Working With Computer Nerds

by Mr. Cheap

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My recent post about Working With Canadians generated some interest (and discussion), so I figured I’d move forward with a second post on a related subject.

Much like the previous post, my goal isn’t to provide a perfect profile of every techie (generalizations, by their very nature, don’t hold for every member of a group).  Instead I just wanted to highlight some of the characteristics that are common with people who’ve chosen to work with computers.  This could be useful to help understand the system administrator at your office, the web developer you’ve hired to build a website for you or that cousin who earns a living designing digital circuits.

Much like the Canadian post, I am a computer nerd, so against my best intentions I might be projecting some of my own characteristics onto computer nerds as a whole (please call me out on it if you disagree with anything I write here).

Social Awkwardness

The Big Bang Theory” is about physicists more than computer workers (one of them is an engineer, so that’s a little bit closer).  They’re certainly nerds though.  The running joke of the series is contrasting the four main male characters intellect and geekiness with their neighbour Penny’s attractiveness and common sense.

Allowances have to be made, if someone is doing technical work at a company, don’t put them in a role which requires social skills they may not have.  If someone is a genius programmer but insults customer, KEEP HER AWAY FROM THE CUSTOMERS! (and let her code)  I’ve always warned employers in the past that I have no artistic skills, so if they ask me to build an interface (or design the website myself), it’s going to be ugly.  Fortunately most are aware of this, and respond something along the lines of “oh yeah, we never expect programmers to do the design”.

Some technical people DO have solid social skills, and for this rare combination consider putting them in a role to take advantage of both (such as managing other techies or working with customers).

Honest

dilbert_honesty

I don’t mean to say that a nerd will never tell a lie, but there IS a tendency for them to BE more honest than is typical and to EXPECT more honesty than is typical.  I had a job pull a “bait and switch” on me (they said I’d be working on one thing, then after I’d quit my current job and started with them they moved me to another, less desirable, project).  I was never able to get over this initial deception and the job didn’t work out in large part because of this.

Don’t try to “sell” stuff to techies.  Computer people tend to be very good at thinking for themselves, and if you misrepresent something they’ll probably be able to see it.  Present the facts, if some things aren’t ideal, be upfront, provide an explanation and let the nerd make up their own mind about it.  For example, if you need a website done, DON’T try to convince a nerd that 1/2 market rate is the going price for websites!  They’ll realize that’s not true and get angry at being lied to.  If you say something like “there’s a lot of developers looking for work right now, so we’re looking for someone with extra time who can give us a good deal” or “that’s all we can afford right now and realize it’s below market, but we want to build a relationship with someone and will hopefully be able to offer higher paying jobs in the future”) they’re more likely to buy it.

Interesting Problems

This isn’t to say that salary or working environment are unimportant, but computer nerds NEED interesting problems to work on.  If you hire someone and say “we want you to do this exact thing in this exact way for the next 5 years”, they aren’t a real computer nerd if they don’t quit.  This isn’t to say there aren’t jobs well suited to people who are willing and able to use computers, but for people who *love* them, we need variety and challenge.  One fortunate element to this is you can turn a boring task into an interesting one by saying “how can we automate this or make it easy enough to let someone earning minimum wage operate it?”.  *BAM*!  It just got interesting.

How Things Work

A computer nerd will be very interested in understanding how things work.  The benefit to this is that they’ll learn systems inside and out.  The downside is that they’re likely to spend time where it looks like they’re just playing with the technology (which they are), but that’s part of the process.

Hackers

surgery

The original meaning of hacker, rather than meaning someone who breaks into computer systems, was people who delighted in understanding a system so thoroughly that they can stretch it’s capacity and make it do new and surprisingly things.  From a security perspective, this often entailed getting permissions from the system you weren’t supposed to have, but other real world examples include things like the coffee cam, creating new senses or Steve Wozniak building one of the first personal computers.

