Tracking geek migrations

Geeks flock to places of technological sophistication combined with practical innovations. They do not feed off places of basic research and the practice of pure science. Their pragmatic nature craves solving immediate problems with technological wizardry.

When geeks migrate from one place to another, they are giving us a sign of the next economy. Their read of the economic landscape tells them to move on and change how they are valuable. They transform themselves more easily than other professionals because their expertise is continually in flux. Life long learning is inherent in their chosen endeavor. It's their nature to stay ahead of the curve and get back there quickly if they fall behind it.

I got to thinking about geek migrations for the first time last month when I read: The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr. Back when the only motive power for factories was moving water, production facilities had to be located next to rivers and waterfalls. There were geeks of the day who designed, installed, troubleshooted and repaired water wheel "millwork". The sophistication of the gears, drive shafts and seals were beyond the skillset of the miller or weaver. As steam engines became available, factories got built away from rivers, but close to canals or railroad lines for shipping their production output. A new generation of geeks then came on the scene who fiddled with the new intricacies of steam engines and transmission systems through the factories. When electric motors entered production processes, the central power sources were eliminated along with the geeks who had kept them functioning. A new breed attended to the motors by each work station inside the factory and the generation of direct current electricity for the entire the factory. As the generation of electricity became consolidated by the inventions of AC power, high voltage transmission systems and enormous dynamos, yet another genre of geeks capitalized on those opportunities. But, in that last phase, it no longer took geeks to operate the workstations or to plug into the power outlet. The access and functionality became ubiquitous and pedestrian.

Nicholas Carr is suggesting the same pattern is being followed in the evolution of data processing. When there we're only mainframe computers, it took geeks to invent them, manufacture and service them. The large corporations, agencies and institutions needed geeks on their payroll to operate their mainframes on site. The advent of mini computers spawned a need breed who sat at a workstation all day generating CADD drawings, computer animations or other output from specialized application software. The PC broadened the applications and lowered the technological requirements to use them. Geeks migrated to IT Departments and software development firms. The current evolution of cloud computing replacing IT Departments suggests that geeks will soon be on the move again.

Another book I read last month shed even more light on the migration of geeks: Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0 by Sarah Lacy. Industry observers who date back before the collapse see patterns in the innovation. Startups are like breeding grounds for geeks to mingle, cross fertilize ideas and bring out the best in each other. The sophistication and refinements in their designs, interfaces, and coding makes the technologically sophisticated product/offering operate efficiently. The upgrade path involves few elaborate contortions and gyrations. All these fertile interactions persist until a fateful moment. The startup either goes public with an IPO, gets bought by a conglomerate or brings in some "executive talent" to manage the operations. In any case, the creative talent evacuates immediately. The geeks migrate to the next generation of startups.

So compared to the economic indicators I cautioned against using yesterday, geek migrations is a potentially far better indication of the next economy.

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