Sunday, 1 May 2011

M4sl0w's hierarchy of needs (for geeks)

What is Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

I suggest you look here or Google for it, but in summary it is a psychological theory to describe the levels of human needs and desires and how higher levels of needs can only be satisfied once all the levels below are satisfied.

Does this apply to geeks?

Well, even geeks have basic needs that must be met. I'll discuss them in turn below.


All geeks need caffeine in some form. There are a few crazy exceptions, but they're by far the minority. Popular sources of caffeine are coffee and soft drinks. Energy drinks are of course an excellent source of this essential nutrient and have helped many a geek through a late night coding frenzy.

Awesome workstation and shiny gadgets

So, you're getting your regular dose of free caffeine. This will no doubt be the first thing you do when you get to the office, if you haven't already picked a drink up on the way in. You sit down at you're desk and you're greeted with what you're going to be staring at for the next eight hours. Do you look at it and have flashbacks to the eighties or do you admire the technical marvel before you? As they say, "if you need something done, you may as well do it on something cool and expensive".

Fun and interesting colleagues

As a geek you probably dread social interaction. Or perhaps not. I think that cliché is somewhat dated. But you probably have to work with people around you. Perhaps even regularly. The goal here is to have fun at the same time, building up a sense of team and therefore a shared sense of purpose. That way you are more productive and get things done sooner leaving you with more time to sip your caffeine drink of choice. If you're lucky, you might even meet your colleagues after work in some form of social event.

Interesting work, a sense of control and doing things right.

Do it. Do it now. Do it right now. Do it right.

So, you're sipping your regular dose of caffeine, sitting back at your shiny workstation after a interesting and thought provoking conversation with a colleague. It is now time to get on with the day and do some work.

I think most people, and especially geeks, have a basic desire work hard, work efficiently and to do the right thing. As a geek, you are being paid not just to mash the keyboard from time to time, but to use your expertise to assess and prioritize what work needs to be done and how. A sense of control is very important here - if you and your colleagues know what needs to be done, know how it needs to be done, know that it can be done and that it is the right thing to do, but cannot do it for political reasons, then you're probably going to be somewhat demotivated (wow, that last 'sentence' was an abuse of the English language, but you get my point I hope).

It is the role of a good manager to align the goals and opinions of the geek to the business requirements.

And, if you're lucky, your work might even be particularly interesting. Everything is interesting if you think about it the right way :) What was the other one? There are no boring tasks, only boring people.

Play time and training

Now that you're being productive and the business is happy with your and your team's work, what else is there?

Geeks do what they do because they love it, not because it is a career path (by definition, otherwise they're just random people who happen to work in IT etc). It is a geek's natural instinct to experiment, play, create and break things. And to learn during the process - understand how things work, what makes things tick and where the boundaries lie.

So, what is the ultimate geek motivation? To play, experiment, test, break, fix, create and get paid for it. That is why Google has their 20% time. This means that you get to spend 20% of your time doing whatever you like, which can sometimes result in the birth of a new product or service. It gives geeks a chance to think "outside of the box" (Bingo!) and to try or learn new things.

Why bother? Isn't it a waste of time? Well, perhaps. But there is an asymmetry in the potential gains. Basically, there is a fixed loss - 20% of an employee's time. However, the potential gain has no boundaries. Perhaps someone comes up with something truly phenomenal which ends up being worth millions to the business. Or perhaps they create something useful that gets release to the community and makes the world a slightly better place.

And who knows, the company might even lower its staff turnover and save some money on recruitment.

Finally, a word on training. There are two types of training found during employment. Basic training required to do the job effectively and personal training which indirectly benefits the company but adds to the employee's sense of purpose and career progression. Both forms of training are motivating, with the latter being more so. Unfortunately, training is rarely a priority for companies and doesn't seem to exist much in the wild. Lucky for them geeks tend to take responsibility for their own training, but this does generally result in higher staff turnover - if someone has dedicated most of their free time and spare cash into training themselves, why wouldn't they move on to reap the rewards of a better income or more interesting work?

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