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Growing and Keeping Geeks

 16. August 2018

from yesterday’s dark muse, this:

let’s go there.

i believe we are consistently failing in the geek trade. by failing, i mean that we who do the work do not broadly satisfy those for whom we do it.

if we were selling some service or commodity that could be substituted for, there’s an end to it. demand would shift to the substitute, and those suppliers who can’t respond go out of business. but the demand for geekery is what economists call “inelastic” (at least for the last 35 years). that demand does not drop because the supply is limited. in fact, it hasn’t even stayed the same: externalities have made the demand increase, at a staggering rate.

how staggering? well. the best way to think of it is to use bob martin’s back-of-the-envelope estimate: the number of professional geeks has had a doubling rate of a little under five years for over 3 decades. if you haven’t thought about this yet, take a break and do so now. at any given time, half of the pro geeks in the world have less than 5 years of experience. and cuz its gone on so long, a schmoe like me with 40 years in, represents less than a half-percent of working geeks. to make matters worse, those 34 of geeks with <10 aren’t clustered around that 14 who has some real practical experience. they are pulled by that same sucking demand right in to leadership roles themselves.

every trade has acculturation, where new hands learn the ropes by their exposure to old hands. humans know far more than they can readily say about how to do what they are good at doing. acculturation is the process by which old-timers show, then hand, the ropes to newcomers.

this, then, is the first thing you need to understand about the current state of the trade: the acculturation process in our trade has been completely and utterly swamped. we are simply overwhelmed with new talent. we have no way to bring them along. as i’ve said before now, it’s everything we can do to just show them which end of the stick the bullets come out and send them over the wall. and the problem is amplified by the fact that the knack that acculturation provides has itself been changing at a very fast pace. 20 years ago, before we started the agile movement, the body of that knack was almost entirely centered on “the made”, for instance.

so.

when i say we need to grow and keep our geeks, this is what i’m talking about.

grow and keep, what does that even mean?

by “grow”, i mean “acculturate”. what i am saying is “enable them to become more like who/how they wish they were within the context of highly technical and highly creative work.” that’s a helluva mouthful, and a more rich and intricate discussion is out of scope, but go with me. in the simplest terms possible, growing a geek means enabling her to get stronger.

note: casual thinkers will almost immediately slide from here to training – classwork, texts, “information transfer”, i believe, is the currently popular phrase. but what i am talking about is a great deal more thick than “teaching people programming”. and i don’t want readers to slide from acculturation to that.

acculturation isn’t primarily a matter of fact-stuffing. rather, it is a matter of allowing their developing selves to take solid root in the also-developing fabric of our lore, traditions, outlook, approach, and to be perfectly transparent, joy. we’ll have to talk at further length about different ways to do that, but the moment, go with the word “grow” and just let its organic flavor roll on your tongue.

so if that’s growing a geek, what’s keeping one?

and here’s the thing about geeks, the thing about the makers that the writing in our trade mentions so very rarely, as opposed to the made.

growing a geek and keeping a geek are the same exact thing.

now i should say, that might not be forever the case, and it’s a modal on a bell curve, not an exceptionless rule. but here and now, on a very steep modal, to keep a geek, you must be growing her.

the money the money the money the money. we keep throwing money after these people – and we will keep throwing money after them as long as the demand is this high – well, it isn’t enough. i said it yesterday in a one-off, i’ll say it again today here:

if all i get from you is money, and all i get from anyone is money, i will go time and again to the highest bidder. if i have “enough” money – which really just means broadly in keeping with others i see as peers – then i act based on another factor. for geeks, highly technical and highly creative and highly vested in being both, that most powerful factor is their sense of growth.

this monstrously long muse started yesterday, with me saying that our customers are just going to have to write off their losses and help us restructure our economy. we are dancing as fast as we can with this current model, and it falls woefully short. to wrap for today, then, i further believe that the restructuring we need – we can’t do it without debt forgiveness – is to do whatever we can to grow and keep our geeks.

it feels to me like the only possible way forward.