Management They're not bitter - they're informed

Managing Nerds

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.

A Problem

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Every single second you allow a nerd to remain in the Zone is a second where something fucking miraculous can occur.
  3. 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.

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58 Responses

  1. Amazing post. Yet again, you hit the nail right on the head.

  2. “I’ve spent a lot of time painting nerds as obsessive control freaks bent on controlling the universe.”

    We don’t want to control the universe; we want to control our universe. Hence the pedantry with regard to rules that we’ve discovered. The incessant questioning when we first started with you. The random pushing of bounds to verify they’re still holding strong.

  3. I love the comment about the hoody. i have a few that my giant headphones will fit under. I never program without one.

    I’ve also find that inconsistent deadlines always irked me. they are inconsistent expectations from management, and many times force me to change my development process to comply with the deadline.

  4. Complete twaddle. I’ve never met anyone remotely like the examples you’re using here – they’re just a simplistic way of viewing real people.

  5. Nice article although some of us aren’t as cave oriented (I personally don’t mind interruptions or noises) most are.

    However I wouldn’t quite say a nerd treasures efficiency, I think the inverse of that sentence is more correct. That a nerd deplores, detests and is infuriated by mindless inefficiency.

    Evidenced by the usual response to the thousands of articles online where an up and coming nerd automates a system just to have management go crazy and demand he/she does it manually.

  6. You’re getting close…

    How Software Companies Die by Orson Scott Card

  7. Absolutely brilliant!

    Also seems to describe “Aspies” too, doesn’t it? Individuals who are extremely effective at puzzle solving, but practically undeveloped socially or emotionally. To generalize.

    Regardless, there are a dozen or more bulls-eyes in this article!

  8. Just came across this and your Nerd Handbook post. I’m not a part time computer nerd but full time music/writing nerd and I’d just like to say A LOT of what you explain refers to us too. *international, online nerd five*

  9. This is absolutely cool, maybe I’ll show this to some people.

    One of my teachers at university used to say that there were times where personal heroism counted in coding. Nowadays companies hire corporate people with a corporate attitude instead of single geniuses. I don’t know, how much of that holds true for individual companies, but it definitely seems to break through.

  10. Soklemon 13 years ago

    Ahh, well done! I and my Hoodie applaud you.

  11. I like the way this article focuses on the fact that management has to facilitate engineers.

    Still I believe the term ‘nerd’ is too loaded, and this article reinforces the stereotype. For example the ‘silent nerd rage’ when a manager announces a debatable decision is off the mark. I for one will be sure to give the ‘manager’ the benefit of my opinion on such occasions, and I have know plenty of other engineers who will do the same.

    Secondly, not all ‘nerds’ are geniuses and not all engineers are nerds in the way they are portrayed here.

    Other than the topic a proper working environment, which to its credit this article goes into at length, a handbook for managing ‘nerds’ comes across kind of silly to me. It gives people without a creditable engineering background the illusion that they will be taken seriously as a manager.

    The myth that a good manager can manage any kind of process, no matter what goes on within, is just that: a myth.

  12. I loved this post. Pretty much explains the overall “Nerd” system in an easy way for non-nerds to understand and stomach.


  13. Chris 13 years ago

    knot domination

    Knots and rope is something a nerd can master. Do you know where that skill set is used? In Bondage, part of BDSM. Another part of the acronym is Domination, which involves rules, consistency, and control, for mutual benefit.

  14. Nick Jones 13 years ago

    Thank you for this. There are few who preach the gospel of nerd understanding and management as well. You’re a titan, sir.

  15. Stray 13 years ago

    Pure. Unadulterated. Genius.

    I don’t just have a hoodie. I have what I call my “Coder Smurf” suit. It’s a blue body suit – big enough to wear over PJs or other comfy clothes. It is essential to any serious high-chasing. (You can tell I work from home).

    I am putting my hood up now.

  16. Ok, spot on, I can send this to anyone who wants to deal with me. But where the hell is the manual to deal with all those irrational people? People who are into spontaneity, surprises, small talk? Or worse…fun?

  17. Now we need to get managers to read this.

  18. Good advice for managing one’s nerd adult-children *and* grandchildren too (the kid *never* takes off his hoodie.) His father, a civil engineer, frequently suffers from engineer-brain. A phrase in which for some reason he fails to see the humor.

  19. The article is full of hasty generalizations, and stereotypes so offensive as to even be racist. I hope you’ve exhausted your ability to produce such meaningless drivel. Please do not bore us again with utter crap like this.

    If you want to say something, support it with substantive, cogent arguments. No wants want to hear your vilify nerds in such a contemptuous manner. It wouldn’t take too long for me, or anyone else even, to tear you apart. Why fostering so much hatred and ill-will?

    You portrayal of the fictional nerd embroidered with all the convenient, and fictional, characteristics to make him as thoroughly contemptible as possible, is as boring as it is imaginative.

  20. Erik Brown 13 years ago

    Thanks for yet another entertaining read. This post perfectly articulates how I view my role as a PM.

  21. so, so , so so, true

    this “and comparing that analysis against every single decision you’ve ever made in their presence.”

    therein lies the heart of the problem – its the inconsistancy that drives me nuts

    “With an understanding of the rules, your nerd can choose a course of action that requires the least amount of energy.”

    again you’ve hit the nail on the head – i want the easiest route, i’d rather spend an hour or so fine tuning something so i dont have to spend any more time on it later down the line

    modular coding anyone ? 😉

  22. I need to find ways to communicate these desires and needs to future employers. You’ve inspired me to find way to gift-wrap parts of this post in conversations with superiors.

    Thank you.

  23. I’m not sure the simplistic generalisation of “nerds” helps. Though I’d say the majority of people who call themselves managers, who fight for control with teams, (that can typically run themselves) could do with reading more about this topic.

    My take on it :

  24. I could not have penned a better self description. This article has helped me see myself more clearly and as such I think I can convey that more coherently to others.

    I think that true Zen is found when you can create the cave in your mind alone, without the need for props like the hoodie or wall of coke cans. This article has helped me see the things that I do externally which create my “cave” and that understanding helps to shed the physical props as I realize that it is just a Hebbian style association between the prop and a mental state. My aim is to achieve the right metal state without needing external props, but that is samurai level of focus which I am yet to attain!!

  25. Sandeep 13 years ago

    I read this and I look around my workspace. Holy crap, do I have a cave built for myself.

    Too bad more nerds will end up reading this thing than their managers

  26. I came across this blog about a year ago and got instantly amazed. One of the first articles I’ve read was The Nerd Handbook. It was brilliant. I’ve read many of the other essays since. This one is just another great read here.

    It gives me more insight and understanding of myself as a nerd. Even if none of my managers ever read this.

    Well, yes – I agree with some of the other comments that the nerds in this essay are simplified extractions from real people. But hey, everyone is complex, no one is just a nerd or just a silly manager who “sees plan and shiny graphs only”.

    I understand the ‘silent rage’ but as far as I am silent spectator most of the time (gathering and analyzing information), I can say my opinion out loud (sometimes “louder” than appropriate) very well when it comes to it. And it can come to it at any given moment during a meeting or whatever (I try to not interrupt anyone, though).

    So this is it. Thank you for your stories, Rands :-).

  27. computer chyk 13 years ago

    Thanks Rands you just summed up what a therapist couldn’t…

    I feel whole again – and validated

    Back to the zone – a pot of espresso, biscotti and a pillow for the kitty to sleep on.

  28. Wow. I’m pretty much speechless. I can’t think of a better story you could write to reflect the on the reality of life in my workplace.

    “…eventually they’ll ask, “What’s with all the fucking knots?” and attack.”

    I can’t stop laughing. I think I’ll be reciting quotes from this article for weeks to come. Well done.

  29. computer chyk 13 years ago

    OMG Rands I just had an AHA moment and blew out a few extra lightbulbs!! You in your brilliantly written article described our need to “group” “master” and “control”. Did you realize that those are inherent traits of a Border Collie??

    Thanks Rands I knew I could be the person my dog thinks I am!

  30. About The Zone – I love wearing hoodie but not while working. It’s got something to do with room temperature and heat distracting me. But only few days back I discovered that I can’t get to the zone without music in my ears. And that means headphones because they work like a barrier, kind of. Maybe it’s a force of habit or maybe I am (hopelessly) addicted to it. But without music I feel distracted while working in open-space environment.

  31. Doug Yeager 13 years ago

    Amazing. now all we need to do is figure out how to teleport this article back 25 years to my boss’ inbox. Thank you!

  32. Hendo 13 years ago

    I’m with Juliette. I need an article telling me how to work with people who’d rather make small talk all day!

    Loved the article. For those who didn’t don’t you think it was written just a tiny bit tongue in cheek? Also liked the nod to gender – rare in this context.

  33. Glen Turner 13 years ago

    Y2K wasn’t caused by nerds.

    It was caused by auditors and the need for the big auditing/computer consulting firms to drum up business.

    It was caused by vendors who saw that a new sale would bring in more revenue than a software patch.

    It was caused by IT managers who, even if they saw through the blizzard of PR from both of the above, didn’t see any career advancement in telling it like it was to the CEO, but cynically used the opportunity to obtain capital expenditure for their cost centre.

    It was caused by CEOs who would rather believe an auditing firm with a conflict of interest over their own staff.

    It was caused by governments who, falling for hype and lobbying over likelyhood, required firms like ours to have “Y2K plans” and were unaccepting of plans that said “we fixed this, because we’ve upgraded the stuff we needed to. It it fails, we’ll handle it just like any of the other thousands of things that might cause up operational issues”.

    These were not nerd issues. These were business and social issues.

  34. Mike Marcotte 13 years ago

    You get me… in ways I didn’t think anyone would bother to record and share.

  35. ROFL…. “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.”

    Partially true, but I may have a deeper insight for you.

    Often, the documentation is telling you the wrong things.

    For instance, a long time ago, I started developing an IRC bot in PERL. When I stared, I thought to look for libraries to support the interraction with the IRC server. I found POE.

    I spent about a day or so trying to understand enough of POE to work with it, eventually giving up. Unable to understand the abstractions that POE provided in order to work.

    I then spent about a week working up my own async framework. In the process of which, I uncovered/rediscovered the abstractions by which to implement the job and I started to notice, that my naming convention was starting to uncover the same namings as POE. At this point, I abandoned my code and went back to POE, now, armed with the understanding of what abstractions needed to exist and how they interracted I was able to use POE effectively and get the job completed.

    So, what is often needed is not more documentation it is better focussed documentation. Telling you WHY the application is partitioned into the respective levels of abstraction and how these different components work together to fill the space between requirement and fullfillment.

  36. Genius piece.

    Now we just need one on “Managing Managers”.

  37. Yorick 13 years ago

    The bit about ‘finding a cohort’ was handwaved a bit, I thought. While this might well be irreducible, incommunicable manager magic that only a few can pull off reliably, I doubt it. Can you or the comment gallery maybe expand a bit on what’s worked and what’s not?

  38. Thanks for this – it was forwarded on to me by one of my nerds and as a manager with a bit of a nerdy side (we’re a web design and development company) it’s very useful.

    I’d like to think we’ve got a place that is nerd-friendly while at the same time being client-friendly too. The two are not mutually exclusive, but some clients don’t allow nerd highs the way I’d like to facilitate.

    What do we managers want? That’s another story.

  39. David Sweeney 13 years ago

    I would venture to guess that a lot of nerds are INTJ’s. Me included.

    “INTJs apply (often ruthlessly) the criterion “Does it work?” to everything from their own research efforts to the prevailing social norms … INTJs are known as the “Systems Builders” of the types, perhaps in part because they possess the unusual trait combination of imagination and reliability”

  40. Weird.

    I did a lot of my best writing (movie stuff) in a semi-cave — an apartment that was half below ground, in a bad neighborhood with my grand-father’s shot-gun under the bed to break up the car theft and burglary attempts.

    My best programming, however, was when I had an office with a nice big window looking out across the street toward the university swimming pool, and on the second floor over-looking the bank and Land-O-Lakes HQ, and again, in an inner cave-room of an office building. The key part is the team, even if they’re not on my official work-team — people to bounce ideas off of, people I can help knock through their brick walls, people to have lunch with by the lake talking shop and talking trash, people with complementary but over-lapping knowledge and interests, 3 or 12 or 150.

    I’m about half-way through your book _Being Geek_ and it reminds me of how different people’s experiences are in this field. I’ve got relatives in it and we can barely talk shop with each other, our careers have been so different. Your images of recruiting is bizarre. Why all the extra steps?

    When you’re a software development manager, a good head-hunter should be actively sending you recommendations of good people, 90% of whom are good matches for what you need at the time, without all the extravagant requirements lists, silly trivial pursuit telephone screenings and multiple interviews and gang interviews and stress interviews, and without many-month recruiting campaigns.

    The candidate’s friends and/or co-workers give him the head-hunter’s name and contact info. The head-hunter talks with him for 15 minutes to decide whether he’s bright and personable or toxic and dim, talks about who made the reference, then asks for a run-down on what he’s been doing recently (not a resume or skills inventory). He sends it. The head-hunter digests it down to 1 paragraph which she sends to the appropriate managers in her contact list.

