Talking Points from “Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology” by Paul Glen

Let me preface this post with some facts. I am a recruiter of geeks AND a physicist (to be correct about it, a physicist without a PhD yet) and I work for a large industrial employer in the defense industry. This book’s content is relevant both to me and my managers, most of whom would never deign to read anything like this. Most of the bosses are uninterested in learning more about why their thus far leadership has been ineffective, even when presented with hard data on attrition, retention and recruitment. Correlation of the management actions to effects on these areas is considered a waste of time – this is how we do it, period. It makes for a frustrating experience, to say the least. 

Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology by Paul Glen


1. “To understand geeks, you must understand the nature of the relationship between geeks and their geekwork. Long before they engage you as a leader, they engage with geekwork. There’s a powerful bond between a geek and his technology that transcends any particular project or company or leader.” Page 22

This is true for true geeks. One major issue I see is a lack of respect for a geek’s involvement with the fundamental element of what they do that is satisfying and produces the best overall focus, ultimately providing the company with the best product. Most managers get in the way of what a geek considers progress and instead of commiserating that the obstacles are annoying, attempt to convert the geek into a mini-version of the manager in terms of thought process. A geek already has a ton of thought processes ongoing at any time. Something inconsequential continuously nagged upon by a manager becomes a bigger issue of condescension on the geek’s part as their focus on the work and ability to concentrate is constantly interrupted in the name of corporate policy or justification due to a manager’s hierarchical role. The best managers I have observed respect the time and energy required to maintain focus and tier their involvement in the daily activity of their employees accordingly, particularly regarding the elements that a geek would particularly consider an interruption – mandatory computer based training, for example, can often be eliminated from the daily focus – it can be remotely done from home at a moment of minimal intensity on the main projects at hand. Timekeeping, travel documents, purchase card issues, timing of meetings – these are all manageable aspects of a technical career, provided management buys into the philosophy of allowing a geek to get what needs to be done, done. 

A flaw of many managers is a desire for constant positive reinforcement of their place in the hierarchy. Being an insecure leader is an obstacle to effective leadership. A leader naturally employs confidence from the people choosing to follow. The keyword there is choice – people are capable of forming a natural opinion that the work at hand is worth doing, that the organization is worth supporting and that a leader is worth following. A well-organized company will recognize the natural leadership exhibited and promote those individuals accordingly, particularly conscious of those who exert leadership over others through coercion. Poorly appointed managers are the bane of many organizations, because people will leave a job to maintain their ability to do what they are good at and interested in over loyally sticking with a bad manager or a bad project or even a formerly good company. People who invest the time into becoming recognized geeks have the focus required to make these decisions on their own. A manager who attempts to coerce their positional authority often find this does not work with geeks. If you are leading geeks, you need to be aware of this tendency in yourself and your constituent geeks.

The book points out on Page 30 that status meetings and micromanagement, from a geek’s perspective, is a waste of precious time that could otherwise be spent on solving an interesting problem. Value added activity for a geek generally involves some form of problem-solving. The leader’s role is to be supportive of the work and focus the end result toward a useful application to the larger mission of the organization. Part of these is not impeding progress at the wrong times. 

The book covers the state of flow fairly well, drawing on the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont University. This is one such moment not to interrupt. 

“When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self consciousness disappear, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

2. “Geekdom knows no gender boundaries.” Page 28

The author rightly points out that although there do tend to be more male than female geeks, this particular dynamic is not a critical element of understanding geeks in general. The attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of geeks is independent of gender.

Side Note: That is not to say that gender discrimination in the workplace is not something to consider. Inherent bias exists within all people. The key difference I have seen between leaders who handle men and women geeks equally well does have a lot to do with the examination of these biases. Some managers operate with inherent assumptions about women that cause their outward behavior to exhibit those biases without knowing it. Case in point: assuming a woman who dresses well is a secretary versus an engineer. This might not seem offensive, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but the amount of work and education generally required to become an engineer is inherently worthy of respect, regardless of gender. That administrative work is essential is obvious, from an org chart perspective – and those jobs are worthy of respect too, but this post and this book are explicit about referring to leading geeks, and secretaries generally do not fit into this category. (Gasp! A stereotype was inherent in that statement.) 

Back to the Main Point:

The best leaders seem to outwardly have taken the time to examine their internal assumptions and discard them purposefully in the dealing with their employees. This may often be part of the process of larger organizational efforts. 

