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February 14, 2009

Geeks and Anti-Geeks

If you asked somebody for the stereotype of a Microsoft developer, they would probably think of a pasty-faced coder who plays video games, eats a lot of junk food, read science fiction, writes a blog, and so on--your prototypical geek. And of course, you would be somewhat right. But there is actually a second stereotypical developer at Microsoft. This type of person eschews the trappings of normal geekhood in favor of drinking wine, driving sports cars, cooking complicated recipes, reading The New York Times, and the like. We'll call this persona the "anti-geek", because it comes across as a conscious rejection of the geek lifestyle (and to be clear: both types spend their days playing with computers, and are thus, in the greater scheme of things, 100% geeky).

You notice this if you listen to the chatter before a meeting. Half the time people are talking about World of Warcraft; those are the geeks. The other half they are talking about pinot noir; those are the anti-geeks. In either case, the group then proceeds to discuss a pattern-based approach to refactoring your C# class design in order to increase cohesion and leverage mock objects to achieve high code coverage while minimizing your unit test execution time.

I was thinking of this as I read this Princeton Alumni Weekly profile of Nathan Myrhvold. Myhrvold, who I have only met once (during a fancy recruiting dinner where he ordered caviar for the table), seems like a perfectly nice guy, devoted father, etc. But he is also the prototypical Microsoft anti-geek. As the article states, "He doesn’t merely like to cook: He’s a master chef (and has worked in one of Seattle’s best restaurants) who once won a barbecue contest in Memphis. He doesn’t just take pictures: He’s an award-winning wildlife photographer. As for his well-known interest in paleontology, he’s no ordinary bone collector. He has enough fossils to stock a small museum."

OK, so Nathan is an uber-anti-geek. Why does this matter? The part of the interview I would like to draw attention to is the following, which starts out quoting Myhrvold:

"'I wrote a memo in 1991 about a personal communication device,' he says, and then relates how the drawing of this hypothetical gadget, when recently unearthed from his files, showed something amazingly similar to an iPhone. He quickly adds, 'I’m not saying I invented the iPhone. I didn’t.'"

Myrhvold is modest enough to realize that sketching out a device is different from bringing it to market. But what comes across is the sense that if he had merely productized his doodle, it would have been the iPhone--that the important part of the iPhone was thinking of the technology, not the entire experience that Apple has created.

The reason this matters is because Microsoft has recently been pushing engineers to realize that they are not the customer, the customers are not geeks, and therefore engineers can't design properly for our customers. What I think happens, however, is that the anti-geeks hear this and think, "They're not talking about me; I know that those beer-swilling geeks don't understand the customer, but I'm a cultured sort, not a geek--I'm just like our customers!" And so they go out and design software for themselves...and of course they mess it up...because our customers may not spend their spare time playing Dungeons & Dragons, but neither do they spend it tramping across the Burgess Shale.

Posted by AdamBa at February 14, 2009 01:59 PM


Interesting post. I actually fall somewhere in the middle. I love wine and cooking, but I also can spend hours talking about Star Wars, the insanity of George Lucas, why Voyager killed Star Trek, Tolkien, Transformers, and Guitar Hero.

One thing though - I would have substituted developer with engineer. PMs and SDETs are just as geeky as devs.

Posted by: Phil at February 15, 2009 09:10 AM

I think the word you are looking for is obsession. Some people do sci-fi, some people do wine. They're all a geek at something.

Posted by: Ryan at February 16, 2009 11:50 AM

Photography, cooking, wine, paleontology and sports cars are all hobbies with significant technical content. It's not surprising to me that people who like the challenge of creating software also enjoy those sort of activities outside of work. (As an aside, how many of the anti-geeks were geeks in an earlier, say pre-marital, phase of their life?)

The people who like to obsess over that type of technical detail are exactly the ones you want building software for your company but, as you say, they are completely the wrong people to be designing how that software should interact with the customer (with the obvious exception of tools sold to other developers).

All of this brings to mind your "Seats at the Table" post. Does that mean that the engineering stranglehold you described is coming to an end?

Posted by: Andrew at February 17, 2009 09:19 AM

Andrew, I wouldn't say the stranglehold is coming to an end, but that more people are making noises about how it should come to an end; but the future here is murky.

Also, to be 100% accurate, UX (User Experience) is considered an "engineering" job at Microsoft, but I know what you meant.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at February 19, 2009 10:16 AM