Revolution of the New Geek
Abstract: This essay is geared towards Information Technology professionals, be it computer engineers, scientists, programmers, or help desk support. It is an argument for a new way to do business. Instead of being a fly on the wall when designing systems and offering customer support; I argue that we need to get our “hands dirty” and try to do the job of the client before we try to solve their technology problems. In short, I see the emergence of hybrid profession between the I.T. professional and the businessman. The I.T. professional provides the “technology toolbox” while the businessman provides the smart business practices.
The world has now firmly been in the grasp of the digital revolution for over twenty years. In the years leading up to the short-lived “Dot Com” era, computers conjured up two distinct visual images to most of us. First was the notion of that “beige box” in the basement that was useful for gaming, homework, and if you were lucky to have America Online for text messages and adult entertainment. The second image was that of geeks locked in their rooms, hacking away on their Linux box while watching the “X-Files” and consuming pizza. It was an era when you were distinctly an end-user, being forced fed to use the software handed down by the “Gods of programming” or a geek who actually knew the difference between RAM and a ROM. We are now at a point where grandmothers who were born before the sinking of the Titanic are at least writing emails and downloading pictures of their grandchildren. Computers are now as integral to our society as automobiles, indoor plumbing, and air conditioning. Some would argue that everybody now fits the mold of geek as defined in the early 1990’s, but I argue will this is true that the role of the “true” geek is changing.
Not only are the roles of the “geek” changing, they are doing so dramatically. The new geek is expanding beyond the world bit and bytes, silicon and algorithms. No longer will it be good enough to be a mere computer engineer, scientist or programmer. I argue that interdisciplinary education and work is critical to the success of future careers of programmers and computer scientists. I do not believe that writing algorithms for the sake of writing algorithms will suffice. To those who feel otherwise, look at the I.T. Department of any reasonably large business or organization. Once it was easy to secure a reasonably comfortable job with that organization with a resume that was filled with “alien” words like TCP/IP, C/C++, Java, A+, and Cisco. But now, degrees in Information Systems are required, degrees that incorporate as many programming classes as they do business management. This initial step from geek to businessman was natural because business became frustrated with I.T. Departments that were filled people who were more concerned with firewalls and network switches than budgets and bottom lines. And since it is easier to teach geek business skills than it is to teach an executive to program, information technology managers were the first new breed of geek. But, just as it is hard to believe that there is more to life than CPUs and Ethernet, one must believe there is more than finance and marketing.
Unfortunately we are currently engulfed by a lust for technology and so ready embrace it in the business and government world that we fail to realize that we are only attacking half the problem of running an efficient operation. We consistently invest time and money into systems without fully understanding the underlying problems we are tying to solve. When a system fails to meet our needs our “knee jerk” reaction is to go out to a competing firm and try their computer solutions. The other half, the more important half of the problem is the human factor. This is the same problem that plagued man since the dawn of civilization. In a recent article on CNN.com it is argued that as systems grow more complicated their failures are actually becoming less technical in nature. In fact 90% of the problems are a result of poor implementation – that is to say bad management, poor communication, and inadequate training.
Today, the information technology professional tend to have a feeling of superiority and go out of their way to artificially inflate their importance by being overly technical and very impersonal. Of course the end users have their share of issues that prevent them from taking full advantage of the computer systems. Some have been doing their jobs when slide rulers were considered hi-tech and some resent the notion of using computers. Still others attempt to embrace the new technology but fail to use it in an efficient manner. Whereas college graduates of today are practically forced to use the Internet, Word, and Excel during their studies, the graduates of thirty-years ago didn’t have such luxuries. To complicate the human factor issue is the assumption that everyone should be computer literate. Having worked with blue-collar workers at the worker and supervisor level I can be certain that this is not the case. Hard-working and dedicated men and women who are employed as mechanics or laborers, some who barely have a grasp of the English language, are being told computer use is a necessity. And while the tasks required are usually simple such as e-mail or data entry, to these people it does not come naturally. The argument is that “my 11 year old child can do it, so can you”. Nothing can be further from the truth, children from the 1980s and onward have a distinct advantage of growing up with technology even if it as simple as Nintendo. Their minds have been conditioned; most schools today have computers that are integrated into educational process. Blue collar workers who graduated high school in the early 1990’s and before do not have that experience. Case in point is the a new government program called Defense Travel System which is suppose to be a government equivalent to Orbitz or Priceline for booking airplane tickets, hotels, and rental cars from official business. Up to this point, when a person needed to travel they went to a travel office and trained personnel whose job was to arrange travel took care of this for the worker. I am a computer geek and I had a difficult time following the training provided and the training was not even provided to the workers; yet they too will be forced to use the system on their own. This is a stellar example of poor implementation. It should be noted that the system itself is actually a decent and works reasonably well.
Bottom line, we are attempting to “trim the fat” from the government and business by removing jobs that can be automated or done by the individual with the aid of technology. The truth is that while it looks good on paper for money, you are forcing the individual worker to do more side work that is completely unrelated to why they were employed in the first place. They are not focusing on the “mission” to put in the terms the military would use. We have failed to understand that the cost for a lesser financial and manpower demand is the greater demand of time from the individual worker. This concept is a “resource balloon”; if you squeeze out money and people at one end then the balloon expands the demand of time at the other end. This is better known as “zero sum” for the business gurus. At the end of the day, people, not machines make decisions and other people are affected by those decisions. We have made great strides in the tools (i.e. technology) but we now need to catch up in learning how to use the tools (policy and management). And for goodness sakes, just because a system doesn’t work perfectly, don’t throw it out. Make improvements to the software, alter operating procedures, but just don’t get a new system. The fewer times a person has to new learn new interfaces, the more productive they will be. In short, we need people who are smart about computers and business.
So how does this all relate back to the revolution of the geek? Well, the geeks are the ones that need to implement the change. We have a firm grasp of technology but we need to relate to those who don’t. As said before, it is easier to take a geek and turn them into a savvy businessman than it is to turn the businessman into a computer whiz. We need to go out and get jobs in the different fields that are using technology, attempt to do the jobs and not just look at them from the outside. Get yourself involved and expand beyond the borders of bits and bytes. If we cannot relate to the customer and their needs and we force upon them “we can’t do it that way cause the computer won’t…” then we are failing in our purpose. We are the support crew and we need to give the guys and gals on the frontlines of business and government what they need to be successful. No more excuses about well “that is not how the system works!” Put it this way, when you the geek have a problem with your car, you take it in to the dealership, do the mechanics stand there and expect you to understand how all the vehicle systems come together to operate your car? Do you really care how the car works? No, of course not, your concern is that your vehicle is not working and you want it fixed. Imagine how frustrated you would be if all the mechanic did when you bring in your car is to stand over you and tell you in a snippy voice how to fix your own car. He would fire away terms like intake valve, carburetor, and transmission; all the while you stand there confused and frustrated. Well, the same is true for the mechanic when they come to you, the IT geek, for problems with their computer problems. They don’t want to understand the details; they just want it to work. Furthermore, when the mechanic tries to explain to you the problems with your car and you get frustrated that you don’t understand, think about how they feel when you try to describe their computer problems. It goes both ways; think about that the next time a computer-illiterate comes to your office to “waste your time with trivial problems.”
We are the geeks, not the user; we must make it work for the end user. Those of us who wait for evolution will be surpassed by those geeks who seek to make a revolution.
Mr. Parks is currently serving as an Civil Engineer Corps officer in the U.S. Navy. On the side he provides technical consulting and computer training to non-profit organizations. He has a Bachelor of Sciene in Computer Engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.