Neil Blakey-Milner

What is a geek?

I started writing a post on how to understand how respect works with developers, that quickly expanded to cover other technology worker types as “passionate technology people”. Which is rather unwieldy a term to be throwing around throughout a post and not entirely encompassing of the people I mean anyway. “Geek” is the most accurate word in my vocabulary, but then I ended up spending more time explaining what a “geek” was rather than explaining how respect works for them. The downside of this is that you now have to read an obligatory “What I think a geek is” post instead of how to deal with them.

Before the 70s, “geek” wasn’t a word anyone used outside a carnival — a carnival geek would be the performer (usually a hopeless alcoholic) who would do things like bite the heads off of chickens. In the 70s and 80s, a “geek” at American universities (and probably elsewhere) was what we called a “nerd” back when I was at school (not all that long ago). In the 90s, as the “geeks” from the universities started making money in the dot-com boom, being a “geek” started becoming a good thing (while “nerd” generally remained a bad one).

Even before the time “geek” was coined, technology enthusiasts were playing with ham radio, model railroads, and other electronics and hoping to get time on the rare and expensive computers of the day and coming up with their own shared terminology. The exceptional amongst them were called “hackers”, although the term ended up being used for any member of the group.

Hackers are a magnanimous bunch. Since they’d stolen the word “hack” themselves from the pranksters at MIT, they were quick to suggest that the core meaning of “hack” and “hacker” have nothing to do with technology per se, but rather “an appropriate display of ingenuity”. The original MIT hackers maintain a list of hacks they’ve performed — anything from making a building with a big dome resemble the droid R2D2 from Star Wars to stealing a famous California Institute of Technology land-mark during broad daylight by pretending to be movers and moving it cross-country. It was a cannon. Howe and Ser were the moving company — it helps to know Latin a bit to get the gag.

But in the 90s, “geek” was on the up, “hacker” was on the down — the term was being increasingly used in media to refer to those that broke into computer networks and systems. While nobody has officially claimed the “hacker” fight lost (“He’s not dead, he’s restin’!”), “geek” gained pretty much all the qualities of “hacker” albeit slightly watered-down, and it’s not too much of a stretch to consider it the better-looking-but-less-bright orphan child of “hacker”.

While shedding the bad qualities of “nerd” to a degree, “geek” also gained the generic nature of “hacker”. Those who use tricks to make their cars run faster or cheaper are car geeks, people who build their own lightboxes and play around with HDR are photography geeks, and so on.

At this stage in my explanation, I’m generally confronted with questions:

What is my agenda in pushing the genericness of “geek”?
I suspect that one of the aspects of my particular brand of geekdom is a love for precision (or, perhaps, a hatred of imprecision) in the use of language, and those who have worked with me will know how incredibly annoying this trait can be, and, hopefully, how useful. I consider it ambiguity to talk about features of part of a population that apply to the entire population without mentioning that fact.

Why does it matter if “geek” is generic?
If you understand what motivates one geek, you’ve probably got a good handle on what motivates others, whether the geek you know is a programmer, a mechanic, a teacher, or a lawyer. As a group, they tend to value achievement, growth, and the work itself (Software Engineering Economics, Boehm, 1981) above other concerns. And, as a group, they tend to come with specific downsides as well.

GeekDinner is an experiment that tests this theory that there are geeks outside technology. Although organised predominantly by technology geeks so far (including me, as a disclaimer), it attracts more and more geeks of all varieties not only as guests, but as speakers as well. The presentations on a wide variety of topics are few and in short five-minute ADD-friendly chunks, on the theory that there’s not enough time to get bored. Not unexpectedly, though, most of the audience tend to enjoy the talks outside their area almost as much as those in their area. I wouldn’t claim total success yet, but it looks like the theory is holding.

Once you know what a geek is, you can identify them — even if you’re only interested in the ones that might inhabit your IT department, because most likely not everyone in there is a geek. Non-geek IT people are probably more interested in recognition, responsibility, advancement, and status than the geeks are, and treating them like geeks will help you about as much as treating geeks as non-geeks.

Once you know what a geek is and you’ve identified one, then you can start applying your knowledge of geeks to get the most out of your relationship with them, whether they are friends or family members or employees or team members (or maybe even employers). Hopefully I can help shed some insights into at least the geeks I deal them and myself.

6 Responses to “What is a geek?”

  1. Simply put, a Geek is someone who is Overly passionate about something, not necessarily technology.

    June 28, 2008 at 10:44 am
  2. ismail – do you think it is that case that a geek is passionate about acquiring skills or knowledge, as opposed to being passionate about, say, goals or achievements?

    June 28, 2008 at 5:02 pm
  3. Hey Neil, I believe geeks are motivated by passion to learn and to satisfy their curiosity. There is no better pleasure then breaking something and then putting it back together, or finding a solution to a problem!

    June 29, 2008 at 9:49 am
  4. Ismail: That’s essentially the core of it (how I see it, anyway) but there are other traits as well. Strong use of (and love of) language is pretty common across the board. So are wide-ranging interests. Very few geeks I know limit themselves to a single field, although most focus their efforts on one or a few.

    Deep knowledge of their specialty is a given, but broad, if shallow, knowledge of quite a lot of other stuff is common to the point of ubiquity. I suppose this stems from the passion for learning.

    Hmm, I have more to say on this topic than I thought, but work calls.

    June 30, 2008 at 3:31 pm
  5. geek |gēk|
    noun informal
    1 an unfashionable or socially inept person.
    • [with adj. ] a person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest : a computer geek.
    2 a carnival performer who does wild or disgusting acts.
    geeky adjective
    ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from the related English dialect geck ‘fool,’ of Germanic origin; related to Dutch gek ‘mad, silly.’

    July 23, 2008 at 3:24 pm
  6. Thats according to the dictionary. So you MUST use it with an adjective, else, by the looks of things, its not too nice a word!

    July 23, 2008 at 3:26 pm

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