Once upon a time, geeks were the butt of jokes.
They were the kids in high school with the plastic pen holders in their vest pockets carrying brief cases. Their marks were always straight A's even if the strange language they spoke was C++. The closest these guys every got to athletics was wearing white hockey tape around the rim of their eyeglasses to cushion the bridge of their noses.
Oh, how times have changed! Geeks are the new cool. Step aside jocks: You're so 20th century!
We marvel at super-rich geeks like Mark Zuckerberg. We admire former geeks who go mainstream like Bill Gates and dedicate their later years to helping the less fortunate around the world. We laugh with -- no longer laugh at -- geeks in popular culture on hit TV shows like The Big Bang Theory. Geeks really are the new cool.
Geeks are now in every part of the economy, not just the traditional high-tech industry. Geeks are needed to build cars that park themselves. Geeks are needed for roughneck oilmen to find the best place to drill. Geeks are even needed by professional sports team for crunching numbers and keeping fans in touch via social media.
This past week, I attended the fifth annual Geekfest at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. Best-selling American author Neal Bascomb came, and talked about this geek cultural change as related to his runaway hit The New Cool. In it, Bascomb argues that our entire public school educational system in North America must change to better foster mentorship, intellectual competition, project teamwork, and passion for science, math, and technology.
His book chronicles the struggles and the exultation of a group of high school kids who worked through the night for almost six months to build a robot with 800 parts. It won an international science contest against 1,800 other competitors.
They were all geeks, Bascomb said, "and I never heard a complaint about the long hours, and the hard work. Passion fuelled them. Mentorship from a visionary teacher guided them."
Passion seems to be a common ingredient in geeks. As my boss, Geoff Flood, likes to say: "We really do believe, naively or not, that we can change the world."
At Geekfest, there were dozens of techies with cool ideas all vying for Top Geek with their working technology applications to help change the world, even if only incrementally at the start.
The winner (and recipient of $10,000 first prize) was Shawn Peterson with his App called Q-Time that crunches hard data and then electronically posts wait times in hospital emergency rooms. Not only does it tell anxious patients when they will get in to see a physician, but it also alerts healthcare professionals early to possible problems that can be addressed in terms of staffing, and other resources.
In his research, Peterson, a geek from Saint John, N.B., surveyed patients online and talked to healthcare professionals in person. He found that wait times were not the real culprit. "It's not knowing what the wait times are that's the real problem," he says.
What surprises me about Shawn's Q-Time is that with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on healthcare in Canada alone, why did no one came up with this before? After all, at any airport we can see planes' departure and arrival times. So why in emergency rooms can't something similar be available for patients and their families?
Shawn has taken real data in real time to create real value for society.
Maybe that's another characteristic geeks hold: They see things a little differently. It makes me wonder if Bobby Kennedy wasn't a geek at heart when he said: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" A geek couldn't say it better.