The Geek Gap: Why business and technology professionals don't understand each other

ITworld.com – David Geer recently spoke with technology experts and spouses, Bill Pfleging and Minda Zetlin, authors of the critically acclaimed book, The Geek Gap, Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other, and Why They Need Each Other to Survive from Prometheus Books. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

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David Geer: What is a good list of the things that keep business professionals and technology professionals from understanding one another?

Bill Pfleging: Primarily, there's a culture clash happening between geeks and suits as we call them, the technology workers and the business workers. They have different goals. They have different aims completely. And they actually think very differently. One of the things that we found in our studies is that suits, or business workers' talent really relates to influencing people. Their job relates to either managing others or getting the company to see their plan as the right way or to get votes or whatever, whereas geeks are problem solvers. They can't let go of a puzzle. But once they fix that puzzle, they're on to the next one. So there's actually kind of a disconnect in many ways. When geeks are working on a project, the point at which they've finished the project, they're done, everything works good, and they hand it over to the business side, they don't want to deal with it anymore. Whereas that's the point at which the business people suddenly get interested. They can use it or they can sell it.

Minda Zetlin: I'll add that we believe the record for technology projects worldwide, but particularly in the United States, is atrocious. More than half of them are considered failures. They don't live up to their expectations. They go way over budget, way over time. According to The Standish Group, it costs U.S. businesses $68 billion a year for failed projects. And we believe that many of these failed projects could be, in one way or another, attributed to the geek gap because either there was a miscommunication in terms of the scope of the project between technology people and business people, or perhaps with good communication, they might have not started the project at all or done it differently.

That was in 2004. If you add in what we call shelf ware, which are projects that are completed, they work just fine, but it turns out nobody actually needed them, which happens more often than you might think, that brings the number up to $100 billion, according to The Standish Group. So, it's a real problem, and it really deserves some attention.

Geer: My next question is about specific solutions you have. We have a list of five here. One of the solutions is to either mitigate or avoid any policies that work to separate geeks and suits. What is an example of a real live policy like that?

Pfleging: One of the best ways we've seen it used is to make all meetings cross-functional meetings, to bring members of all the aspects of your company, whether all of your various technology departments, as well as the business departments, marketing and management, into these meetings so that you have representatives of all these groups involved in all the decisions that go into building the company and going forward. This gives the technology people, even if you're talking about a marketing meeting or some kind of a design group, it helps tremendously to have the technology workers involved. They may have input that others did not think of, but it also allows them to bring a sense of being involved and being connected to the company back to where they are, to the people they work with on a regular basis. So they actually feel more connected to the company and they understand where the company is going. All too often companies have a sort of a ghettoization policy in place. The techies will be in the basement or they'll be in the back room away from the customers and away from the front offices. The companies we've seen that do this better are companies that put everybody in the same work area and blend workspaces.

Zetlin: And one of the things to look at how not to do it, or at least how to be very careful, one of the things that we see very commonly and growing, especially in large companies, is this new trend to run IT like a business. Often technology products don't necessarily pay for themselves the way that they're supposed to. But the cost is that instead of having somebody work as an integrated part of your company, now all of the sudden they're an internal/external vendor, if that makes sense. And you actually separate the IT function philosophically, strategically. What you lose is having IT at the decision making level where it needs to be in the modern world, because these days you really can't strategize without properly understanding technology. So it may be a short term solution to a geek gap problem, but it's long term can make the problem much worse unless you do it with enormous sensitivity towards keeping technology integrated at the strategic, at the decision making level, even in a situation where you're running IT like a separate business.

Another policy that we saw that was detrimental was one company that we talked to at a technology conference. And the people that we talked to from the company said 'oh, we don't have a geek gap problem. Everything is fine because we have only one person who is allowed to talk to the technology people and the business people, and everything goes through her.' Now, we do think it's a good idea, and we talk about in the book how to have one person who serves as a liaison between technology and business. That's always helpful. But to limit contact to that one person is really a problem and it prevents the kind of cross-fertilization that you really need for success and growth in most companies.

Pfleging: We spoke to the one person after we spoke to these other members of the company who were very proud of the fact that they had found the problem and solved it by making this one person the go-between. We talked to that person later on, she said yes, I'm the bottleneck. Nothing gets done in our company because it has to go through me. And I never get my work done, and consequently, I'm not getting any jobs out, and any communications to go back and forth are slow and really not moving very well. So it's not a great idea.

