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Geek attitude

© August 2009 Girish Venkatachalam
Girish Venkatachalam

Girish Venkatachalam is a UNIX hacker with more than a decade of networking and crypto programming experience. His hobbies include yoga,cycling, cooking and he runs his own business. Details here:


There is a certain commonality to be found amongst geeks, nerds or hackers. I know people like to differentiate between these different words but we are talking about really smart programmers and technologists. It could also mean scientists, engineers or individuals who can create great technology.

Basically individuals who convert knowledge and industry into something of real palpable value to society are what we are interested in. People with a lot of knowledge and those who teach in academic institutions are also praiseworthy of course but we shall leave them aside for the moment.

We are talking about people who do real work. People who convert knowledge into something useful which a large section of humanity use and benefit in day to day lives. Such people can be termed as geeks or nerds or hackers. If you prefer some other term by all means use it. But I am going to try to analyze some commonalities and key characteristics that make them stand out and come out on top of others in technical endeavors.

What makes a hacker?

Long ago, Eric Schmidt, the present CEO of Google, former CEO of Novell Inc. wrote an article on geek attitude. I remember reading it in Novell but I think it was published elsewhere also. He wrote a remarkably insightful and interesting article and I am obviously taking a cue from there and trying to go deeper in what defines hacker attitudes.

I read this article a very long time ago and I don't remember much but I do remember certain highlights of his analysis. He was repeating mostly one theme which he was painting throughout the article in various colors and shades. He was talking about the commitment of geeks towards truth. He was saying that geeks are very straight forward honest people.

Not only that; he was also saying that this often upset and irritated other normal people because a geek when asked a question was always to the point and curt. Sending two line e-mails and short messages to top management may not be polite but a geek does not know this.

A geek always wants to save time and live a useful life. He does not wish to waste time on unnecessary socializing and sugar coating in communications. He/she when confronted with a question answers in the most sincere fashion in few words. He does not have to use many words because he is not lying or explaining. He is truthful and sometimes much more than other people can imagine.

Obviously by now you would have guessed that I am trying to help you with salient features of top class performers. People who can be as much as 3 order of magnitude more efficient in programming that the rest of your team members. If you are not of that type, then you may wish to know how to identify such smart minds. If you can spot one such person and create the right atmosphere for him/her, you can benefit immensely provided you are good at converting his/her creation into business.

So we see that geeks have a predisposition with truth and honesty. They feel that acquiring knowledge is nothing but seeking the truth and consequently they do not wish to lie and torture and twist facts for their benefit or for the benefit of others.

This attitude can sometimes be very hurtful for most people and in certain times geeks suffer a lot due to lack of understanding on the part of others. It is not any fundamental defect of geeks. It is just the way the world works. That is all.

In the real world, everything does not work on honesty and straight forwardness . Business is not done without sugar coating and we cannot have a bare all candid attitude in most situations. Consequently geeks find it hard to relate to real life. They are happy in their own world with computers and engineering.

And I tell you, managing geeks is the real fun part. You don't have to do anything. Just don't poke your nose. Keep away! Stay well away from his influence and clearly tell him what you want. He will do the rest for you. He will often do it in such a fashion that can surprise you. And you may also wonder why he holds such impractical values. It is not your concern actually. Just leave it. Let him go his own way.

Geeks have other likes and dislikes which also bear some analysis. But I am not getting into all that. There are some distinguishing features in them that you can very easily spot and benefit. I am only interested in bringing that out in this article.

After all, in today's world geeks are the real rulers. It is just that their importance is not readily apparent.



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Thu Aug 27 12:32:27 2009: 6798   TonyLawrence

I've said this before:

Engineers (geeks) can lie and cats can swim, but neither of them is happy doing

See (link) also.

Sat Aug 29 00:26:11 2009: 6807   sledge

Very well said. The value on truth to the alienation of others is something I relate to in a sense. I read this aloud to my wife and she recognized someone in the passage but she didn't say who... *grin*

I had something similar in mind earlier when I posted:

I get really annoyed when we call ourselves geeks. If I am a computer geek, then Michael Jordan is a basketball geek, and Joe Montana is a football geek. We are not geeks. Geeks bite the heads off live animals.

We make things possible. We publish dreams. We enable achievement. We realize aspiration. We do it behind the scenes and others take credit for accomplishments that are not possible without us. I am ok with that, in fact I seek out opportunities to contribute to another's success. I am not looking for respect, but I expect not to be disrespected. Accepting the handle of geek legitimizes disrespect.

I will not call myself a geek. When someone who relies on my expertise calls me a geek, I tell them "I am not a geek, I am simply more talented than you."

For those keeping score at home, Ozzy Osbourne *is* a geek.

However you put your finger on the naked truth aspect that clears up some things I misunderstood before, seriously, thanks.

Sat Aug 29 00:37:09 2009: 6808   TonyLawrence

I remember that: it was your comment at (link)

Sat Aug 29 14:25:19 2009: 6809   BigDumbDinosaur

Periodically my wife refers to me as a "geezer geek," especially in the company of my sister-in-law and such. I don't usually quibble with the "geezer" part, since I'm actually older than Tony, who we already know is closing in on geezerdom. <Grin> The "geek" part is where I draw the line.

I don't electrocute spiders for amusement, wear a pocket protector and thick glasses, nor is my knowledge limited solely to computers and technology. I'm capable of holding a normal conversation with average people, can accomplish something useful while in the kitchen and am a classically trained musician who plays jazz, boogie and blues (probably not geek music, if there is such a classification). Adding insult to injury, I keep my hair -- what there is of it -- reasonably short, don't wear a beard and dress conservatively. Finally, I know my limits and deplore being referred to as a "wizard," "expert" or "guru." I don't claim to possess any special form of deity. Jesus may have walked on water, but I just pass water. <Grin>

To me, the term "geek" is a mild form of insult, implying a one-dimensional sort of bloke who is weird and possibly anti-social. I tolerate my wife calling me a geezer geek because she's my wife and I know she's using the term in an affectionate way (I *think* she is -- you never know with women). I certainly wouldn't consider working for a company that refers to itself as the Geek Squad, for fear of being grouped with those who really are geeks. I prefer being referred to as just another guy who happens to fix computers for a living.

Since, of course, I am not a geek (IANAG, a new acronym), I don't have geek attitude. What Girish Venkatachalam is describing is what I would call scientific mentality, which is exhibited by anyone who wants to know how and why things work, as well as how to make things work. Computer jocks of all persuasions don't have a monopoly on it.

Sun Aug 30 14:47:04 2009: 6810   TonyLawrence

I think "geek" has two meanings now. One is the older, insulting view, but the newer meaning is more flattering and positive.

Mon Aug 31 14:27:48 2009: 6826   BigDumbDinosaur

* Main Entry: geek
* Pronunciation: ˈgēk\
* Function: noun
* Etymology: probably from English dialect geek, geck fool, from Low German geck, from Middle Low German
* Date: 1914

1: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake
2: a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked
3: an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity <computer geek>

— geek·dom \ˈgēk-dəm\ noun

— geek·i·ness noun

— geeky \ˈgē-kē\ adjective

Mon Aug 31 18:04:01 2009: 6827   TonyLawrence

So they knew we'd have computers in 1914?

Tue Sep 1 13:37:30 2009: 6833   BigDumbDinosaur

So they knew we'd have computers in 1914?

I guess the dictionary's editors either read about Charles Babbage or Herman Hollerith, although I suspect the carnival performer definition was the original. Which makes one wonder: how did that particular combination of letters get chosen to describe the performer? That's an aspect of language that I've often wondered about.


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