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Geek Mythology: Reinventing the Image of Engineers

Call it revenge of the nerds—today's engineer is loose, cool and in demand

By Paula Lipp

Pocket protectors. Thick glasses. Sharper programming skills than social skills. It's the stereotype of the engineer or computer professional, but thanks largely to a newfound appreciation by employers, technical professionals are enjoying a serious image makeover.

Professionals agree that the stereotype has hurt engineering. In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently announced a partnership with Women in Film, a Hollywood-based nonprofit organization, to produce and distribute a public service campaign in 2000. The effort will attempt to dispel "the negative 'geek' or 'nerd' stereotype associated with technical workers and encourage teens to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology," the department reports.

Organizers of such campaigns say the field is especially hard hit when minority students are discouraged from walking down the technology career path. While speaking at a conference on women in engineering this summer, William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, addressed the relationship between changing the image of the profession and increasing diversity. Wulf believes that engineering is a profoundly creative activity and that a person's creativity is a reflection of his or her life experiences. Therefore, without diversity, the experiences of an engineering team are limited and their designs suffer from lack of imagination.

A byproduct of this, Wulf says, is that it feeds the public's perception of the bland, boring engineer. He notes that in a recent poll conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, "fewer than 2% of the public associated creativity with engineering."

Wulf adds that enrollments at engineering schools are declining and have been since 1983. Even more troubling, "minority student enrollment is dropping like a stone. I think a lot of it has to do with the perception of engineering and of an engineer's lifestyle."

There is a dull side to engineering, Wulf admits, a component that requires analysis and skepticism. But too often, that's the only side the public sees:

"If engineers were really as dull as the caricature, they couldn't be good engineers," he affirms. They wouldn't have the life experiences necessary, he argues, to consider a broad range of solutions.

Charles Walker, the executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, in Alexandria, Va., agrees that the negative image has had a detrimental effect on the profession, but that the image is waning. "It is changing as technology has more openly affected society," he explains. "To be an engineer now is a lot more glamorous than it was ten years ago."

And the Cubicle Walls Came Down

Walker is right. As the world becomes increasingly technology-dependent, employers and the general public are changing their opinion of the technology professional. No longer is he or she the bespectacled loner, toiling for hours behind the computer screen, churning out complex designs that no one quite understands. Today, engineers contribute directly to the bottom line, interacting with clients and moving business forward.

"I call it revenge of the pocket protectors," says Brian Farrar, recently named chief operating officer of the eBusiness Unit at Metamor Technologies Ltd., an information technology consulting business. "The Internet and [electronic] commerce have made technology part of the business. That's what's responsible for the changing image of the technology professional."

As technology has become the lynchpin of the digital economy, computer programmers, mechanical and electrical engineers and their colleagues in other disciplines have come out of the back rooms and into the spotlight. "At the old technology companies, you were put into a cubicle and given one job to do," says Lynn Rodgers, human resources director of Commerx Inc., a Chicago company whose main product is an online trading community for the plastics industry called PlasticsNet.Com. Not so at her company, she says: "It's important for each of our technology employees to understand the whole business. ... There are individuals who want to work on their own behind a computer all day, but they may not fit in here."

At Air Products and Chemicals Inc., not only are engineers not locked into cubicles, they're not locked into a predetermined career path, either.

The company's Career Development Program gives new employees three rotational assignments in their first three years, exposing them to multiple aspects of the business in a broad range of work settings and geographic locations. Jim Brockington, director of Air Products' university relations, explains that a person just out of school may not know exactly what he or she wants to do. "We want people to try different things," he says. "It's hard to know that you want to be a production engineer just based on your college experience."

Similarly, Dave Ormesher, CEO of closerlook.com, a business strategy and design firm, describes the environment there as open and collaborative. "Rather than being stuck in cubicles, our technology staff works in a team environment. There's a lot of face time with the clients. They are seen as full members of the team with the project managers and designers. Information is key and if engineers are getting information second- and third-hand, it is less effective than if they get it from the mouth of the client."

Ormesher's mentality typifies the about-face in attitude that has occurred over the last decade.

"In the late 1980s and early '90s, companies in the defense industry began laying off their IT staffs," remembers Doug Berg, president and founder of the Edina, Minn.-based techies.com, an employment Web site for high-tech professionals. "That discouraged a lot of people from looking at the profession and contributed to the bad image, that computer programming is a nerdy thing. We've begun an advertising campaign that says it's the coolest, highest earning potential career opportunity that anyone could consider."

