King of the Geeks

A curious girl’s ethnographic quest for stimulation, knowledge and the least common denominator…
(originally published on Austinist.com)

I was sitting in a Texas-themed resort hotel drinking $15 margaritas with My Geek Friend and His New Biggest Fan. Apparently $15 is a totally acceptable price to pay for a margarita if you’re a high-level geek with a loosely-monitored expense account. And apparently His New Biggest Fan was one of these people.I believe this is what some folks call networking.

The irony of this situation was that MGF and HNBF were there to discuss how companies can save money byclosely monitoring their operations.

“How much do you think you’d save if you didn’t go to expensive conferences and stay in resort hotels and drink $15 margaritas?” I asked HNBF (and now mine), finishing off dollar number 43. “Net gain or net loss if everyone scrapped the entire industry?”

He smiled. Or maybe ignored. Or dismissed. It was hard to say, really, as my sip of dollar number 44 had been quite effective. In fact, I’d rushed through dollars 30 through 42, and I was starting to feel… flushed. I reminded myself that this was no time to get all right-brained.

After all, these were practical folks. Problem-solvers. Puzzle people. How could you be concerned with something as trivial as how much your all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast cost ($20) when code monkeys all over the world were making unauthorized changes to databases on mission-critical servers? When they were creating massive outages and expensive system downtime? When they were causing unfathomable revenue losses? When you could wake up in the morning and read about #ITFail (gasp) after #ITFail after #ITFail?

Yes, dear, naive Wendy, there were bigger, even more expensive fish to fry. Millions of convention-center-priced fishes’ worth of fish.And with that, we thanked HNBF and headed off to meet the rest of the geeks.

***

So these guys are a strange breed. They’re like programmer/manager/scientist/engineer/salesman/sociologist hybrids. Their collective (extremely over-simplified) goal is to make IT operations efficient. To trim the fat. Define best practices. Streamline processes. To spend less time putting out fires, and more time doing… you know,cool stuff.

Kind of like what Toyota did for manufacturing in the 80’s. I think.

Here’s the deal: The whole IT thing initially consisted of a bunch of nerds who spent a lot of time in the dark staring at green letters on black screens. These cave-dwellers were gradually coaxed into the light by business-type folks who hired them to deal with computer stuff.

As computer stuff became more and more important, the layman’s (mis)understanding of things became less and less monetarily advantageous. Basically, someone needed to bridge the gap between the Greasers and theSocs.

Enter these guys.

And these guys, for some reason, are freaking obsessed. They’re zealots. They’re systems-analyzing, statistics-gathering, efficiency-seeking, checklist-oriented, logically-minded, obsession-driven zealots. Prior to this meeting, I hadn’t experienced this much religiosity since I was a little kid (in Georgia, with Baptist friends).

***

When I was in high school, my mom once said to me, “I’m worried that you don’t have enough fun. When your friends come over, you’re always talking about serious stuff. Do you ever just relax?”

Moody teenage Wendy replied, “Talking about serious stuff is fun. Talking about fun stuff is boring.”

And, since I’m still just a moody teenager at heart, I can say with much certainty the guys at this conference really knew how to have my kind of fun.

The gigantic bar where we met was filled with enormous televisions. Ten foot screens were suspended from the ceiling, movie theater-sized screens hung on the walls, smaller screens surrounded us in the back area. And all of the screens showed football. Nothing else. Miami. Oakland. Dallas. Pittsburgh. Everywhere I turned: Football.

However, as I approached the table of ITIL folks, it was clear that they weren’t there for said football. In fact, at one point I commented on the score of one of the games, and the response I got was, “Yeah… Football, right?”

I took a seat.

On my right, there was a girl wearing a semi-tight t-shirt with a company logo on it. She was a product development/marketing-type person. She’d been (wo)manning a trade show booth.

“We manage an online community for these folks,” she told me. “We host forums and online training programs. It’s gives them a place to network online- an alternative to expensive conferences. We’re launching an online conference in Second Life this November.”

“Wait. In Second Life?”

“Yeah, we have a conference center, and people can come as their avatars and ask questions and meet each other.”

“So people show up as, like, cartoon dragons and centaurs and stuff?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird. People can be whatever they want to be.”

“So you guys rent a virtual convention center?”

“Well, we’re actually building it. It’s being constructed right now. It’ll be complete in November.”

“Do you have, like, an architect or something?” Before she can answer, the other woman at the table starts showing her family pictures on her iPhone. I make my escape.

I’d been eying a middle-aged man at the end of the table, as he was definitely the fashion standout of the group. He wore snazzy European metal-frame glasses, a bluish gray shirt and a dark gray tie. Not a black tie, mind you: a dark gray tie. He seemed too effortlessly calm and fashionable to be just a regular geek.

Maybe a CEO? A headhunter? Wrong table?

Nope. The answer was simple. Not American. Of course.

European Guy was originally from The Netherlands. He was attractive. In his mid 50’s or so. EG’d been working in IT for 30 years.

