Stop Sheltering Geeks

I was called all the names before they were cool: nerd, weirdo, geek. Once Gates, Wozniak, Brin, Page, and Zuckerberg showed the world that smart oddballs could build empires, the terms, and those who wore them, became coveted in the software industry.

The opening sentence of the introduction to Paul Glen’s book Leading Geeks (2003) sums up the love-hate thinking of non-geek leaders at the time: “You can’t live with ’em, and you can’t live without ’em.” He calls them “a key weapon in a business’ arsenal” who are “notoriously difficult to manage and lead.”

As one of the first major works to tackle technical team leadership, it is an admirable catalogue of considerations and advice. Reading it also infuriates me. Not because it is a bad book, but because it reflects the attitudes of its time. Glen professes his own geekdom, then commiserates with management as he leads the uninitiated through a tour of geekopolis that veers at times between admiration and condescension. Like me, he is a mixed-up product of that double-message era, doing his best to reconcile all that geek had come to mean.

The truth is, not all engineers are geeks. Subsequent generations have gravitated toward engineering as an alternative to other respected, well-paid professions such as medicine and law. They may not have sought refuge in the elegance of computer code against the confusing complexities of adolescence as I did; they were simply taught it at school and liked what they learned. It is a job they do well and work hard at, but not an obsession.

Of course, not all geeks work with technology either. One can “geek out” over almost anything these days and find an internet group to support their subculture of choice. One could argue the only difference between a hipster and a geek is the fashionability of their idée fixe.

Thankfully the entire conversation in the 21st century is being upended by an understanding of neurodiversity. Alongside clinical diagnoses, we are increasingly beginning to recognise that no two minds are alike. All of us are on some spectrum of something somewhere. Everyone has a different version of us in their heads. We relate through countless filters. As the author Byron Katie suggests, “no two people have ever really met.”

 In an increasingly specialised world and driven by a desire to capitalise on employee strengths for economic reasons, it seems that workplace culture is adapting to this reality much faster than our education system so far. We are moving from tolerance to accommodation. But I think we can do more.

Particularly in start-ups, the gap between the amount of technical training a technology leader is given, and the amount of leadership training they are given, is staggering. As a result, they rarely shake the mantle of tribal leader to step into becoming a business leader. There is still the perception that it is a rare geek who speaks both geek and business. Yet nobody teaches them both languages. Perhaps it is too threatening to think that engineers could be commercially minded or good at sales. Perhaps specialisation and compartmentalisation help the company feel safe.

As things get leaner, and tougher, and tighter, in the technology landscape ahead, organisations can’t afford to infantilise their people. It’s all hands on deck, all the time, for those ventures that will make it. Perhaps it’s time to ditch the “geek” moniker altogether, to treat engineering as a discipline, and to acknowledge that people need radically different forms of support and training to capitalise on their strengths no matter what job they do.

We are facing a wave of AI automation that will take the grunt work out of geek work. We will soon be able to make more tech stuff faster, which means focus and alignment, rather than raw technical skill, will be the differentiators of success.

Perhaps it’s time to stop sheltering geeks and start fostering teammates and leaders in technology who can unlock our human potential, the ultimate unique selling point of us all.