Saturday, February 26, 2005

Geeks and Normals

As I've mentioned previously - I've been making a living in the IT world for a long time. In fact I'm closing in on 20 years in this business! Over that time I've come to be fairly comfortable with the concept of "Geeks" and "Normals".

Geeks are those odd ones among us that seem to be able to effortlessly understand technology. They are the ones that we all run to with anything electronic. It doesn't seem to matter if the device in question was dropped on their head from a UFO or purchased at the local Wal Mart. If it's got buttons and a screen they are one with it. You can pick out Geeks in a crowd. They are the ones standing alone against the wall at a party with their expensive micro-brew in one hand and apparently engrossed with some contraption in the other. They are the ones rolling their eyes as they try to help their in-laws in the computer aisle. They are the ones you always call to show you how to find the Superbowl on your overly complex television setup and then invite to the party out of guilt.

Normals are everyone else.

One thing I have always found constant is that there are Normals that want to enjoy a certain amount of whatever it is that makes geeks what they are. Don't get me wrong, they don't want to be geeks, they just want to be good at using their *insert gadget here*.

I have seen some Normals successfully make this transition so I know it's possible. However, being good and comfortable with most people, Normals go about this like they would in any situation - by finding a geek, being nice, and asking for help. Not understanding the species, they usually go about it badly and end up in frustration. The geek sits down - rattles off the whole process as fast as possible. Fixes the one issue, grabs a handful of your imported candy and bails down the hallway. Mostly because the trade off for that amazing geek talent is that it's usually balanced by a complete and total lack of social ability and interpersonal skill. In fact, not only a lack but an actual disdain for interpersonal skill.

To make sure there is no mistake - I consider myself a geek. I can literally bleed programming code in about 20 languages. Configure any flavor of Unix in my sleep, and am generally annoyed as hell at any electronics store employee. However I've made it my avocation to become a capable member of normal society. I've been successful. Mostly. I seem to be able to navigate in the world of management without causing any social house of cards to come fluttering down (unless I really am totally, socially blind and just missed it). I've been know to really have fun at parties from time to time, and I've also somehow managed to stay married to an incredibly intelligent and stunningly beautiful - certifiable non-geek for 15 years. (this alone costs me my geek stature in most hardcore circles)

So here is my advice and guidence to the "normal", seeking their inner geek.

First - you are on the right track. Find a willing geek mentor. In fact, you probably already have your quarry in mind. You just need to approach this relationship with some knowledge. My advice - find an old geek. A silver back as we call them. Young geeks are just as capable with the gadgets but they usually lack patience and definitely lack the life experience for the needed interpersonal skill. Know this and use them appropriately. Young geeks can be very handy when simply used as tools. Have them setup your stereo and program your cell phone. Feed them, or better yet, get them a gift certificate from Don't feel guilty unless you pulled them away from their favorite science fiction TV show.

You must know a few things about geeks before you approach. First of all - we hate crowd scenes. If we are in one it's with a purpose and we are counting the nanoseconds till we can escape. We go to the mall only to purchase one thing. We park as near to that one store as we can. We go not only directly to that one store but to the exact location of the one item we need - going out of our way several aisles to avoid sales folk and any Normals that may be shopping. We make the purchase standing impatiently in line, and then bugger off to install said item in our personal digital nest. We do that only because we couldn't get it in a timely manner online. We go to parties only for free beer and the possibility to be near that one special member of the opposite sex that we secretly adore but have never actually spoken to. We "make an appearance" at any work related social function just to poach the meeting food and take it back to our desk. If you ask us to participate in an "icebreaker", "team building exercise", or (God forbid) a "role playing" game, just expect your files to be deleted, your password changed, and your network connection to become "somewhat unstable" for at least 6 months. It's your fault. That's the way we are. Wrap your head around it. Know it. Above all - do not make your initial approach at a crowd scene.

Do not call us on the phone! In general we hate the damn things. The only reason we carry that huge PDA/Phone on our belt is to talk to the 2 other geeks we consider worthy (and truthfully because it has high speed Internet access). The worst thing a normal can do with me personally is to leave a v-mail and just ask me to call back. I never will. (this is ok for other geeks however - I know you wouldn't call unless it's interesting/important) If you must use v-mail - make it worth the effort to log in by leaving actual information. If you need something - ask for it directly. Basically - If you ever want to get a reply SEND US EMAIL!!! Use the email to schedule a face to face -at OUR office- and when you do - bring food. The three Cs are your friends - Carbs, Caffeine and Chocolate.

Third - be direct and have a purpose. The lack of social skill is firmly backed up by a driving need for directness and an addiction to being efficient. Don't drop by because you were "in the neighborhood" and expect to shoot the shit and finally sidle up to the request from oblique angles. This qualifies as a social event to us and makes us skittish. Be direct.

Fourth (here is the real meat). Have confidence in yourself. Don't tell us how stupid you are and how smart we are. It makes us uncomfortable as hell and simply isn't true. We are just better at something than you are. You are most certainly better than us at other things.

If you really want to be in our graces explain the task you want to accomplish and what you've done so far toward that goal. We live to see people really use their electronics. Nothing makes the IT guy happier than a user who actually uses their pc for something other than printing out their email. If you attempted to create a database and failed - GREAT! You tried to setup your PDA but cant get your todo list to sync? Terrific! You want to record voice overs and add animation to your presentation! Here's a printer just for your office!

Since the topic of this post is to be somewhat of a virtual geek mentor - here is my advice:

It was the job of the person who wrote the software for the gadget in question to think of everything you, as a user, might want to do and all the possible ways you would want to go about it. So whenever doing battle with a hunk of wire and silicon assume whatever it is you want to do is possible and attack the software from that point of view.

