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Why Geeks, Nerds, engineers and scientists and Technologists are so special

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We focus on developing tech people – that is, we work with nerds, geeks, scientists and engineers because that's our background and we speak your language. But we also speak business – and bridge the worlds of Technology and Business.

For simplicity, we refer to geeks, nerds, scientists, engineers and technologists as “tech people”.

In short (TL: DR)

We know that Tech people are special and that they are the future success of your business and the global economy. We also know that we can never ever teach the marketing, finance, and HR folk how to “do” the tech side of the business, but we sure can teach engineers, scientists, geeks and nerds how to run your business, market it and count the returns. 

And sure, most of them are introverts, which is why they've let others take the front facing roles. But now, you know that you need these stars of the basement labs up in the sunlight and talking to your customers, planning their own succession and developing their team. The introverts are (quietly) taking over because tech is your profit centre – even if you think your business isn't “in” tech.

The longer, research-backed version:

So what's so special about these tech leaders?

Do they need to be managed and developed differently from the rest of your staff?

This article sets out to answer three questions:

  1. Do they need to be managed and developed differently from the rest of your staff?
  2. Are Tech people really different from the rest of an organization’s employees?
  3. That unkempt antisocial geek in the corner is your best programmer. Do you let him do what he does best or counsel him to fit your ideal employee profile?

Before I try to answer these, allow me to clarify some of the terms and tools I am using so that we completely understand each other:

Consider Character & Competency

Allow me to briefly lay out the terms I use so that you understand how I am using the terms of character, competencY and competencE

When I embarked on my doctoral research it was apparent that nobody could really agree if competence and competency were the same thing. And then there’s a whole debate about whether we need to BE a leader or should we DO leadership.

This paper is not intended to open that particular debate, though you can contact me if you would like to read the rather turgid academic paper I wrote on this subject

being a Leader and Doing leadership
Competence is your technical ability associated directly with your job. Competency is the way you do your job and other non direct job activities.

I consider CHARACTER to be the way we are human BEINGS. The elements of our personal make up, our genetic inheritance, upbringing, and environment and so on – all these help create our character.

The way we do things – that, I consider to be our competencies. The way we do things changing over time and adapts to our context and environment and may, or may not, support the way we DO our actual job.

How we execute the tasks that are our job, I regard as competence.

It is these three, working in combination that generates our performance.

The combinations of individual efforts are the organization activities and generate organizational performance.

I shall start by looking at whether IT people show a different character, then share their differences in competencies and lastly, the ever so important, “so what?” part… and answer the question posed with some advice on what you can do now.

A brief overview of the 9 Characters of Leadership

I’d like you to think of your effectiveness in your role within a team as the interplay of your own character and competency. We’ll ignore the job specific competences someone in IT needs as these are all very different according to the project in hand.

  • The greater your competency – the more effective you are
  • The deeper your character – the more effective you can be.

In our research we have found that individuals can be considered as having one of nine dominant characteristics:

Nine characters of Leadership
The Nine Characters of Leadership


– these individuals show some aptitude for leadership in their role, and some depth of character – though essentially they are doers of their job.

Controllers – have a greater aptitude for leadership than Compliant and very often like to keep control of their own domain.

Conquerors – are often more aggressive. Very good at DOING leadership things, but with a winner takes all attitude.

Connectors – like to connect with people. We find that there are two versions of connector: The giver (at their own expense) and the taker (at others expense).

Cavaliers – are the idea people – the mavericks if you like. Highly focused on other people though not especially fussed about the best way of DOING leadership things.

Conductors – like an orchestra conductor with their back to the audience, they draw people together and create harmony and agreement.

Craftsman (yes I am coming back to conjurors) have great leadership aptitude and work well with others. Imagine the Master/apprentice relationship as an example.

Chess players are the strategists and planners of the team. Great at doing leadership and with a string character.

