The String Theory of How to Retain Geeks?

by Nitesh Dhanjani

Note: The following is based upon my experience with IT-Security oriented environments (i.e. feel free to replace 'smart' with 'extremely geeky'). I would think this should apply to non technology people as well, but I do not have the experience to confirm that one way or the other.

During the course of my professional career, I have been fortunate enough to work in some environments that attracted and retained smart people. I have also had the opportunity to analyze environments that simply could not retain smart people. A few of the 'bad' work environments managed to hold the good folks for a tad longer than I thought they could by offering higher than market value salaries - but ultimately the good people, including myself, ended up leaving.

There are dozens of 'Top 10' lists that attempt to identify do's and dont's on how to keep people happy. As a fellow geek, I can easily dish out a never ending list of dont's based on my experience in environments that simply didn't seem to get it, but that is not the goal of my quest which is simply the following: What are the one or two root-causes of executive or management level decisions that repel smart people in any given organization?


G Milner
2007-05-22 22:51:54
Aren't these actually, at some level, the same? Isn't an appeal to tradition just another, perhaps somewhat cloaked version of the appeal to authority?
Kurt Cagle
2007-05-22 22:59:27
Yup. I'd say you hit that one just about right. I could see a few others in the mix, however ...

  • Lack of Company Direction. Smart people enjoy playing (inventing), but they will very quickly bail if they feel that there is no strategic direction to the company, especially if it forces them to have to turn the sorting algorithm they wrote today into a coffee pot tomorrow.

  • Interrupt Driven Environments. Smart people build very intricate castles in the sky, and any interruption has the potential of bringing that castle crashing to the ground. Unnecessary meetings, micromanagement, noisy work environments ... get enough of these in play, and your smart people will go elsewhere.

  • Being Forced to Lie. Smart people tend to be very precise, because that precision is necessary for effective analysis; and indeed, the standing of smart people is, to a great extent, a function of their known integrity - the degree to which they are both precise and accurate. Forcing a smart person to lie in order to win a contract or gain marketing traction will backfire fairly quickly, as they will not only look for greener pastures elsewhere, but will likely be most vocal about the lack of integrity of their previous company.

2007-05-23 01:14:06
please see C.W. Churchman's book on this:
The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979)
You are a leaf in a very large river....
2007-05-23 07:48:05
G Milner:

You are right, appeal to tradition frequently includes appeal to authority, but I feel they can be exclusive. Someone may appeal to tradition for reason, but not pass that decision of as authority.

Gary Rogers
2007-05-23 08:30:48
In my own experience what you call 'smart' people or 'geeks' that decide to leave due to management decisions lack the ability to see problems outside of their own sphere of influence. Decisions based on inputs that don't seem rational to 'geeks' or 'smart people' are a fact of life in all endeavors, not just Information Technology. The problem I think is that IT is weighted so very heavily with people that don't give enough weight to the human factors that contribute to decisions and the perception of success.

When it really comes down to it what you're describing are differences of opinion in the decision process and what weighting those who 'do' give to the input variables and what those who 'decide' give to the input variables. Very often those who decide have access to more variables that may be less easily measurable than those that the 'doers' have access to.

Perceived Success is what IT has to be about. Mussolini made the trains run on time, but other factors lead to the perception of failure. Like wise, if we achieve a extremely secure IT environment at the expense of end-user usability then there is a perception of failure. At times these failures are acceptable when assessing the risk management proposition at other times they are not. It is the place of management and executives to make the assessment as to where that line is drawn to maximize efficiencies of the organization as a whole. It may very well be seen as acceptable to loose a few 'smart' 'geeky' people from time to time over differences of opinions if the alternative is loss of sales and support staff.

'Smart' 'Geeky' people can be a force multiplier in any environment, but there needs to be an assessment of their opinions in the whole scope of change that is to be considered. Intellectuals in strictly rational paradigm are not necessarily the best arbiters of such decisions, and can indeed compound problems that require a sensitivity to politics, culture, and the perception of success.

so it goes.

Sven Grubner
2007-05-23 09:01:38
Reminds me of the newspaper where I used to work. The role tradition played wreaked havok when trying to implement the then new online department. To top it off, the authority of those in charge was not allowed to be challenged. One other factor was that the most talented people were needed to solve problems and implement ideas, thus the least talented were in charge of attending meetings... guess which group tended to be made into managers (who then had authority, etc. etc).
2007-05-23 09:02:33

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Intellectuals in strictly rational paradigm are not necessarily the best arbiters of such decisions, and can indeed compound problems that require a sensitivity to politics, culture, and the perception of success.

