What Happened To All The Geeks?

For me, working in IT is all about the technology. The hardware and the software and the fun things you have to do to make it all work together in a wonderful (and useful) way.  If you look about the modern IT office, you are unlikely to see many people who feel this way. Which makes me wonder, what happened to all the Geeks in IT?

IT is relatively a very young industry, and in the short time it’s been around as a discipline it has changed dramatically. Less than 25 years ago, most large corporates were still tied into the mainframe model, and serious desktop computing was only just starting to emerge.  On the back of this, new support and engineering departments evolved, containing mostly people who were passionate about their jobs, with good technology knowledge to boot.  These people were the first generation to grow up with computers in their homes, and their enthusiasm for the seemingly un-limitless potential of this new technological marvel knew no bounds. Anything was possible, and these geeks spent night after night in front of a keyboard exploring, learning and improving.

So, during the 1990s there was the computer boom. This wasn’t just driven by the drop in hardware prices, but by the enthusiasts. They took that which was unfathomable for the everyman and made it accessible to the masses. These were the people who could help you when your PC crashed, or your spreadsheet died, or when you found yourself suddenly staring at monochrome DOS prompt. IT support used to consist of a bunch of geeks who could fix anything, normally in a short timeframe. For medium sized offices this situation worked really well.

Of course, as corporate businesses scaled up their IT systems into one efficient department, the legacy silo based approach of embedded knowledge was considered unmanageable, so the large-scale service model was born with the now familiar 3 tier system of Call Centre, 2nd Line (or Desktop Support) and 3rd Line (Engineering). In this new regime, high skilled individuals were considered single point of failures, and emphasis was put on distributing the knowledge across many individuals in many departments or teams. Cross training was the fresh new thing, and people were infused with wide reaching IT knowledge whether they wanted it or not.

The Geek in the office was no longer welcome to the party and those that couldn’t adapt just unplugged and left the industry, leaving behind those that weren’t as good as the geeks, and those who had only entered IT because “they’d read that it paid well, and let’s face it, a History degree is a bit useless isn’t it?”.

Then over the next few years, in true Lord of the Flies style, the remaining almost-geeks were out-manoeuvred by the history-degree-people, and once the dust finally settled on the battlefield, all Corporate IT was left with was a sea of non-technical middle managers, and low skilled, low paid engineers. The new Corporate IT world had become a stale barren wasteland of paperwork, processes, and endless meetings.

Without the Geeks, there will be no ongoing innovation in Corporate IT, and it will continue its decline into a vendor-driven utility service. To combat this, every IT department needs to embrace the concept of a Futures or Innovations Team, whose role it is to explore, learn, and improve on the service and technology that’s currently being provided. This team can then feed into the rest of the IT department with direction and recommendations. Some forward-thinking Corporates now have Innovation teams, but like the 3 tier Support model, innovation needs to be a core part of the IT infrastructure. Each year the introduction of new technology increases pace and to stay competitive, all companies, large and small, need to keep up.

All too often senior management not only give strategic direction, but also pre-define the technology that is to be used, leaving the actual IT specialists to work out how to shoehorn competing and often incompatible technologies into the estate.  An IT roadmap should be driven down by management and the products and solutions to complement it driven up by the Geeks. Only then can true service synergy be achieved, and you need both Geeks and management in equal measure to achieve that…

If like me you are a proud Geek, then stand tall, and defend your faith, your IT Department depends on your skills. Not every Corporate IT department is as I painted above, but I do feel the rot has definitely set in…

Do you feel that Corporate IT has evolved into something it shouldn’t be, or is it becoming exactly what the business needs?