They are extremely bright and can make enormous contributions. Or they can be a CIO’s worst nightmare, as they can be obnoxious, arrogant, rebellious, antisocial, and have no regard for corporate protocol. Yet some CIOs would shrivel up in a corner and cry if they left for a better job.

I’m talking about tech “Einsteins,” a label authors John Ivancevich and Thomas N. Duening give IT visionaries in their new book, Managing Einsteins: Leading High-Tech Workers in the Digital Age (McGraw-Hill; $24.95).

So who are these Einsteins? They are professionals who thrive on solving problems and want to be revered for their accomplishments. This need for recognition doesn’t mean, however, that they strive for rapid ascension up the corporate ladder.

Characteristics of tech Einsteins
According to the authors, “Einsteins” are intelligent (in terms of logic, spatial relationships, systems, mathematics, and problem solving); computer-literate (knowledgeable about computers, programs, software, and hardware); and have an excellent work ethic (they will work until the problem is solved, product shipped, or service completed). Einsteins relish challenge (and frequently work nonstop until a problem is solved); are naturally curious (they thrive on experimenting, tinkering, fixing, and adapting); are fascinated by the intricacies and complex workings of technology; can be either introverts or extroverts (they lean towards introversion, but they also enjoy exchanging ideas with other Einsteins); and are reflective thinkers (they think before speaking and mull over problems).

In short, Einsteins are “smart, mobile, and dedicated more to the craft than certain classes of people,” Duening explained. They’re the type of colleague you don’t want to talk to unless you know what you’re talking about—an issue that can cause management headaches for CIOs that are not as tech savvy, the author added.

“Refrain from faking or trying to impress Einsteins,” Duening warned. “You will be considered a fake, a fool, and a phony. You risk losing credibility, which could be impossible to recoup.”

For example, Einsteins have their own slang, codes, and “unique tongues,” according to the authors. For example, can you identify what the following terms mean: BDU, “nine to five” code, SLIRK, lasagna syndrome, and “code 18”?

Here are the answers:

  • BDU means “brain dead user,” or simply someone who didn’t follow documentation and needs help.
  • A “nine to five” code is vanilla software that barely gets the job done.
  • A SLIRK is a smart little rich kid with great technical potential.
  • A lasagna syndrome is software with too many overlapping dialog boxes.
  • A “code 18” is an error made by a user sitting 18 inches from the computer screen.

If you wracked up a perfect score, you likely hang out with Einsteins, say the authors, which can be a gift if you are in a position to manage them. But that’s likely not the norm for most CIOs, especially those coming into the tech leadership role from the business arena.

Managing Einsteins
The best way to manage Einsteins is to understand their motivation and perspective. Einsteins often prefer to work uninterrupted and don’t welcome micromanagement. Motivating them “means taking advantage of their strong predilection for self-initiated activities. Einsteins are among the most self-motivated class of workers that has ever existed,” according to the authors.

The trick to motivating and managing them is to recognize the childlike quality often found in Einstein personalities, say the authors. Einsteins will check their egos at the door for the sake of enjoying the purity of the activity, and they usually don’t squabble about who is going to be the leader. That role is decided by who is best at which activity.

Einsteins have a propensity to be good team members and will contribute to the team project according to their skills. To create high-performing teams of Einsteins, authors Ivancevich and Duening offer the following five steps.

  1. Develop a priority list of clearly defined projects.
  2. Clearly communicate the projects to your Einsteins.
  3. Allow Einsteins to decide who will work on which project.
  4. Consult with the teams to establish relevant milestones.
  5. Monitor progress, provide support, and don’t micromanage.

The toughest part of working with and employing Einsteins is keeping them on staff. While they sometimes require a unique management approach, they’re highly in demand because of their intelligence and vision. The retention techniques proposed by the authors are not unique but work if consistently applied. For example, one piece of advice is making sure CIOs create the right type of job to match someone’s “skills, knowledge, and abilities.”

“Einsteins are less interested in having and retaining a position than other employees,” the authors explain. “Their lives revolve around projects. To Einsteins, the work environment consists of a never-ending stream of discrete projects. That means that Einsteins are goal-oriented and satisfied when accomplishing expectations. Most Einsteins don’t seek or want traditional career paths. Einsteins not only want to learn; they have an absolute hunger for it,” added Duening. “If your workplace does not provide it, they may satisfy this hunger at another firm,” he said.