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The Working Geek

New Year’s Resolutions

by Andy Lester

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  Don’t be an Eeyore. Don’t be a Dwight. Andy offers these and other tips to make 2010 better in his monthly look at the working life of a techie.  

New Year’s resolutions are stupid. What was originally intended as a way to start new habits or set new goals has turned into a game. The idea of waiting until January 1st to change your behaviors is silly when you decide in mid-December you’re going to do exactly the opposite until the magic day. When we depart briefly from our new path on January 14th, we tell ourselves “Well, maybe I’ll do better next year,” and give up trying for another 352 days.

And yet any day is a good day to change bad habits or improve your work life. And the start of 2010 is as good a time as any. So here are some suggestions for the working geek. If you want to call them resolutions, that’s up to you.

Don’t Be an Eeyore

Winnie-the-Pooh’s donkey friend Eeyore always expected the worst to happen. What was charming and amusing in A. A. Milne’s books is annoying in today’s workplace. Eeyores always look bad.

Say you have a staff meeting where the boss asks everyone to stay an extra hour or two each night for the next two weeks to get some projects done before a big trade show. Nobody’s happy about it, but it’s the department Eeyore who says “Yeah, that’ll probably become standard even after the show.”

Maybe there’s an announcement that Christmas bonuses have been cut this year because of bad sales and the bad economy. It’s the Eeyore who mutters “Yeah, they’ll stay that way next year, too.”

It’s bad enough to think those things, because you’re not well-served by having a negative attitude in life. An Eeyore crosses over into career-damaging behavior by voicing these thoughts. Your co-workers don’t want to hear them, and your boss will peg you as having a bad attitude—and rightfully so.

Next time you feel the need to grumble about something at work, especially if it involves predicting the future, stop and shut up.

Improve All Your Written Communication

We live in email. We live on the Internet. The written word is how we’re judged. It only makes sense to expend some effort to make those written words, and the way in which they’re presented, as professional as possible.

Some people don’t take care with their online communication, justifying it with “Eh, it’s only email,” as if email is less important than other forms of communication. Whether or not you, as the sender, think that your words require care, that does not affect whether the recipient will share that view, nor does it affect how many people will see your mail.

Make spelling and capitalization a priority, especially with names of people. Use proper punctuation. Write complete sentences. Treat your email as if the entire world might see it, because that is a fact: anybody in the world might see it.

Revisit Your Résumé

A great place to start training your newly nitpicky eye is your résumé. You may never write anything that gets as much scrutiny, or upon which so much importance hangs. Check the spelling and capitalization of everything.

  • Perl, not PERL

  • AS/400, not AS 400 or AS-400

  • Photoshop, not PhotoShop

  • ColdFusion, not Cold Fusion

  • Red Hat, not RedHat or Redhat

  • PostgreSQL and MySQL, not Postgresql and Mysql

You may not think it matters much, but to aficionados it very well may. It also makes the reader question how well you know a technology if you haven’t yet absorbed its correct spelling. Visit the website of the technology in question to see how the people behind it spell it, and go with what they have.

While you’re scrutinizing your résumé, optimize it. Question the value of each word. Just as you have no extra code in your programs, have no extra words in your résumé. If a sentence is no better with a word, remove it. For example, instead of “Maintained build scripts written in Ruby,” drop “written” to leave “Maintained build scripts in Ruby.” Better still, “Maintained Ruby build scripts.”

Stop Being So Smart

We techies are an intelligent lot, and proud of it. Thing is, that pride often comes across as arrogant to those not steeped in geek culture.

If you’re familiar with Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” he’s a perfect example of the kind of geek who gives the rest of us a bad name. (And if you sniffed “The British one is better,” I’m especially talking to you.) No matter the topic, Dwight can best his co-workers in their knowledge of a given topic. He stalks conversations waiting for a time he can pummel his colleagues with the strength of his brain.

When you’re talking with your colleagues, both techie and not, consider how much mental muscle you really need to put into a conversation. I’m not suggesting playing dumb, but don’t be a know-it-all. When co-workers talk about a new movie, think about whether you need to launch into a detailed history of the book on which it’s based. Stand back from the conversation and ask yourself if you’re trying to add to the conversation or dominate it.

Actively Avoid Drama

There’s an old saying about how when you sling mud at someone else, you always get it on yourself. When it comes to interpersonal drama at work, it’s easy to get dirty from the mud-slinging, even if you’re not an active participant. Don’t fall into the trap of getting involved, even passively, in battles with or about co-workers. At best it’s a waste of time, and at worst you risk damage to your career.

Drama is often personal, with certain people or groups disliking people or groups. Do the programmers think the testing department is a bunch of no-talent whiners? Maybe it’s that Kim and Darryl used to be a couple but now they just glare at each other when they pass in the hall.

Sometimes the drama will be about the company itself. Which department’s manager is incompetent? Is there a revolt in accounting over HR’s new vacation rules? It’s all just noise, and none of it is helpful. Get involved with the griping and gossip and you could get pegged as a griper, too.

Starting today, decide that if someone comes to you with gossip or a gripe about someone else, or the company itself, you’ll leave the comment alone, without taking the bait and joining in. When someone at work starts badmouthing another department, say “That sounds frustrating” and change the subject. If it’s personal, a simple “I’ve never had that problem with her” should do the trick.

Monitor Yourself Online

Next time you apply for a job, the hiring manager is going to Google your name and see what she finds. Do you know what people say about you? About things you’ve written? You should.

Google Alerts is a fantastic little tool that I don’t hear people talk about enough. Google Alerts lets you enter a Google search once, and Google will update you whenever the Googlebot finds new matches for your search, often within only an hour or two of the page’s publication.

The most obvious Alert search is your name, as a phrase in double quotes, but that’s just the start. Here are some more ideas:

  • Your name ("Andy Lester")

  • Your nick ("petdance")

  • Your email address ("")

  • Your company’s name

  • Résumés related to your job market in your area of expertise (I have an alert for "résumé Perl Chicago" (but without the quotes))

  • Titles from blog postings you’ve made

  • Links to specific blog postings you’ve made using the link: syntax

Keep an eye on the results. It’s not vanity, it’s understanding your personal brand.

What Are You Changing?

Do you keep New Year’s resolutions? Are there bad habits you’re looking to break? I’d love to hear about them. Let me know at, or discuss them with me and other readers in the magazine forum, and I may include them in a future column.

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through résumés, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area.