Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Conformists and the Geeks

In my last post (it’s near the bottom), I accidentally verbalized something that has more than likely been the culprit behind some of my pent up hostility for many years.

I graduated college with a bachelor’s of science in computer science and a minor in engineering technology. I graduated after 4 years at the old age of 21. I immediately pursued a master’s degree, but my vocabulary skills were too poor. That’s when it all started.

The GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) scoring has changed a lot since I took the test. Back then, if I remember right, there were 3 scores. Each score was between 200 and 800. The three scores were something like: Vocabulary, Math, and Analytical. All the schools I wanted to go to required a combined score of 1200 or some such number which sounds easy enough until you find out they only count the vocabulary and math scores.

I kid you not, I scored around 700 in math, between 700 & 800 in the analytical portion, and about 400 in the vocabulary portion. My total applicable score (according to the universities) was somewhere slightly above 1100 (not high enough to get in).

Oh, I complained. How could a university accepting students for a computer science degree throw out the analytical portion of the test? That’s just the way it was.

If you read nothing else, read: universities want people with book smarts. Common sense or genius through intuition get you nowhere. I have no common sense about anything else except computers and I don’t like reading tech books. They teach you how to do things. It cuts down on innovation.

I have yet to meet a person with a graduate degree in a computer related field that is a geek. * author's note -- my best friend since Junior High works at Microsoft and is a geek and has a PhD. Maybe they are just rare.

In fact there are too many people with undergraduate degrees in computer related fields that read the books and passed all the classes but have no clue what it is to talk to a computer and make it do what you want it to do.

Geeks are those people that play video games all the time and people make fun of them. But then they take it one step further and want to learn about the strange languages that make their computer games work; or the little green circuit boards with all the wires and junk plugged into them.

I heard an interesting story once about a guy who spent $300 on a cooling system for his computer so he could run his 2 GHz processor at 3 GHz. Someone asked him, “Why would you spend $300 on a cooling system when you could just buy a 3 GHz processor for $250?” To which he replied, “The very fact that you would ask the question indicates that you would not understand the answer.” He’s a geek of the highest quality.

It’s like the guy that climbs Mount Everest “because it’s there”. He wants to setup a chilled water cooling heat sink on his computer “because he can”.

I’m in charge of interviewing people for programming positions where I work. I try to ask questions to determine if they are a geek. That’s a listing for another post. An example would be, “What kind of router do you have at home?”

How would a geek answer this? Well, I have 3 routers: my Verizon router which I’ve bypassed so that my Trendnet router gets the IP address from the ISP and provides the DHCP services to the rest of my network. I’ve got an extra wireless router I use just for watching Netflix downstairs. That way I can guarantee it’s using the best bandwidth for my 802.11n devices.

I’ve discovered though that you have to be careful. Geeks have been trained by society to hide their geekiness. Remember the kids in school that make fun of their classmate for playing too much World of Warcraft. It’s bad juju to be too geeky.

Geeks that are good at hiding their geekiness are sometimes the best geeks to hire. They are ashamed that when they are not at work they are playing Halo on their computer so they’ll make stuff up. The last geek I interviewed hid his geekiness so well I wasn’t sure whether or not to give him my seal of approval. He proved geekier than I imagined after he was at work for a few months and got comfortable.

There are some shortfalls of geeks. I’d never advise hiring only geeks. Of course, I’d also say this is mostly impossible. Geeks are experimenters. They want to know how fast they can make a liquid cool processor run before it cooks. That’s not necessarily good for business.

A lot of them are also perfectionists. They don’t want to ship software until there are no flaws. Of course, perfect for a geek is probably not anywhere in the realm of perfect for a customer. Geeks came up with Unix. It’s perfect for geeks, but I guarantee you the majority of people aren’t going to like that fact that the command to get a listing of files on a disk is ls.

Geeks need conformists so that their geeky creations can be tolerated by the masses. Look what Mac did with Unix!

This was my longest post so far and I still feel like I’m leaving out something very important.

Picture of geek from MyFitGeek.


  1. It seems as if your vocabulary has improved. Maybe you should try for that Master's Degree again.

  2. "I have yet to meet a person with a graduate degree in a computer related field that is a geek."

    I do think you need to get out more :-) (though in your note you qualify the comment by saying maybe they're just rare). I think if it weren't for the crap language arts education of WISD/KISD followed by a less-than-stellar set of requirements at WTSU, you would almost certainly have gone to grad school; you clearly wanted to. That's not to say that grad school is necessary for generating good engineers--far from it! But I do think is mostly orthogonal to your argument. In my experience the presence or absence of graduate education is less relevant than other characteristics (some of which you note). I think the main thing is a fascination with technology for technology's sake--not so much the end results, but just the basic questions of "how does this work?" and "I wonder what would happen if...." Such people are able to respect simultaneously the egregious hack and the elegant, perfect solution. It's all about what you're doing, why, and how creative the solution is. Such things are beyond the ken of egnineers who focus solely on the end goals of the project.

    I can guarantee you that many of the folks I work with (most have PhDs) and most CS faculty I know at various universities are geeks of the highest caliber.

    E.g, the guy who invented the surface computer still plays computer games (mostly xbox now :)), brews beer at home, builds his own computers, and frequently wears a 15 year-old infocom t-shirt to work (though to be honest, I'm thinking I should buy him a replacement--there's geek cred and then there's looking like you're homeless). We've been talking for some time about building an automated cat entertainment system that uses computer vision techniques (we'd probably use a couple of webcams) to drive a servo-actuated laser pointer, moving the dot in response & in context with the cat's behaviour. I think we could drive a cat insane :).

  3. I've thought about going back to school, but I'd get out of the computer field all together. Maybe a law degree.

    Ed's comment has brought me into more blog fodder territory. Specifically the part about me needing to get out more.

    I've cut myself off from social situations. There's no way to explain it without sounding either egotistical or pitiful or both. I'll have to think on it.

    I need to find someone I can brainstorm with about a Computerized Laser Feline Entertainment System. That would make me happy.