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.

How to Keep Your Employees Happy Without Giving Them a Raise

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.

  • Rob,

    Truly outstanding piece, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a geek and think we should rule the world!

    The biggest problem I see with the concept of business geek is that business is just so broad a topic, and the skills required to success across different aspects are so diverse. It takes a completely different kinds of people to geek out on software development vs. finance vs. customer support. People’s brains naturally select the flavor of geek that fits them best.

    I think that the real solution is to groom and encourage “leadership geeks”, the kinds of people that you describe that know a fair amount about a wide range of topics but really geek out about helping each one of the disparate areas work together to do something great for some customers!

    Geeks are passionate because they view themselves as pursuing something bigger than themselves – that they’re on an important quest for something. That business geek on a quest mentality is one of the reasons I found G2G compelling, as I wrote here: http://spookyaction.blogspot.com/2005/04/good-to-great-throughout-ages.html. Maybe the answer to your “What’s the difference between level 4 leadership and level 5 leadership?” is true leadership geekiness!

  • I take issue with just one conclusion Rob: “Business used to be about providing value to the customer.”

    I don’t think it is any different than it used to be on this core issue. I’ve argued with execs for years about focusing on finding, keeping, and growing the right customers rather than schemes to fatten their wallets.

    If anything there are now more people questioning the conventional wisdom about purpose and more science saying the conventional wisdom is and has been wrong, wrong, wrong.

    But you are right to blame Wall Street.

  • I agree with your article. Geeks in general do have many good qualities that would improve life. Also geeks could help remove many of the negative aspects that people complain about.

  • Bogie

    Amen Brother! You spoke to me.

  • Kevin

    I think that most engineers would succeed in what ever field they pursued. An engineer may not be a natural for example in finance, but they will want to learn everything there is to know if put in that position. Over time will help them perform that task well. Besides that they always double check their work which is extremely important because small mistakes can make a lot of extra work.

    Although we will never do a good that involved spelling or art. We would have to invent something – like spell check – in order to be successfull.

  • Michael Hammer, the renowned business consultant who invented to concept of reengineering, has argued that future executives should not major in business as undergrads: rather, they should double-major in a difficult liberal arts subject *and* a hard science or engineering discipline–for example, ancient Greek and aeronautical engineering.

    IIRC, he think business-specific education is OK, but only for grad school and only after a hard undergrad experience in other things.

  • Kate

    This is a completely crazy article. The perspective is very shortsighted and manages to discount most of the facts as to why business and work sucks. Here’s a shortlist:
    -the phd glut in our country makes it impossible for non-BA’d folk to get a middle management job.
    -people are essentially social creatures and will automatically hierarchize social situations in which they are placed. Business is just the modern equivalent of a social hierarchy. He with the most money wins. Like in tribal times, attractive and persuasive people are likely to rise to the top–and thus gain more wealth–even if they completely suck at “providing value to the consumer”.
    -People too busy doing something constructive (like building a home survey system or coding the back end to a huge database) don’t have time to play the social game.

  • Rob

    Are you sure you read the post in full? Dissenting opinions are always welcome here, but your comments are so incoherent and illogical I’m not sure if I should respond or consider them spam.

    Your point about PhDs seems irrelevant. I don’t see a PhD glut and I don’t see PhDs in many middle management positions. And anyway, the idea that your job growth is limited because of your lack of education doesn’t seem to me to be a primary reason work sucks.

    Your social hierarchy comments just re-affirm my position that we need more business geeks. In my experience, geek culture is more of a meritocracy than the normal business culture.

  • Kate

    If business were actually defined as “providing value to a consumer” then it certainly would need more geeks, especially talented geeks, to find the most efficient way of meeting whatever specific objectives related to consumer fulfillment.

    Business insofar as the modern office establishment has absolutely nothing to do with efficiency. I think your article points to an understanding that its current set up is “managing people to meet productive ends” without really examining whether making a real product is good for overall profit.

    My argument mostly distills down to the fact that you can’t expect people who studied QCD or CS in college to function well when dropped into the business world, as it is hierarchical and not necessarily based on actually creating innovations or doing science or any of that stuff geeks are interested in doing. I don’t see how not assuming that business is based on efficiency indicates a lack of education.

  • Rob…the “regarding your point #4” comment, above, was me.

  • “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.”
    Very very nice observation. I not only agree with you fully but also like to add that this problem is now everywhere not just in USA. People care for short term things and thus in our age we cannot see many legends in business.

  • As an ex-geek, I agree.

    So how do you avoid driving off the best geeks? Here’s my list of the top 10 mistakes managers of geeks make:

  • Eric Arias

    Hey Rob, I loved this article! I’m a geek myself. I’ve silently held the conviction that geeks were just the most awesome people to hang around. Another point you made briefly is one that has bothered me lately. That is, viewing employees as an expense, as overhead. I feel passionate about treating employees well and recognizing the value they bring to any company. Why not write up payroll under the asset column?

  • I think maybe everyone must be a bit of a geek in order to succeed in business. The problem is one of what they are geeky about. The geeks you described are ones obsessed with products and processes – things of value to customers. The senior folks are just as geeky when you get on the right topic. Many of them can get downright orgasmic when they start talking about derivatives and stock options. A new spin on DuPont’s ROI formula can make them delirious. The problem, of course, is that their numbers obsession serves no one but themselves and Wall Street, and is typically harmful to the rest of the stakeholders, like customers and employees.

  • Rob

    That makes more sense, but I do want to clarify that I’m not saying geeks should go into business. I’m saying business should import the geek mindset.

  • Rob, some great thoughts there. I’m in an industry (advertising), where some people tend to be geeky (designers, copywriters, programmers) and some are not (account management, media planners). I consider myself to be a geek, but somehow I ended up in account management. I will also add that many account managers are execution-oriented and reactionary – perhaps good characteristics for project managers, but not, in my opinion for client service / account mgmt.

    Anyway, the question I’d like to pose is, how does one move that needle? I have some of my own principles I go by:
    – Ask ‘why’ we’re doing something rather than just going along with it
    – Don’t be reactionary
    – Be efficient; don’t send unnecessary e-mails, don’t invite people to meetings who don’t need to be there
    – Output the best work I can (time allowing). If there isn’t enough time, make it known that you did the best with the time given
    – Question the status quo

    Maybe these points aren’t really characteristic of geek culture, but how do we get people around us to start thinking like we do, or perhaps accept us more?

  • There really is something to be said for geeks… they tinker and ultimately, tinkerers are innovative and innovators make great entrepreneurs. Great post.