Ten years ago, the world was collectively freaked out by the Y2K bug. The idea was that when innumerable software-driven clocks flipped at midnight from 1999 to 2000 that the digital shit was going to hit the fan. I blame the origin of the world-wide freak-out on the nerds.
Y2K collectively freaked out the nerds because every single software engineering nerd has had the moment where he looked across the table at someone important and said, “Yeah, I fixed that problem, but I have no fucking clue why it’s working. It’s a total mystery.” Nerds have been repeatedly bitten by previously dismissed and seemingly impossible edge cases that we believed there was no possible way for a regular human to encounter.
We’ve been shocked how often a demo has become a product. We know that it is an inherent property of complex systems that they will contain both our best work and our worst guesses.
I call this state of mind the Nerd Burden. It’s a curse put upon nerds who know how a system works, and, more importantly, what it took to build. Understanding the Nerd Burden is a good way to get into a nerd’s mind and start to figure out how to manage them.
A Worst Case Scenario
This is an article on nerd management. The usual requirement of nerd management is that in order to manage nerds, you need to be one. For the sake of this article, I’m assuming a worst-case scenario — you are not a nerd, but your job involves daily nerd management. My condolences, these guys and gals can eat you alive.
A good place to get mentally limber regarding nerds is with The Nerd Handbook. This is intended for the significant others of nerds and geeks and it’s a good place to start understanding the nerd mindset. However, where the Handbook explains the care and feeding of nerds in the home, this piece is concerned with nerds at work.
Multiple generations of nerds are in the workforce now, so your preconceived notions of nerdery are not as useful as you thought. Discard the nerd extremes: the curmudgeonly pocket protector set is retiring or retired and there’s a good chance that the slick brown-haired guy sitting across the bar wearing the $300 Ted Baker shirt is a fucking Python wizard.
Fortunately, a career as a nerd in software engineering still requires a well defined mental skill set, not any particular sartorial flair, and successfully acquiring and refining that skill set has tweaked the nerd’s brain in a unique way that will start to define your nerd management strategy.
Disclaimer: As with all of my articles, I use “he” as a convenience. There are plenty of female nerds out there and they display much of the same behavior.
In front of you is The Problem. While I don’t know what The Problem is, I do know that you have a bright team of talented nerds working for you, and I know that you don’t have a clue how to tackle The Problem: you need the nerds and you don’t know where to start. The Problem is unique in that your normal leadership moves aren’t going to work. You can already predict the collective nerd reaction and it’s the opposite of what you need to happen.
Rather than attacking this Problem directly, let’s turn it around and explore the inner workings of your nerd’s mental landscape for inspired next steps.
The nerd as system thinker is a point I’ve been making since The Nerd Handbook and one I explore further in Being Geek. Briefly, a nerd is motivated to understand how a thing works — how it fits together. This drive comes from the nerd’s favorite tool, the computer, which is a blissful construction of logical knowability. Years of mastering the computer have created a strong belief in the illusory predictable calm that emerges from the chaos as you consistently follow the rules that define a system.
If I had to give you a single piece of managerial advice, I would say: “Your job with your nerd is to bring calm to their chaos”. Let’s begin.
Your nerd treasures consistency. Your staff meeting is an entertaining affair. You keep it light, you relay developing corporate shenanigans, and you crush rumors as best you can. Occasionally, you need to make a decision on the spot — random policy enforcement: Should Kate get that sweet office with the window?
You: “Sure, Kate deserves it… she’s doing great work.”
Suddenly, a normally chatty staff meeting is full of silence. What happened?
First, you nonchalantly barged your way though one of the three guaranteed topics that will cause anyone, not just nerds, to lose their goddamned minds: space, compensation, and titles. Second, your off-the-cuff decision regarding Kate is somehow inconsistent with your team. Remember, you are sitting in a room full of nerds who — just for intellectual sport — are parsing every decision you make, analyzing it, and comparing that analysis against every single decision you’ve ever made in their presence. That silence? That’s the silent nerd rage that arrives when they discover meaningful inconsistency.
