Mildly adapted from my first Ignite talk

You might remember Nick Burns “The Computer Guy” from Saturday night live. He’s obnoxious, he’s hard to work with, and he treats you like an idiot. MOVE!

He’s a funny stereotype, but he’s pointing to a real problem. One that costs millions of dollars a year, and could be fixed with a ridiculous amount of ease. The thing is that Nick is a Computer Nerd, and nerds are notoriously difficult to work with.

By the end of the 1970s however, things started to change. Computers started infiltrating offices, and even homes by the mid eighties. Now you’ve got one in your pocket! By the end of this talk, your washing machine will probably have one as well.

And nerds make all this stuff work. Which means that they’ve come out of the basements, and tell you to get out of your chairs. This has given a traditionally lower power, low status group of folks a TON of power. Something they might have been used to.

And while most of us aren’t as bad as old Nick, we’re not that great. Because your washing machine is now running a rinse cycle followed by a defrag, any difficulties in working with Software Engineers costs real money.

I’ve seen millions of dollars flushed away on projects due to scope creep, miscommunication, bad project management, you name it. Most of the time it boils down to a simple communications barrier. The account manager on one side, trying to explain to the programmer on the other side what needs to happen. But whatever the breakdown in communications is here, the issue is a cultural one. The thing is that being a nerd is a culture in itself. Computer nerds even more so.

Think about the accountant manager doing the explaining. Just imagine the different hobbies, age ranges unique senses of humor that she deals with in her department. It’ll be different when she goes home, or out with her friends.Now think about the programmer. Not to generalize too much, but there won’t be two people in the whole place who couldn’t throw down on a bare knuckle Kirk vs. Picard argument. What’s more, when he goes home, most of his friends are Nerds, he plays on his computer more and argues about Star Trek online.

Nerd culture is incredibly tight. It crosses most other cultural and ethnic classes. And whenever two cultures come together, it’s a train-wreck.

And because of this, managing these folks is also really hard. Corralling programmers is WAY harder than herding cats. But any degree in management or weekend seminar isn’t going to teach you how to manage the TYPES of people in IT.

What I’m advocating here is a paradigm shift in Management Education. Because IT is such a distinct and separate culture, why not teach both Nerds and Normals about each other from a CULTURAL view point. If you were sending a sales team to Japan in order to close a big deal, you’d train them on how to bow and not stick their chopsticks in their rice. The Japanese would be practicing shaking hands and smiling for weeks before your team got there.

Why don’t we just treat IT Management the same in Business Schools and the corporate world? Teach Normals how to handle aloofness and chipped shoulders. Teach them how to do lots of showing, and ask lots of questions. Then take the nerds and teach them some life lessons about real people. Maybe Mavis who has worked in the packing warehouse, with no air-conditioning, for thirty years, is not just an idiot. Maybe she knows something you don’t. Something that could make your system work better.

Nerdom is a relatively young culture. And we work in even a younger field. With a little bit of Energon, and a whole lot of luck, we can make this happen.

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Keeping Culture Alive During Covidland

It’s been almost a year now since we closed our office and sent everyone home. The first few months were filled with uncertainty, change, and a fair dose of anxiety, but we got through it. It made us a stronger and a closer group of people in many ways. But working together is not just about doing the day-to-day tasks and surviving the occasional pandemic challenge. There are a million little things that we miss when we are not physically in the same space.

One of the most interesting lessons from the past year has been learning what we take for granted when working in an office. I personally miss lunches with a table full of smart, funny, interesting people. I miss the group dynamics around a physical whiteboard where the ideas are coming faster than we can write them down. But what I miss most are those tiny interactions; the conversations in hallways, doorways, and around the fish tank (we don’t really have a water cooler).

These small moments are what elevate work relationships into friendships. They are where we humanize our coworkers, build empathy, and learn that they are full 3D people with 3D lives and 3D dreams. You walk out of a conference room with someone talking about their kids. You don’t just hang up your Zoom call with them and go back to your email.

I think that these moments, as small as they may seem, are extremely important in a workplace. My work is not just a job, and my coworkers are not just some random group of people with whom I accomplish tasks. To me, work is about creating shared meaning and sharing a mission. While you can work cooperatively with a group of strangers to achieve a goal, it will not be as fulfilling as working with a group of friends to completely blow a goal out of the water. I wake up every day partly for the work, but mainly for the people.

So if these small moments in-between “work” are so important in strengthening the bonds between colleagues, how do we make sure they are not entirely lost during long periods of remote work?

