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Weekly Column

Door Number Three: And the Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

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By Robert X. Cringely

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I’ll begin this third and (I promise) last column on IT management with a confession: I have been fired from every job I have ever held. This is certainly not something I set out to do, nor did I even realize it until one day my young and lovely wife mentioned that I had never told her about voluntarily leaving any position. It’s not that I’ve had so many jobs, either. This one and the one before it have kept me going for more than 20 years. But they always seem to end the same way. This one might, too. You can never tell.

Most of the times I have been fired it’s because I’ve been judged to be unmanageable, which is to say I won’t shut up. The ultimate reason given is usually something minor. The last time around, for example, I was fired because I didn’t transfer the domain to my employer. They asked me to do it and I said “no.” Had they said, “Transfer the domain or you will be fired,” I might have decided differently. But they never said that — never gave a hint of the consequences — so I assume the real goal was less to get the domain and more to get rid of me.

The guy who had me fired, Stewart Alsop (maybe you’ve heard of him), ultimately lost his own job for firing me, at least according to International Data Group Chairman Pat McGovern, who told the story to 300 people once at a DEMO conference.

Back when I was a kid and working at WWST Radio in Wooster, Ohio, I was fired for writing those seven unspeakable words in the middle of a livestock auction report. Another kid had been playing similar tricks on me for weeks, but when I finally retaliated he turned me in. I guess I was a threat to him and didn’t know it.

One company hired and fired me three times and another company hired and fired me twice. And somehow in all this I’ve never received severance or unemployment compensation. I just found another job or it found me.

There’s a point to all these firing stories and they actually do relate to IT. I’m typical of a lot of IT types. You know us. We are useful but sometimes a pain in the ass. We have opinions and speak our minds and don’t suffer fools at all. We stand up to authority from time to time. Sometimes we’re wrong. We get fired a lot and hired a lot, too, because we are generally useful, though dangerous.

What do you do with folks like me if you are a manager? At a traditional newspaper you’d either fire me or make me a columnist. And, sure enough, look where I am. In an IT shop you give me a task to do and let me do it, generally on my own, and never EVER put anyone under me, because I am hopeless as a manager.

But it turns out I’m not so bad as a leader.

Weird, eh?

The last two columns have shown that IT is the Cousin It of American industry. We serve the company but often don’t feel part of it. Certainly the value structures and lines of authority that function perfectly well for most of the rest of the company don’t work at all well for IT. We’re vital but at the same time, well, so different that it’s hard to imagine a CEO emerging from the IT ranks. It happens from time to time. Everyone points to John Reed, who rose from IT to CEO of Citicorp, but Reed was an exceptional case. He succeeded because his predecessor, Walter Wriston, had an unusual interest in IT and mentored Reed. Reed succeeded, too, because he didn’t really come from IT but from Data Processing, which was more hierarchical. And ultimately he didn’t succeed at all, by some measures, because John Reed was fired.

So right now let’s just accept that it is very unlikely that, coming from IT, you’ll ever become the CEO of your company. That means you are instantly off the traditional management track and have the option of either eventually moving on to some other organization or taking what’s behind Door Number Three.

Remember Door Number Three from Let’s Make a Deal? It could reveal a sports car or a donkey, but whatever was behind Door Number Three was unlike anything you could imagine.

We need a Door Number Three for IT professionals.

I have a friend of 20 years who is in a key technical role at a very large company. He’s too vital to the company to risk losing but too geeky to fit in. He’s on the craft (non-management) salary scale, but way higher than he ought to be for having no direct responsibility. All he does, in fact, is from time to time save his company from ruin. And even more rarely, he saves all the rest of us from ruin, too, in ways I am not at liberty to explain. How do you manage such a guy? Where he works they have him report to the CEO. The Big Guy has 5-6 direct reports and one of them — my friend — doesn’t manage anyone or anything.

THAT’S Door Number Three.

We’re in an important transition period not just for IT, but also for business in general. Everything seems to be in flux. And that means the old ways of doing things are changing and ought to. And in this way IT is leading — or ought to lead — the way. Later this week I’ll be making a dramatic shift and proposing the Cringely Energy/Economic Policy, but first I need to drive home the point that, however different it is from the rest of the company, IT is generally the vanguard for a new corporate culture and whole new ways of doing business for the world.

