Who Are The Super Geeks?

Estimated reading time: 1 mins

The last quarter century has seen the rise of the Super Geek. This recent CIO.com article features 11 Super Geeks that have transformed society by disruptive technologies. This collection of individuals, if together, might be confused with the cantina in Star Wars, but their combined wealth is a hundred squillion dollars (roughly). Who are they?

  1. Alan Kay – The Laptop
  2. Ray Tomlinson – Email
  3. Martin Cooper – The Cellphone
  4. Mike Lazaridis – The Blackberry
  5. Vint Cerf – The Internet
  6. Bill Gates – ‘Standardized Software and Operating System’
  7. Steve Jobs – ‘Sexy Computers and your iPod’
  8. Larry Page and Sergey Brin – Google
  9. Bradford W. Parkinson and Ivan A. Getting – GPS

I wonder what made these guys so rich, where the rest of geekdom scratch around to buy the next pair of plaid trousers? I think the answer is that all of them were supported by strong commercially minded people who shared the vision of how technology creates unprecedented social value . I said social value, not business value. And there is the key – the innovators who bring contribution to society are those that, eventually, achieve the most – both financially and legendarily. This may not have been true in the past (how many stories have you heard that Mr X was a great inventor but died penniless?)

The Super Geek, therefore, is perhaps the greatest asset to mankind. If not that, then they’re certainly a valuable asset to business. But are they nurtured – listened to – given space to grow their vision in your organization? Do you even know who they are?

In my experience, the geeks are marginalized as a humorous quarter of the workforce. And I am not afraid to say that I have done this myself in the past. But reading the CIO.com article reminded me that ‘The Geek’ is a gift, if nurtured.

Do you have geeks in your organization? How are they treated?

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10 thoughts on “Who Are The Super Geeks?”

  1. Thanks for the mention, but I am neither super-rich, nor even rich. A few of the researchers at Xerox PARC by intent or by accident wound up commercializing their ideas, and they did get very rich (however, none of them did any research thereafter — money requires attention and tending). Many of the other researchers at PARC — including many of the “central ones” opted to keep on researching, and most of them are still researchers today. All of these, including me are comfortable, but not rich.

    Another way to look at the thesis of your blog is that the big changes that were brought about by a small number of researchers in the ARPA/PARC communities (the latter was an outgrowth and partner with the former) is that they were focused not at all on making money, but on inventing the next big human thought amplifier since the printing press. This romanticism and the good funding from both ARPA and Xerox allowed these “artists” to do directly after the visions without worrying about what the rest of computing was doing.

    For example, one of the biggest decisions in this community was to completely build all of their own HW and SW when necessary so that no bad thing in vendor HW or SW would get in the way. This small group had developed the chops and the determination to do this, and the result was quite *new* in ways that were not possible via incrementalism.

    Best wishes,

    Alan Kay

  2. @Alan – I am truly honored by your comment Alan! I could be tempted to write ‘shame you didn’t get rich’ but I can’t assume being rich is why you do research, although it would be nice to think that the universe is fair enough to reward you for your contribution to society, education and business. The laptop might not be *THE* human thought amplifier (as I don’t think there is ONE, but the Internet is perhaps the closest), but it certainly is one at the top of the list.

  3. @Chris – how much of the problem is caused by management challenge (ie. how do we manage geeks), and how much of is social (ie. how do geeks fit into society)?

  4. @Simon:

    This is a very heavy subject. The management challenge is that the geeks are in many ways much smarter than management, much more logical, much more rigorous in their thinking. The geeks operate in the Real World much more than management. Technical geeks are very good at knowing what can and what can’t be done in the physical world. They are closer to the metals, so to speak.

    Management is more into what can and can’t be done in the social world, the human interaction, human motivation arena.

    In the world of programming and hardware, the laws of physics absolutely dictate. There is no getting around them. For programmers specifically, the ones and zeros are immutable. They are subatomic particles. There is no getting around them. The trick is to take these ones and zeros, and make smart applications out of them. This requires rigorous thinking.

    As Brian Kernighan wrote: “Controlling complexity is the essence of computer programming” (from http://www.faqs.org/docs/artu/ch01s06.html).

    There is a black-and-whiteness to geekdom that’s hard to avoid. It either works or doesn’t. It either compiles or doesn’t. It either conducts current or doesn’t. There’s not a lot of gray area. In management, however, it’s all grey areas; nuances upon nuances. It’s a balance of power, where neither side is either right or wrong, where people measure effectiveness by the ability to influence by the gentlest of prodding. Geeks aren’t about that. The world of geeks is cut and dry.

    Now, society needs geeks. Someone invented fire, the wheel, the boat, the sword, the bow, the nuclear reactor. These are all geeks. Look at Einstein: He was downright weird. Right, but weird. Deep down, society respects the geek, because it needs it. The geek is the guy who tinkers and comes up with what makes life easier. Management may have the idea of coinage, but the guy who figured out how to make the actual coins, he’s the geek. But geeks are not especially social company.

    The problem with managing geeks is that geeks explore. Exploration is a faith-based process. Faith in the ability of the human mind to come up with concept and apply them to the real world. Now how do you quantify that in dollars? It’s really hard to put in a projection, a simulation, a project plan. What the geek really says when he says “I’ll look into it” is that he is going to rely on the unexplainable abilities of his brain to generate good ideas to solve the problem. He will rely on his past experience, his know-how, shall we say, to solve the problem. Can he write a manual of how that process works step by step? No.

    When unshackled from the chains of management process, and keeping to his own rigorous thinking and mental rational triage, he will much more effectively identify optimal real-world solutions that address real-world problems.

    The process that management would place on the geek is but a pale shadow of the geek’s own logical thinking capabilities.

    And since the geeks are already some of the smartest people on the planet, how can business school graduates possibly come up with something better?

    This is why they are generally disregarded by real geeks as incompetent and meddlesome.

    Now, why do business people insist on fostering processes on the geeks? Because it works in manufacturing and fast-food. Process-lovers think that written-down, formal procedures are the ultimate in “management”. Geeks don’t. Geeks rely on the power of the trained human brain. And when the disagreement is framed this way, most can readily agree that the geeks just might be right.

    Essentially, geeks self-manage. Placing management on them only frustrates everyone involved, and leads to sub-optimal performance.

    SO this is my answer: Geeks self-manage. Traditional management doesn’t work on geeks.

  5. @Chris – I am lost for words really other than to say what a great piece of writing. [5 mins passed] To add, I’ll say that I am a geek. And I am a Manager. Being both is not impossible, but difficult. It puts me under a lot of pressure to behave in conflicting ways, but over the years I have learned to do it. Maintaining black-and-white whilst accomodating grey is tough! One day, I might have to make a choice – Geek, or Manager?

  6. Hi Chris – some days I am one, some days I am the other. Depends on the task! So I’m not one or the other… but both!

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