The truth is that I don’t really know, but I can tell you what we have tried. I think that Sourcetoad has one of the best company cultures I’ve ever seen, and so it’s worth sharing some of the successful changes we’ve made.

Weekly All-Hands

The first change that we implemented was moving to a weekly all-hands meeting. In the before times, Sourcetoad had a monthly “Sandwich Day,” which was an hour and a half, fully-catered company extravaganza with animated slides, company updates, silly jokes, educational segments, and trivia games with prizes.

We still hold these longer form all-hands meetings once a month, but we discovered that we needed something shorter between Sandwich Days to stay in touch with each other. I actually started out with a weekly company-wide email, but it was too impersonal and never really worked.

We now have a weekly, 30-minute meeting with a few quick updates and a little extra silliness. We try and dedicate about a third of the time to an open Q&A session and address any questions raised in a dedicated Slack channel throughout the week.

Fika

Many American workplaces have adopted the Swedish idea of fika — a simple daily (or twice daily) coffee or tea break with the purpose of slowing down and taking a real intermission from work, even if just for a few minutes. At Sourcetoad, we have started two different fikas (or is it fiki?).

  1. A weekly, optional fika for anyone in the company to drop in on and chat.
  2. A rotating fika for new hires to slowly work their way through the entire organization. These are small fika groups where new team members meet with groups of two or three employees to have a 20 minutes coffee break and get to know each other.

Work From Home Challenges

One of our most successful initiatives has been our #WFH-challenge Slack channel. Many companies have been doing these, but we took to it like a fish to water. The challenges were almost daily at first: take a photo of your work area, list your top ten favorite movies, show us something in your house with green thread, etc. They kept everyone engaged but also allowed us a view into each other’s personal spaces and lives.

The number of challenges per week we are doing has decreased as time has gone on. We have gotten more and more used to working remotely. Sometimes we’ve even missed weeks. But they are one of my favorite additions to our work culture. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Guess who is in these childhood photos.
  • Post the oldest photo or selfie you have on your phone.
  • Tell us what has been the most surprising distraction while working from home?
  • Wear a crazy hat competition.
  • Draw your own island using this tool.
  • Post your favorite COVID meme.
  • Find something within arms reach, take a photo, and tell us something about it (why you have it, where you got it, etc.)
  • Post a link to a website, blog, or subreddit that you’ve spent a lot of time on during quarantine. (Safe for work only!)
  • Wear formal clothes to the all-hands.
  • Describe the show you’re binge-watching in the most boring way possible.
  • Post a photo of your favorite spot to take a walk.
  • Change your Zoom background in our all-hands meeting to your ideal fantasy world.
  • Tell us what is your favorite play/musical, and why? Bonus points if you sing/act out the play.
  • Post your favorite recipe that you’ve discovered during lock-down.
  • Caption this photo competitions, the most popular being:

Movie Night

Sourcetoad has always hosted movie nights, so moving them online was important to keep our culture alive. Our team went through dozens of solutions for everyone to watch movies together. From home-built Plex servers to experimental chat systems, they tried it all. In the end, we settled on two solutions:

  1. Youtube movies and the Youtube Party browser extension.
  2. Netflix movies and the Teleparty browser extension.

Combine these with headphones and an open Zoom call, and you have something approximating an in-person movie night!

Game Night and Happy Hour

Game Night and Happy Hour used to be another Sourcetoad ritual. Every Friday night, as developers started logging, product managers sent their last status report, and the marketing team finished doing whatever it is they do — we would kick off an informal party. Generally, this involved opening a beer and one of the drawers in the office that holds one of thirty classic game consoles. We would then argue about IPAs over lager and Atari over NES.

Thus, the sacred tradition of Game Night had to also move online. However, our team has adapted extremely well (as us nerds could be expected to). The most popular method has been to connect a Jackbox account as a Zoom participant and have everyone join via their phones.

The other games that have gone down the best have been:

  • Codenames – A game where you try and get your team to guess the right words.
  • Skribbl.io – An online Pictionary-style free-for-all.
  • JigsawPuzzle.io – As the name implies, online group jigsaw puzzles.
  • Jackbox – I’ll add it again here because it’s so good!

Conclusion

Hopefully, this list of ideas and thoughts gives you some hope for the future of work and some ideas to implement today in the remote world. I’m personally looking forward to those small interactions in the hallways between meetings again. Still, at least for now, I’m able to enjoy a cocktail and a terrible Nicolas Cage movie with some of my favorite people online.