We’re in a mess. The world is screwed up and some of that can be traced to the improper use of IT as a financial weapon. But the people of IT actually present many of the answers we need, because they are living much deeper in technology than other parts of the company or of our society.

Think about it. There has nearly always been a class of eggheads showing us a path toward new business models, whether it was Edison and Firestone, Hewlett and Packard, Noyce and Moore, Gates and Allen, or Brin and Page. It takes in each case a generation to happen, but ultimately we all (and I mean ALL — everyone in the total organization) come to look like the geeks of the generation before. So let’s lean into that, get on with the transition, and get past this place we’re in right now where nobody wants to be. Let’s consciously embrace the next model that’s generally running fitfully right now inside every company, down in the more functional parts of the IT department.

What I mean by this is that times have changed and the world can no longer afford even John Reed’s world view with its needs analysis, design, debug, test, rollout strategy — whether we’re talking about a new app or a new marketing campaign. By the time the app (or the campaign) is rolled out, the world changed from HTML to Javascript/SOAP/Ajax (or from financial regulation is bad to financial regulation will save us).

At the heart of this is a concept completely foreign to traditional business — Open Source. What the open source community has demonstrated is the superiority of a strategy that emphasizes early proof of concept, early release, and frequent releases with features added as needed — probably totaling 20 percent of the features identified in a needs assessment.

This is the new IT strategy we live with every day — 80 percent solutions because they are fast, increasingly reliable, and keep the end users in the loop from almost the beginning. All made possible because of an open Internet (at least until Comcast succeeds and enslaves us), easily grasped standards and impressive demonstrations by companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and a ton of start-ups. Wall Street back offices figured this out long ago, they just never got their boss’s bosses to understand.

Last week’s column was a utopian vision that simply requires all the old managers to be reprogrammed or accept a bullet in the head. But it is not at all utopian if applied solely (or initially) to IT, where this stuff actually works pretty well.

IT people are most of the time building fortresses or feeling unappreciated — often both at the same time. Yet to our discredit, we’ve done a very poor job of explaining or demonstrating or outright selling our utility to the broader organization. Where are our Geek Appreciation Days? Take a Geek to Lunch? Bring Your Geek to School? Taciturn, we disparage our co-workers for not appreciating us while giving them little obvious reason why they should appreciate us.

That has to change.

Door Number Three isn’t just an escape hatch for nerds, it is the way business and culture and civic life will be for most of us a generation further into this information age. We’re just leading the way. And if we’re leading the way let’s embrace that role and become leaders.

If, like me, you are likely to be fired, anyway, there’s no real downside to this strategy. Let’s give it a try.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [OPEN] read all comments (4) | add a comment

You've confused Open Source with Agile Methodologies. "Early proof of concept, early release, and frequent releases" is Agile. Open Source is, well, open source. Check out for an explanation. They can and are used together, but are not the same thing.

Corba the Geek | Oct 17, 2008 | 3:21AM

Gekkoid should be careful.

One exit interview I had after an internal transfer meant that my bonus for the year up to that month wasn't transfered. It was for everyone else who moved between those two divisions. Bang went the equivalent of a month's salary

Another time I turned down a job with a poorly written letter. 10 years later I had an interview that I had got via a headhunter called off early the same morning. It turned out the boss was the same one that I had turned down with that letter. The two job locations were about 500 miles apart ...

MikeW | Oct 21, 2008 | 7:57AM

Bob, I don't want to get all sappy on you, but I can't thank you enough for this article. I've been fired twice. Both experiences were, though I tried to shake it off, traumatic. Years later self doubt and bitterness linger, despite knowing that I served my employers well. For the time, I've settled at jaded and swapped my former $90k office job for $10/hr. manual labor.

But your article reminds me that some of those who excel at climbing the ladder may also be those who find threat with, if I may, people like us. Knowing that someone of your caliber has experienced what I have puts some wind back in my sails. I can only hope that somewhere in all these frogs there is a prince or two among the employers of the world. -Thank you.

Once Bitten | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:14AM
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