For example: Lets say someone you generally think of as intelligent and capable just sent you a document. When you open it the damn thing turns out to be scanned and is rotated 90 degrees so you have to turn your head sideways to read it. Instead of calling the sender stupid and inept or calling the help desk and having a fit - go back to your first impulse. It sure would be nice to rotate that document. I would bet you lunch that there are at least 2 ways available in the software to do just that (3 to 5 in good design standards - Generally there is a button, a menu item and a key sequence). Expect the software to be logical.

Brace yourself. Here's a glimpse into the alien thought process of a geek in this situation.

"Ok -I've never seen this software... Hmm what do I want to do? I want to rotate the document so I can view it - or to say it differently, I want to rotate the document view... Check the toolbar. What would a picture of ROTATE look like? Maybe a button with curved or rotating arrows on it. Hmmm, no button - go to the menus. These two look promising. One called "View" and one called "Document". Let's stab at view - Voila! An item called "rotate"! BINGO!

Total time, about .2 milliseconds. This looks to the "Normal" person watching like maybe I wrote the software, but the truth is that all the magic was just in the way I approached the problem. Learn to have confidence. Don't be offended by the machine or run yourself down because the answer didn't just jump into your head. It doesn't work that way for geeks either. We just tend to approach the problem like a puzzle to solve - not a personal shortcoming.

To summarize so far: 1) Don't ask us to do anything social 2) Be direct where you normally would want to be friendly and social, and 3) Know that geeks tend to approach EVERYTHING as a logic problem. From changing fonts in a word processor they have never used, to getting a date with that hottie in the next cube. As you might guess, we tend to fair better with software... To my geek mind it appears that Normals tend to approach things from a more emotional point of view. Normals watch the geek do what I just described. It looks like magic. They feel like the universe left them behind when brains were passed out. It didn't. It left geeks behind when social skill and comfort was the order of the day. We've just found a good way to compensate.

When working with your Geek let them know how you learn. Geeks, pay attention here! Some people (most geeks) can work from verbal description alone. Some need graphical representation (flow charts) but most need one or both of the former plus hands on - working through the problem themselves with occasional guidance. Geeks, learn to resist the urge to do it for your Normal. Normals - DO NOT EVER attempt to learn technology by writing down each and every step. This only works when a process is absolutely static with no variation. Ever. This never happens with tools. Ever. Imagine asking someone to show you how to use the oven and writing down the steps as they cook a frozen pizza. This is your entire "learning" in regard to the oven. You now know that your tutor pressed that button once and then this button 4 times. What did that button do? How does it relate to cooking a turkey? How do you make toast?

When you think you have your chosen process down cold, ask your geek to stick around while you work through a similar but different task (now is a good time for the food bribe). This builds your confidence and gives you experience with approaching the gadget as a logic problem. The Geek becomes your safety net instead of your driver. If your geek rattles off a description that you just don't get - ask them for a reference where you can learn about the topic. Even if you never intend to read the reference, the geek will appreciate this apparent genuine interest and you will be on your way to building a good relationship.

I hope this starts off at least one positive "Geek" - "Normal" relation. If it does - please let me know. I'm eager to try my hand at Progressive - conservative relations too. (just kidding)

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Who will guard the guards?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about security lately for some reason. Both personal and information related. Maybe it's my upcoming battle with airport security (I'm headed out of the country next month) that has me rattled. I know this will be an adventure because I'm the guy that always gets stopped at the gate for the "random" screening. Always. Every flight I've taken since 911. (about 20 in case you are wondering) Think of me the next time you see the poor sucker turning the top of his pants down and lifting his bare feet for the metal detector as you walk down the jetway and use the last overhead bin.

There will most likely be several posts forthcoming about this. That's the way my so-called brain works.

I've said this before (as my good friends would groan and tell you). But it's really worrying me how the TSA is handling our so called safety. You see, after working with IT security for a number of years you start to see things in a different light. You are forced to think in a logical fashion. Actually consider possibilities and find ways to close holes before they are exploited. You can't just setup an expensive firewall and walk away. If you do - hope that your employer is as naive as the US voter when you blame the inevitable hack on the firewall and ask for an even more expensive model.

Anyway, I find that explaining my ramblings tends to work best in metaphor. So here we go.

Say you are a medieval thug bent on getting into your rival's castle. Stop and think for a minute. How would you go about it? Grab a pen and make a short list. Go on. Now lets go down it. Unless you are a complete moron, I bet "attack the wall" is nowhere on it. You probably had visions of ladders and battering rams. If you are a snow boarder you probably even thought of shooting yourself over the wall with your newly completed trebuchet.

The hackers among you (or hacker IN you) thought of other things like finding secret doors. Flooding the fortress. Playing Celine Deon records really, really loudly for days. Or convincing someone on the inside that you are actually their long lost nephew and that they should open the gate and let you in. I mean you ARE the heir to Great Ant Einie's treasured sweet potato pie recipe after all.

Now apply the same thought process to airplanes... Make your list.

In the meantime ponder this photo and read This post on Bruce Schnier's blog.

Then be angry and afraid - not of the terrorists but the so called experts. And remember that the 911 terrorists had "valid id" and passed through the same basic security we now pay 4 times the price - both monetarily and in lost civil rights - to employ.

UPDATE: 3-15-05
Ok I'm back - The charm has been broken. I WAS NOT randomly selected for anything this trip. In fact my trips through security were pretty uneventful - not counting the little side trip through an "Agricultural Screening" upon return to the US. "The difference?" You ask. This time I was traveling with my wife and two boys - not alone. I actually watched the officer in Mexico look at my documents - then me (eyes narrow) - then my little tribe. Hesitate, Sigh, and then wave me on to the plane. Interesting.

Also - found this little related tidbit this morning.