The rules regarding who gets a window have never been written down, but they are known: you are either a manager who needs to have 1:1s or you’ve been with the group for multiple years and you have senior in your title. Kate has neither, and while her great work might be cause for awarding her the office, by not explicitly stating that there is an addendum to the unspoken rules regarding office windows, you are in consistency violation. You are less predictable because you are no longer following the rules of the system.
A predictable world is a comforting world to your nerd. Your inconsistency on the office ruling now has them wondering, “What the hell other random crap is coming down the line? How the hell am I supposed to get my work done when my boss engages in fits of randomness?” According to your nerd, a predictable world is a world where we know what is going to happen next. See…
Your nerd also treasures efficiency. When a nerd is mentally noting every single decision that you make, they’re not doing so because they want to catch you in a lie or an inconsistency, that’s just upside. What the nerd is doing is what they always do — sifting though impressive piles of information and discovering rules so they can discover the optimal system that governs everything. Grand Unification Theory? Yeah, a nerd invented that so he could sleep at night.
With an understanding of the rules, your nerd can choose a course of action that requires the least amount of energy. This isn’t laziness; this is the joy that in a world full of chaotic and political people with obscure agendas and erratic behavior, your nerd can conquer the chaos with logical, efficient predictability. Your nerd has a deliberate goal in mind that you need to support. Your nerd is…
Chasing the Two Highs
In The Nerd Handbook, I called this the High, but there are Two Highs:
The First High: When the nerd sees a knot, they want to unravel it. After each Christmas, someone screws up the Christmas tree lights. They remove the lights from the tree and carefully fold the lights as they lay them in the box. Mysteriously, somewhere between last year’s folding and this year’s Joy of Finding the Lights, these lights become a knotted mess.
The process of unknotting the lights is a seemingly haphazard one — you sit on the floor swearing and slowly pulling a single green cable through a mess of wires and lights and feeling like you’re making no progress — until you do. There’s a magical moment when the knot feels solved. There’s still a knot in front of you, but it’s collapsing on itself and unencumbered wire is just spilling out of it.
This mental achievement is the first nerd high. It’s the liberating moment when we suddenly understand the problem, but right behind that that solution is something greater. It’s….
The Second High: Complete knot domination. The world is full of knots and untying each has its own unique high. Your nerd spends a good portion of their day busily untying these knots, whether it’s that subtle tweak to a mail filter that allows them to parse their mail faster, or the 30 seconds they spend tweaking the font size in their favorite editor to achieve perfect readability. This constant removal of friction is satisfying, but eventually they’ll ask, “What’s with all the fucking knots?” and attack.
A switch flips when your nerd drops into this mode. They’re no longer trying to unravel the knot, they want to understand why all knots exist. They have a razor focus on a complete understanding of the system that is currently pissing them off and they use this understanding to build a completely knot-free product – this is the Second High.
Chasing the Second High is where nerds earn their salary. If the First High is the joy of understanding, the Second High is the act of creation. If you want your nerd to rock your world by building something revolutionary, you want them chasing the Second High. This is why…
You obsessively protect both your nerd’s time and space. Until you’ve experienced the solving of a seemingly impossible problem, it’s hard to understand how far a nerd will go to protect his problem solving focus and you can help. The road to either High is a mental state traditionally called the Zone. There are three things to know about the Zone:
- The almost-constant quest of the nerd is managing all the crap that is preventing us from entering the Zone as we search for the Highs. Meetings, casual useless fly-bys, biological nuisances, that mysterious knock-knock-knocking that comes from the ceiling tiles whenever the AC kicks in — what the nerd is doing in the first 15 minutes of getting in the Zone is building focus, and it’s a Jenga-like construction that small distractions can topple.
- Every single second you allow a nerd to remain in the Zone is a second where something fucking miraculous can occur.
- As I’ve explained before, your nerd has built himself a Cave. It might not actually look like a cave, or maybe it does. The goal around its construction is simple: protect the Zone so we can chase the Highs. Stand up right now and walk to each of your nerds’ offices and spelunk the caves. Ask the question: “How are they protecting their focus?” Back to the door? Headphones? Massive screen real estate? You don’t have to ask a single question to begin to understand what your nerd does to protect his Cave. You need to ask…
What is your nerd’s hoodie? I write better when I’m wearing a hoodie. There’s something warm and cave-like about having my head surrounded — it gives me permission to ignore the world. Over time, those around me know that interrupting hoodie-writing is a capital offense. They know when I reach to pull the hoodie over my head that I’ve successfully discarded all distractions on the Planet Earth and am currently communing with the pure essence of whatever I’m working on.