Loosen Up!

Perhaps nothing could be cooler than walking into an office where employees are relaxing by playing company-sanctioned video games, taking an hour to pump some iron or riding a sliding board from one floor to another. Employers seeking to prevent their engineers from turning into overstressed antisocial geeks are injecting one simple but often overlooked element into the workplace: fun.

"We are convinced that the greatest career and personal success will be achieved when people have work and other activities in balance," says Brockington. "We make it clear that this [balance] is important."

To encourage that, the Allentown, Pa., offices of Air Products house both an indoor and outdoor jogging track, as well as a modern fitness center.

Air Products is not the only company transforming the image of the engineer as a 98-pound weakling. In addition to having opportunities to get to know one another through such events as the annual Chili Cook-off, a company talent show and a departmental Halloween costume contest, employees of Active Voice, a Seattle manufacturer of PC-based voice messaging systems, get plenty of fresh air and exercise. "For those who are interested in participating in athletics, we have employees who coordinate ultimate Frisbee and co-ed soccer and softball teams," explains Monica Jolly, employment coordinator for Active Voice.

During the summers, the company also alternates between a white-water rafting trip and tickets to sporting events, "and we always make sure to take a few trips to our rooftop deck for a barbecue or to get a fly-by from the Blue Angels when they're in town," Jolly adds. Combined with on-site massage, dry cleaning service, organic vegetable delivery, yoga and language classes, the tech professionals at Active Voice are encouraged to socialize, have fun and stay fit.

Do some employees take advantage of these outlets a little too much? Most employers say no. "I wondered if we would [have problems] when we put the pool table in," confides Ormesher. "But there is a strong unwritten rule here that says work hard, play hard. There is peer pressure to be professional. There's a time to work and a time to play and people know the difference. The pool table is quiet during key work hours."

Game rooms are found on each floor at Chicago's Metamor, too, but Farrar says he doesn't mind activity there during the day. He says his company has "lots of ways to figure out if somebody is doing their job or not." As long as customers are satisfied, work is being done and employees are developing professionally, Farrar maintains that he doesn't care if the pinball machine is in use all day long. "I use [the game rooms] myself, so that by my actions I am condoning their use during business hours."

From Geek to God

Why are companies so eager to change their cultures from the miserable cubicle-dwelling existence portrayed by that popular comic strip character? It's simple, says one IT recruiter: They have to. "It's such a tight job market that organizations are desperate to do anything" to make themselves look attractive to potential engineering and computer science employees, says Richard Bordelon, a recruiter for The Richmond Group USA/Management Recruiters International, in Richmond, Va. "I know one company that feeds its employees breakfast and lunch everyday. It's almost a gimmick, but it bonds the employees to the company."

Gimmick or not, niceties like pool tables have become requisite in the industry. A few years ago, the Silicon Valley offices of Excite! were considered unusual for having a red twisty slide that linked floors. Now, even that's not so uncommon anymore. And innovation isn't confined to the West Coast, either. Walk into closerlook.com's Chicago headquarters on the right day and you may stumble upon one of its monthly "love fests." In the 1960s that term may have meant something else, but in '90s parlance it's company-speak for "corporate meeting."

"We bring in some imported beer and everybody pulls up a beanbag chair. We sit around the pool table and brief everyone on the state of the company," explains Ormesher.

Wait—did he say beanbag chair? Pool table? And beer? The company believes that its operating structure—both physically and metaphorically—supports innovation that in turn gives clients the results they need. "The culture has a direct impact on retaining good talent. The cost to recruit, hire and train a person is very high, so when somebody leaves, it has a big impact on the company," Ormesher says. "The culture builds the kind of bond that helps keep employees and it also helps with recruiting good software engineers."

Simply put, in an industry where big salaries are common, employers are finding that making themselves stand out takes a little bit of innovation. Take Metamor, which provides its clients with the ability to conduct e-commerce. As an employer, Farrar offers competitive salaries to his 600 employees, 90% of whom are engineers and computer professionals. "But we add those things that you talk about with your friends at the bar," he says. "For example, every other Friday during the summer, we deliver ice cream to everybody. ... It's good business. It fosters an environment where people are comfortable, they're communicating and they're getting things done."

