King of the geeks

As James Mathewson moves from editor to editor at large, he contemplates the changing technology scene, as well as the road ahead.

My brother Steve bears a striking resemblance to me. (Sorry, Steve; it’s true.) People are forever calling me Steve at the office. Strangely, no one calls him James by mistake. That’s probably because I’m the geeky brother and he’s more socially skilled.

You might have recognized Steve’s name from ComputerUser’s masthead: he is a former production manager and art director for the publication. Steve has consistently reminded me what it’s like to have me for a brother. I try to take everything he says as a compliment anyway. Most of his good-natured ribbing relates to my having so much more of the geek gene than he does. I don’t mind all that is associated with that gene. Ultimately, it’s that gene that allowed me to become known as the king of the geeks.

I should say I was the king of the geeks. After the August issue, my role with ComputerUser will change from editor to editor at large. When I return to civilian life, it will be as geek emeritus.

In my tenure as king of the geeks, I have seen the rise and fall of geekdom. When I started in 1997, computer technology was just starting to drive the economy. Productivity was surging and every company wanted to get more out of their people through ambitious information technology initiatives. The trend peaked in 1999, when the Web and Y2K were stacked on top of productivity on most information architects’ plates. Suddenly, being a geek had a lot of cachet.

Three things happened in 2000 that pulled the bottom out from under geekdom. First, Y2K issues were remediated. The lasting effects of this continue as a lot of executives feel they were swindled by their information architects. Right or wrong, many CFOs believe that we wasted a lot of money preparing for Y2K. Second, most of the machines that were upgraded in 1999 and 2000 for Y2K still maximize worker productivity, changing the typical lifecycle demand for new PCs from two years to four years. Third, the bursting of the dot-com bubble reduced the urgency on Web development whether your company name had .com in it or not. While the Web is still a critical piece of every information technology puzzle, it no longer is the central piece that holds everything else together.

Any one of these events would have caused industry growth to slow down. The three of them together put the computer and Internet industries into a tailspin. Because these industries had been driving the whole economy, recession hit. In the depths of recession, we had 9/11. Then scandal hit the equity markets and panic set in. We are just starting to recover from widespread panic mode, which is characterized by very conservative corporate investment and the buzzword of the ’00s–consolidation.

I need not give you this history lesson except for one truth: It is remarkable that our economy is as strong as it is considering all that has happened since March of 2000, when the Nasdaq crashed under the weight of the three trends mentioned above. Profits are up. Productivity is at an all-time high. The stock market is once again on the rise. It seems only one number accurately reflects how tough it is out there–unemployment. At over 7 percent and climbing, our economy is thriving at the expense of middle-class workers. Productivity is a double-edged sword: When companies do so much more with so much less, jobs become scarce. The irony is, the very people who have helped companies improve employee productivity are needed even less than the employees themselves.

Over the past several months, we have received a string of letters from highly qualified information architects who have been out of work for so long they are considering drastic measures, such as starting over on a new career path. I have responded to these letters with sympathy. Senior Editor and Career Advisor columnist Elizabeth Millard and I have given dozens of these folks advice on skillsets they could train for to help their prospects.

One of these readers scolded me by reminding me that it’s easy for me to have sympathy when I have a job. “I suspect your situation is much better than mine,” he said. Well, as I join the ranks of unemployed technology professionals, this criticism is no longer valid. I am truly one of you. As the old sign of geekdom was security, the new sign of geekdom is unemployment. Now the question is not, “What should you do?” but “What will I do?”

One of my options is to go back to school. As I edited the Back to School issue you hold in your hands, it never occurred to me that I would need the very advice I was helping to dispense. I was completing a second master’s degree in scientific and technical communication when I took this job. In fact, I was hired the day of my preliminary exam. After passing, I told my advisor, Billie Whalstrom at the University of Minnesota, that I had been hired into a very demanding job. “As long as you’re editor,” she said, “you will not finish your thesis.” And she was right. Well, perhaps it’s time for me to finish that thesis after all.

Another option is to change fields, as so many of our letter writers have contemplated doing. Another brother of mine (Tom, second of five brothers) suggested I branch out as a writer into all the areas that occupy my spare time. I already write a lot of adventure travel pieces for our local city magazine and business pieces for our regional business publication. “Why not write more stuff on baseball, fishing, jazz, or scotch whiskey?” he asked. As tempting as that may sound, I suspect I’m too much of a geek to make a good living as a generalist.

I’m living proof that people who ignore their geek gene do so at their own peril. As soon as I acknowledged it, my career turned around, and I’m not about to give up on that now. As I advise others to hang in there with IT and branch out within the field, I too will hang in there. I will continue to write a variety of articles for ComputerUser, including cover stories and executive Q&As. The biggest change will come in my monthly column. Instead of writing Insights–a front-of-book editor’s note that points readers to the content within the magazine, I will write Outfitter–a back-page column devoted to the adventures readers might take when they’re finished with the magazine.

As editor for two swings of the tech pendulum, my geek gene has taken me full circle. As editor at large, I look forward to the pendulum swinging back to the days when geeks ruled the world.

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