Recently, in recognition of Geek Pride Day, PressBox asked Chrystal Taylor, Sascha Giese, and me to share our thoughts on what it meant to us to be a “geek” and how our geeky tendencies affected (and were affected by) our personal and professional lives. You can read part of our responses in the original article but (as usual) we had so much more to say. Below you can find additional reflections about being a Geek who is a geek.
What does being a “geek” mean to you? When did you first notice you might be a geek? And how does it reflect in your personal life?
I think I have to start with one of the best, and what’s become one of the most beloved, descriptions of what being a “geek” is—from Wil Wheaton, at the 2013 Calgary Comic Expo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_BtmV4JRSc)
(transcription here: http://wilwheaton.net/2013/11/transcribed-why-its-awesome-to-be-a-nerd/)
“I think a lot of us have realized that being a nerd … it’s not about what you love. It’s about how you love it.
So, there’s going to be a thing in your life that you love, and I don’t know what it’s going to be. It might be sports, it might be science, it might be reading, it might be fashion design, it might be building things, it might be telling stories or taking pictures. It doesn’t matter what it is. The way you love that, and the way that you find other people who love it the way you do, is what makes being a nerd awesome. The way you love that, and the way that you find other people who love it the way you do is what makes you a nerd. The defining characteristic of [being a nerd] is that we love things. Some of us love Firefly and some of us love Game of Thrones, or Star Trek, or Star Wars, or anime, or games, or fantasy, or science fiction. Some of us love completely different things. But we all love those things SO much that we travel for thousands of miles … we come from all over the world, so that we can be around people who love the things the way that we love them.”
Based on this description along with many others, one’s “geekiness” might express itself in a wide variety of ways. I have friends who are passionate about their comic books (traditionally_geeky!), but equally passionate about their local sports teams (!traditionally_geeky). There are folks I know who consider them full-stack audiophile geeks, but have no interest in Star Wars, or superheroes, or posting on myfaceytweetstagram.com. And so on.
With aaaaaalll of that said, I noted early on I felt a connection to, and an affinity for, mythology—both historically accurate (the Odyssey) and invented (Lord of the Rings). I found enjoyment and fulfillment not just in consuming those stories but developing mastery of them: Finding obscure or esoteric facts; learning the historic and linguistic underpinnings of the story; and of course, committing entire sections of the content to memory. More than that, though, I felt excitement and immediate camaraderie with anyone who expressed interest and excitement for those same subjects.
I was one of those typical kids—wearing glasses, spent most time in front of my computer, like the guys who invented something cool in their garage. Only I didn’t invent anything. Probably because there was no garage. Anyway, back in the days people called you geek or at least nerd if you had a passion for something new, today is different as everyone is playing with their mobile phones. We didn’t have them, so it was about strange noisy boxes with monochrome screens in the beginning, and the first attempts of 3-D gaming—playing Quake on what was called a “Voodoo 3D” was a life-changing event for me. Oh, yes, and I happen to be a Star Wars fan. Dark side only. Team Darth Vader.
My favorite description of what it means to be a geek comes from Simon Pegg:
“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”
Feeling passionately about something and letting it show are what “geeking out” look like. Commonly, it’s associated with specific things like comic books, video games, Sci-Fi tv shows, etc. but, to me, being a geek is not tied to specific things—just whatever you happen to be into. When I was growing up, I was more likely to be called a nerd than a geek, so I didn’t really start to feel like a geek or get called a geek until I was working in IT. I play a LOT of video games, like nearly every day will catch me playing something, and have been doing so ever since I can remember. Things I personally geek out on, other than video games, are books, cosplay, hair color, Sci-Fi/Fantasy shows/movies, tabletop gaming, monitoring, automation, etc.
How has being a geek influenced your career?
Being a person of a certain age (Lyndon B. Johnson was the U.S. President when I was born), the internet didn’t exist for the entirety of my youth, and for a good portion of my young adulthood. My desire to connect with people who shared my interests and passions led me to explore electronic bulletin board systems (BBSes). Many of these were (by today’s standards) UX nightmares; poorly built, quirky, and prone to instability. The only way for the operators of these BBSes to maintain performance was to keep things as basic and simple as possible. As a result, I learned about low level OS commands, tools, and techniques—things like grep, vi, telnet, and FTP long before I considered a career in server and system administration.