    You touch base back with the head-hunter, the head-hunter calls the candidate to let him know you’re going to call, you call and say hello then turn it over to someone to set up the rental car, hotel, air-line, beginning of week/end of week and this week or next preferences with him, he flies in on Thursday/Sunday, looks around the town, gets a good night’s sleep, dons the interview suit, talks with you for an hour or two the next day (and you know in the first 7 minutes whether you want to hire), gets introduced to the rest of the team and your boss, flies home in the afternoon/evening, the HR clone sends out the benefits package pamphlets, he sends back the receipts (for things like airport parking, taxi, day-before-interview meal), then after several interviews you pick one you think is best and snail out an offer, call the head-hunter to let her know, the head-hunter calls the candidate to warn that you’re about to call with a verbal, you call, the candidate negotiates and accepts or rejects or asks to sleep on it and you call back the next day. If he accepts you put the person who takes care of the relocations on the line; if not, you go to the 2nd best candidate. No muss. No fuss. 2 months at the most.

    Or has the competent head-hunter gone extinct?

    And why all the emphasis on being bodyshopped, with only 3-year gigs instead of a real career?

  41. OTOH, “You obsessively protect both your nerd’s time and space.” is almost straight out of Seymour Cray’s sayings. He wasn’t sure how to estimate time for software projects, was more comfortable with making such predictions on hardware projects, and thought the best way to manage the software guys was to stop by every long once in a while to see whether they needed anything to get the job done.

    AND, the B-school bozos were repeatedly warned, decades before 2000 arrived, that those 2-digit dates would be a problem, and we asked them to let us correct the matter as we did other bug fixes and upgrades, but they repeatedly said “No”. It was on their own heads. By the time 1998 rolled around and they were in hysterics, there was no way I’d touch a Y2K project, because if there was one, it was only in a company whose B-school bozos had ignored the software developers’ advice.

    There are projects that, for reasons of professional ethics or lameness or whatever, if the manager doesn’t respect you enough to listen and at least try to understand what you’re trying to communicate, you wouldn’t want to work with him, anyway, so he doesn’t have any business squealing and whining about “talent shortage”. He’s a toxic manager who should find it extremely difficult to recruit and should have to offer premiums in salary and bonuses and benefits to get any even half-way decent and self-respecting STEM worker to deign to work with him.

    P.S. Back with Cray and project estimations. The biggest mistake I see in estimations is failure to recognize the need for unknown numbers of cycles of experimentation (many, but not all of which arise from a failure to invest in training with substance to it). There are multiple such knots in almost every project (unless, e.g. you’ve spent 20 years doing exactly the same kinds of data-base projects with near zero significant variation, zzzzz, in which case you should also find it extremely difficult to recruit or retain competent people).

  42. “Why can’t he be a team player?” “Why can’t he be a people person?”

    Answer: Because no one knows exactly what a “team player” or a “people person” is, and computer wrangling godlings (who want to build great things and build them very well) require precise definitions (but those who throw around such terms adamantly refuse to define them).

    Computer wrangling super-stars will not be intimidated by such smug hand-waving psycho-babble. When you try it, you’re most likely to get the “Huh, how did that disgusting bug get in here?” look from those with more than a couple years of experience, as they turn to the important business of contacting their head-hunters.

    The more naive newbie is more likely to demand a definition and be shocked and puzzled when neither you nor anyone else in the building can provide one.

  43. Michael Schrieber 13 years ago

    Ein Event sollte man immer gut planen

  44. Chang 13 years ago

    “Why can’t he be a team player?” “Why can’t he be a people person?”

    Answer: Because the people who *can* be talented programmers *and* team players and people people got rejected by hiring managers and other members of society who believe the stereotype that you need to be anti-social to program a computer:

    “…According to Ensmenger, a second type of test, the personality profile, was even more slanted to male applicants. Based on a series of preference questions, these tests sought to identify job applicants who were the ideal programming ‘type.’ According to test developers, successful programmers had most of the same personality traits as other white-collar professionals. The important distinction, however, was that programmers displayed ‘disinterest in people’ and that they disliked ‘activities involving close personal interaction.’ It is these personality profiles, says Ensmenger, that originated our modern stereotype of the anti-social computer geek…”

    “…Today, we continue to assume that the programmers are largely anti-social and that anti-socialness is a male trait. As long as these assumptions persist, says Ensmenger, the programming workforce will continue to be male-dominated. Although the stereotype of the anti-social programmer was created in the 1960s, it is now self-perpetuating. Employers seek to hire new recruits who fit the existing mold. Young people self-select into careers where they believe they will fit in—for example, women currently comprise 18% of computer science undergraduate majors, down from 37% in 1985…”

    “…Apparently, this was also when the personality for programmers was invented – you know, the one that employers still use to discriminate between people at job interviews. The personality test was set up to favor men, by means of hiring people who had a ‘disinterest in people’ and disliked ‘activities involving close personal interaction’. This stereotype reinforces itself over and over, through depictions in the media and also through employers still looking to hire people who fit this description. This results in more and more people(especially women), who would be perfectly fit to be computer scientists, turning away from the field, thinking they’re not the right type.

