How geeks and non-geeks can collaborate at work

Transcending stereotypes with 'Geeks and Non-Geeks: From Contraxioms to Collaboration in Higher Education'

In a world where geeks and non-geeks have to work together, it’s not language that creates the misunderstanding between two very different types of workers: It is their fundamentally different perspective and worldview. There’s often a big disconnect between techies who want to solve problems, and non-techies who want to achieve a vision. It’s the eternal war between left geek brain vs. right non-geek brain.

Non-geeks believe the world needs a vision that is based on ideals and intuition. The tools are secondary and you can always hire talent to make things happen. In short, you need excellent communication skills but you do not need to know what code is.

Geeks have a different worldview, however. We are system thinkers with a clever illusion that the world is a knowable place. With enough work and enough time and enough effort, we can find a set of rules about everything. That is really not true in the real world.

Geeks and non-geeks have a shaky relationship because they are different. Each group tends to look at the world in two different ways. The geek says, “I would love to change the world, but I don’t have access to the source code,” while the non-geek supervisor says, “I would love to change the world, and I have a vision.”

In the workplace

Authors Paul Glen and Maria McManus recently published an article about the on-going communication problems faced by geeks and non-geeks. Read it here: “Geeks and Non-Geeks: From Contraxioms to Collaboration in Higher Education.”

The article focuses on six ways geeks and non-geeks differ: work, future, knowing, language, lying, and wanting. These six points form the basis of two very different world views. Therefore, if you are a non-geek supervisor in charge of IT projects, you need to understand what geeks love to do.

In addition, Glen and McManus say there are three things that motivate geek culture. They are:

  • Difficulty: Geeks love to tackle hard (but not impossible) problems.
  • Learning: Geeks love to learn new things.
  • Competition: Yes, geeks love to compete with worthy opponents for pride and bragging rights.

If you, as a non-geek, understand these three things, you will be less-annoyed by missed deadlines or industry jargon that is sometimes intimidating and indecipherable.

Says author Glen:

“IT managers ask me, ‘How can I motivate my technical team?’ I love that they ask that question, since it tells me that as an industry our managerial maturity is improving. Fifteen years ago I was more often asked about process. The short answer is that you can’t motivate your team. Motivation is an internal emotional state, and you can’t crawl into someone else’s soul and make them motivated any more than you can make someone love you.

“Fortunately I have a longer answer: You can create conditions under which people are likely to find their own motivation. You can offer people an opportunity to be motivated. With geeks, the best way to offer that opportunity is to master the motivational power of problem statement.”

Look within

Image credit: No Starch Press

Rickford Grant’s book Linux for Non-Geeks is not the solution to the problems faced by geeks and non-geeks. But you may want to pick it up nonetheless. After reading the book, you will begin to realize that your focus should be on interpersonal workplace relationships. Technical hiccups, says the author, are a secondary concern.

The important thing these days is the ability to transcend stereotypes. Take some time to examine the dark corner of the human psyche where stereotypes and stigmas are born. You’ll undoubtedly see a geek (or two) mingling with a group of misfits in media. But even that image has gone through a transformation recently. Take Mark Zuckerberg, for example. He is unquestionably a geek. But he’s also a billionaire, whose vision and reality are idolized by millions of under-30 overachievers, entrepreneurs, and geeks.

The perception of geek culture is changing. Otherwise a reality show like Beauty and the Geek would have been a flop. Let’s all take a good long moment, whatever category we fall under, and try to understand the differences. With the power of both geek and non-geek, great things can be accomplished.

David Michaelis
Based in Australia, David Michaelis is a world-renowned international journalist and founder of Link Tv. At, he covers the global beat, focusing on politics and other international topics. Email him at [email protected]
David Michaelis
Tags: Business,Business Management