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Dealing with Geeks

A computer dictionary defines geeks in many ways like, ‘An individual who enjoys computers and technology, someone who is always immersed with computers, a computer expert or enthusiasts, and so on.’ As a tech manager of any designation like CTO, CIO, etc., it’s important to be able to effectively lead a team of geeks or IT support staff in your company. However, leading such geeks require some special types of leadership skills that are different from the usual leadership fodder preached by traditional management consultants or books. So, what is that unique difference required in leading geeks? This chapter describes five important tips IT leaders must learn to lead geeks, whether they are within their own organizations or from outside.
1. Accept: Unless you are a megalomaniac you must acknowledge and accept that many of the techies you are supposed to lead are usually smarter and more talented than you. Also, many of the techies you lead, whether you like it or not, are themselves technical leaders irrespective of the title or salary they get. Hence, first switch off all intimidating components of a boss-subordinate behavior, however irresistible it’s. They are turn-offs in relationships. For example, do not use popular irritating statements like, ‘Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions,’ or ‘I know the solution, but I want to hear it from you’ or ‘Show me the business value,’ etc.
2. Knowledge: You can earn the respect of your team members only if you able to converse with them in the language they use. That is, you must be able to talk and understand technical stuff. You may be a good and kind person, but that is not enough to be a good technical manager or leader. If managers lack the required knowledge and advisory skills to coach, mentor and supervise their department they can agitate their team members to death. In addition to stressing their team members daily, managers will stress themselves more as they will be unable to lead effectively. This lack of knowledge can often lead to conflicts as you may make unrealistic demands on your techies, commit to impractical requests by customers, overload your techies, etc. Soon, it will become an ego conflict between the, ‘Knowledgeable and the Clueless.’
3. Constant learning: It is understandable that a manager cannot be expected to have an accurate knowledge from day one. To gain knowledge one must get into the deep water to understand the nitty-gritty of a new department’s work, irrespective of their earlier experience. And no matter which department you manage there will be some amount of new learning every day to keep abreast of latest trends and happenings related to that particular industry. And you should be able to roll up your sleeves and pitch in if necessary.
4. Don’t switch topics: Many managers have the habit of switching to some other topic just for the sake of disagreeing or proving a point. For example, if techies talk technical stuff many managers switch the topic to finance like ROI, business justification, etc. Or if techies talk costs then they drop a smarty like, ‘Cost is not a concern when it comes to customer satisfaction,’ to throw them off guard. In other words, they just disagree for the sake of disagreeing to introduce a different viewpoint. However, if you believe your angle is more important then learn to steer the topic smoothly without expecting them to read your mind and tell things that you like to hear.
5. Written communication: This is an extremely important skill that all techies must learn. The palest ink is better than the most retentive memory. Learn to put everything in writing in a clear simple language. Instead of giving speeches, talking or advising for an hour just summarize what you want and how you want in a concise email. Reduce formal talkative meetings to an absolute minimum. Instead, have quick informal meetings with your techies at their usual haunts like data centers, cabling rooms, server rooms, etc. That way you will get to know their ground realities, practical difficulties, limitations, workloads, etc., rather than have vague ideas of what they do by reading status reports.
Of course, there are heaps of other best practices that an IT manager must learn. However, the above five are a good beginning in case you are not practicing them already. Finally, we can summarize this chapter with a quote from Thomas Watson who said, ‘A manager is an assistant to his men.’

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