How the techno-geeks kicked my ass for my own good

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Fear In my time as a corporate consultant, I spent many years teaching classes and facilitating meetings in the heart of Silicon Valley.  I moved down there after spending 12 years in San Francisco, where I held down my last known "real job."  I grew up somewhat of a granola head in Marin County (the place on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge – and for those that don’t understand the ‘granola head’ reference, it is an affectionate term I give to hippies) and spent a lot of years doing creative work through my obsession with capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.

So the first time I walked into a conference room populated almost entirely with engineers, I was in for a very rude awakening.  I don’t remember the subject of the first class I taught, but it must have been something along the lines of career development or management skills.  Before the first word was out of my mouth, a student flagged my attention:

"Excuse me, but do you know that the percentages don’t add up correctly on the graph on page 27 of the workbook?"

I must have mumbled something like "Oh – ok, thanks for telling me" while inside I was thinking "Who the hell cares, and why are you skipping so far ahead in the workbook before we even begin?"

After that I must have tried some lame icebreaker exercise that I thought was creative and fun.  They ridiculed it and refused to participate.  I felt like I had stepped into a bad dream.

All day I endured challenge, tough questions, attacks to my credibility and tough stares.  If I didn’t fancy myself a tough martial artist, I would have cried in the restroom.  But I held it together.  From that day forward, I made it my mission to try to understand the mind of a highly technical person since it was so far away from my own.  What I learned:

Cut the crap.  Lose anything from my presentation that was perky, Marketing or HR-ish. 

Back it up back it up back it up.  Not my laptop, the facts of the presentation.  If I was going to use a quote from a study or say casually "70% of the world are visual learners, while 20% are auditory and 10% kinesthetic," I better have the citation for the specific study, research pool, date of publication and detailed analysis.  Highly technical people like engineers detest made-up numbers, especially when they are used to support an argument. 

Make it relevant to them. If I was teaching a class on delivering tough performance reviews, I would take a real-life example from the students in the room (names withheld of course). Case studies or made up situations were prime targets for those that wanted to prove that the class was meaningless.

Have a sense of humor.  Once I got to know and love working with technical folks, I learned that after I made it through the first couple of rounds of criticism by demonstrating my expertise, I could relax and have some fun.

Don’t wimp out.  The technical person hates someone who whimpers and acquiesces to pressure almost as much as a lie-spouting salesperson.  They put pressure on you to make you think and to see what you are made of, not to be a bully.  I have to admit that I used the threat of physical violence first thing in my classes.  I have a strange sense about who will give me trouble as soon as I see a group assembled, so I would usually walk up to the most cynical and/or biggest one, look him in the eye and say "in addition to my professional background, I am also trained in martial arts and not afraid to use it."  This usually got a big guffaw from the rest of the room, and I almost always got a smile and respect from the potential troublemaker.

Don’t believe them when they say they don’t care.  Some of the kindest, most creative and thoughtful people I met in my years consulting were technical folks.  Once I gained their trust and friendship, they were really open and considerate.  I had one engineer at Cisco refer at least 10 new clients to me based on the career coaching work we did together.  (Thanks Eric – wherever you are!)

I am absolutely sure that the ass-kicking I took from my technical clients has made me a better trainer, coach, businessperson and marketer.  Not to mention a more empathetic human being. And for those of you technical folks who are reading this, sorry I don’t have a table with the exact percentage improvement I made in each category described above.  You just have to take my word for it that it was a lot.

14 Responses to “How the techno-geeks kicked my ass for my own good”

  1. Alpheus says:

    I find this post interesting, for three reasons:

    First, it was provided as an example of how engineer types are unnecessarily harsh to “beginners”; my take on your post is that, by dealing with “no-nonsense” types, you learned to appreciate their take on the world.

    Second, it reminded me of an article by a psychiatrist, that observed that psychiatry doesn’t take too kindly to general “questioning of authority”. This psychiatrist observed that, to become a highly educated in psychiatry, you have to jump through a lot of irrelevant hoops, and anyone who does this is going to generally respect authority for authority’s sake–but there’s a LOT of people who won’t accept authority, unless it’s been earned; psychiatrists have a tendency to view such people as “anti-authoritarian” because they won’t accept people of questionable authority.

