I started my career in the trenches of corporate IT slinging code in a dark corner of a cubicle village, gradually working my way through ERP implementations and project management to my current consulting role — so I have seen all levels and all shapes and sizes of corporate IT departments. From the trenches to the C-suite, there are some unsavory aspects of corporate IT that I have come to detest. Here are the highlights.
1: Using defensive jargon
At all levels of IT, technical jargon is often deployed as a defense mechanism. Box an IT person into a corner, whether it's the CIO or the most junior programmer, and rather than admit they were wrong or have no idea what you're talking about, they'll start spouting off impressive-sounding technical terms, abbreviations, and jargon-laced pontifications. The most respected people in IT I have worked with can articulate a complex technical, process, or business problem in simple, understandable terms, not the other way around.
2: Not developing leaders
Corporate IT tends to promote people with technical skills, bulk up its teams, and then act surprised when it fails, a methodology akin to finding someone who plays decent basketball at the local street court and plopping them into an NBA game without any additional coaching. Yes, I've heard all the excuses about how times are tight and there are no staff-development budgets. But you really can't afford not to develop leaders and effective managers, and the best are coached and groomed. They're not just born that way.
3: Focusing on the wrong "customer"
We've all heard the cute little term "the customer" bandied about in our IT shops. When you go looking for this "customer," you're pointed toward someone over in accounting or marketing, not an actual consumer of the company's products. Guess what? Even IT is part of the core business of the company and has just as much claim on delighting the real, cash-in-hand consumer rather than being delegated to the role of an internal order taker. Sure, you're going to need a deep knowledge of your company, its products, and its markets, and an ability to speak in technical and business terms to play in this space. But if you don't want to be an internal order taker, stop talking and acting like one!
4: Living like a cactus
I'm not talking about the low-maintenance plant on the admin's desk. I'm talking about the prickly, ornery guy or gal a few cubicles over, who always has more work than anyone else, a surfeit of snide remarks about those "idiots" in management, and a long tale of woe and persecution that would make Jesus, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela's combined struggles sound like a stubbed toe. For some reason these people never seem to be let go, and like a cactus they survive round after round of economic drought. I have yet to determine if they have lurid photos of the CEO or their one redeeming quality is an innate ability for self-preservation, but I usually don't spend enough time around them to find out.
5: Celebrating disorganization
This is not unique to IT, and we have all interacted with someone who never responds to e-mail or voicemail, then proudly proclaims, "I have over 6.8 million unread emails in my inbox!" This same person tends to show up for meetings 15 minutes late, pontificates endlessly rather than attempting to resolve a problem or share critical information, then assigns responsibilities and actions related to the outcome. Everyone gets too much email and has too many meetings, and if you don't have a methodology to deal with your various inboxes, it is just as bad as not knowing how to dress appropriately for a day at the office. Request training, read the excellent book Getting Things Done, or ask your peers for help. No organization should let people celebrate their inability to perform basic organizational tasks that are the foundation of working in a modern IT department.
6: Condescending consultants
Most IT departments have whole offices full of "hired help," from contracted technical specialists to high-end management consultants. As someone who occupies this profession, I have high standards for how consultants should interact with their client company and cringe when I see what I consider one of the worst behaviors, save for dishonesty: condescension. I hate seeing consultants swagger into a client site, with their mouth open and ears closed, interrupting every explanation of the client's business model or problem with, "Well, when I was at Client X, we did..." This type of consultant doesn't need to hear your problem before having the solution and does a poor job explaining how it will actually help, other than implying "I'm the consultant and I'm smarter than you."
This is the corporate equivalent of that annoying and classless coworker who arrives every Monday morning and berates you with tedious stories of his or her "conquests" over the past weekend. As consultants, we're obviously paid for our past experiences, but more important, we're paid to listen and provide our client with a solution or steps for arriving at a solution. Dropping names and framing every challenge facing a client in terms of a past experience does little to build credibility and usually causes the very people paying your fee to tune you out.
7: Unrealistic estimates
There seems to be an unwritten rule that some people in IT management will promise a wildly unrealistic, shortened timeframe to implement a system or process, then the people actually doing the work will provide a wildly pessimistic estimate. After rounds of back-and-forth negotiation, several missed deadlines and stress on all parties, the system is implemented in what would have been a reasonable amount of time if only everyone was honest with their estimates. We all know developers who will pad estimates, just as there are managers who cut all estimates in half in an attempt to weed out this fudge factor or impress their superiors, creating an arms race of sorts. With a bit of honesty from all parties, and prioritization of tasks (not everything can be a number one priority), this could be eliminated to the benefit of all parties.
8: "Wet noodle" middle management
I already mentioned a lack of leadership development as one of my main concerns with corporate IT. What results from lackluster leadership development is "wet noodle" management. Most of us have worked for a manager who is a wet noodle; he or she bends to the slightest whims of the most forceful person in the room, refuses to make any decision, and avoids helping his or her team develop and grow their strengths, since helping someone identify their strengths and weaknesses might be a bit too pushy. Wet noodle managers may think they're everyone's friend, since they live not to offend. But in reality, working in an environment where management has no backbone and does not help high-performers creates a low-performing and indecisive environment where everyone suffers.
9: Broken compensation systems
No, I'm not talking about that new payroll software, but the means by which IT staff are evaluated and compensated. To put it bluntly, most corporate IT departments I have worked with do a poor job helping staff plan their careers and set objectives and milestones. They also fail to identify and reward the strongest performers. It is easy to keep staff around during an economic recession, but with the invariable economic recovery that is beginning to glimmer on the horizon, the top performers who consistently received average or poorly considered evaluations will be clamoring for the exits. Staff across the company knows what they are worth, especially in IT, where communication in the industry is much more fluid than other functions. While money is not everything, it is the best scorecard most of us have, and the highest performers tend to be the most sensitive to their "score." This also goes for low performers. Peppering an evaluation form with feel-good remarks may make everyone feel warm and fuzzy. But it is a disservice not to provide a roadmap for someone to improve, then lay them off after years of telling them everything was fine.
10: IT as an island
Apparently, most corporate IT departments have not read their John Donne, who suggested that "No man is an island." Nor should IT exist in an island-like form in many companies. A lot of corporate functions have developed systems for assuaging each problem that IT could leverage. Sales is effective to the point of ruthlessness in performance-based compensation, many core functions do an excellent job of staff and leadership development, etc. IT's insistence that it is unique and distinct has become more of a hindrance than a help.
Simple acts like ensuring that projects are "business projects" rather than "IT projects" and are staffed with an IT and a robust business presence would alleviate many of the problems that kill complex IT initiatives. Rotating business staff through the IT department and vice versa helps spread ideas and even shared sympathy to the complexities of each function. I personally believe the days of a large, distinct, and monolithic IT department are numbered, and frankly, the IT profession will be better for it, as many IT functions become part of each business unit, rather than a separate beast altogether.
About the authorPatrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.