The art of leading geeks according to a geek

If you want to lead geeks, you're going to have to get to know them, says self-professed geek and author Paul Glen.

"Geeks are people too," he said. "And like all people, if you want to motivate them successfully, you must first understand them."

At the opening keynote at this year's South East Asia Regional Computer Confederation (SEARCC) in Sydney, Glen discussed the importance of geek motivation, a topic derived from his book, Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology.

He defines geeks as knowledge and technical workers who specialize in the creation, maintenance and support of computer technology. They are a different breed of workers that do not respond to the same motivators as other employees due to their analytical and creative nature.

"Understanding geeks is critically important, because business has become so dependant on their services," Glen said.

The classification of technical workers as geeks is in no way meant to be derogatory or a stereotyping exercise, Glen said, adding that geeks often follow certain patterns of attitude, values and behaviour.

"These are folk who are self-selected to enter this industry because they are attracted to this type of technical work," he said. "I'm trying to approach this subject from the eyes of the project managers and CIOs who work towards goals completely separate to that of the technical workers."

Approaching his topic in a structure reminiscent of a sociological study, Glen addressed a number of issues that identify the motivators and de-motivators affecting geeks.

He claimed the biggest problem that managers face is that most of the leadership literature available is based on the assumption that leadership is purely about the leader's relationship to the followers.

"Motivation is not universal," Glen said. "The key point is that leading and motivating in a technical realm, is completely different from doing it everywhere else."

He argued that a true relationship would explore the nature of both parties, but so far there has been no emphasis on who the followers are nor on their individual needs and desires within the workplace.

"We have to ask questions about who it is that we should lead, what we are leading them to, and how that affects or limits their ability to do what we want them to do."

He said that technical work, such as IT architecture, coding and even support, is creative, so it's imperative that managers look at what stimulates creativity.

"The relationship between management and a technical person is different, because you're trying to influence them to be creative and that is something that you can't overpower people to do."

He claimed that intrinsic motivators linked to a geek's specific task are much more effective than extrinsic motivators such as bonuses or inducements.

"Leading geeks is still an instructive process, but less so when compared to other sectors of the workplace," Glenn said.

"[That said,] I'm not trying to offer a simple solution because there is never an easy answer."

IDG is the official organizer and media sponsor of the SEARCC 05 conference.

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Mitchell Bingemann

Computerworld
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