Conjurors are the leaders in the middle. 360 leaders if you will. They have one of the toughest leadership roles because they have a boss (often several bosses in IT) and a team to lead, and customers, and suppliers and colleagues. They are the glue of any team and organization, and in this world, make up the majority of middle management throughout the world. Good enough at DOING leadership and good enough at BEING a leader.

TO be at its most effective, any team needs people in each of these roles. Any role that is lacking is like riding a bicycle with a buckled wheel. You can still make it happen, but it’s hard work and less rapid than a well-balanced team.

A note about the Data

The majority of our data focuses on South East Asia
  • Data submitted are self-assessments using GAPPS or MECA tools
  • All data submitted between 2006 and 2019
  • All subjects based in Asia/Aus/NZ.
  • 78% of all subjects in South East Asia
  • Data is reported at .05 Significance

Tech Team Leadership Roles

We consider there are just 5 levels in an organisation: Independent Contributors, Team Leaders, Managers, Senior Managers and C-Level

When we analyzed the different roles in our IT group, we split between IT staff, managers and senior managers, and because this is a paper to support a seminar for CIOs, well CIOs and CTOs.

It is reasonable to assume that staff members are more likely to be in the bottom left hand quadrant – after all, they are independent and not leaders right?

Managers in the middle, well, we’d anticipate them to be in the middle, around ‘Conjuror’. CIOs we can expect them to be the strategists and planners.

To a certain extent, this is true, but do note… none are Cavaliers!

Tech Leaders show some possible differences to what we might reasonably expect, but are they “special”?

Tech Roles and Ops Roles

Comparing Tech people and Operations people and their dominant leadership characteristics.

How does Tech compare to Operations as an exampl?. Both functions serve the organization. Both may, or may not have direct customer facing roles, they are predominantly ‘back end’ supporting functions.

Operations appears to be more evenly spread and closer to what we might expect… IT is certainly different then.

Are they special?

Tech and Operations Teams Compared

No Cavaliers (mavericks) in tech – maybe they don't like to break the systems rules?

Both Tech and operations are ‘heavy’ in the middle, both are ‘light’ on Craftsmen. But Tech has no Cavaliers.

Is this special?

Tech Strengths and Weaknesses

What does this tell us?

If this is typical of a Tech team – and our research suggests that it is, just that within a single Tech team of about 20-25 individuals the differences are not statistically significant.

We would expect these strengths to be manifest

  • Well-disciplined, efficient and practical
  • Make good use of the group, draw team together
  • Co-operative, averting friction
  • Quick to explore new opportunities (new projects that excite!)
  • Single minded and professional dedicated

In particular, Tech teams are seen to be more cooperative than any other organisation team. They are more disciplined than others teams (including finance)

When we coach tech people, one word (and its variants) is repeated… Pride. Pride in a good job, in solving a difficult problem, in keeping up to speed with the latest technologies…

And these weaknesses.

  • Lack creativity, think within the box and accept everyday realities as cast iron.
  • May be seen as uninspiring or slow-moving
  • Indecisive when lack data
  • May be weak on follow-through
  • Limited in interests

When we talk to other people about their IT folk, the biggest gripe is about how long it takes for “them” to fix a “simple issue”.

Now we might consider that Tech is special.

Do Tech have a different Mindset?

A quick introduction to Mindset.

Mindset is about your BELIEF as to whether your abilities are fixed (i.e. personality, intelligence, traits, abilities, talents cannot be improved upon)

Or, you can believe that you can achieve (almost) anything you desire to achieve through effort and practice. This is a growth mindset.

For more on Mindset, do read Carol Dweck’s excellent book entitle Mindset, on her research. If it doesn’t change your life, it might give your kids the lift they need from you.

Tech leaders show a more fixed mindset

Tech show just over 60% are Fixed Mindset, whilst Operations are evenly split.

So what does this mean?