    “If the computer science field is genuine in their concerns about the lack of girls in computer science studies, they might have to re-think their recruiting strategy to include people of ‘deviant’ personalities, so that any girl that likes spending time with people isn’t scared off.”

  45. Howard 13 years ago

    I agree with David’s comment above. A lot of nerds are INTJ’s, though not all. But I really related to you saying nerds are systems thinkers. Just look at the domain of my site. I chose that before I knew I was an INTJ. When I found out I was and read the profiles I was blown away that they so often use that exact wording…INTJ’s are systems thinkers. Eventually wrote a really thorough INTJ description and many of the traits fit your theories.

  46. Tyson 12 years ago

    Love Rands perspective on management, I actually cited this article in a recent blog post of my own on Managing Software Developers (and would love any feedback/comments/criticism on thoughts there). In particular I really resonate with the sentiment that you must be a nerd to manage nerds effectively.

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  48. Dallas 12 years ago

    A ludicrous and shitty article that is as much condescending as it is patronizing. Do you see yourself as a ‘nerd manager’, having all the simpletons wrapped around your finger? The smart people that run business are coming for you and they are going to put you out of a job.

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  50. As an INTJ manager of nerds (and also a nerd myself) this article was fascinating. I learned so much and I totally do that. The Christmas lights are sitting in my garage on top of boxes right now, slowly growing knots. Thanks for this great piece – I look forward to reading other posts. I can’t tell if the complainers are unable to fathom a style so unlike their own or if it hits too close to home and they resent being psychoanalyzed.

  51. Well said. Well put.

    Like an NFL coach a software engineering managers number one responsibilities is productivity of resources and keeping flow to win the development game.

    Getting your critical engineering resources into the zone and protecting them when distractions are flooding the environment, meetings, support, sales looking for answers without thinking, is key to productivity and team success.

  52. About a dozen years ago, when I was working at ‘big multinational hardware and software corp.’, I looked through the company’s in-house training catalog, and was suprised and very happy to find a course titled “Managing Managers”. The thrill quickly dissipated when The description made it clear that it was for managing managers _below_ you in the org chart, not above you.

  53. NickV 9 years ago

    Really nice article! I believe what he describes is a typical mental configuration for nerds. I would add that this may not be the only nor the best configuration for the nerd. There may be additional “highs”, and stronger motivational drives which can fuel the nerd. These higher levels may require some experimentation in order to develop a useful foothold.

    I think the nerd may be attempting to remove his own blind spots to the awareness of love in his life. This may be realized in the form of “being pleasantly surprised”. By consciously deciding to work towards this end, for others and for oneself, the nerd may be able to more often achieve higher highs while also including others in their consideration.

  54. Why does the nerd have to resort to the “hoodie”?

    How about if managers get over their power trip, and allow nerds to work whereever, and whenever, they need to, in order to get into the zone? These dumbass open, shared work environments are horrible. They don’t help with productivity, they hinder productivity. And, don’t even mention “collaboration”. That’s a bunch of BS. Nerds collaborate just fine, using Slack, and other tools. Actually, they probably collaborate even more.

    The truly talented managers know that it’s all about productivity. Deliver high quality code, on time, I could give a rat’s ass where you work. Bingo!

  55. Michelle 3 years ago

    Every time I have been sent this and read this over again it’s correct. I have been this nerd so many times I can’t count. Yes! Respect your nerd. They need time to unravel the lights. PS: My husband a sysadmin(at the time) sent this to be a DBA/DB developer for the first time when I was rewriting someone’s code that for an app that didn’t work. 3 days of fun! How many times have I said “no. no…I almost have it figured out. Just give me a few more minutes.”

  56. Emcart3r 3 years ago

    I was sent this post 8 years ago because I totally identify with it. I am this nerd. When I write code, I need headphones. I used to have a strand of beads I would twirl around in my hand for things I really needed to think about. Thank you all managers who knew I needed that to write code. PS: I don’t even hear the music when I code it just keeps some area of my mind occupied while my fingers do the work.

  57. You and your nerd are surprisingly goal aligned with regard to the chaos.