Competency

linux_foxtrot

Because they investigate things so thoroughly, hackers tend to to be VERY good at what they do.  Like any other employees, problems come up, but if you have a problem with a nerd, jumping to the conclusion that they’re not competent is probably a mistake.  It’s dangerous territory to accuse them of this.  On the off chance you’re right, they’ll probably be abashed and redouble their efforts to understand what they’re working with and become competent.  If you’re mistaken about this, it’ll probably trigger the honesty issue and lead to very bad feelings (being called incompetent, or having this implied, is probably one of the worst things you could do to a serious computer type, so tread carefully).

Optimists

Computer nerds are natural optimists (I read once that no one would ever start writing software if they were honest with themselves about how many problems they’re likely to run into).  The good side of this is probably they’ll see a new project in the best possible light.  The downside is that you’ll often get “best case” estimates from nerds, no matter how often you ask for most-likely or worst-case.  Pad estimates whenever possible so that there are resources in reserve that can be allocated if it turns out the problems are harder than expected (they always are).

Inmates Running the Asylum

Bag CheckWhen you’re working with hard-core hackers, chances are they’ll understand what they’re working on FAR better than you do.  Many people used to a traditional management role will be bothered by this.  It means that you’ll have to ask questions and gather information from the techies working for you, instead of dictating things to them.  Say they estimate it’ll take two weeks and you demand it be done in one?  You’re going to have problems (if they *DO* deliver it in a week, I guarantee either it won’t work properly or your team will have killed themselves to meet the deadline, they can only do that so often).  Say they recommend designing things one way and you demand they do it another?  Chances are there are going to be unforseen (by you) problems with the design that could have been avoided by talking to the people implementing it.

So I’ll turn the post over to our readers at this point (nerds and non-nerds hopefully both have a perspective on this).  Any of these you agree with?  Any big points I’ve missed that you’d add?  Any of these points that you feel miss the mark?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 quietrose

Very nice post! I also really liked the comics! Great touch!

2 Frog of Finance

If more manager understood these points, it would save projects a whole lot of money.

I would note that as they gain experience in the work place, nerds become less “nerdy”. Some become desillusioned and disgusted with their job. Other learn to deal with it.

Good article!

3 Billy

Why do people insist on using xkcd comics without including the alt-text? You miss an important part of the comic without it. For Bag Check the alt-text is ‘A laptop battery contains roughly the stored energy of a hand grenade, and if shorted it … hey! You can’t arrest me if I prove your rules inconsistent!’

For surgery the alt-text is ‘Damn. Not only did he not install it, he sutured a ‘Vista-Ready’ sticker onto my arm.’

(and yes, I am a computer programmer…)

4 Jess

I’m a Business Analyst. I’m a half Techie and half Business. The good thing about being a BA is that you can switch your mind.

I pure techie sucks in Customer service. They don’t want to deal with that. BA on the other hand can read the codes but also being able to communicate with customers.

IT + People skills = Business Analyst

5 Alexandra

I am a interface designer who works with lots of “computer nerds”, and one thing I disagree with is that all software guys are optimists.

I have dealt with “the eternal software pessimist” on many occasions.

This charactor, no matter what solution is proposed, will immediately shoot down every idea as impractical, hard to implement, slow to implement or prone to failure. Not much thought is put into this – the idea is to be negative about everything, no matter what.

6 Mr. Cheap

Billy: Fixed. A thousand apologies! :-)

Jess: If you can do both, that’s great that you’ve found a role that requires / values that.

