Geek culture may be on the wane

Hollywood, high school and Dilbert have created a stereotype of IT professionals as cellar-dwelling, sandal-wearing magi, who keep systems running with magic cables and Unix incantations – and there was probably more truth in that than many would like to admit.

Emphasis on the word “was.” For a variety of economic and cultural reasons many people now see IT professionals becoming a lot more, well, professional.

“I personally think geek culture is on the wane, mainly because all the classic geeks are ageing, and the young turks coming out of school these days are simply not the same. The kids getting into CS (computer science), for instance, are no longer doing it because they have a tremendous affinity for technology and no social skills. Instead, loads of kids are getting into it because of the money the can make,” said Pete Kloppenburg, a former front-line manager at a Mississauga, Ont., software company.

Kloppenburg, who is now a partner with Toronto-based documentation company Tribal Communications, suggested that with IT now attracting youngsters who, 20 years ago, might have gone into law or business, the types of personalities who are getting into the previously geek-dominated field are changing. “For instance,” he said, “kids these days coming out of school can be tremendously arrogant – not a trait generally ascribed to geeks.”

Although she’s “not entirely plugged-in” to geek culture, Ottawa-based HR consultant Sharon Lambert said that when she hires for corporate clients she does try to find workers who will play nicely with the other staff members.

“Obviously someone has to have the solid technical skills, but especially when I’m hiring for enterprise clients I really (put a) gold star (by) candidates who are poised and polished. You don’t have to be Mr. Country Club, but understanding corporate culture is important, and being able to sit in a meeting and be comfortable with the accountants and the product managers is a big advantage,” Lambert said.

“If you present yourself like you live under a bridge, you will spend your career in the server room or the wiring closet and, honestly, that’s a good fit for some people, but we will need fewer and fewer of them.”

Lambert also noted that departments full of hard coders have been notoriously hard to manage, in part because they often had non-techie managers imposed on them from above. But, she said, an increase in technology graduates with a background and education that makes them management material is bound to normalize these departmental relations.

After eight years as a database tester and developer, Vancouver’s Bill Syed has his eyes on the executive suite, and he sees a little business education as the way to get there.

“I don’t really have the time to go and get an MBA, but I am picking up some courses in organizational behaviour and marketing, and doing a lot of reading. As a technologist I think it’s easier for me to learn the business side than the other way around. And there seems to be a role for people who understand how the technology is put together, as well as what it can enable,” Syed said.

Rick Sturm a service-level management authority, and president of Enterprise Management Associates Inc. in Boulder, Colo., said that over and over his research shows a need for IT managers and executives to be more knowledgeable about what each other does.

“Too often IT goes to a meeting and wants to talk about packet collisions or disk I/O and it means nothing to the people on the outside. So problems emerge both in an inability to communicate, and also when IT seems to be disconnected from the realities of business,” Sturm said.

Although the days of the instant dot-com millionaires seem to be over, Syed noted that IT still offers the promise of a relatively secure, comfortable existence. This, he said, is attracting people who have a more lunchbucket mentality than the classic wan, faintly magical geek.

“As the child of immigrants I think the various aspects of computing are very attractive to parents and kids looking at their life and career options. Information technology, I think, has a lot of the same middle-of-the-road appeal that traditional middle-class professions like engineering, accounting or teaching did a generation ago,” Syed said.

Kloppenburg also suggested that changing technologies, from command-line Unix to Windows, for example, has contributed to the mainstreaming of IT workers and their cultures of work and play. But, he added, geekdom is far from dead.

“I think that the health of the open-source community, and Linux in particular, is a pretty good index that geek culture is still very vital. I doubt anybody who contributes a CD-ROM driver to the Linux source base is wearing Prada.”