I think you hit the nail on the head. I also think we are talking about the same things, just in different words. I don't think intellectual people are opposed to sensitivity towards politics, culture, etc. Infact those would indeed be good reasons to use in explaining a decision - rationale can indeed include the reality of politics and culture. I don't see why anyone would disagree with anything along those lines. My post was highlighting the sorts of decisions that given no explanation except that of authority.

J Forman
2007-05-23 15:17:42
I could not agree with Kurt Cagle's mention of lack of company direction. At a previous job my coworkers labeled the work environment as schizophrenic (sp). One day we were told to do a project "that needed to be done yesterday," and the next day, we were told to scrap it for something that was immediately priority one. For someone just out of school, albeit a masters degree in IT, this was extremely disconcerting. Flexibility is an imperative, and being able to turn on a dime is needed in the fast paced environment we live in today. But I found myself not being able to stay on a project long enough to gain any value. I spun my gears day in and day out, and ultimately ended my time with the company frustrated and dejected hoping that subsequent jobs are not like that.
Maarten Meijer
2007-05-24 06:08:00
Nice topic!

I cannot find the exact selection tree it but you need to differentiate the four modes of decision making: Command, Consultation, Consensus and Convenience. When decision that are not urgent, are very important to the company and have long term implications are made on the basis of Command (your authority) (or even worse: Convenience (your tradition)), they will lead to the negative effects described and usually poor execution.
On the other hand 'geeks' need to learn the axiom that "feelings are facts" that can be weighed and used in rational arguments just like the usual technical or numerical facts. That way politics, culture and other 'soft' things can benefit from the usually superior brain power of these very same geeks.

2007-05-25 20:13:56
Thanks, I sincerely appreciate it. More than my paltry words can convey.


Recognize and reward success, Leadership and career skills;
Treated as any living or extinct member of the family Hominidae;
Friendship and Solidarity;

That's all folks !


Lava Kafle
2007-05-25 23:19:12
I extremely agree with the writer as I saw the same thing in a software development company in Nepal working across secruity,healthcare,banking,core C,C++,csharp .NET, java,ajax programming, embedded technology, and blogging which discusses modern management principles as told by Nitesh Dhanjani.
I as a manager of Quality assurance have always contributed to positive reasoning and atttitude explicitly mentioned in this article. The company d2hawkeyeservices in Nepal has maintained and retained Geeks because of its uperior management and HR experience. It is the only software development company in Nepal with 150 plus engineers devoted to producing best software 24*7*365.
Lava Kafle
2007-05-25 23:21:29
Superb article.Extremely true and energetic to modern companies which need to survive on Geeks the talents and the Smarts belonging to a Hi-tech development organization.
Michael R. Bernstein
2007-05-26 15:14:14
Each of the reasons you mention also has it's mirror image:

dismissing things because they are new. This takes many forms: Only being allowed to use approved platforms, technologies, or vendors, ignoring innovative practices introduced by nimbler competitors, etc.

dismissing ideas because of their source. shooting down suggestions because they came from someone junior, or new, or outside the 'right' department.

2007-05-27 04:52:22
Yeah I live for the woohoo moments when you finally solve that problem too!

2007-05-28 16:51:01
1) Sound-proof glass ceiling: It is terrible when an organization has a flow of information that goes 1 way. You hire very smart people to be experts on a subject, and then don't listen to anything they say. Quick way to lose talent no matter how much you pay.

2) Being led by the blind: While often times geeks are not the best at human relations, project management, etc etc, it sucks to be working on a project when the project manager, management, and other "non-technical" people should all be banned from owning a computer because they keep breaking the cup holder. It should be a requirement that those who are leading a technical project have at least some concept of what is going on. It does no good when the "geeks" spend 2 hours a day in meetings explaining what is going on, why something should/should not happen etc and then explaining it again.... in very small words.... in crayon.... again and again and again to the project manager when everyone else understands in the first 15 minutes. Then the project manager goes back to the manager, explains it all wrong. The manager doesn't know the difference and thinks the project manager is doing a hell of a job and approves doing the exact opposite of what the geek recommended. We all know that when you are dealing with clients, you can expect to have to work with people who are non-technical and don't know anything. You shouldn't have to deal with the same thing from your own management or if they aren't technical, they should learn quickly, not just stay oblivious because they can always just ask the "geeks".

3) Asking people to work 60 hr weeks to do the wrong thing: Most "geeks" get used to putting in long hours on a big project (or getting 5 too many small projects at the same time). Most will cope if they feel they are accomplishing something. Being asked to work long hours to do things the wrong way sucks. Nobody wants to create spaghetti code to hack in the latest management fad in 2 weeks when they could do it the right way in 3 weeks. Doing that once in a while is understandable. Doing it every project gets people in the job market.