Alexandra: Maybe I should have explained optimist more (the post was already long so I was trying to be concise). I don’t mean an optimist that they’ll believe the best about everyone else’s ideas, more than they’re optimistic about their OWN. If you asked the eternal software pessimist “what should we do?” then started implementing it, if you asked him the next day if it’s going to work, his response would probably be something like “Of course!”. Perhaps “Confident in their ideas” would have been a better subtitle…

7 kenyantykoon

when i was younger, the only thing that i ever wanted to be was a computer hacker so that i could hack into the pentagon(don’t laugh- i was still very stupid). but unfortunately i didn’t have a computer and an internet connection and as i grew up got my act together and realized that all i wanted was to get rich. after reading through the somewhat comical post i am happy that i don’t qualify characterwise to be a hacker

8 Brian

Great post Mr Cheap! I’m a developer myself, many of the things your wrote were spot on.
I also work with engineers, those guys are a whole different story!

9 Domain Superstar

Haha I am emailing my wife a link to this post right now because I can just hear her saying “Oh, that’s so you” right about now.

10 Jackie

Oh so true! (And my favorite bit is the optimist part.)

11 Jeffery Land

The wifey sent me over to this post. Maybe it’s the call centers that I’ve worked at, or most of the sysadmins I have worked with, but sadly I haven’t found the competency thing to be sweepingly true! I wish it was, then I would have had to deal with a whole lot less problems out there than I have. But for the most part I would say that you’re spot on. I definitely know that insulting my ability is the easiest way onto my bad side.

12 Kyle

As a computer geek myself I can certainly relate to the interesting problems scenario. I thrive on a challenge so I love it when someone comes to me and asks, “Kyle, is it possible to do this?”

13 Caleb

IT + Peopleskills does not always equal BA. I am a pure technie, I am always correcting or modifying the analysts UI designs. I work for a pretty big software co and we rarely use UI folks anymore. I go to user conferences every year to present sessions to tech and non-techie users. I’d rather not but the boss says I have to. If I had to work with the customers on a day to day basis, I’d probably quit cuz I’ve been on enough customers calls that I know I couldn’t do it for long . But I don’t mind the small amount I do cuz my job pays well and I like what I do on the tech side. BA’s usually think they can read the code and often give me what they think is the answer to an issue. I usually thank them and toss it in the trash. Oh yea, you forgot one thing: computer nerds are cocky.

14 Financial Samurai

Over 50% of my part-time MBA class were computer/techie/engineer folks wanting to GET OUT of their rolls. They were basically minions making $120-180,000/yr for the managers who told them what to do, and made the real money ($500,000+).

We all need a computer geek to do our stuff for us though!

15 internet

Nice and interesting post. The comic is really funny. Thanks

16 GQinAZ

Enjoyable article with a great deal of truth. After years as a Manager, Director, and VP of development, ENFJ type liaison person, with some great teams of engineers and some true superstars, I was always amazed that no one above my mid-management level seemed to understand what you have said – what I also experienced – to be true of software engineers. Above that level, executives (especially sales-types) just want to bluff, threaten, and condescend usually while cutting estimates in half, whereas I always multiplied by Pi. But engineers are generally VERY smart people, as much artist as scientist, and cannot be treated like a used car salesman for long. They are motivated by different drivers than sales staff and will move on. More power to them. I’d rather hang out with a bunch of nerds and reminisce about XCOPY command line parameters and overclocking CPUs than talk sales tactics anyday. Salesmen and entrepreneurs merely dream; engineers build things. God love ‘em.

17 Sally

great article – I enjoyed the IT people at my former workplace – they were “nerds” but to us they were rock stars — they also had a very stereotypical way about them about them, in the similar way they dressed, the tone of their voices, the specific kind of way they laughed and that cocked head confused sort of look they would present when you asked a question about something. That look was, seemingly, not because the question stumped them, but that it had stumped us. I used to wonder if they were taught this in tech college, they way we were taught certain ideals of dress and behavior in vocational business college. I found them always helpful without being condescending, and it seemed they were valued and respected members of the staff. But at the same time, it was almost as though they were a different species sometimes, as rude as that may sound.

18 Philip

Thanks for the post. It’s given me (a manager) some real insight into important co-workers (and good friends). Our IT guy sent me the link… hint hint.

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