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.

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