Tales From The Geek Gap

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True Tales from The Geek Gap:

"Kmart Sucks!"

In 1995 Kmart Corp. assigned Rod Fournier to create its new Web site. His qualifications were a) he was a system architect whose just-completed shipping and receiving project saved Kmart millions, and b) he had created a personal web site, showing pictures of his family and pets. Today, a major corporation would never hire an amateur to create its web site, but Kmart's management was not yet taking the Internet seriously. It was a lesson they were about to learn the hard way.

The site Fournier made included a link to his personal site, concealed in a period. Kmart says this violated its no-links-to-personal-sites policy, while Fournier says all his work--including the link to his home site--was approved by a committee. In any case, his personal site included a link with promises of salacious content. It led to an apparently explicit picture mostly obscured by a large black square reading "CENSORED." Whether this was offensive or just funny is a matter of opinion, but it wasn't in keeping with the corporate image that Kmart sought to convey. When Kmart execs discovered that page, they fired Fournier.

More than slightly miffed, Fournier went home and created the site "Kmart Sucks" which recounted his firing and invited others to post gripes about the chain. Unfortunately for Kmart, when it fired Fournier, it lost its employee who best understood the Internet, so he was able to register Kmart Sucks so as to come up first on search engines--ahead of the official company site created to replace his. It became a symbol for David-and-Goliath triumph over major corporations everywhere.

In the end, both sides lost. Fournier, whose wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, was out of a job. Kmart suffered a PR black eye that took years to live down. Each says the other should have known better. But the real culprit was the Geek Gap--the culture clash that kept each side from seeing the other's point of view.

"Man Goes Berserk!"

In March 2000, Internet Trading Technologies, Inc. (ITTI), a New York City provider of Internet trading--which carries a significant portion of NASDAQ trades--suffered a devastating series of computer attacks that crashed its system for hours at a time. Each time the company got the system back up, it would crash all over again a few hours later. After several days of this, the Secret Service stepped in and traced the attacks to a computer at Queens College.

Sitting at that computer was Abdelkader Smires, an ITTI employee who lent new meaning to the term "disgruntled." The day before the attacks began, he'd walked off the job after negotiating for a $70,000 bonus, $50,000 in additional stock options, and a raise. The odd thing was he had gotten all three.

Why, the press wondered, would someone respond to an offer of much more money with a cybercrime attack that landed him in jail? "Man Goes Berserk" said one headline. But a bit of history is revealing: ITTI had recently fired its chief development officer then refused to give the severance he asked for. The chief development officer--Smires' mentor--abruptly walked off the job. ITTI hired outside consultants to fill the void, and expected Smires to train them. It was this leverage--he held the knowledge of how the system worked--he used to negotiate his lavish compensation package.

But it didn't work, because it was never about the money. No amount of cash could make Smires feel OK about betraying his former teacher. Why couldn't he make this clear? Why couldn't his bosses figure it out without his saying so? The answer is the Geek Gap.

"Take Off Your Engineer Hat."

The Shuttle Challenger launched on January 28, 1986, after a night when temperatures dipped into the twenties, a most unusual occurrence in Florida. The shuttle's solid rocket boosters, built by Morton Thiokol, were made in segments and sealed together by rubber O-rings. The rings turned brittle in the cold, and the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight. Many factors contributed to this national tragedy, among them the hubris of a space agency that had never seen a shuttle mission fail, and reluctance to cancel the flight for a third time. But the Geek Gap played a part as well.

Late the night before the accident, Thiokol executives and engineers discussed whether to recommend going ahead, as NASA was pressuring them to do. The engineers insisted that launching in cold weather was too great a danger. Ultimately, four Thiokol vice presidents had to decide; three wanted to launch. The holdout was the VP of Engineering. One of the others told him, "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat." He relented, and the flight was approved.

Some have since questioned whether this comment was coercion. No one, however, questioned the underlying assumption, so let's question it now: Why would an engineer and a manager, working for the same company on the same project not want the same things? Wouldn't both want the company to be successful? Wouldn't both dread a space flight catastrophe? The assumption that they would not is the essence of the Geek Gap.

The business managers thought the engineers were insisting on absolute certainty--that they couldn't judge what might be an acceptable risk. The engineers did not have the relationship with their bosses that would have led their judgment to be accepted unconditionally. Neither side trusted the other. And this, too, is why Challenger went down.

Victim of the Geek Gap: Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla invented radio transmissions and claimed he could build devices to transmit electrical power through the air. He also invented the AC current we use today.

His contract with George Westinghouse guaranteed he'd be paid for every watt sold. But when Westinghouse fell on hard times, Tesla tore up the contract in a foolish gesture of good will. He could have simply negotiated a delay or reduction in payment, and become rich when Westinghouse prospered. Instead, he died in poverty, alone in a hotel room.

Victim of the Geek Gap: Charles Babbage

Mathematician Charles Babbage designed the world's first computer in 1834. But he never managed to build it. He had spent $17,000 worth of the British government's money (over $350,000 in 2005 dollars according to the Consumer Price Index) on an earlier calculating device called the Difference Engine, but squabbled with his engineer and wound up junking the project. When he asked for funds to build the computer--which he called an Analytical Engine--the government understandably told him to get lost.

The Analytical Engine was never built, and Babbage is credited with setting back the development of computers by 100 years.

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