Why Business Needs More Geeks


Work sucks. It sucks because at its core it has become impure. Business used to be about providing value to the customer. Entrepreneurs captured a portion of that value creation as profit. The more value they created, the more profit they could make. But then along came Wall Street. Obsessed with quarterly profit increases and seeing them as disconnected from value creation, Wall Street encouraged businesses to think short-term. The things that led to value creation – things like innovation, continued learning, employee development, long-term focus – were replaced by pump-and-dump management styles. What can we do to hit the target next quarter regardless of the long term consequences? After all, we just want to pump this baby up and sell it off.

Once people gave up on the idea of greatness for business, work changed. Now most people are working out of necessity, not desire. Few companies provide good working environments, because employees have come to be viewed as expenses, not assets. Companies pour money into maintaining and upgrading important physical assets while they skimp on the less tangible assets that are primarily tied up in the minds of employees.

Over time, as business has taken a turn for the worse, it has attracted the wrong people. When I was at the University of Kentucky, business school was a refuge for people that couldn't cut it in engineering school, or students from the party crowd that wanted an easy degree. These people get into the working world and it easily corrupts them because it is a corrupt place. As a result you get this strange American economy that focuses on the short-term and ignores its real strengths. The U.S. is driven by entrepreneurship and small businesses, yet they get ignored while we obsess over the daily stock prices of Fortune 500 companies.

Lest you think this is turning into some left-wing rant, let me stop you right there. I am not anti-business. I bring up these points only because I am so pro-business. Business is like a game, and like any other game, I hate to see people cheat. Nothing is more exciting than the ongoing battle for profit between two companies that are waging market wars using real tactics like innovation, productivity increases, better marketing, sounder strategy, solid business models, and flawless execution. It's much more exciting than watching them win by lobbying the government for protection from competitors or pushing money around financial statements until it looks good. I love business and I want to see it return to the days of true capitalistic competition. The days of business by legal and/or customer manipulation should come to an end.

So what can we do? How can business return to the roots of capitalism? By embracing geeks. Here are the top five reasons I think business needs them.

1. Geeks seek knowledge for it's own sake. Do you know a geek that thinks it is fun to learn a new programming language? Do you know a geek that builds robots, tweaks car engines, upgrades computers or builds websites just as a hobby? Geeks love to learn new things. Geeks love to learn old things. Geeks just love to learn – period. And it isn't the fluff stuff that business people try to learn. I know an embedded systems programmer that started working with Ruby on Rails at home simply because he wanted to become better at web programming. I know a web programmer that learned C and wrote a device driver because he wanted to understand how they worked. But in the business world, marketers don't read up on financial accounting, accountants don't know about strategic analysis and the people in human resources often can't define basic economic concepts. That's a problem.

Business is a broad knowledge area, and no one can be an expert in everything. But exposure to different areas is helpful to understanding where each part fits into the big picture. Business needs people that pursue business knowledge out of interest and passion. Learning doesn't end with graduation any more.

2. Geeks like to experiment. I have sat in countless business meetings that were all talk. Rather than trying things to see what worked, we talked in circles for weeks only to end up doing nothing. It is quite different from my days as a digital circuit designer.

When I wrote VHDL for FPGAs, you could experiment. If we didn't know the best way to do something, we could try two different implementations. There was no shame in failure or missing the mark because we were always learning and iterating. No one ever nailed a design in one try.

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In business though, there are too many people afraid to move forward. Failure can be a career killer, and the inertia factor makes it easier just to keep moving along the way you already are. An entrepreneur friend of mine doesn't consider it a failure when he gets out of a business, because as he says "I try businesses on like most people date. I'm trying to figure out what I like and what I'm best at." If business had more geeks, there would be a more experimental culture in business that would help make everything better by focusing on what works and encouraging small scale tests.

3. Geeks openly debate the merits of technical ideas.You can find countless articles on the web and in computing magazines about why Perl or Ruby or Java or Lisp is better than C or Haskell or VB or PHP for certain kinds of projects. Geeks like to talk about best practices and debate the merits of various approaches to programming or web design or hardware development or system configuration. Business people like to talk about who moved their cheese.

What would happen if the average manager was interested enough in Sarbanes Oxley to read up on why it is good or bad for business? In business these discussions take place more by business journalists than they do by actual business people. It isn't just that we don't know enough to follow such discussions, the problem is that most of us don't care because it is just a job.

4. Geeks are concerned with doing good work just because.. It was Voltaire who wrote "The biggest reward for a thing well done is to have done it." If you have worked in software development, you have undoubtedly met a code nazi that will trash your code and refuse to include it in the next release if you do a sloppy job. In the hardware design world, if you took shortcuts by not double sampling signals that crossed clock boundaries or putting a lot of non-clocked logic into a design, your laziness (or ignorance) would be called out for sure.

The business world is much too full of the just-enough-to-get-by types. There isn't always a demand to do things is a solid systematic fashion. The decision making process is often poorly understood and not well documented, and later managers wonder why a company did project X in the first place.

5. Geeks are about results, not office politics. It is much easier to fake financial or marketing knowledge than it is technical knowledge. Business people often encourage bullshit, and don't hold each other accountable by demanding that people back up what they say. In the world of hardware design, you don't promote friends or sycophants if their design skills stink. In the business world, sometimes alliances matter more than skills. Geek culture is more of a meritocracy. It is more about who can really get things done and make things happen. Talk is cheap if you haven't proven yourself.

When I talk about geeks, I am not making blanket statements about tech workers. Plenty of tech workers are lousy at what they do. What I mean by geeks is people that are fascinated with their work, enjoy it, and are willing to do it for fun. These people are by and large found in technology jobs. I think we need to recruit more of them into the business world.

Imagine working in a company where the business leaders embraced these geeky ideas. Imagine the impact a company could have if filled with people who always wanted to learn, debate, and do things the right way instead of the easy way. Imagine working with business geeks who love what they do because they believe business itself is ultimately cool and fun.

"Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world." — Goethe

Business is all about putting thoughts into action. It's time to fix work and the business world by bringing on the people who love thinking + action. It's time to encourage more geeks to get into business.