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August 16 2010

Geeks at work

Career guides try to distill jobs into basic components. "Work hard and get ahead." "Be your own advocate." That sort of thing.

But anyone who's been in an office for a while knows that human interaction undermines those components. The real trick -- and it takes a long time to learn this -- is realizing the work system isn't a system at all. It's an arbitrary and ever-changing rule set that often pushes reason to the sidelines.

That's a rough conclusion for "system thinkers," a category of worker Michael Lopp, author of "Being Geek" and the blog Rands in Repose, puts himself in. Lopp is a geek. He's a guy who likes order and predictable outcomes. And he understands that system thinkers can face unique pressures in the office.

In the following Q&A, Lopp passes along the nuggets of workplace wisdom he's acquired, including: how geeks can communicate with non-geeks, why geeks and managers don't get along, and how to know when it's time to move on.

What is a system thinker?

Michael Lopp: Michael LoppNerds are system thinkers. We have this clever illusion that the world is a knowable place. With think with enough work and enough time and enough effort, we can find a set of rules about everything. That is totally not true.

Our favorite tool is the computer. And the computer is a system that does a predictable thing. Since that tool is omnipresent in our lives, it gives us the impression that everything's like that.

Do system thinkers put too much faith in management?

ML: I think it's the exact opposite. What are the top three things that managers do? They organize things. They communicate. They're supposed to be leaders. Leadership is really interesting to folks, inspiring people and being strategic. But those first two, organization and communication, sometimes turn into power trips for a lot of managers. They use information as a weapon. That is a huge violation to the geek ethic, where you're supposed to be transparent and knowable and systematized. This is where I think managers get bad reputations, hiding information or doling it out as he or she sees fit.

One of the reasons there's a chasm between geeks and mangers is that managers sometimes forget who they are and what they did. They get lost in the politics and people and the process. There are good managers out there, obviously, but I think that's where geeks are a little suspect of managers. They'll wonder, "Why don't you speak my language anymore?"

What are the early signs that it's time to move on from a job?

ML: I don't know if you're like this, too, but you sort of decide before you decide. You don't necessarily make a deliberate choice. You just find yourself wandering.

For example, I never answer my phone. I don't even have a phone in my current gig. But whenever the phone used to ring I'd think, "It's a recruiter or it's a lawyer." And sometimes I'd wonder "What else is out there?"

Also, nerds get a high out of building stuff. When you stop getting that high because you understand the people and you've delivered the product three times, that's a sign. For me, when I stop learning, when I realize I haven't been scared in a while, that's when I start wandering.

Programming jobs sometimes incorporate brain teasers or problem solving during the interview process. Is there a way to prepare for those tests?

ML: As someone who's hiring, you want to see how a prospective employee thinks on his or her feet. There's probably ways to find the top 20 most interesting brain teasers. But the point is to see how the interview subject thinks.

As a system thinker who wants to understand the rules, It would be great to walk in and know the questions. But that's cheating. You're trying to learn about each other in this interview process. Great interview questions reveal not just what you know but also how you're reacting to this information.

How many interview callbacks is too many? When does it become a red flag?

ML: If you're coming back for the third time, what does that say about the organization? Can they assess and can they execute? Do you want to work at a place where they can't make a call? That's the first thing that comes to mind.

But sometimes you can discern a theme from each interview. There's the getting to know you interview. Then the next one is the deep technical interview. And then there's the cultural fit interview. The question to ask is: Is there progress being made? A healthy interview process has a sense of progress.

Interviews go both ways. You're learning as much about them as they're learning about you.

How can system thinkers communicate with non-system thinkers?

ML: There's a lot of instincts that we nerds have that are going to confuse the heck out of the non-nerd crowd. One of those things is specificity. You ask me, "How long is it going to take to do this feature?" What you're looking for is a t-shirt size: small, medium, large. But I'm going to give you the three-minute answer about the state of the architecture, why the code is brittle, and what I'm going to need. And this annoys the hell out of you. All you want are the broad strokes.

My advice is to know your audience. Engineers learn this over time. They can read a room and understand the type of answer those people are looking for.

You use the term "nerd" on your blog, but your book is titled "Being Geek." Is there a difference"?

ML: The intro to the book actually addresses that. I picked "nerd" as the word years ago to describe this demographic. But we called the book "Being Geek" because that sounds great. "Being Nerd" doesn't roll off the tongue.

I did a lot of research into figuring out the difference between nerd and geek. There really isn't one. The Venn diagram completely intersects. For every great definition of nerd, you can find the same definition of geek.

The etymologies of the words are interesting. "Geek" is the circus guy who bites the head off of live animals. "Nerd" comes from a Dr. Seuss book. That's the only big difference I could find.

This interview was condensed and edited.


Get the "Being Geek" ebook for $9.99. Use discount code BGDD9.

June 14 2010

A constellation you should know

IMG_0133.jpgThis blog post has been sitting on my computer’s desktop for a few weeks now.... I’m finally getting around to telling you about a great week I had at the end of May. It started off with a brief trip to Northern California with stops at Dale’s amazing Maker Faire (equally impressive were his sprinting skills as he leapt into action when a tent nearly blew over), various technology companies and a local high school to visit friends and business colleagues. I even had the opportunity to meet my fellow Edu 2.0 bloggers, Betsy and Marie, for an Afghani dinner and conversation before heading back to Chicago on a red-eye flight. I left Silicon Valley, inspired as always by innovation and ideas, and admittedly, a little envious of general Northern California life.

