Why are you such a geek?

Why are you such a geek?

I'm not trying to be pejorative, it's an honest question.

It occurred to me while I was trying to explain to a colleague that I hadn't answered his email promptly because I had been trying (again) to get my schedule, email and assignments organized using features built into the systems I use every day that are designed for exactly those purposes.

I try this several times per year, sometimes with the same old apps I've been using for years, sometimes with new apps, sometimes with "systems" that are defined sets of processes I have to go through myself rather than telling a computer to do, sometimes with marks on the wall and little pieces of paper stuck to things I can't avoid seeing.

In this case I had all the email I would consider Critical or Urgent routed into a folder named Things to Do Immediately.

That was pretty clear, I thought. I forgot for three days about the folder and the rule that would send my important mail there, of course. Once I remembered to look, I still thought the label was clear and the rule was flawless.

I was the weak link in that chain, and the one who got sprinkled with bits of fractured organization when it shattered.

Is geekery an effort at self-improvement?

That got me wondering if (some) people get into technology for some of the same supposed reason (some) people go into psychology or psychiatry: there's something broken about them they're hoping to fix after building some expertise on their own weaknesses.

As best I can tell from decades of being paid to observe people (and having too short an attention span to observe the things I'm supposed to write about and nothing else), people able to choose their own professions pick them based on what opportunities are available, directed by some combination of their own strengths, weaknesses and interests.

People who are good at logic, bad at math and interested in competition might go into law.

People who are good at math but bad at logic and psychology go into economics.

Classically, a geek should be good at math, bad at human interaction and interested in the mechanics of how things are accomplished – whether that means the working of an engine, a piece of software or the individual steps of a complex business process.

Actual geeks – technology or IT geeks, anyway – have a much wider range of things they're either good or bad at, but are consistently fascinated with how things work and what they can do to make them work better, worse or (among long-term IT veterans) how to make things work without users having to annoy IT about them all the time.

It's a long and fragile logic chain, but my assumption is that a lot of people got interested in technology partly out of a fascination with all the cool things it can do and partly from the conscious or unconscious hope of finding or building a system to shore up some weakness that makes our own lives more difficult.

Is Geekery compulsive curiosity?

That doesn't explain the wide variety in the available species of geek, however, or the likelihood that people who admit to geekhood in one area will go out of their way to admit equal or greater levels of geekery in other areas as well.

geekery, in that context, isn't really the result of having a need to fix things and the search for tools with which to fix them.

It's more an imbalance that pushes a person's topical interests far higher in their natural list of priorities than would be the case with non-geeks.

(Other areas of topical obsession have a similar psychological provenance but different names and behaviors. Political obsessives are called Wonks, for example. Philosophical or spiritual obsessives are Religious, "Religious," or Nutty Crunchies. Those obsessed with finance, economics and business are known as Bores.)

I know a lot of people with enough general interest in cultural anthropology to watch documentaries in which Michael Palin travels the world taunting native peoples with self-deprecating Englishisms or discussing over lunch whether the Earth really will end in 2012 as an ancient Incan calendar predicts, at least as far as they understand from a movie trailer and a photo caption they read once.

A geek has a picture of the calendar, locally cached copies of web pages with explanations of Incan calendar cycles and interviews with living Incan priests pooh-poohing the idea. (Pooh-pooh is an ancient Incan word meaning, colloquially, poop-poop.)

A real, practicing, multifaceted, category-defying geek (an actual one with whom I used to work) scoffs at the idea because, after finding an avocation as a journalism geek and a career writing about technology deeply enough to become an enthusiastic computer geek, discovered so deep an interest in pre-Columbian South American cultures that she had to go back to school to get a masters in anthropology.

Without the curriculum leading to the degree she didn't know enough about the relics, variety of tribes and cultural eras or physical science available to provide good information about those eras to satisfy her curiosity.

Going back to school to get a degree in an unrelated field is a little extreme compared to most geeks, but the impulse to dive deeply into several areas of interest is the quintessential sign of the geek.

Species of geek

There are different varieties and degrees of purity within geekendom, of course.

I list some of the management levels and specialties below because they seem more common to certain species of geek, but I see all varieties of geek in the full range of IT jobs. The key consideration in each of these descriptions is the level and variety of geekery each displays at work versus what they do at home.

Jekyll 'n Hide

The most pure is the monomaniacal computer scientist who got interested in processor and systems design, or software development in middle school or high school, focused on CS and mathematics all the way through college and/or grad school on the way to a career in academia or, in the corporate world, as either the Hermit Programmer Guru or team-leading but individual-frustrating Software Architect.

Those who came to the light of IT late in their academic careers but are no less dedicated to technology might begin as sysadmins tending herds of peripatetic servers, growing eventually into specialists in networking, security, storage or other fields, or even to manage entire data centers.