In my workplace, gender is openly acknowledged as something inherently stereotyped in the particular industry and a focus on eliminating gender barriers is an organizational focus. This faces criticism from two sides. The folks in the majority feel defensive about being the favored majority and therefore worthy of exclusion from specific efforts for those in the minority, and those in the minority feel the need to become defensive in response to this criticism in return. Some minorities dislike the  extra focus at all, as it symbolizes something that they are incapable of achieving without what is perceived as negatively connoted affirmative action.

Rather than focusing on solely gender or solely minority status for focus, I would argue, let’s include everyone in the discussion and make it a larger goal. I have found this is an appropriate measure to take elsewhere in this industry. Organizations with a focus on outcomes, perhaps aligned with other focus areas specific to minority status, seems to transcend the benefit of a sole group and extend to the larger company as a whole. For example, set goals toward participation in outreach, mentoring, career development, leadership training. Make the effort on communicating the organization’s support for taking the time to do those things. Ensure everyone knows about the opportunities and has the resources to participate.

This was not necessarily covered in detail in the book. Some of these are my ideas from personal experience.

3. The geek personality is a different animal

Geeks often become known for their intelligence early and often in life. While there are drawbacks to this, the net result is accolade and center of attention when a problem that needs solving is solved at their hand. Geeks enjoy being the resource for all technical issues in their inner circles. This can affect the reward system for an individual in ways that transcend traditional leadership techniques. People who become accustomed to feeling mentally superior can often exhibit social skill deficiencies that others in the organization become aware of very quickly. A quickness to criticize and tendency for reticence become stereotypes of the geeks in return. 

Another relevant point made is that geeks are introverts. This does not mean shy. Rather, geeks draw energy from time spent alone, in reflection or flow, away from groups of people. This is not to say geeks cannot be social animals too. But it is worth noting that forced large group interaction isn’t likely something a geek will enjoy on a regular basis. 

Geeks often tend to think that self expression is communication. Geeks are result focused, but in discussion may not fully communicate the messages needed to obtain the desired result due to a tendency to not state what is obvious or affects anyone but themselves. A geek’s facts are facts, even if those facts are just opinions. This can result in causing offense that a geek is not even aware of, in the process of communicating.  Geeks also tend to judge quickly and finally; it’s not worth teasing out a person’s flaws and features. One mistake is often enough to be written off as incompetent. Social motivation is not generally effective. Geeks are notoriously rebellious and take pride in this. They bring nontraditional values and interests to the workplace, and value their independence. Automatically demanding conformity is likely to cause a rebellious reaction. 

Geeks take criticism of their work personally. Every project is a tiny extension of self. Valid criticism from the user is often lost, because it is not delivered appropriately. Operational impacts will have a lesser effect in increasing motivation than recognition of the geek’s intimate relationship with the product’s inner workings and approaching constructive feedback with this in mind. Also worth noting is that a technical person likely identifies more with their functional role than the company at hand. Attempting to motivate using corporate strategies is likely to fail – a good engineer can just go to the competitor if your product line fails. “I’m an engineer,” rather than “I work for Google.” Their work is work, but it is also play at times. Standing in the way of creative play in the workplace is not advised. As long as the activity is safe, play at times is actually encouraged. 

Geeks tend to value people they believe are competent over those inherently over them in the hierarchy. Seeking out these individuals is good practice for a leader to learn how to effectively reach their employees. Geeks also tend to be very direct. Upon hearing an observation that has become a fact to a geek, a manager may tend to become offended and defensive, when the better reaction would be to accept the blunt criticism for what it is and move on without personal offense. Geeks are found to communicate dominance in groups via sarcasm, one-upmanship and verbal wit, and the tendency to dismiss others for inferiority or irrelevance to what is perceived as important or useful. One can look at this as a hallmark of a mindset grounded in practicality, reason and problem-solving. 

In a hierarchy, the traditional approach is to dictate and obtain desired resulting behaviors. But geeks largely produce value in the form of thought and eventual tangible products. Part of the project is figuring out what problems will need to be solved. It is difficult to measure an employee’s value based on direct oversight – such oversight is also likely to inhibit the productivity and/or flow of a geek. Geeks tend to favor a democratic approach to what they perceive as an obstacle – “if most of us think it’s a waste of time, we won’t do it.” Managers should approach mandatory obstacle-like requirements with this in mind, with their geeks. Manage the goals of the group, rather than micromanage the day to day tasks. Your geeks will thank you for it.