Contraxiums Really Grind My Gears

Our newest reading in The Geek Leader’s Handbook, by Paul Glen and Maria McManus, is about contraxiums. If you have never heard of a contraxium, fear not, for it is a made up word.

Contraxium noun. A matched pair of contrasting axioms that give rise  to vastly different world views.

What gives Maria and Paul the right to make up words? Well if Shakespeare and Dr. Suess can make up words like ‘Bedazzled’ and ‘Yuzz-a-ma-tuzz’ then I guess ‘contraxium’ is OK.

Paul and Maria spend a considerable amount of time describing the seven main contraxiums that geeks and non-geeks have. As I read the book, I felt something growing inside. Anger. White hot. Geeks and non-geeks differ in their understanding of work, future, knowledge, language, lying, good-vs-evil, desire. With every contraxium I read my rage increased ten-fold.

I wasn’t angry because they lied. I was angry because they told the truth. Do you know what it’s like to have a total stranger living inside your head? It’s not fun.

Freakin’ Paul Glen, Living in my head rent free

If I was ever on the fence about being a geek, this chapter on contraxiums has clarified that. Every geek-sided contraxium mentioned was a situation I have lived. The accuracy of this chapter was scary. Take the contraxium about work. For geeks, work is about solving problems. Non-geeks think work is about achieving a vision. I see this most clearly when talking about planning and requirements gathering. Here is a quick video showing the work contraxium in action:

This is so accurate it hurts

The expert in this video is trying to stop the client from wasting their time planning an impossible product; however, his colleagues only see him as rude and unaccommodating. This is such a common problem in requirements gathering that when I googled “requirements gathering tricks,” the first link contained a tip to avoid this (tip 8). The tip finishes with the phrase, “Remember: requirements are about the WHAT, not the HOW.”

Sit back, relax, and I will give you a concrete example of the work contraxium in action. My first semester at Greenville I was in a class called Applied Lab in IT. I joined late, so my group and project had already been chosen. I was to design and build a video game. You are probably thinking, “Cool! What a fun and engaging project.” The only thing I was thinking was: “How do you build a video game? Does anyone in my group have experience doing that? Is Mario the red or green one?”

I enter the first planning session with my group and it is clear that I have the most technical experience in the group. Not surprising, since I had taken an apprenticeship with lots of on the job training and so I knew how difficult this project was going to be. My group launches into their ideas. “A robot fighting game,” one cowboy said. “With customizable skins.” yelled a volleyball player named after Malibu, California.

At first, I was eager to join in. After all, who doesn’t dream of designing their own video game? Within minutes, my attitude had shifted. The list of requirements/features we wanted had grown almost as tall as the volleyball player (and definitely taller than the business nerd in our group). I started to intervene.

“I don’t think we will have time for multiplayer,” I said. “We can’t make implement secure transactions, so we shouldn’t have an in-game store” I pleaded. “Have you guys done any android development!?! No! Then we shouldn’t make an app!!!” Before long I had whittled the requirements down to the most basic, boring game imaginable. One guaranteed to get us an A+ but also guaranteed to bore our players to death.

In hindsight, I wish I would have allowed the team to brainstorm some more. It is possible that we could have come up with a game that was fun and technically achievable. Instead, I allowed my contraxiums to hold me back. I realize now that it takes both viewpoints to make an incredible product. Steve Job’s once said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” We need builders and dreamers alike. Dreamers (non-geeks) push us to achieve impossible things, while builders (geeks) find a way to get us close one brick at a time.