“My job is to make companies look at themselves in the mirror,” he told me. Seemed appropriate. “I do it for the satisfaction of seeing them grow and improve. When I’m at a conference and a former client stops me and shakes my hand and says thank you, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

I brushed away a tear.

EG introduced me to his friend, a middle-aged man with very American round wire glasses. Apparently this guy used to work for Halliburton.

“Are you evil?” I asked, because sometimes I’m an idiot.

“No,” he said. “My part of the company didn’t have any contracts in Iraq…”

Former Halliburton Man is a consultant now. I was starting to wonder if consultant was an industry code word for let go. FHM and EG were old friends, and they kept hurling compliments at each other.

“EG is a great writer. A visionary,” FHM said.

“Now, now,” EG said, blushing. “FHM is a real visionary. He’s seen it all from the beginning.”

I was also starting to wonder if visionary was an industry code word for I have no idea what he does.

“Punch cards, then fax machines, then PC’s, and now the Internet… It’s become an integral part of business,”FHM said.

“And now it’s royally f-ed up, right?” I blurted, letting my right-brain get the best of me. “Like Frankenstein.”

He continued, “Managers used to say, We just do whatever the geeks say. We’re at their mercy. But now it’s too pricey. Someone needs to understand what the geeks are doing and to set standards. We’re here to evangelize the need for this. It’s an industry full of people who thrive on creating things that other people don’t understand.”

I liked that comment. I decided he wasn’t evil.

EG jumped in, “Companies have so much political stuff going on that they can’t get past it. Everyone wants to keep his or her job. IT people don’t want to change. They’ve developed their own ways of doing things, andCEO’s don’t understand. That’s where we come in.”

“You guys are the multi-hemispheric thinkers,” I said.

“Right. We’re the corpus callosum,” FHM replied. Yes. Surely not evil. Now I heart him.

EG asked me what it is I do. “I’m writing about the conference. MGF thought I might find it interesting. Do you know MGF?” I asked.

“Ah,” he said. “Everyone knows MGF. He wrote a book that codified a whole lot of things that had needed to be codified for years. He’s a visionary.”

Here we go again.

***

I made my way to another table. It was half marketing folks and half geek folks. The marketing folks were discussing their recent Botox injections. Apparently you have to start early so you’ll never get old… like Dorian Gray, but with an iPhone.

The geeks were talking about Systems Theory and Tectology.

I sat down near MGF and eavesdropped.

“My background is in IT, but I’m also a clinical psychologist,” one guy said. He had an awesome northeastern-ish accent that I couldn’t quite place. He reminded me of Rhoda’s husband, Joe.

Large nose, large hands, large tie… a sort of blue collar geek. He was the kind of guy who manages to look casual in a tux… The kind of guy who uses phrases like moving the ball forward and it’s constipating the organization. The kind of guy who is smarter than you and can dunk on you, too.

“This is what we need,” he started. He was frustrated. His brow was now unbelievably creased. “We need a way to diagnose and treat the problems… A DSM for IT.”

OMG. I swoon.

“You have to know that I’m a purist,” he continued. “You have to go back to the 1930’s. Systems Theory. That’s what I base everything on. You have the cell membrane and everything is either inside the cell or outside the cell. We want to get things back and forth in the most efficient way.”

And just as I was staring into Rhoda’s husband Joe’s soul, in walked this young hot shot guy wearing pink hipster glasses and a hot pink shirt with neon green cuffs. He had a thick accent. Maybe Russian, and he was probably in his 20’s. He crossed his legs cockily, put his hand on his chin and started talking to MGF and Rhoda’s husband. The marketing folks started to pay attention.

“I mean, come on… How many people in the world really get this?” The Russian asked.

Wait, does he work for Pitchfork?

“25 or 30,” Rhoda’s husband answered. A low-baller, of course.

“Maybe 250,” MGF answered.

“Well, the Real Problem here is that there just aren’t enough Smart People in the world,” The Russian replied, pushing his glasses up on his nose.

Upon hearing this, Rhoda’s husband Joe’s brow furrowed. He looked as if he could both cry and destroy something/someone at the same time. MGF rolled his eyes, then started to argue, and then stopped and just rolled his eyes again. Pick your battles, I guess. MGF’s a scientist. He likes data.

But The Russian’s statement didn’t shock me. I’d heard it all before. As a child of indie rock, it’s something I like to call People Aren’t Smart Enough To Buy My Albums Syndrome. Perhaps it’s in the DSM for Rock.

I was debating making an ass of myself and telling them about it when Rhoda’s husband Joe finally blurted out, “This is The Crusades, we’re talking about!!”

Interesting perspective, I thought. We all know how those turned out…

I sat back, ordered another margarita and kept on having fun.

STATS

Gender:
males: infinite
females: five

How badly I want a job with an expense account (scale of 1 to 10):
11

How awesome it would have been if this was a speed dating event:
extremely

Hearing someone randomly use the term corpus callosum at a bar:
priceless