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Leveling up from Nerd to Geek and Fast-Tracking Your Career
"So you're a geek?" stated the 75-year-old man sitting next to me on the plane. "Yes sir, I am!" I proudly responded. To be fair, I had always preferred the term "nerd," but geek seemed close enough. Little did I know how wrong my preference actually was… Let me explain.
Dictionary.com defines the terms "nerd" and "geek" as follows:
- nerd: an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit (e.g., computer nerd); a person considered to be socially awkward, boring, unstylish, etc.
- geek: a digital-technology expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often used disparagingly by others).
We developers in the industry are a "special" breed. Many of us grew up preferring computers over people, Internet games over going out, IMs over phone calls. And when confronted by those on the other side of the social interaction scale with derogatory terms such as "nerd" or "geek," we actually wore them with pride! Eventually, even the dictionary had to acknowledge (at least for the term "geek") that the attacks against us had largely been ineffective in damaging our egos.
As time has gone on, however, some of our technical skillsets and expertise seem to have progressed faster than we had hoped our careers would. Maybe we conquered and tamed the beast known as Drupal and yet at year-end, we received the standard 2-3% cost of living adjustment, a pat on the back, and an assignment to learn Rails next. Sure, learning Rails is going to be fun, but what can we do in the upcoming year to make some tangible progress from last year? Back to nerds vs. geeks.
Take another look at the definitions for nerd and geek shown above. The two are similar from a standpoint of excellence in technology. However, there is a very important difference when it comes to their connotation regarding ability to deal effectively with people. All nerds may be geeks, but geeks need not be nerds. Anyone can survive in our industry as a nerd, but to truly thrive, I challenge you to grow from nerd to geek.
Renowned leadership experts Orrin Woodward and Chris Brady boiled this exact concept down to a simple math equation (hurray!) in their NY Times best selling book Launching a Leadership Revolution. They refer to it as the "Trilateral Leadership Ledger” (TLL) where a person's effectiveness (i.e., value in their industry) can be measured by multiplying his or her "Task" ability by their "Character" and "Relationship" skills. Each TLL area is ranked from 0 to 10, providing a range of total effectiveness from 0 (0 x 0 x 0) to 1000 (10 x 10 x 10).
Most of us in the software engineering industry tend to be solely focused on improving our Task ability. It's what comes easy to us, and we often even see it as fun! Sure, learning Drupal was a pain at first, but now that we've got it down, we have a little hitch in our giddy-up when we attend conferences. Rails doesn’t stand a chance—let us at it! The problem with this paradigm, however, is simple math.
Let's say as a highly proficient software engineer my Character, Task, and Relationship scores are 5, 7, and 2 respectively, giving me a total score of 5 x 7 x 2 = 70. Learning Rails this next year is going to give me the ability to go from 7 to 8 in my Task area. That's progress, right? Sure, 5 x 8 x 2 = 80, a definite 10-point improvement over last year. Unfortunately, this is not quite the "stand out from the crowd" difference that I need to make in order to demonstrate significant progress in my career.
But what if instead I do the hard thing? What if I acknowledge that maybe I am a bit of a nerd. Maybe I do need to update my wardrobe and shave. Maybe I am a little "socially awkward" as dictionary.com suggests. What if I take the road less traveled and instead of taking my 7 score in Task up to an 8, I decide to improve my Relationship score from a 2 to a 3. Same 1-point improvement, so it should be a similar result, right? Hardly. Going from 2 to 3 in Relationship takes me from an original score of 70 to a dramatically improved score of 5 x 7 x 3 = 105. That's an impressive 50% gain over last year, 350% as effective than focusing on just Task. Magic? Nope, as I said before, it's simple math folks, and numbers don't lie.
By no means am I saying we can ditch the hard skills (like learning Rails). In our industry, we have to maintain a certain level of technological competency building just to keep our current Task score. What I am suggesting, however, is that if you are ready to take a step forward in your career, improving your interpersonal Relationship skills may be the true boon to your success.
I absolutely entered this industry as a true nerd in the fullest definition of the word. And sure, I still let my wife call me that (I see it as a term of endearment). However, as it pertains to my career, I continue to work in the direction of a geek—a geek with people skills. For your benefit, I implore you to do the same: Level up from nerd to geek!