But my BBS experience translated to a comfort with new tools and software as it came up, which in turn translated into my becoming “the tech guy” in a lot of nascent IT situations. And that, more than anything else, led to my choosing to pursue a career in technology in the first place.
I kept on following IT as a career path in one or another role and studied applied information technology for computer media to express a bit of my creativity. But at some point, I had the chance to make my hobby my profession and started to work for a popular gaming company, which also was an opportunity for me to live in another country. Best decisions of my life! I can only suggest everyone to listen to “your heart” when something like this comes up. If there are tasks you really enjoy, it’s no longer work in the traditional sense. It doesn’t matter how long you work. It doesn’t matter how much you get paid. It matters that you want to go to work in the morning, instead of feeling a depression incoming on Sunday evening.
Geeking out is a great connector of people. Enthusiasm and passion are contagious. Those connections help us form relationships with people—from colleagues to customers. Not only that, but if you are lucky enough to geek out on something that exists in your career—like I do on monitoring and automation (and them working together!)—it’s noticed and rewarded. You can get opportunities to do wonderful things to share this enthusiasm and passion. You get to meet and work with like-minded individuals when you find your community. All of this has helped me get where I am today. It’s at times terrifying, but always exhilarating. And, now, I’m in a place where I get to do fun things like write about how video games have given me skills I use all the time at work.
What is your role as a Head Geek at SolarWinds?
Being a Head Geek is a dual-faceted experience, where one aspect of my work is externally focused, and the other aspect is internal.
Externally, I’m a customer advocate, a brand ambassador, and a technology evangelist. I get to talk about real problems happening to real IT folks in the real world and discuss ways in which those problems can be approached and solved. And maybe the discussion includes SolarWinds tools, but just as often it’s a purely vendor-agnostic conversation. At the same time, when a new feature or capability comes out, I’m able to highlight how it maps back to those real-world experiences. And I get to do all of this in multiple venues—whether in a blog, a podcast, a video, at a user group, or even on a conference stage.
Internally, I get to act as the voice of the customer. The work I described above puts me in contact with lots of folks who are working through a wide range of problems, issues, and implementations. They have strong opinions about how things—including SolarWinds solutions—ought to work, and the problems it ought to help them solve. I’m able to bring those stories and opinions back in-house and use them to improve or even create tools to answer those needs.
Being a geek (both in my nature as well as my title) allows me to connect with the folks I meet (more often than not geeks of one sort or another themselves) on a personal level. It gives us a common language and understanding and helps remove any friction from our conversations.
I still enjoy learning about new technologies and how they help us to advance as humans. And it’s interesting to see we shifted the way we drive innovation from physical engineering, from computer aided-whatever, all the way to science inside a box, a computer running software. OK, it’s probably a cluster and not just a computer. And it’s not random software, instead, machine learning is applied to all the knowledge we gained over centuries. And you know what is at the heart of it all? The IT departments of all the organizations around the globe. They’re the backbone of their businesses, and therefore, the primary driver of scientific advancement.
It’s part of my role to keep up to date, to keep the finger on the pulse of the IT professional, so I understand their needs. Interestingly, the needs didn’t change much over the past 20 years: stuff is only good as long as it works without causing trouble. That’s where my employer enters the game, by the way. But that’s a different story. Well, maybe not. Most people don’t really enjoy listening to IT folks complaining about failing technology. For us, as Head Geeks, it’s different, as we usually have answers for them. And while we don’t know everything—work is an ongoing learning process for us, too—once in a while a simple “did you ever try it this way” ends in a rewarding conversation.
Oh, and yes, those conversations go beyond “did you try turning it off and on again.” I have them with my parents.
Being a Head Geek consists of doing things like content creation, community involvement, speaking engagements, and generally getting to talk/write about monitoring and IT in general and SolarWinds specifically as the fan I am. My workday can consist of anything from recording video to writing a blog post or article to preparing for upcoming webinars and anything in between. I might do some research or work in our lab for preparation or furthering my IT education. I get to use my years of IT experience working with customers with IT environments of all sizes and industries to be the voice of the customer with our internal teams as well. As I mentioned earlier, it does mean I get to often “geek out” and combine my interests with work.