Geer: And that's actually the next question on a specific solution -- is developing these multiple points of contact. Exactly how do you do that?

Zetlin: Bill referred to one thing, which is cross-functional teams. We think that that's really helpful and really important. Another thing, it sounds kind of foolish, but it is really also important is don't separate people geographically in your office. If people are sitting together, they're likely to go to lunch together, they're likely to talk, bounce ideas off each other. It's more powerful than you might think to have everybody adjacent to each other, even if you don't do anything else officially. Another thing that we think is helpful that we've seen one company do is make sure that the technology people, well, everyone in the company really, but particularly the technology people are aware of what's going on with the company financially and in the larger picture.

Pfleging: Right, don't hold back information because you feel that it may be sensitive and that department X doesn't need it necessarily, because I've seen this actually happen and cause some serious problems. There was a case, for instance, one company I worked for, there was a fairly expensive development of a software package that they had about 10 high paid geeks writing code for and developing this. And it took about a year to build this whole system, it was chat and message boards and everything, and to get it in place. And they created a fairly advanced piece of software. About a month before they were going to finish it and launch it, the company informed them that they wouldn't be needing it, because while this whole year was going on, they were also negotiating to acquire another company that actually had similar software. And they neglected to tell anybody that they were doing this. And they didn't involve the technology people in any of these decisions. So consequently, they acquired a company that had software that wasn't as good, and on top of that, they wasted all of this money and all of this talent for a year of work, and frustrated all these people. So most of those technology workers that had spent all that time on what they saw to be an absolute waste of time left the company in disgust. So they lost in many different directions by doing that.

Zetlin: We've also found talking to business people and just looking at statistics that there are two things that you can predict the technology people think in most companies. One is that the company has plenty of money, it's making lots of money and it can afford anything. And the second is that they really understand what it takes to run a business and it's not really that difficult. Actually, Accenture did a survey, and something like 73% of IT executives said 'oh yes, I really understand how the company I work in works, I understand how the business runs.' And only 43% of their managers thought that was true. So, it really is important to make sure that they understand what the business issues are because otherwise they're going to assume that everything is easy.

Geer: The next thing that I found interesting among your solutions was having geeks and suits trade jobs temporarily, putting one in the other's shoes. I've heard of that practice in other environments where it helps people understand each other's jobs.

Pfleging: It's a little harder when you're doing it with specialized jobs, like code writing. However, you could transfer a management person to manage a department of technology workers. They don't have to write the code, and management in many ways is management. You're managing people. And techies are just people. They're just people with different talents. But they are just humans. So a management person who transfers into manage say for six months a department of techies would go back to marketing or wherever they actually lean towards working with a lot more understanding. And the same can be said for techies, a technology worker who is maybe off of a large project, a lot of times tech work, it comes in waves. So they'll be working on a very heavy project for six months or nine months, and then for a few months there will be not a lot happening, it's just little maintenance stuff while the next projects are getting ready. So for like three months they'll have very little work, and they could be spared to actually go and work in marketing for a while or spend time in a design area and just work with people there. They would actually get a lot more understanding of the business and how it actually functions.

Geer: And another point that I thought was very interesting, and of course is crucial in all cases, is this respect building. So how do you go about that between the two parties?

Pfleging: That's a toughie. Respect and just respecting the other side is very difficult because the basic goals of these two groups is so different. I erroneously, and I'm often told by Minda that it's the wrong way to analogize, but I tend to jokingly refer to them as commies and capitalists because in many ways, the concept of, for instance, Open Source software, Linux and such like that, has come completely out of the geek side. The techies believe that all of it should be open and free to the world and the magic of technology should be available to everyone. Whereas business people, when you talk about Open Source software to business people, their first reaction is to cringe. How do you make money on free software? It doesn't make any sense. It's a very different way of looking at business in general. It's hard to build respect, but you really need to have both groups spend time with each other. Walking in each other's shoes sometimes helps. Some of it has to be done on an agree to disagree kind of a basis, but still respecting the other side as people who have integrity and are working with a skill set they particularly have, whether they're business or tech workers. That's a hard thing to do, but it's really important.

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