CXO

Laws of technical management: Member feedback

This week, Bob Artner highlights a few of your posts from a couple of recent columns and shares his thoughts on each post.


As someone who wrote for print publications before moving to online publishing, I’m often asked for the biggest difference between the two forms. That’s easy: The biggest differences in writing for a Web site and for print are the amount and immediacy of reader feedback. When I wrote an article for a magazine or print newsletter, I’d be lucky to get two or three letters in the mail. Writing my column here at TechRepublic invariably produces a number of different kinds of response. First, I can get page view statistics to see how many of you actually looked at the piece. Second, you can rate the article on our 1-5 scale (and I can tell you that all of us here at TechRepublic look at the ratings very carefully. The difference between a 4.5 and a 2.5 rating can make or break our day!)

Last but not least, you can post a comment to the discussion for each column. I go to the discussion center for the first three or four days after every column goes up, and I read every post. I’m continually impressed by the thoughtfulness of many of the posts I see there each week. I know from member surveys that many of you view the comments to articles to be as valuable as the articles themselves. I know I do.

So this week, I want to do something a little different. I want to highlight a few of your posts from a couple of recent columns. Then I’ll give you my thoughts on each post. Hopefully, this will give you some more insight into the topics of the original columns.

As I said, let me know what you think of this experiment. If you like it, we’ll do it every couple of months. If you don’t, we’ll do it every couple of years.

Of hedgehogs and foxes
Let’s start with the column I wrote about technology hedgehogs and foxes. In that column, I was pointing out that most IT managers typically fell into one of two categories: hedgehogs (specializing in a single technology) or foxes (technology generalists). When planning your career, I argued, it’s important to recognize which you are and to plan accordingly.

Among the many interesting responses to that article was this one from Wilson Meng:

A database veteran once remarked to me and I find very true the following saying: "The first coupl’a years, you focus on the tech. The remaining years, you focus on the industry."
When people first came out of school, they tend to be more interested in technology and how to apply it. Over the years, as they mature, they would know more and more about the technology, and hence need to spend relatively less time to absorb new changes. They could then spend the extra effort to understand the workings of their sector; what drives it and how technology is applied to it as well as where new technology can be applied to make it run better.


What I liked about this response was that it introduced a new dynamic into the equation. When talking to IT managers, you often hear they feel split between technology issues and general management issues. Wilson Meng points out that the real division should be between specializing on a particular technology and specializing in how technology affects the particular industry you work in. It’s a great insight.

What about the needs of the organization? Do companies prefer foxes or hedgehogs? Several of you tried to answer that question, and I liked the way ethan@instockinc.com put it:

Hedgehogs prefer to wear one hat; they know "one big thing." Hedgehogs thrive in large corporate environments, not foxes.
With all companies, regardless of size, you must adapt or die. However, large companies can go ten years with their heads planted firmly in the earth before the organization "suddenly collapses"
around them. A small company has between 3 months and a year. Obviously, this is a gross generalization, but there is truth to the matter.

All companies need foxes, but not all companies need hedgehogs. They can be a bit prickly when changes come around (sorry, couldn't stop myself). The worst situation a fox can be in is working for a large company, required to do the same job day in, day out, while watching the company self-destruct, knowing how to help fix it, and not being allowed to do anything about it. The worst situation a hedgehog can be in? In charge of a company that is already falling behind the curve and doesn't have the general knowledge to know how to proceed.
Adapt or die. Foxes adapt naturally; hedgehogs need to be dragged kicking and screaming.
The real question is not whether you are a fox or hedgehog, but what percentage you are of each. It's all well and good to pigeonhole, but keep in mind that people aren't pigeons.

I think he’s probably right to say that hedgehogs can survive more easily in a large organization than a small one. If nothing else, large companies tend to have lots of legacy applications that require specialized knowledge. That’s one reason why COBOL programmers tend to work for large, well-established companies—new ones never wrote anything in COBOL.

However, I’m not sure I buy his assertion that while all firms need foxes (generalists), not all firms need hedgehogs (specialists). While it’s true that smaller companies are more likely to require their IT staff to wear several hats, it’s a very rare company, regardless of size, that doesn’t have at least some specialized technology requirements—and hence a need for a hedgehog.

