Thumbnail image for geekCool.png

More than a dozen times in my career — as a consultant or an employee of an Information Technology (IT) department — I've heard the same refrain. Some IT executive would express a desire to "make IT cool."

I always viewed the executives who expressed this as a little misguided, both in the way they framed their objectives and the ways they navigated toward their aim. While I could articulate why they were likely to be unsuccessful, I was never able to offer a viable and easily understood alternative. Until now.

The Perplexity of Coolness

Ever since IT departments emerged from the back room of mainframes and card feeders and into the boardrooms of executive leadership and strategic imperatives, IT leaders have struggled to shake the image of taped glasses and social awkwardness.

This unquenchable desire has led to perplexity. IT executives have charged their directors with making IT cool as if being cool were something that could be achieved through affectation and adornment.

One of the first things that executives and project leaders do in this search for coolness is to take an existing IT system and put an aesthetically pleasing user interface (UI) on top of it. Putting a new coat of paint on a poorly thought out experience is like putting a leather jacket on the nerdiest kid in school. The jacket is not what separates the captain of the football team from those "lacking coolness."

So why is it that so many IT executives believe good design is a vehicle to coolness? It's the Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates effect. IT execs make the mistake of presuming that design is the thing that separated Jobs from Gates. But it isn't. What separated Jobs from Gates was more about domain than design. Each was a visionary in his own field, each one changed the world and each one was cool — in his own way.

Let Your Geek Flag Fly

If design is not vehicle to coolness, then what is? This is the solution to the perplexity — coolness is not a destination at all. Coolness, like happiness and fulfillment, comes from within. Coolness is a state of mind. We only have to look back to the helpful tips from our "tragically uncool" parents to know what actually works. Be yourself and have fun.

Be yourself. Look at the gang at Etsy, an e-commerce website focused on handmade and vintage items. These guys and gals are total geeks and love every minute of it. Being a geek is a badge of honor at Etsy. In fact, for the past three years, Etsy engineers have been regularly contributing to an engineering and coding blog. Code as Craft, started in 2010, allows engineers at Etsy to embrace their geekdom so fully that Etsy has become a "destination employer" for geeks and others who want to work with a team defined by their passion for their purpose.

Before you question if this is an affectation rather than a way of being, remember that Etsy took the big leap last year to become a certified Type-B corporation that balances the good of society against profits. Don't take this to mean that type B companies are the only ones that have the hope of becoming destination employers. It only means one step along the path to cool-city is embracing who you really are.

Work as Play

The work as play concept has been around for a few years. Now some companies are taking it to a whole new level. Take a look at social events companies like Living Social, Groupon, Yelp! and others. Work as play does not mean putting a ping-pong table or foosball table into your office (although some companies might indeed have these things). Work as play means finding a way to make the work fun. The social events companies listed above each work with their employees to find new and interesting social experiences in which they can participate.

Once again, don't take this to mean that you have to take your employees to the best sushi restaurants in your town to treat work as play. You just have to find the fun hidden within your business. Put on those wonder-colored glasses and remember that almost every job looks fun to a kid. For tech companies, tech is fun. For travel companies, travel is fun. For automotive companies, driving is fun.

Cool Doesn't Mean Aloof

James Dean is often referred to as the epitome of cool. Astute observers know, however, that despite his on-screen act of casual aloofness, the rebel without a cause was anything but uncaring. Dean, one of the earliest students of method acting, cared so much about his craft that he found it hard to separate his roles from his life. Creating a cool development shop does not mean anyone has to race a car off the side of a cliff. It only means that your shop has to have a sense of pride in the quality of the deliverables it creates and has fun making them.

Title image by Brian Fanzo (