Yesterday was the last day of work for one of my marketing interns. She was an exchange student who had just finished her masters degree in corporate finance from Institut National des Telecommunications in France and was completing her exchange studies certificate at one of the more well-regarded UC (University of California) schools.
Her primary roles were to A) translate our software into French so that we could officially enter the French speaking market and B) assist me in developing our marketing and CRM strategies for French-speaking customers and prospective customers. She performed both roles beautifully.
Contemplating elitism while passing the scotch
On my team, I make sure that everyone teaches. I believe that each of us has something to offer that makes us uniquely valuable. I try my best to find that in the people who work for me and provide them a platform upon which to express it.
One of the more interesting things that I got to learn from my intern was not to make claims in our ad copy when marketing to the French (i.e. saying that your brand is the “best” without citing empirical data that supports your assertion). Apparently, such language would be looked upon as arrogant, running the risk of turning a French consumer off and having them label you as an untrustworthy charlatan.
This concept is completely in sync with another Frenchism that I learned from my friend Baptiste. He moved to the states to finish a similar exchange program at UCLA about a year ago. We were at a monthly Mensa gathering called “beer on a boat” (literally held on a member’s boat) during which he was telling the group that in France, very few people will admit to even being members of groups like Mensa because forming “special groups” is seen as elitist and is, therefore, frowned upon.
I’ve always thought that such sentiments (distrust in claims from companies; frowning on elite groups) were derived from the events leading up to the French revolution: France’s organically grown cultural modes to ensure that no elitist group ever rose to power again; but I digress.
So, by the end of yesterday I was both tired and full. I was tired from the 3 back-to-back marketing plan meetings that hijacked my afternoon and full from the off site lunch, celebration cake, and after work appetizers and booze (3 different events during 3 different times of the day, mind you) that we enjoyed together to send our beloved team member off. While sitting at happy hour with a loose belt buckle and a scotch in hand, I thought about how much I really love working for nerdy companies like this. Here are a few of my pet reasons for feeling this way:
10 reasons why I love working for nerdy companies
1. For I, too, am a nerd
About 2 years ago I watched a Ted.com video of a talk by a guy named Sir Ken Robinson. He gave quite a riveting talk about how traditional education stifles individuality and creativity. I was so impressed by his ideas that I immediately bought and read his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.
In The Element, one of the things Robinson talks about is the importance of finding your tribe. In a sense, the competition over spots in top MBA programs has a lot to do with being accepted into a prestigious tribe. The typical applicant is a semi-delusional dreamer who yearns to spend two years in close quarters with 200-900 peers in an environment that supports big dreams and delusions with such vigor that many a pipe dream eventually becomes someone’s reality.
Like traditional education, traditional corporate environments often smother individuality and creativity. In the process, they stamp out a lot of critical thinking and applied intelligence. Tech companies, by contrast, tend to be the exact opposite of this. Though I made my fair share of “work friends” working in big corporate, I have a much stronger sense of being around my own kind in a nerdy company such as the one I work in now.
There are no suits, no mandatory 8am start times and no security guards demanding that you smile (I hate mandatory positive affirmations; more on that later) so that they can feel comfortable with your disposition. Instead, people are genuinely happy, engaged, and interested in the work they are doing and who they get to work with.
2. Nerds do less dumb shit
One thing that I wish my current work environment had just a little more of is organization. It’s a very entrepreneurial place that runs on thin people resources and every person you trip over in the hallway is juggling double-digit projects that may or may not even be related.
On the other hand one thing that I don’t have to worry about even half as much as I did in big corporate is a whole lot of stuff that just doesn’t make sense. You know, process for the sake of process; meeting for the sake of meeting; glaring inefficiencies that everyone sees but no one says or does anything about (because they know things won’t change). Its good to be back in an environment where you are rewarded (and respected) for questioning the status quo as opposed to buying into it lock, stock and key.
3. Nerds don’t let dummies run the show (selective Darwinism)
Of all 10 reasons why I love working for nerdy companies, this one has to be in the top 2. No matter how much brown nosing or schmoozing one might do, there is only one thing that nerds truly respect–intelligence (as evidenced by quality ideas). Period. End of story. Without the “I” word in your reputation, nothing else you do will bring you much clout in a nerd-controlled environment.
And as cause and effect would have it, my dumbest boss ever was a part of the biggest company that I’ve ever worked for. Brown nosing, defending the status quo and dating/screwing several managers and district managers during her multi-decade tenure took her quite a long way, culminating in several us having to be subjected to her dumb ideas (I’d be shocked if she even has a 3-digit IQ) and utter lack of leadership talent.
She and I actually never had a huge confrontation (she was good at backing down just when I’d reached my limit; maybe she’s not so dumb after all). Besides, I usually thought that most of what she had to say warranted little response (as it was rarely intelligent or insightful); but other team members weren’t so calm. She’d been thrown out of a car, yelled at and pulled out into the hallway to be set straight by other frustrated corporate refugees before and after me.
At my current company, not only would someone like that have not been allowed to rise to a leadership position (for lack of ideas alone), but they would never have been hired in the first place. Yes! Selective Darwinism at its very best.
4. Nerds have real hobbies (and, therefore, are more interesting)
Intellectual curiosity has a way of making a person more curious and adventurous about experiencing life in general. When I’m hiring people, I always ask them to tell me about a hobby or a project that they’ve taken the initiative to start and bring to completion outside of work. This tells me much more about the level of curiosity that the candidate has than some canned answer from what I see on their resume. It’s an idea that I got while reading Jason Fried’s Rework. I only use resumes to identify red flags; I primarily ask behavioral questions.