    The third thing this reminds me of, was a comment from a lawyer who decided to take some engineering classes. Before that, he’d question engineers on the stand, who would be very certain about what is or isn’t possible, and he didn’t understand this certainty…until he took those engineering classes, and discovered mathematics, and physics, and tolerances–and that if you make a mistake here, people could die, sometimes lots of people. While it’s impossible to remove all certainty, engineers, statisticians, and their kin have done a LOT to figure out how to isolate it, and to manage it as much as possible.

    • Alpheus says:

      And I should add that, I think it’s fascinating that certain people don’t take to blind authority too well, but if you could prove that you know what you’re talking about, they will take you seriously!

  2. Your description of that fateful presentation reminds me of the day the man from our 401(k) management firm came to my former company. We were lawyers, MBAs, linguists with master’s/PhDs, and engineers.

    Apparently he was accustomed to simplifying the numbers and percentages.

    The poor guy!

  3. tom says:

    Pam,

    Mortimer’s comment says it all? What does it say to you? I don’t get it.

    He doesn’t say it well, but he’s right: the only thing engineers care about is what’s the correct (best/most elegant/etc…) solution to a problem. The threat of violence, especially in a work place, will get you no where.

    Those geeks weren’t laughing with you, they were laughing at you.

    Tom:

    There is such a thing as playful sarcasm, which is the spirit in which I made the comment. I would never actually threaten violence in the workplace. Mortimer’s comment summed it up for me in taking my words extremely seriously, and insulting me instead of offering a helpful comment.

    You are right – it is very possible that some laughed at me, not with me. That’s ok – you can’t please everyone. But overall, I was very happy with the learning that took place in specific training classes (reflected in very high marks on evaluations), as well as enduring work relationships that I formed with some highly technical people.

    My aim with this post was to use my own stupidity, learning and humor to educate those that were unfamiliar with working with technical people. Sorry if it missed the mark for you.

    All the best,

    -Pam

  4. Comment les passionnés de technologie mont donné des coups de pied au derrière pour mon bien

    Ce texte est traduit dun article écrit par Pamela Slim
    A lépoque où jétais consultante auprès des entreprises, jai passé de nombreuses années à enseigner à des groupes et a animer des réunions au coeur de la Silico…

  5. AndyDent says:

    “geeks don’t worship meatheads”

    Ahh but martial arts are cool and geeky and a female physical challenge to the most alpha male in the room is particularly geeky – “I can wup your ass because I’m ‘smarter’ in the physical domain”.

    Had she offered to arm-wrestle, naw, that wouldn’t work.

  6. Chrys says:

    As a young techno geek,(16) i immediattely fowarded this to my mother as it took quite a few years to truly understand me, as she is similiar to you. a good laugh.

  7. Avoiding the egg splatter on your face – the art o

    I know of a very lucky HR manager. Lucky is an understatement when you consider the fact that he didnt have Pinnochio’s nose. So you could never figure out when he’s just spoken a lie; and when the warning bells finally ring in your brain, it’s a ……

  8. ma says:

    excellent article. empathy is the key that we should all strive for.

  9. As I am a recovering geek, I appreciate your post. It helps to see things from your perspective.

  10. Pamela Slim says:

    Ah “Mortimer N. Cobblepop,” thank you for making me smile.

    Your comment says it all. 🙂

    -Pam “Meathead” Slim

  11. Mortimer N. Cobblepop says:

    ‘”in addition to my professional background, I am also trained in martial arts and not afraid to use it.” This usually got a big guffaw from the rest of the room, and I almost always got a smile and respect from the potential troublemaker.’

    Another tip your article missed: geeks don’t worship meatheads, especially when they flex to make up for mental deficiencies.

  12. Peter Scott says:

    Regarding the last paragraph, about your improvement and your apology for not expressing this in percentage form: you can’t meaningfully express improvement as a trainer, coach, etc., numerically. If you tried, you would just end up with bullshit figures that looked good but meant nothing. Which is pretty ironic, considering what you were talking about in this article.

  13. PO8 says:

    Different communities have different geek populations. In Portland Oregon, where I hang out and am a professional geek educator, I think you wouldn’t have had the same degree of open hostility you got in the Valley.

    Nonetheless, I think your learnings/recommendations are excellent; thanks much for posting them!

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