CXO

Turn the geek mix to 11: Cognitive diversity makes for a better IT shop

The idea that all developers, analysts, and architects think alike is a myth. The strongest IT shops have a generous mix of personality types.

Scene from The Big Bang Theory featuring (L-R) Kunal Nayyar (Raj), Simon Helberg (Howard), Jim Parsons (Sheldon), and Johnny Galecki (Leonard).
Image: Michael Yarish/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

At one time or another, you will encounter the stereotype that the world holds up for IT professionals. We are quiet, unobtrusive, geeky, act like the guys on The Big Bang Theory when we're not in the office, and we can be counted upon to fix our friends' and families' home computers.

And while it's true that this description fits some of us (probably even a lot of us), it by no means captures the reality of the IT personality. Our profession includes a vast range of personalities (as most professions do), and the truth is, we need the entire range to properly service the modern enterprise.

Red fish, blue fish

At its core, the human personality is driven by neurophysiology. We all are born with genes that give us a specific sensitivity to neurotransmitters. And upbringing matters: The families we were born into cultivated or discouraged certain behaviors that helped form our interests and aptitudes.

And stereotypes aside, bringing information to the world — which is ultimately our function in society — does not favor any one set of aptitudes or interests. While the essence of our profession does include certain universal traits — accuracy, efficiency, clarity — the wide range of aptitudes needed are beyond even Leonard and Sheldon.

Put simply, IT thrives when an IT department hosts a wide range of personality types. And that's a layer of complexity that's seldom appreciated.

Raging hormones

It comes down to this: We each perform best when we are given tasks that yield great satisfaction when we successfully complete them. That satisfaction differs greatly, within any IT department.

I am happiest in social computing; I am thrilled when I am successful in helping a company engage the greatest number of employees in effective solution-finding. Writing a decent chunk of code that does what it should is satisfying to me, but no more than, say, eating a bag of peanuts.

Similarly, some IT pros are happiest when an app or a service is properly secured; some find that perfect chunk of code, written in the fewest possible number of lines, downright titillating; and some of us just go nuts when we've written a stored proc that doesn't need tuning.

It all comes down to dopamine, the chemical in our brains that tells us we did well. And our dopamine receptivity differs, genetically and through experience. Matching the right person to the right reward is the smartest thing an IT manager can achieve.

Mind the gaps

Another huge component in intellectual diversity is that an IT shop that includes minds going in different directions is best equipped to fill in the gaps, when solutions are incomplete.

In the human dopamine range, there are two extremes: Clue Seekers and Threat Scanners. In solution-finding terms, this means there will be people in a diversified shop who are exceptionally skilled at coming up with effective solutions based on fragmented, incomplete input — Clue Seekers. At the other extreme will be those, very security-minded, who are great at spotting flaws, risks, and dangers — Threat Scanners. This is what any shop should want when putting together complex systems with many issues to be overcome. Individually, Clue Seekers and Threat Scanners can't get it done; together, they are unstoppable. And that's before we factor in all the people in between.

Final thoughts

Stereotypes are fun on television, but the real world is about deliverables. We deliver best when we appreciate and embrace that guy in the cubicle next to us who might be exasperating because he doesn't see it the same way. He makes us better.

Also read

Disclaimer: The Big Bang Theory airs on CBS. TechRepublic is a CBS Interactive property.

About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox