Yesterday’s post mentioned alpha geeks, so I thought they should be the rightful stars of my April Fools Day essay. Through expert salesmanship, the alpha geek meme has gone viral and become a badge of honor for a particular technological elite. I think the alpha geek is a marketing gimmick that will behave like an economic bubble. And the end is near.
Credit for coining alpha geek goes to Tim O’Reilly. In an insightful 2002 essay Inventing the Future, he defined the term as:
hackers who have such mastery of their tools that they “roll their own” when existing products don’t give them what they need.
Although the meaning of hacker is ambiguous and controversial, I’m sure O’Reilly intends the flattering “expert programmer” sense:
one who knows a (…) set of programming interfaces well enough to program rapidly and expertly. This type of hacker is well-respected (…), and is capable of developing programs without adequate planning…
O’Reilly asserts that alpha geeks provide early radar and valuable insights into the computer industry’s future:
The alpha geeks are often a few years ahead of their time. They see the potential in existing technology, and push the envelope to get a little (or a lot) more out of it than its original creators intended. They are comfortable with new tools, and good at combining them to get unexpected results.
What we do at O’Reilly is watch these folks, learn from them, and try to spread the word by writing down (or helping them write down) what they’ve learned and then publishing it in books or online.
This is brilliant strategy for O’Reilly Media, whose main business is publishing for geeks. As customers and suppliers, geeks constitute a large part of the O’Reilly ecosystem. Promoting alpha geeks as an elite class makes great sense. O’Reilly can hire the best of the elite to write books, lead online communities, and speak at conferences. The elite will feel smug and customers will guzzle the media. It’s a win-win proposition: harness collective intelligence to tap the mother lode of IQs above 140. Get the crowds to do the heavy lifting.
But how much value does this strategy provide for those outside the O’Reilly geek ecosystem? Less than meets the eye. Let’s analyze the value from investor, executive, and non-geek consumer perspectives.
Do alpha geeks provide useful radar for investors? By starting a venture capital fund, Tim O’Reilly thinks so. No doubt he has enjoyed a modicum of success in alpha geek ventures. Other venture capitalists (VCs) seem to be steering clear of the geek space, as evidenced by their limited participation in O’Reilly conferences. Simply put, if alpha geeks were such hot stuff, wouldn’t VCs be crawling all over them at conferences? I haven’t seen any VC swarms and below I present several reasons why not.
Executives know that customers, not geeks, drive their business. Alpha geek skills may occasionally help further specific objectives in the enterprise. But from a Fortune 500 CIO’s perspective, most geek behavior, and especially that of the alpha variety, is foreign and unwelcome. What’s more, the geek’s penchant for “developing programs without adequate planning” conflicts with the emphasis on teamwork that prevails in successful IT shops. In short, alpha geeks are viewed as nothing more than a necessary evil in a large corporation. (Google may be an interesting counterexample.)
Consumers desire cool products like iPods. Do products of such scope and scale spring straight from the minds of geeky individuals? Nope (again, Google might be an exception). Almost any large technology project requires substantial resources, processes, and value networks. Geeks say, “leave me alone and I’ll write the code.” In my experience, a good product or invention is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for success. Standing alone, few alpha geeks possess the full range of skills to deliver sophisticated products to a consumer audience.
What’s the outlook? The alpha geek meme will behave as an economic bubble, comparable to 17th century tulip bulbs. Thanks to Web 2.0 mania, alpha geek skills are overvalued, but the likely upcoming economic recession will bring the value down to earth. Lacking strong strategies or business models, many alpha geek web 2.0 ventures will fail, just as web ventures perished when web 1.0 crashed. The alpha geeks will crash and burn along with those ventures.
Are you feeling lucky? You could bet against this prediction by starting your own geek venture fund as O’Reilly did. Just don’t call on me to invest.