At the end of that week, though, I had an experience that made me realize that there’s innovation happening in my Chicago backyard, too. Invited by executive director Sandee Kastrul, I participated in a weekly high tea ritual at i.c.stars, a work force readiness program that prepares young people for IT careers in business. My subsequent visit really got me thinking about how we’re supporting adults’ education needs.

I first met Sandee this spring when we both were presenters for a TEDx event at the National School Boards Association Conference in Chicago. As a former science classroom teacher with a background in theatre, Sandee artfully told the compelling story of her journey to create i.c.stars. She basically started her organization after seeing the limited opportunities her high school students upon graduation. Call me jaded, but I’ve grown skeptical of educational programs in general as some seem to pay lip service to notions about affecting change. I was intrigued Sandee’s story, and when she consequently invited me to high tea at i.c.stars, I saw this as an opportunity to see if her work was the real deal.

i.c.stars started about 11 years ago with the primary goal of preparing high school graduates for careers and leadership in business and technology-related professions. The screening process to participate is rigorous according to the i.c.stars web site, "Using multiple interviews and written assessments, candidates are screened for experience overcoming adversity. Our participants have developed a set of resiliency skills that create a profound sense of purpose and ambition for long term community leadership. The same resiliency skills that form the basis of community leadership, also form the basis for business leadership. Our participants stand out from their competitors in the job market as a result of their ability to overcome adversity and thrive in the high pressure, high stress environment of technology and the internet."

During their time in the program, participants learn a variety of skills through team managed projects. After their 16 week cycle is completed, graduates of the program find employment with the help of i.c.stars staff. The organization notes that 100% of its graduates during the last four cycles have found employment with firms such as Allstate, Grainger, Accenture and Microsoft. i.c.stars also serves as a temporary employment agency for corporations and part of the fees charged for these services returns to the organization in order to sustain its programs.

IMG_0131.jpgHigh tea at i.c.stars is a daily ritual where members of a cycle gather to network and learn from a visiting professional. A selected team member greets the invited guest and interviews them briefly before introducing the visitor to the rest of the cycle. Tea and cookies are served and following the lead team member’s introduction of the featured guest, everyone takes a turn introducing the person next to them and pouring them a cup of tea.

Walking into the board room at i.c.stars on my appointed day was slightly like what I imagine it's like to be on the set of the Apprentice. Approximately a dozen friendly business-clad young adults were seated around the table, and I had the guest of honor spot at its head. Introductions began and were fairly lengthy, giving insight into the character of each team member. In nearly every single introduction, examples of perseverance were given, ranging from how one person helped another during “Geek Week” to another expressing appreciation for a colleague who came through on projects when other teammates were notably absent. Pictures of work and relationships developed through this introduction ritual, but more importantly, group members were affirming the personal characters and work ethics of their colleagues. It seemed like such a positive, uplifting, and beneficial practice; not only were team members boosted through thoughtful, positive words, but they were also learning to give effective feedback. There’s an art to this for sure, and explicitly teaching and practicing interpersonal skills is important, particularly for young adults who might not have always heard kind words at home or in school.

After introductions, I explained my education and career path, reflecting on the choices I’ve made along the way. I particularly ranted about the current state of American education and my belief that we’re providing unequal experiences for students, particularly in our urban schools. While I’m probably not the typical high tea guest in that my background is rooted in K12 institutions and not corporations, these participants seemed really interested in public school policy. i.c.stars graduates are charged with becoming community leaders; effective leaders know that education systems affect business, so I think my observations might have given them some perspective.

My visit to i.c.stars was memorable for a variety of reasons. First, it makes me contemplate work force readiness, a topic that has not previously held a great deal of interest for me. After hearing Sandee’s stories and meeting her current set of students, I’m wondering how our society is supporting young adults once they graduate (or don’t graduate) from high school. How are we trying to boost people who might have been disengaged from formal education? There seems to be a real need for more scalable programs like i.c.stars when addressing this overlooked niche within education.

A small portion of my day was spent at i.c.stars, but it yielded a big impact on myself and the i.c.stars students. Not only did I stop to contemplate my own life and career paths, but the students practiced skills necessary for business success and potentially learned from my experiences. Just think how powerful it would be for other busy people to take time just hang out with those who are new to a profession. This makes me think of the concept of reverse mentoring and of Google’s 20% time. How is your place of work giving back to others? Being professionally generous with your time and expertise can be mutually beneficial.

Finally, I was struck by the i.c.stars students’ general smarts and motivation. With a tad more confidence mixed with a bit of fearlessness, I think they will be ready for action once they’ve completed their 16 week cycle. Clearly, Sandee and her team have taken a vision and made it happen teaching people to stand on their own two feet and take on the world; they are well on their way towards their goal of creating 1000 community leaders by 2020. What I’d love to see beyond this, is 1000 more strong programs like i.c.stars in place by 2020. What are you willing to do about workforce readiness? What other stellar programs currently exist? How are we tapping into the potential of young adults?

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