Finally, I was struck by one fact about the posts. Almost invariably the poster referred to himself or herself as a technology fox. In my article, I tried to point out that each approach was valid and depended on the nature of the individual. I would have liked to hear from more hedgehogs. However, as a couple of people pointed out, perhaps the very fact that you moved into IT management in the first place tends to mean you’re a generalist (or that it turns you into one).

My prognostications about the future of the PC
One of the interesting things about writing a column is that you can sometimes meet all your goals and still feel like you failed to get your point across. For an example of what I mean, look at my column "Hello ‘real’ PC, good-bye support techs?" It got a lot of traffic and a rating of 4.2 on our 1-5 scale. (In case you were curious, we consider anything higher than a 4.0 to be very good). The piece also generated more than 40 posts, some of them extremely articulate.

And yet I still feel that I missed the boat with that piece. I’ll tell you why. My purpose in writing that column was to show that you need to be looking at technology trends in your industry and area of expertise, to make sure that your job doesn’t become obsolete.

As an example, I tried to speculate would happen to PC support techs if the industry ever was able to produce a personal computer that was as a reliable and easy to use as a telephone. In that case, I argued that companies would stop hiring support techs to diagnose and fix PC problems—they would just ship the unit off for repair, take a spare out of the utility closet, and plug it into the network. In other words, the vast majority of support techs could find themselves out of work.

My point was that every IT professional should occasionally do such “what-if?” scenarios to see what dangers to job security could be coming down the pike. The “real PC” example was just meant to show how to do such scenario planning.

Unfortunately, the majority of the folks who posted to the article choose to dwell on the example, and whether or not PC support techs were in a career dead end.

Most of you who posted to the article didn’t buy my scenario. In other words, you don’t think support techs are going to disappear any time soon.

Others, like Fly Fish Ed, believe that support techs will survive in the future by concentrating less on hardware issues and more on software issues, which aren’t going away:

I remember at the release of Windows 95 someone asking me, "With it being easier and everything plug-and-play, are you going to be needed anymore?" I think we all realize that never came to happen.
Good point in just swapping out the machine, similar to the phone, yet even with business class phones, there is still so much functionality that the questions still arise, and I doubt that any UI, Microsoft or other, will ever be completely intuitive.
Will the tech support role change? Yes. With the advent of low-cost terminals that can be easily swapped, it will mean less hardware knowledge and more software knowledge as the needs of the users change.

For what it’s worth, I agree that software problems will still be with us, and that means some degree of job security to the people who answer software questions. However, I think that is likely to be the central help desk, and not the men and women who visit your office or cubicle and troubleshoot your problem.

Finally, some of you did agree with the basic thrust of my example. As several posts make clear, like this one from Applesauc, that future could look a lot like the recent past:

My IT background originated in the mainframe world of "dummy terminals." Talk about true "plug and play" technology. If the terminal broke, you swapped it out for a spare and life went on for the
end user. Downtime: time it took to unplug one and plug another in, 2 seconds and a 5 minute wait for me to grab the spare out of the closet. At times I would give my right arm to have that little interaction with my users again. For the reality of a one-person computer department is lack of resources for all those time-consuming desktop "issues." I'm too busy most of the time fixing the "flaky" apps that run our businesses. Or fighting outside attacks of various flavours. And putting on endless patches and upgrades galore. At the current time, "thin clients" would be an asset. However when we were in our mainframe little world, I had time to hold down a full time accounting job and run the network at the same time. Now I'm just holding down the IT job and working 20 more hours a week (a good week) than I did before.


Some of the posts were about the bigger theme of the article: looking at technology trends as a guide in your career planning. Stevep@fidlar.com made a good point with his post, showing that even if the technology changes, the nature of his job stays the same:

I feel the key is not to try and predict the future (though keeping one’s eyes open is always a good idea). The key is to solve problems.
The work I do today is vastly different than the work I did just five years ago. I assume it will change at least as much in the next five years. And yet I am really doing the same thing. I solve problems. No matter how much technology is simplified (now there’s an oxymoron), there will still be problems that need to be solved. The key is being known as a problem solver. At our office we are reminded to LERS (Listen, Empathize, Reassure, Solve) each customer’s problem. While LER is good customer service, SOLVE is what is most remembered.
Being a good problem solver always makes one employable. Don’t lose sight of the horizon, but don’t make it your main focus.

It’s a valid point. However, technology skills obsolescence is real, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.

So there you have it. These two columns generated a lot of enthusiastic responses, with real insights into the problems IT managers face. I enjoy reading them each week, and hope you do as well.

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