More Tech people have a fixed mindset. They believe that they are x intelligent, and have a y personality and z traits that they can do nothing about. Most importantly, if a specific task or project is beyond their BELIEVED abilities, Tech people are more likely to give up and avoid the problem (often by finding something else “more urgent” to do).

I want to stress here. This is a BELIEF about how we are. And you can change a belief.

So maybe Tech is really a special case.

Leadership Competencies

What about Tech competencies then?

Remember these competencies are not their technical knowledge and abilities or skills, rather their team leadership competencies.

In our research, we have analyzed and discovered what makes someone successful in their role.

We define leadership success as:

Behaving in a congruent and righteous way that generates a sustainable superior return on investment

Behaving: your manifest actions and words.

Congruent: in accordance with stated and unstated beliefs and values

Righteous: acting in an upright, moral and virtuous way (within the context of the environment)

Sustainable: able to maintained or kept going

Superior return on investment: continuously returning greater benefit to the organization and/or people than the investment in time, money, effort. i.e. a greater ROI than most other leaders.

Identifying those individuals who have achieved success in particular functions, we know the zone for their competencies.

Analyzing Tech on this benchmark shows that some are above, some below the zone and many within the zone.

The red columns here suggest that something may be amiss. So let’s look at this more closely.

Significant Competency Issues

For Tech people, there are potential issues in so many being weaker than a ‘successful’ Tech person in three Applied intellectual competencies, and three emotional intelligence competencies.

The three Intellectual Competencies of concern are:

  • Critical Analysis and Judgment
  • Strategic Perspective and
  • Vision and Imagination.

Don’t get me wrong here, Tech people are usually very good at analysis… so long as it’s numbers and so long as it’s logical. The most frequent ‘complaint’ we hear from CEO’s and even CIOs is that their people don’t think about the whole (business) picture. And this frustrates people in other parts of the business.

The second biggest complaint we hear from peers and staff on other departments about Tech is that they only say “yes” when it fits with the existing systems or processes.

The three EQ competencies of concern are:

  • Engaging Communications
  • Self-Awareness, and
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity

Tech people are different

Tech people speak in a jargon of their own, and they laugh at jokes nobody else thinks is funny…That unkempt antisocial geek in the corner is your best programmer…

Let’s face it, Tech people consider Dilbert to be a guru.

So how?

So what do you do about it?

Tech are certainly different.

Without your Tech people, your business would die! Even if your business could go back to paper and pencil, can the stock exchange?

So if Tech are different and you need them, whether they are “special” or not is more label to try and make them (and you) feel good about your difference. So if it makes you and your team feel good… then you’re special.

If, on the other hand, “special” makes you think “special needs” and doesn’t make you feel good, then, no you’re just essential.

  • Tech does need to communicate empathetically and honestly with the rest of the organization and understand the whole business perspective.
  • The need to transition from a technology-led thinking to a business led thinking

These can be trained.

So you, and by ‘you’ I do mean you personally. Need to develop the leaders in your Tech team… by mentoring them.

  1. Firstly, help them shift their mindset to a growth mindset (if they are fixed)
  2. Then make certain they understand that this won’t happen after an event… it’s a daily process.
  3. Now mentor them.
  4. In particular, in how to lead up effectively – the chances are very high that currently, your middle managers do not know when to push back at you and when they should back off… you can help them.
  5. Secondly, help them in leading across the organisation… in particular, letting the best idea win – no matter what technological headaches it is about to cause… it’s still the best idea and the fact that it came from the spotty teenager in accounts does not make it a bad idea.

Are Tech people special?

  • Do they need to be managed differently from the rest of your staff?
    • Yes
  • Are Tech people really different from the rest of an organization’s employees?
    • Yes
  • That unkempt antisocial geek in the corner is your best programmer. Do you let him do what he does best or counsel him to fit your ideal employee profile?
    • No! You mentor him to be the best that he can be in his job AND develop him as a person

To develop your special Tech people, contact me today.