Members of both groups focus almost exclusively on the variety of information technology they specialize in and often don't exhibit the multi-disciplinary geekhood most common in those whose work is less specialized.

They even have hobbies more comparable to civilians than to other IT people and relatively few deeply demanding information-based hobbies like anthropology or quantum physics.

They geek out at work, often even uber-geeking. At home they behave like normal people – trailering the boat to the lake to fish for small-mouth, for example, rather than leaving the boat in the garage because it's partway through an electronics refit that center around systems such as self-designed depth and location sensors that work but appear to violate FAA regulations and some laws of physics.

Compulsive hackery that's completely under control!

That boat project is the kind of project that litters the consciousness, work areas and living space of a more compulsive species of geek, who works in IT because the requirements fit within his or her natural proclivity to fix, disassemble, improve or break every piece of technology they touch, whether it's their responsibility to do so or not.

You can identify those with the most harmless intensity level of this compulsion by the way they interrupt conversations with DMV clerks, airline booking reps, administrative staff at the doctor's office and anyone else they encounter to ask about the laptops, software, scanners, cool mouse, hinky looking printer or other bit of technology that person uses every day.

Left alone in a room, light-duty compulsive hackers will go under tables or desks to find out what hardware is running, or turn on and play with unfamiliar machinery in the room.

Professionals whose workspace is packed with highly adjustable and usually non-fatal equipment – optometrists, for example – attempt to limit the damage by both grabby three-year-olds and this variety of geek by trying to keep machinery out of reach. Normal adult height in a compulsive hacker spells additional misery for those relying on that particular tactic.

In that same situation, more heavily compulsive varieties of this species – especially those who are particularly iconoclastic, anarchistic or anti-social – tend to disassemble the available machines into component parts and leave the room, readjust each of hundreds of tiny configuration options by just a small amount without warning anyone they did so, or try to modify the laser optical-cancer-detecting Machine That Goes Beep into a signaling laser that will bypass Pentagon firewalls and give them access to stores of data placed there for safekeeping by Chinese Army hackers who are the only people with access to the most secret U.S. military data archives, including members of the U.S. military.

Multidisciplinary geekery and the art of distraction

By far the most common species of geek – which comes in an unending variety of highly individualized and localized forms – is the multidisciplinary geek (MDG).

MDGs often work in IT because it pays better and has more job security than their dozen other technical obsessions and changes so much more quickly that it keeps MDGs interested far longer than they would be otherwise, simply by forcing them to continue learning all the time or find themselves unaccountably ignorant of their own specialties.

Intellectually itinerant –even dilletantish – by nature, MDGs will often display full geekish interest and commitment in three to five major areas and partial geek commitment to a range of other, almost part-time interests.

A plurality of these major interests typically focus outside traditional IT arenas – Civil War history, or stone masonry or flint-knapping and ultra-primitive survival skills and technology, for example.

At least one hive of both major and minor interests invariably remain within traditional information technology and electronics, however, not straying even as far as electronics used for other things – race-car telemetry, or ham radio operations, for example.

MDGs, whose interpersonal skills are typically better developed than more specialized varieties of geek simply through exposure to non-geeks in non-IT topical interest areas. Their focus remains technical and often introverted or introspective, however.

An MDG might spend all day gluing corporate laptops back together, then spend all night on DIY home laptop projects, or inventing wireless data connections that use radio frequencies normally reserved for space aliens, volunteering for open-source development projects online or spending more hours than they actually have available playing MMORPGs while seated in the same position they spend hours in at work so that, to observers who can't see all the fragging on their monitors, they appear to work at work, then go home and continue to work.

Hardly still a geek at all

geekhood isn't a permanent condition, despite my suggestions to the contrary.

A lot of people embrace it when it's practical, then leave it behind later in life. Senior IT execs, especially CIOs are often former geeks. It's not possible for a high-level executive to have nearly the technical chops as when they did hands-on work, but the distance they put between themselves and quickly-changing well of deep technical knowledge they once would have had to master to get where they are tells you a lot about them.

A senior IT exec who talks constantly about business focus and priorities and team management and budgets and cost metrics and systems refreshes and overhauls has forgotten 90 percent of what he or she ever knew about how the guts of their own departments work.

Those who shed geekery to get on with their lives may have begun as sysadmins or data-center managers who were clearly too talented, extroverted or morally corrupt (depending on how far down the ladder you are from him/her) to use those technical skills only within IT. They found success evangelizing the potential of technology to non-geeks, in the process, ironically losing the mantle of geekhood they put on earlier in their careers.

Outside of work they seem like normal executives; they sail yachts rather than disassembling them in mid-ocean to change something about how the keel sits; they invest money rather than spend it on expensive components for DIY systems that excel in the IY departments, but never actually Do anything. They waste just as much money on new gadgets and electronic toys as any other geek, but they use budget money rather than their own, which goes into paying for shoes and suits that look good but whose ROI no geek can truly understand.

