Geeks for Sale

In today's fast paced world of global commerce and startups that seem to come and go with the phases of the moon, the geek population has become a highly valued commodity. As these companies and others, old and new, vie for the attentions of the geek population (and other limited human resource groups), they have been forced to make the workplace more pleasant for their workers in a wide variety of ways. However, this shortage has had a number of negative effects on the geek world, as well. One of the most prominent negative effect has been the increased number of unwelcome propositions delivered to the geeks and other valued employee groups of the world. Through this essay, I will attempt to describe and express my frustration with the current situation, discuss my opinions on what kinds of personnel marketing are acceptable, and attempt to define why the geek world in particular has been affected in this way. In particular, I will be drawing heavily on my recent experiences with the Geek Swap Fest, part of the Geek Pride series of events which recently took place in Boston.

Although I expect that some of the people reading this will have been there and done that, I'll begin by setting the scene. It's dark. Not dark as in "likely to be eaten by a grue" dark, but dark enough to be comfortable. It's a common stereotype that many geeks thrive in dim environments, and I'm not necessarily the exception that proves the rule. Like many similar events, there is food and drink available and many people are participating in the event of the evening by swapping their wares at a number of tables scattered around the room. Somewhere in the back, Eric Raymond is gathering a crowd of people that just seem to want to stand next to him. You can tell that not all in attendance are comfortable in this sort of setting, no matter how much They Might Be Giants and Moxie Fruvous the DJ plays. I'll be the first to admit that this sort of setting isn't really my thing (I generally don't like to be crowded) but the conversation was good and the people quite interesting, generally. But, this essay isn't about "The Social Habits of the Common Geek" so I'll move on.

However, as I paced the room throughout the evening, I was beset several times by people who, I felt, just didn't belong. I won't say that they weren't geeks, they most likely were. Even if they weren't geeks in the true sense of the word, they were still welcome. However, instead of bringing conversation or swapable goods, these people brought promises of treasure and wealth through new jobs with the companies that they represented. Several times throughout the night, I was assailed by representatives of companies that I will not name (mostly because I didn't bother remembering their names) who were also attending the event. Each time, I grew more frustrated and angry. In my mind, this was a social event violated. But this was not an isolated event and this is a scene that has been repeated over and over for many geeks over the past several years. The party had been infiltrated by headhunters.

For people not familiar with the term, (I've heard it across the east coast, but I've never been further west than the Mississippi) a headhunter is a sort of "job placement activist", either working for a company or for a placement company that works for companies. (I call them meta-companies, but that's my problem.) Their jobs are to find properly-skilled people who would like jobs with the companies that they represent. Generally, these offers are aimed at people who are becoming disenchanted with their current work, need more money, or a combination of the two. I don't mean "headhunter" in the derogatory sense in this essay. Although I've been hounded by them in the past, I do have respect for the important role they play in the economic foodchain. Because I'd tire very quickly of calling them "job placement activists," I'm just going to call them headhunters and have done with it.

In my opinion, solicitation for jobs is not a problem in and of itself. However, there are a variety of less insulting ways to go about it. The party (and several of the other Geek Pride events, I'm told) was sponsored by a company called (I don't know if the .com is a part of the name or not, but that's the address.) Now, some people may believe that I'm complaining about them, because they included some job information on the party's door flyer which everyone received. Quite the contrary! By offering us the party and the chance to socialize and swap (which of course is their major business, swapping online), they earned the right (in my opinion) of advertising to us in whatever way they desired. In this particular instance, the flyer happened to include job opportunities with their company. It was an excellent and fun party and I hope that Swaphouse gets some of the return that they were looking for, both in terms of hits and personnel.

I doubt very much that the headhunters got away without more than a few leads. I really can't blame anyone for wanting a higher salary or more stock options. Occasionally, the offers are tempting. It is easy for someone to want more out of his job and sometimes more money can even make a not particularly interesting job turn heads. I'm not even complaining about the concept of the headhunter, they have a very important place in today's economy. While being sought out and offered a job on the basis of ones credentials is one thing (when does appropriately), seeing out a general population at a /social/ event is quite another (at a business event, it's more forgivable however annoying.) That, in a nutshell, is my gripe.

What is it about the geek demographic that has made us popular in the workforce? I'm not even sure when being a geek lost its derogatory connotations within the community. (I was probably asleep that day.) Today, geeks are treated with an odd brand of respect in the workplace. A respect that occasionally borders on "cattle with brains", it's true. But it is respect nonetheless.

While I'd do the whole community an injustice by defining what is and what is not a geek, I'm still led to believe that there are some certain fundamental characteristics that are present in many geeks that make the demographic a popular one. I find that many of my geek friends are workaholics-- doing things they enjoy. When they don't enjoy something, they can become masters of procrastination. Often, the geek mind is open and flexible, most of my geek friends would be considered "outside the box" thinkers and incredibly fast learners. Nearly all of them are egocentric to a point and hate to be "average" in anything they care about. Besides, a little competition never hurt anyone. While these are common traits that match the stereotype, I know a number of geeks that buck the trend completely and make really lousy employees. (I've had the privilege of working with one or two in my day.) However the geek's flexibility and willingness to learn makes him or her a valued commodity in rapidly changing fields. Companies today are often forced to turn on a dime, and a strong geek contingent where it counts can mean the difference between success and failure. Of course, I could be biased.

I don't want to put down the events that took place this weekend in Boston, even if there were some sharks in our midsts. I look forward to it again next year (although I'd probably have to travel, my discussions with one of the organizers makes me think it may be heading west for next year.) Obviously, as the geek becomes more accepted and popular in the workforce, it will be harder and harder for us to avoid those who come bearing gifts. However, I hope beyond hope that we can draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of career advancement offerings. Please let me know what you think.

(This is actually one of two essays that derive from my "Geek Pride" experience this year. Maybe the second one will follow shortly. Then again, maybe it won't.)