When my most recent hire was asked to speak on this topic she launched into an anecdote about her rock climbing trip to Utah. She took the initiative to help organize 25+ people, including several experienced climbers to ensure that the best safety practices were adhered to. She also helped to produce a promo video about the trip that was live on Vimeo.
I later found out through candid conversation that she had been the only one of her 3 siblings who had chosen to attend weekend school (for years) while growing up to learn her parents’ native language and culture (Vietnamese). Talk about clues of exceptional work ethic and character. Hired!
On a recent business trip, my boss (a Wharton grad), began sharing bungee jumping stories. This happened after a round of beers during a spur of the moment trek through the city we were visiting that my CTO requested we indulge him in. He wanted to visit and expose us to some of his favorite spots from when he and his wife were newlyweds and graduate students in the area.
5. Nerds love creative freedom and autonomy
This is another tribal issue. People who have a deep need for creative freedom and autonomy will be the last folks to try and keep you from having these for yourself. A great example of this is how Google allows their employees to work on whatever they want for a certain amount of time each week or month. Only a bunch of nerds would create a company policy like that. The quintessential corporate stiffs would blow a gasket at the mere thought of their employees not being glued to a spread sheet or in meetings from 8 to feint.
6. Nerds are more genuine, candid and real
Since pretense is devalued among nerds, few people bother to display it–and that’s if it was ever a part of their personality from the get go. Are there politics? Yes. Wherever you find people, you will find politics; but nerd politics are not nearly as thick as what you’ll find in corporate. Most of us just want to be left alone with a keyboard, two monitors and Pandora so we can code/design/write copy/do spreadsheets or what have you in peace.
The more genuine atmosphere also breeds an environment where everyone feels free to express their opinion–even in dissent. In a typical nerdy environment, the worthiness of a controversial comment is judged by the level of rational truth it unearths; in big corporate it has more to do with whom you might be disagreeing with.
When I worked I in corporate, some people would hold their breath when I got ready to speak–especially if they could sense that I did not agree with some high ranking manager. In that environment (and others like it), the unspoken rule is that the higher the rank of the executive the more everyone around them pretends like everything they have to say is brilliant, insightful and makes total sense–even when neither is the case. Insanity.
In my new nerdy environment the opposite is true. When you don’t speak up about what you disagree with (respectfully, of course) you may be viewed as someone who just doesn’t have much to add to the discussion; probably because you’re dumb (or at least that is what many will think).
7. Nerds just leave you alone if they don’t like you
No one gets along with everyone. I tend to get along with most people; in fact, the only people who I ever have real problems with are those who insist on picking a fight with me. They usually regret it; which brings me to my point.
When nerds don’t like each other, they generally just avoid each other. If they are forced to work together, they are liable to make snide comments to each other, attempting to put the other person’s intelligence into question. And even these squabbles don’t tend to last long because we just have more interesting things to do than go back and forth with people, like those 20+ non related projects we’re working on.
In big corporate, bitter rivalries can drag on for years. Petty squabbles; attempting to get people fired; power plays; who has the time? If we don’t get along, I’d much rather us just avoid each other. However, I’ve noticed that people in positions of power in traditional companies are often afflicted with God complexes. They truly feelin complete control of their subordinates’ careers.
In nerdy companies, upper management is well aware that top talent can and will leave you at any time. Though they demand results or the highway, they are much less likely to be guilty of some of the boundary crossing that is more common in environments where the management expects that you are going to stick around and put up with whatever BS is being dished out until you retire. No thanks. I’d rather just go to a better environment.
8. “Nerds Inherit the Earth”
I had a 9th grade honors English teacher named Mrs. Duncan. Whenever she observed students making fun of some awkward kid with coke bottle glasses and a pocket protector she’d break it up and repeat her famous mantra that “nerds inherit the earth”. Though we all rolled our eyes back then, I’m sure my former classmates would agree that we’ve all lived to recognize the piercing truth to her words.
Gates. Jobs. Dell. Page. Brin. Zuckerberg. Khan.
All nerds x 10^12 and running (or ran) the world.
9. Nerds create inertia and impact
FACT: You either are a nerd or you’re making one rich right this moment (I like those odds). Actually, even if you are a nerd you’re making someone nerdier than you insanely wealthy. Your smart phone? Ipad? Kindle? Flatscreen? Facebook? Instagram? I think you get the picture.
And this isn’t just about getting rich–its about creating inertia and impact in the world. From the Manhattan project to the pyramids @ Giza to penicillin to the state-of-the-art hearing aid that I will most likely need at 70 (after I go deaf from years of rap, classical and neo-soul on full blast), nerds have perennially unearthed the most important discoveries and critical innovations that have made (and continue to make) the world go ’round. You’re welcome.
10. I’d like to found my own nerdy company in the not-too-distant future.
My mid-term career goal involves founding my own software company. The more I do my job every day the more I fall in love with every aspect of it. Driving software projects; managing tech support; weighing in on product development strategy; creating marketing plans; dealing with alpha and beta testers; mapping out back end website architecture; I wake up each day excited about what I get to contribute.
It’s been quite an interesting journey getting to this point. And though I can’t guarantee how things will end up (or even what the next step will be without being able to tell the future) I can truly say that I am enjoying each minute of this ride.