Farrar notes that Metamor's turnover rate is about half the industry average, supporting the validity of his unconventional approach to the work environment. "I spend between $5,000 and $7,500 per recruit. Every time I turn somebody over, I could buy four pool tables, so if I get one person who would have left to stay because I'm giving out ice cream, then I'm making money."

Before You Chalk Your Pool Cue...

Students entertaining visions of shooting pool all day should keep several things in mind. First, employers offering such relaxed atmospheres are still the exception, not yet the rule. "One company I know of rented a movie theater and took all their techies to see 'Star Wars,'" recalls Bordelon, "but that's not necessarily the reality."

Second, breaking into these companies isn't easy—you have to prove you're worth it. Finding employees who achieve that delicate balance between geek and goof-off adds an extra dimension to the recruiting process. At Metamor, the hiring process includes the company's SWAN Test: "We want people who are smarter than average, work harder than average, are more aggressive than average and are nice people," Farrar explains.

Potential hires at closerlook.com who make it through two rounds of interviews are brought back to face "the gauntlet." The 12-person panel, comprised of people from throughout the company, fires a range of questions from "What's been your worst job experience?" to "What are your five favorite movies?" The goal is to assure the hiring of someone whose personality meshes with the organization.

"They know that the person is qualified for the job on paper," Ormesher explains, "but is he a good fit culturally? Some people have not made it through the gauntlet."

Finally, remember that you may need a comfortable work environment because you'll often spend 10- to 12-hour days there.

"The companies that are feeding their employees or taking them to see 'Star Wars' are demanding," stresses Bordelon. "Those companies are top-tier organizations and they do those things to attract top talent. You can't graduate with a C average and expect to get that treatment."

What's in a Name?

The debate over whether or not geek is chic is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the names of technology companies. Some companies have embraced the term "geek," while others have consciously shied away from it. Doug Berg says the name of his company, techies.com, was chosen after conversations with focus groups, who indicated that the term "techie" did not have a negative connotation. The company hopes that its career resource Web site promotes a positive, hip image for computer and engineering professionals. Berg's firm is also cosponsoring the first Techies Day, a celebration scheduled for October 5, which is designed to focus public attention on technology professionals and their contributions to society. Techies Day events will include public recognition programs and private corporate celebrations, grass roots activities and a school outreach program.

"Part of what we're doing is improving the image of the information technologist and helping people to see it as a cool job," adds George Johnson, vice president of marketing for the company.

Others believe that they can change the stereotype by proclaiming their geek pride. Entering the term "geek" into any Internet search engine brings up thousands of sites. Many of the identified URLs point to people's personal home pages, but some are legitimate companies that incorporate the term into their name, such as Beep-a-Geek, Rent-a-Geek or The Geek Factory.

Take Rent-a-Geek for example, an online listing service for technology professionals. "For most people in the computer industry, being called a geek is considered a badge of honor, rather than an insult," says Michael Godel, a self-proclaimed "programmer geek" for the service. "We chose Rent-a-Geek [as the company moniker] because it was catchy and because, despite the stigma supposedly attached to the name, the general public also associates 'geek' with people who are very knowledgeable and proficient in their areas of expertise."

Geek Philosophy

Feeling a little nerdy? Maybe a little unappreciated? There are people who understand. Find them at these Web sites that celebrate the geek image:

www.blackgeeks.net: a virtual community that seeks to unite engineers of color.

www.geek.com: entering this URL brings you to Ugeek.com, The Online Technical Resource. It features technology-related news, a technical glossary, games, equipment reviews and processor specs. Users can also join the community by establishing an e-mail address "@ugeek.com" or ordering a Ugeek T-shirt.

www.geek-girl.com: a site administered by self-proclaimed geek Jennifer Myers, previously a software developer, who uses the site to provide other computer users with helpful resources, including a UNIX reference desk, intrusion detection systems, a list of links to digitized sound clips and information for graduate students.

www.geekcentral.com: a mixture of software reviews, a shareware forum, humor and more.

www.geekchic.com: a humorous site dedicated to all things geek.

www.geeks.com: the creation of UNIX and network administrator Rob Fugina, this site showcases the author's personal and work-related interests, including information on Web and Perl development.

Paula Lipp is a former editorial manager of Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers magazine.

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