It’s irrational and it’s delicious.
Your nerd has a hoodie. It’s a visual cue to stay away as they chase their Highs and your job is both identification and enforcement. I don’t know your nerds, so I don’t know what you’ll discover, but I am confident that these hoodie-like obsessions will often make no sense to you – even if you ask. Yes, there will always Mountain Dew nearby. Of course, we will never be without square pink Post-its.
Don’t sweat it. Support it. Also, understand the interesting potentially negative by-products of all this nerdery, such as…
Not invented here syndrome. When you ask your nerd to build something significant, your nerd is predisposed to build it himself rather than borrowing from someone else. Strike that, your nerd’s default opening position when asked to build a thing is: “We can build it better than anyone else”.
First, they probably can, but it’s an expensive proposition. Second, understanding why this is their opening position is important. The ideal mental state of the nerd with regard to The Problem is the First High – a completely understood model of the problem. The issue is each nerd’s strategic approach for this high is different.
Unfortunately, code is often the only documentation of our inspiration and your nerd would rather design his own inspiration than adapt someone else’s. When a nerd says, “We can build it better,” he’s saying, “I have not devoted the necessary time to understand the existing solution and it’s more fun to build than to investigate someone else’s crap.”
If your nerd is bent on building it versus buying it, fine, ask him to prove it. Make the Problem the explanation of why building the new is a more logical and strategic approach than pulling a working solution off the shelf.
The bitter nerd. Another default opening position for the nerd is bitterness — the curmudgeon. Your triage: Why can’t he be a team player? There are chronically negative nerds out there, but in my experience with nerd management, it’s more often the case the nerd is bitter because they’ve seen this situation before four times and it’s played out exactly the same way. Each time:
Whenever management feels they’re out of touch, we all get shuttled off to an offsite where we spend two days talking too much and not acting enough.
Nerds aren’t typically bitter; they’re just well informed. Snark from nerds is a leading indicator that I’m wasting their time and when I find it, I ask questions until I understand the inefficiency so I can change it or explain it.
The disinterested or drifting nerd. Your nerd won’t engage. It’s been a week and a half and as far as you can tell, all he’s done is create and endlessly edit a to do list on his whiteboard. Whether he’s disinterested or drifting, your nerd is stuck. There are two likely situations here: he doesn’t want to engage or he can’t.
Triage here is similar to Not Invented Here — is the problem shiny? Is there something unique that will allow for the possibility of original work? Ok, it’s shiny – is it too shiny? Is your nerd outside of the comfort zone of his ability? My favorite move when a nerd appears stuck is pairing him with a credible technical peer – not a competitor, but a cohort.
Once you’ve discovered the productivity of the Highs, you’re going to attempt to invoke them. Bad news. The invocation process is entirely owned by and unique to your nerd. You can protect the cave and honor the hoodie, but your nerd will choose when to go deep. The amount of pressure you put on your nerd to engage is directly proportionate to the amount of resistance you’ll encounter.
Find a cohort. Someone who will be receptive to the perceived lack of shininess or someone who will say the one thing necessary to get your nerd chasing the Highs.
The Nerd Burden
I’ve spent a lot of time painting nerds as obsessive control freaks bent on controlling the universe. Fact is, your nerd understands how the system works. They know what you know — chaos is a guarantee. It’s neither efficient nor predictable, but it’s going to happen.
You and your nerd are surprisingly goal aligned with regard to the chaos. You want him to build a thing and you want him to build it well. You want it to perform reliably in bizarre situations that no one can predict. You want to scale when you least expect it. And you want to be amazed.
Amaze your nerd. Build calm and dark places where invoking the Zone is trivial. Perform consistently and efficiently around your nerd so they can spend their energy on what they build and not worry about that which they can’t control. Help them scale by knowing when they’re stuck or simply bored. And let them chase those Highs because then they can amaze everyone.