Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Do Geeks Lie About Deadlines?

How can you tell if a geek is lying? Because his or her lips are moving.

That wasn't quite the message from radio personality Rick Gillis when he interviewed Bill and me this past Sunday on his ESPN radio show--but awfully close. In his experience, he claims, whenever a geek answers a question about how long it will take to complete a task, that answer is always a falsehood.

I've overheard Bill on the phone too many times apologizing to his computer repair customers because their desktop or laptop isn't ready when he said it was going to be. I could pretend I don't know what Rick is talking about but...I do.

But does that mean tech people are deliberately deceitful? Hardly. Most tech work is something like solving a puzzle or untangling a hopelessly knotted string, and it's one of those things that you never know will be done until it suddenly is. There's always the danger of complications you weren't expecting when you started out. So it makes perfect sense to me that geeks can't accurately say how long it will take to finish something. And it makes perfect sense that suits get frustrated and angry when the geeks' predictions turn out to be wrong.

Some suits deal with this in what I call the Captain Kirk mode of management: like Kirk telling Scotty he has three hours to adapt that Klingon cloaking device to work on the Enterprise, instead of asking how long someting will take, they tell geeks how long they have to finish the project. In one case I heard about recently, a geek was comfortably working along on a three month project when he was suddenly informed he had to finish it in three weeks.

It's easy to see why this Captain Kirk method often doesn't work out.

So what does? There's no easy answer to this, but I think it starts with enough mutual trust for geeks to be honest not only about how long they think something will take, but what the factors are, and possible pitfalls, that can affect the timeline. And, whether they want to or not, suits really do need to learn enough basic info about technology to understand these challenges, and what they can do to make the process go smoothly.

Are there other ways to make this better? I'm not sure.

Meanwhile, the interview will be posted online soon, and when it is, I'll post a link.