Hang around an IT department for any length of time, and you’ll start to recognize a few obvious types. I made this handy graphic to keep track of them all:
The graph measures two aspects of an IT Guy: his skill level (how good he as at his job) and his noise level (how eager he is to tell you so). If you could plot yourself on this graph now and five years from now and connect the dots, you’d definitely want the line to be sloping upward toward “more skilled”, but whether you’d want to be trending “louder” or “quieter” probably depends on your personality.
I’ve numbered the quadrants of the graph from 1 to 4. At the far corner of each quadrant is an IT Guy who embodies the very best and (depending on your perspective) also the worst of that quadrant. Most people aren’t that extreme, but it’s fun to write about extremes, so let’s take a look at four very extreme guys on the IT Guy Spectrum: the Alpha Dog, the Plugger, the Blowhard and the Sponge.
Quadrant 1: The Alpha Dog
The Alpha Dog cut his teeth on a Commodore-64, or maybe even a PDP-10. He used to manage a FoxPro database farm, he papers his house with expired Microsoft certifications, and you’re pretty sure you saw his name on the man page for at least one Unix command. But he’s not just stuck in the past: he’s an active open-source contributor, an automation apostle and a tie-dyed devotee of test-driven development, and he’s running preview versions of software that won’t be released for another three years. Oh, and his resume looks like a short history of computer science formatted by a drunk hamster, because he couldn’t care less what you think of his presentational skills. He’s good at what matters, and he knows it. And you know it. And he knows you know it.
An Alpha Dog doesn’t actually have to be old, but he gives the impression of having been around forever. His unique combination of experience and confidence (exponfidence?) makes him the resident expert on every technical topic (and plenty of non-technical ones, too). If you have a truly weird and difficult problem, the Alpha Dog will be even more interested than you are. He will use a lot of acronyms you don’t know and speak knowledgeably about server certificates. But woe betide you if you come to him with a stupid question! (In Alpha Dog terms, a stupid question is any question that can be Googled.) His scorn and impatience will leave you feeling sheepish and deflated, perhaps even upset. It’s useless to argue with him, however, because you know in your heart that he’s right. He’s ALWAYS right, dadgummit.
It’s best to have exactly one Alpha Dog in each IT department. Without an Alpha Dog, the rest of the office languishes in a slew of outdated device drivers and general malaise. But two Alpha Dogs cannot share the same corporate habitat. Desperate to prove their dominance, they will engage in brutal battles over design documents and change controls. Soon, one of them will find a better opportunity elsewhere. Alpha Dogs tend to move around a lot, which is probably one reason they’re so experienced.
Quadrant 2: The Plugger
God bless the Plugger. Unlike the Alpha Dog, this guy usually isn’t good at EVERYTHING. He’s not good at blowing his own horn, for instance. He’s just really good at the things he needs to do in his actual job. The Plugger stayed up late patching a server last night, but you’d never know it, considering he showed up early this morning to check his backup drives. He was the one who unjammed the office printer when corporate IT couldn’t be bothered. His manager swears by him, and yet his manager’s manager has never heard of him. In a word, he’s quiet. So as you might expect, he’s constantly overshadowed by the Alpha Dog.
But here’s the thing about Pluggers: they have this weird habit of sticking around. Long after the Alpha Dog has quit the corporate world to do consulting from a beach chair at $150 per hour, the Plugger is still at the same company, maybe even working for the same manager…or more likely, by now, leading a team of his own. And more often than you would think, just by virtue of being in the right place until the right time and never screwing anything up, the Plugger works his way through the corporate ranks all the way to the C-suite. He still doesn’t express as many opinions as the Alpha Dog, but you have to believe he knew what he was doing all along.
Quadrant 3: The Sponge
Let’s face it: the Sponge isn’t very good at his job. Maybe he’s fresh out of college, or maybe he’s on the back side of sixty and phoning it in on his way to retirement; he might be struggling to keep up with the pace of technological change, or he might just be kinda dumb. Whatever the reason, he’s clearly behind the skill curve compared to the other members of his team. His only saving grace is that he has no illusions about himself.
A Sponge is often one of the most likable people in the department. He’s laid-back, non-threatening and doesn’t take anything too seriously. If he struggles with a technical problem in the course of his work–and this happens multiple times a day–he doesn’t spend a lot of time stressing about it, since he knows he doesn’t have great troubleshooting skills and doesn’t expect he can solve the problem anyway. He just asks for help. And he knows just which quadrant to seek help in: Quadrant 2.
You see, Alpha Dogs have no patience for the Sponge. They consider him hopelessly incompetent and unworthy of attention. But the Plugger–who’s just as technically savvy as the Alpha Dog, remember–doesn’t seem to mind getting asked for help with basic technical tasks. In fact, Pluggers often spend the majority of their day cleaning up messes created in Quadrant 3, because the more help a Plugger is willing to give, the more the Sponge will cheerfully take. One Sponge can suck the productivity out of a whole lineup of Pluggers.
At least the Sponge is always REALLY grateful for help. He knows how to make you feel good when you do his work for him; he’s like the Tom-Sawyer-whitewashing-the-fence of IT. So he often rattles around in a large IT company for quite awhile before everyone loses patience with him.
Quadrant 4: The Blowhard
All the other quadrants have their redeeming qualities, either of skill or personality. But there’s not much to like about the Blowhard. He’s loud, overconfident, and doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about. He’s the first to complain when something goes wrong and the last to admit it was his fault. And when he gets a wrong idea into his stubborn head, no amount of reason or force is likely to dislodge it.
The Alpha Dogs and Pluggers can spot a Blowhard pretty well when they see one. The Alpha Dog typically reacts to the Blowhard’s pompous nonsense with rage and scorn; the Plugger prefers to retreat to his mental happy place and wait things out. But sometimes Blowhards develop a mysterious hold over the less-seasoned citizens of Quadrant 3. The Sponge doesn’t have enough knowledge, experience or creative thinking skills to see through the Blowhard’s bluster, so he hangs on his every word, mistaking confidence for competence and attitude for aptitude. A Blowhard leading a team of Sponges can do a lot of damage in a hurry, especially if they’re implementing systems or designing architecture. But if a Blowhard is fired (and he usually is, sooner or later), it’s not long before he pops up in another IT department across town, having successfully talked his way past a Quadrant 3 hiring manager who thinks he’s the greatest thing since five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks.
Again, most people don’t quite fit the extremes listed above. But where do you and your coworkers fit on the full IT Guy Spectrum? Has your position on the graph changed over time? Share your thoughts in the comments!