are shy about talking in front of others, the solution is to meet with them one-on-one on a regular basis, says Rothman. Another good idea is to use multiple channels of communication -- email, chat, IM, texting, intranets, wikis, and so on -- which tech pros find less disruptive and more conducive to their skill sets.

"Geeks are excellent communicators; they just don't use traditional communication channels," says Chris Kelly, developer evangelist for New Relic, a Web app performance management firm. "They prefer to communicate asynchronously using tools like instant messaging, group chat systems, and email. Phone calls, meetings, and 'stopping by' are very disruptive to the process of writing software. When a geek appears to be noncommunicative or antisocial, she's just trying to focus on the task at hand."

 Geek management myth No. 3: Technologists can't be bothered with creative challenges

Just because someone takes an analytical approach to problem solving doesn't mean they're not creative. Organizations that put "creatives" on one side of the table and engineers on the other need to invest in a new table -- preferably a round one where all parties can all collaborate.

"Most managers assume engineers are solely linear thinkers and only looking for the next high-paying job," says Meredith Munger, principal of small-business consultants Munger & Co. "You'll have much better success by thinking of and treating your engineers as artists who love creating beautiful things and are proud of their work. That in turn helps managers understand how criticizing an engineer's work hurts him and damages their working relationship."

The key is to avoid being too prescriptive in your requirements. Describe where you want your company to be and what the limitations are, then let your engineers figure out whether it makes more sense to build a train, a plane, or a time machine to get you there.

"An old geek management saying goes, 'Don't try to herd the cats. Just put them where the mice are, and let nature take its course'," says Brian Jones, CTO at email marketing software company Aweber. "Rather than force-feeding the engineering team the specific tasks they'll perform, give them the tools to efficiently self-organize around an issue and eradicate it, because that's what they want to do."

 Geek management myth No. 4: Geeks are freaks who only come out at night

Though some tech professionals might prefer to work all night and sleep all day, that does not necessarily bind them to the brotherhood of the undead. It does, however, mean they might be better off being unbound by many rules that govern other employees' temporal existence.

"I've had more success letting the folks I manage work on projects when they want to, rather than restraining them to 9-to-5 work days," says Nicholas Percoco, senior vice president and head of Trustwave's SpiderLabs, a cloud-based compliance and information security provider. "They're always held accountable for completing tasks and working as a team, but allowing them to do it when they're most productive leads to better results for the company."

Smart managers recognize that geeks are different than their average employee and give a wide latitude for alternative hours, dress, and behavior, says Richard J. Sherman, author of "Supply Chain Transformation: Practical Roadmap to Best Practice Results."

"Let them work in soft light, let them listen to their music, let the surf the Web, let them find their own technical muse," Sherman says. "As for time, they cannot have any boundaries. They will work for 72 hours straight when the muse finds them, and they will take 72 hours off when a new release of a computer game comes out. Let them be."

 Geek management myth No. 5: Taking a geek's toys away will make him more productive

When they spy a techie fiddling with an iPhone or playing a game, many managers see unnecessary distractions that drain productivity. But the geek sees inspiration -- or at least something to occupy the lizard brain while their higher thinking chews on tougher problems.

"Managers don't understand the emotional connection geeks feel toward their personal devices," says Bill Rosenthal, CEO of Logical Operations, which provides multichannel skills training to businesses. "For many, the feeling is so visceral that policies restricting their use seem like an affront to them. It dampens their enthusiasm and undercuts their productivity."

That's especially true for the tools they need to do their jobs, says Brian Kelly, VP of engineering for TimeTrade Systems, maker of Web-based scheduling software.

"Most programmers work best when given the best tools for the job: fast computers, top-quality monitors, noise-canceling headphones, ergonomic chairs, and any software they need," says Kelly. "The most successful engineer-focused companies out there are well-known for giving their geeks great tools, and that's no coincidence. At TimeTrade we even describe the tools newly hired programmers will get in our online job postings. That certainly helps attract technical talent to the company."

When you see geeks glued to their phones or staring at screens for days on end in a seemingly comatose state, don't panic, advises Rod Bagg, VP of customer support for Nimble Storage, a provider of flash-optimized hybrid storage arrays.

"The wheels are churning," he says. "They're going to get it done. Just stay out of their way."

 Geek management myth No. 6: Techies couldn't care less about business

Another familiar myth is that IT pros are completely uninterested in what the business side is doing. That's simply wrong, says Dave Gruber, director of developer marketing for Black Duck Software, a management and consulting firm for businesses that rely on open source software.

"Geeks get excited about more than code," he says. "Engage them in your business. You'll be surprised how interested most geeks are in understanding the bigger picture and will ultimately develop more relevant code when they do."

Organizations that fail to invite tech pros to the table miss out on the expertise and experience they may bring in other areas, such as Internet marketing, UX design, and market segmentation, to name a few examples, says Brett Suddreth, editor at IT Career Paths.

"We are more than just technology gurus," he says "We have a lot of insights into the business that could help push the organization forward. Start including us in your brainstorming meetings when you are about to pitch new clients -- you never know what we will come up with."

 Geek management myth No. 7: Geeks are antisocial misfits

While the tech field tends to attract more introverts than extroverts, the image of geeks holed up in their cubicles thrumming away on their keyboards while everyone else around parties just doesn't hold water.

"I think the biggest myth is that geeks are antisocial," says David Jessurun, freelance Web designer and consultant. "In fact, one of the best guys I ever had in my teams had only one major issue: I had to constantly track him down and pry him away from the pretty girls in other departments -- and they from him."

Encouraging tech staff's social side is in fact a great motivator, says Live Leer, director of internal communications at Web browser company Opera Software.

"We host Friday beers, International Women's Day events, plus Christmas and summer parties, and our employees have organized among themselves board-games nights, singing groups, sailing trips, and dance classes," she says. "Also contrary to 'geek' stereotypes, we've found that offering a psychology service, having a masseur visit weekly, and generally offering a family-friendly workplace where staff can bring their children to work if needed is great for accommodating our employees and their needs."

Geeks need to develop good relationships with their coworkers, even if they are reluctant to do so, says life coach Scott Crabtree, chief happiness officer (yes, really) for Happy Brain Science.

"Introverts won't shout about how they need contact with people; they might even resist social activity," he says. "But science suggests that both introverts and extroverts benefit greatly from social contact. Providing opportunities for geeks to be social will boost their happiness and therefore their productivity, creativity, and health."

 Geek management myth No. 8: Solving tech problems is all the satisfaction a geek needs

For years, stingy employers have used the myth that geeks care only about technology -- and not money -- as an excuse to underpay and overwork them. If this dubious notion was ever true, it isn't any more, say experts. But money is only one of several key motivators, along with recognition from their peers, flexible work environments, or simply the opportunity and the tools to write tight code or solve a thorny problem. 

"Money matters, of course, but mostly as public reward for a job well done," says Munger. "Instead of an end-of-year holiday bonus, though, it's far better to walk into their work area with crisp $100 bills and reward victories throughout the year. For engineers who've spent extra time crashing on the job, I have sometimes bought a weekend getaway at a hotel resort for the whole family to enjoy after the project is done. Spouses appreciate that the company recognizes their sacrifice as well."

A job well done -- and recognized as such by management -- goes a long way to keeping the tech staff happy and motivated.

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