Only claim to be a geek

Geekery became cool sometime between the invention of the World Wide Web and the giant economic crash caused by the failure of all the incredibly well-funded businesses who discovered giving things away on the World Wide Web isn't any better a business plan than giving them away on Fifth Avenue.

geek Chic didn't go away with the first bubble burst, though. There was clearly still so much money to be made that hordes of businesspeople packed into the tech industry and camped, eventually claiming to be geeks themselves, though their technical expertise is generally limited to understanding the full cost of R&D, assemblage and delivery and their geek proclivities are limited to events they sponsor for access to the geeks who attend them.

Many of the businessfolk began their careers in geek trades, and retain geek tendencies, though they suppress those beneath strict limits and concerns about cost, risk and profit potential.

It is possible for a geek, usually an MDG, to become a full-time business person and make decisions based on instincts relevant to the business world rather than that of geeks.

Among the well adjusted of these Former geeks, business interests simply replace several of the hives of topical interest that would normally be filled with technical topics.

Among those insecure about their conversion are geek Bling behaviors designed to reinforce the former geek's Geek Cred – ostentatiously seeking out and talking on an overly familiar (and often technically inaccurate) basis with Specialist geeks at company picnics or other social events, for example.

Specialist geeks, always unsure about the purpose of human interaction anyway, often take these incursions as a sign of weakness or insanity among the company's leadership and begin to trash-talk the former geek even more than they had previously, for having demonstrated a level of technical expertise lower than that of the Specialist. (Specialists, though less broad-spectrum in their geekery than MDGs, tend to be very insecure, finding comfort only in their own areas of technical expertise and the ability to mock anyone in possession of even one fact less than they have, can access or make up on the spot.)

Other categories of suit conceal claimants to geekhood who are more obvious in that their primary interest is not the technology itself, but the packaging, marketing, publicization and sale of the technology.

Though their level of technical knowledge must be far higher than counterparts doing the exact same job to sell undifferentiated vats of butter, the job of Sales, Marketing and Management "geeks" is exactly the same as selling undifferentiated vats of butter. Claims to geekhood, while not always specious among these, are as highly suspect as everything else they say, much of which is either inaccurate, misleadingly shallow or far too grammatical and vocabularious to be acceptable to real geeks.

Never a geek

Most egregious of the species of finance or business bore with claims too geekhood are those who describe their primary characteristics not in terms of interest or curiosity, but as the implementation of chutzpah.

"Entrepreneurs," who start or run technical companies may be highly technical, may have been geeks at one time and may be again. If their focus has shifted to business, finance and operations, to the exclusion of curiosity about how things work and the desire to play with the tools that can affect that, they are not geeks. They are business people (Bores).

Most dangerous among this class of geek-claimant is the "serial entrepreneur," who believes a history of starting, selling or folding technical companies one after another without bringing any to fruition multiplies his or her impact on the real world rather than diluting it. This is not true; nor is the claim to geekhood. Serial entrepreneurs can more accurately be considered to be compulsive gamblers who bet using other people's money, but keep all the winnings.

So who are you?

There are a million varieties and individual variations of the major geek sets of characteristics, preferences and implementation patterns (usually pronounced by those who dislike polysyllables as "life choices").

Which is your major category and what made you that way?

For me (definitely MDG) it was all of the above:

  • Cool gadgets that might overcome my own weaknesses while also playing cool games, showing movies, letting me chat with anyone I want without the inconvenience of actually talking to them;
  • The impressive reality and awesome potential of systems that can bring the world to us in packages small enough to understand, rather than forcing us to wander uncomprehendingly through it;
  • The power of all the other things that become possible as information technology becomes so small and sophisticated it becomes less of a discipline in itself and more of an enabler of nanotechnology, smart materials, enhanced reality, real-time intelligence and data analysis;
  • Cameras you can't forget as long as you remembered to bring your phone;
  • Lower long-distance phone and cable TV bills.

Were you born a geek? Did you choose it? Was it the need to fix something about yourself? To find the tools to fix some aspect of your world that needed fixing?

Was it the money? The respect of peers? Recognition that without your assistance no one in your organization could do their jobs properly or well? The acknowledgment from business-unit managers and end users that your skills are the only thing standing between them and the unemployment line?

(Sorry, too much sarcasm. Within Corporate America, IT is like a heart surgeon inexplicably treated as a plumber by the people whose lives he or she saves. Everyone acknowledges the job is critical but no one thinks the person who does it is all that important. Surgeons make their own importance clear through the gravitational force of their own egos, if nothing else. Geeks usually resent the need to demonstrate their own worth to people who can't understand what they do and get annoyed that no one seems to be paying attention.)

Was it the need to feel as if you're building, fixing or participating in something important, and the realization that at this point in our cultural history, information technology is the most powerful catalyst for all types of human behavior?

Or was it just pure interest in the complexity, elegance, adaptability and potential of the technology itself?

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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