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Getting down with the geeks

Published: Friday, July 19, 2013 11:04 a.m. CDT

I really don’t know how it happened. At school, geeks were the people we used to pick on. At work, geeks were the people we couldn’t do anything with. Now, they’re the people we can’t do anything without. And suddenly, it’s the geeks who are picking on us.

Well, maybe it wasn’t so sudden.The trouble with geeks started many years ago, when we replaced our IBM Selectric typewriters with our IBM Personal Computers. With a typewriter, when your ribbon ran out of ink, that was no problem because a ribbon could be replaced by your secretary.

Now, if there’s a problem with your computer, your secretary would have no idea what to replace, which may be why it was our secretaries who wound up getting replaced. (Note to young readers: Typewriters were mechanical devices with keyboards, but instead of writing with electrons on a screen, you wrote with ink on paper.)

It’s computers that have made geeks important, so important that it’s not enough that you have to learn to like them. You have to get them to like you. Or so I learned from “How to Get Down with the IT Guys,” a recent article by Dennis Nishi in The Wall Street Journal. Nishi does not mince words when it comes to making nice with the geeks in your company.

Once related to the basement with the mainframe computer,” he writes, “the information-technology department has since ascended into more forward roles that require working directly with other departments on projects.”

Oh, the horror of it all! We not only have to live with geeks, we have to work with them, too.This isn’t easy.

”Many entrenched attitudes remain about IT workers,” Nishi writes, “especially by employees and managers who may view IT as a subordinate service provider or have had bad past experiences that make every contact with IT akin to going to the dentist.”

Frankly, I think he understates the problem. If your dentist decides to take two weeks to answer your email, it doesn’t keep you from spending your afternoons playing Candy Crush Saga.

If you want to get along with these aliens among us, you’ll have to understand them. Paul Glen, the author of “Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology,” concludes that as opposed to normal people, geeks “see the world differently.”

Glen suggests that in dealing with geeks, we get specific. You can’t just grab the nearest geek and cry, “I need help.” Geeks are detail-oriented and will respond more favorably if you clearly explain the emergency, like “my iPad won’t connect to my iPhone, so I can’t play my iPod.”

But what if you can’t describe your problem with the required specificity? What if that’s exactly why you need the geek in first place? I recommend a Vulcan Mind Meld. This technique would be even more effective if you actually put on a Vulcan costume before you made the call. That way, the geek will feel more comfortable showing up dressed as Spider Man.

Dennis Nishi suggests that you also “try to move beyond being a basic user of whatever technology you are using.” Excellent idea! Tell your geek how surprised you were to find out those wires coming out the back of your computer, which end in those pluggy things, which go into the wall, actually provide power to the device.

”It’s called electricity!” you could announce. “Ever heard of it?”

One surefire way to “fast-track interdepartmental communications” is to “make a meaningful office connection by finding somebody in IT who has similar values to your own or even common personal interests.

”In other words, you’re going to have to start living on Pop-Tarts and Dr. Pepper. You’ll have to start spouting endlessly on the flaws in Windows 8, and why the “Iron Man 3” did not even begin to capture the evil essence of Mandarin and his power rings.

It’s going to painful, but you’ll have your technology needs met instantly and without complaint. Best of all, if you can learn to get down with geeks, you can turn your attention to the next great workplace challenge — getting down with nerds.

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