Propeller Heads & Anoraks


I found this content that I used to use extensively when testing our internal mailing engine this morning. I cannot for the life of me remember where it came from originally, but it was at least 8 years ago or more that I started using it (I think). Anyway, if this is your content, no copyright infringement was intended, but it is a nice explanation of the difference between Propeller Heads & Anoraks.

Propeller Heads & Anoraks


Gifted But Sad

If yours is the kind of business where research and development, in-house IT or technical superiority play a crucial role in keeping your company ahead of the field, then it's more likely than not that you've got a number of propeller heads on your payroll already.

Propeller heads are the gifted people who understand, almost without thinking, any kind of technological development. The kind of person who can refine and redesign software and hardware in their head. The kind of person who not only understands bizarre concepts like object-orientation, but probably would have invented them if it hadn't already been done so already.

It Runs In The Family

When my father was four years old and attending his local primary school, the teacher told each pupil in the class to do a drawing. While the other pupils happily crayoned unflattering images of mummy and daddy, my father (and this is true) drew the circuit diagram of a single valve radio receiver. He is a classic propeller head!

Beer Is Food

Propeller heads live on a slightly different plane to the rest of us. Apart from food, warm beer and a place to live, they require mental nourishment in the form of problems, challenges, and puzzles. They get bored if they don't have something to tinker with. Even at home, it doesn't stop; the propeller head will find ingenious ways of modifying household goods to perform tasks that are not within that products original remit.

In short, propeller heads are essential to developing newer and better products; they live and breath to modify things. The motto "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" doesn't apply to them - they prefer "if it ain't broke, make it do something else".


Don't confuse a propeller head with an anorak or nerd. Believe it or not there is a significant difference. Well, in our book there is anyway.

An anorak adores gadgets and gizmos with almost frenzied excitement and will memorise specifications, model numbers, revisions and irrelevant Internet web addresses for fun. They will then bore all and sundry with that information whether it's wanted or not, while fondly imagining that they are a) terrifically interesting and b) appearing to be terribly knowledgeable and a guru of status (they aren't, as you probably know if you've ever met one at a party).

When asked to be creative, to invent or to develop products, the anorak is stumped. His (or her) ability stops at learning every trivial detail about other people's genius. The true propeller head has no need to remember specifications or revisions as they can work them out on the fly.

Making Contact With Mister Logic

It is said that propeller heads need a little TLC, a bit of tender loving care - don't shout at them. Underneath that logical, Mr. Spock-like exterior of every propeller head, lies a sensitive and sometimes childlike human being; you have to lavish them with praise and encouragement to get the best from them. However, the genius of the propeller head is also quite narrow in its focus, as James Fillis explains:

"They always claim that everything they produce is working but they never test anything. You have to do that. Don't make them do the testing or they get very resentful; they're much happier if you simply tell them what needs fixing, put them in a darkened corner and let them get on with it."

Books Are Boring

Making a propeller head write the documentation and perform the system test is a significant disincentive. They get bored easily. It could be a good way to constructively dismiss one though!

Protecting The Customer

Even the totally technical whiz kid flyer has to talk to customers from time to time; unfortunately that's just unavoidable. If you are really lucky, it'll be fine and they'll pull through. If you are unlucky they'll take a shine to it and want to talk to customers all the time!

Richard Buck of Progressive Computer Recruitment says: "Even the techies now have to be client-focused because the clients want to meet the people who'll be implementing their project. It's true that not all propeller heads enjoy it but many are starting to realise that seeing the bigger picture can be fun. And as a bonus, companies are tending to give recognition to their employees for being customer focused."

There's A Human In There Somewhere!

Despite the image propagated by the anoraks, many propeller heads are actually pretty good at human interaction - they simply have no interest in it whatsoever. Most will be quite happy to meet and greet the client but if mental stimulation of a technical nature is not quickly forthcoming, will retreat to their own thoughts at the soonest opportunity.

Keeping The Works Well Oiled

Propeller heads in permanent jobs often reach the pinnacle of their careers fairly early on, as their disinterest in management limits the typical career progression path in many companies. Also, once they have been established as "the expert" in a particular skill, many companies will put up resistance to letting them retrain or learn about newer technology. To overcome this, many turn to the pot of gold known as contracting.

Richard Buck says the contact market has changed over the last few years: "three years ago it was purely money-based; now it's very different. Many contract jobs offer some form of re-training in a new skill which is a big benefit; there's a lot of interesting work, it's varied and of course the money's good. In fact, permanent jobs are becoming like contract posts in as much as they often last for only a year or two - but the salary's less!"

And there are other benefits of being on contract, according to Buck: "one benefit for real techies on contract is that they don't have to get involved in company politics. Mind you, some coders don't notice what's going on around them anyway!"

Handle with care

Propeller heads are valuable but delicate. If you want to keep them dedicated, interested, and hard working, then put them away from noisy, unrelated areas of the business and make sure you feed their hunger for knowledge with plenty of the latest software and hardware. Don't make them do anything dull (i.e. non-technical) but do bring them out to meet the rest of humanity occasionally. In return, you'll have a happy and productive propeller head and you can get on with selling or using what they produce.

The End


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