CXO

Don’t be held hostage by the IT expert

What happens when IT changes direction or reorganizes and an expert suddenly feels threatened? If an organization has relied heavily on a particular individual, can he hold it hostage?

Every IT department has its technical experts--whether their specialty is data base, communications, or a particular application or system that is unique.

Over time, these individuals hone their skills to make them "one of a kind" problem solvers and also consummate advisers on new IT projects.

These individuals often develop their technical skills because early in their IT careers, they recognize that they don't have a taste for management--so they must find some other way to advance themselves and their earning potential.

The best of these experts is a six-figure/year employee--who can even out-earn his manager.

What happens, though, when IT changes direction or reorganizes and an expert suddenly feels threatened? If an organization has relied heavily on a particular individual, can he hold it hostage? And if he does, what do you do?

First, the best antidote to any situation like this is to have an open, supportive and communicative culture in your organization. When an organization is in the midst of layoffs and constant closed-door meetings, no one, even the most experienced technical people, feels secure. If they are far away from management, they are also likely to feel that their knowledge is all that they have to protect themselves from being pushed out the door. Consequently, even if you are an IT manager who is faced with having to reduce staff, do it as openly as you can and also provide career placement (or even in-company transfer) support to those affected.

Second, management and staff succession planning should be part of your disaster recovery plan’s risk management for critical employees who become unavailable. A system of cross training and “understudy” education to ensure that you have backups for all IT positions—including the CIO—facilitates this. If cross-training and understudy activities are integrally part of your everyday practices and they are uniformly applied to the CIO on down, there is likely to be less staff anxiety.

Third, learn how to “bite the bullet” when a key IT contributor becomes uncooperative and protective of his knowledge base. This lack of cooperation can affect department work. NO ONE, including the CIO, should obstruct getting the work out that IT is responsible for.

Some years ago, I was managing a mission-critical project that entailed the development of an online stock trading system. I needed the services of a transaction processing expert for the system software we were running applications on. The individual I wanted for the project was absolutely brilliant in her field—but she proved to be uncooperative and unwilling to work on the project. I didn’t wait around. Instead, I brought in a much more junior person for the project. We got the work done that was needed, although it took longer. Nevertheless, the project was successful, the junior person learned valuable skills that would be used again--and we had avoided being “held hostage” by an uncooperative employee.

When I talk with CIOs, it always surprises me how few include contingency planning for critical technical personnel in their DR plans. Instead, personnel contingency plans focus on replacements for management people in the event they become unavailable in a disaster. The reality is that key technical contributors are just as important as managers--and sometimes more so--when it comes down to the IT work that must be done.

“We changed our IT culture significantly to one of service, and we realigned departments within our organization several years ago,” said one financial services CIO. “The process was necessary, but in reorganizing, I also knew that I was risking losing key technical contributors who didn’t want to be part of a cross-disciplinary service culture, but who instead preferred to operate in their traditional technical expertise silos.”

The CIO’s worst fears came true when several of his top six-figure experts opted to leave for other companies that had organizations that they were more comfortable with.

What was the CIO’s saving grace?

“I had anticipated and included the loss of key technical contributors in my risk management strategy, had discussed it with my management and had obtained their buyoff. I was ready to move in with a temporary staff of outside IT consultants until we could rehire for the positions,” he said.

Today, the organization is back on its feet with a strong in-house IT staff, and a new service orientation that is taking it to new heights.

About

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

18 comments
TanteWaileka
TanteWaileka

I decided to read this article because it was written by a woman. I have been in technology, professionally, since the age of 12 and now I'm in my late 60s. It is my experience that senior women managers are more often than not the ones who throw their people under the bus, not the other way around. I trust MEN far more than other women in technology, except for the women who work for my company. Why? Because women often do not fight fair because they do not know HOW to fight.


YOU blamed the senior technical woman and not the person who WAS to blame. YOU. If you could not get the senior techie to work effectively on the project it was YOUR fault NOT HERS.

BTW, I am the Global Head of 100,000 person corporation. Women clamor to work for my company, because they know if they want to break through the glass ceiling, it will not happen with my company... because there IS no ceiling for those who work hard and effectively and who are not only constantly learning but sharing their knowledge as well.

I know you said you took a junior person and got the project done, although it took more time than you thought it should have. I don't believe you. You felt a little resistence from the senior techie so you turned your back on her without finding a way to work with her. SHE did NOT trust you. WHY? That's real question. Bah humbug to this article. Oh, yes, and ps, Managers OFTEN make less money than the technical people who report to them, and if a Manager cannot understand why and resents that fact, s/he is not a good manager.

Uncle Stoat
Uncle Stoat

We refer to this colloquially as "The Bus Test"


As in - what happens if $KEYMAN falls under a bus?


If your business is dependent on him/her to the point where it would be crippled if he leaves/dies/is incapacitated/goes on 4 weeks holiday and something goes wrong with the systems,  then you are guilty of failure to plan.


If  significant numbers of your key staff leave simultaneously then there is something extremely wrong with company culture and the finger of doubt rightly hovers over management. (This is something I am watching develop in the central IS section of the _large_ university I work for. At departmental level all we can do is prepare for the worst and hope to ride it out..)


There's an old joke in technical circles - "Noisy engineers are happy engineers. Quiet engineers are updating their resumes"


cwe20
cwe20

I'm often bemused by these offerings. Who do you think your audience is? You are generally communicating to IT supporters in techrepublic so I'm wondering whether this well written article would be better targetted elsewhere? Heyho, thanks anyway for the managerial insight.

davidchall
davidchall

Many technical people choose to focus on technology not because they unable to move into management, but because they don't want to.  Many technical folk are trapped in a technical role not because they cannot be promoted into management, but because the alternate candidate cannot deliver technology solutions.


And so many manages become managers not because they are the best candidate or aspire to be there, but because they are unable to understand the technology they manage.

rmission
rmission

Multitasking staff is also key to covering the loss of experts. But I like the idea of transparency and consultation when it comes to imminent layoffs.

landiscd
landiscd

I might have appreciated the article more, if it had not been written by a female who refers to the IT experts as "he's."  Whereas an example was given of a female IT expert, the title and several references alluded to "the IT expert" as a "he."  This is surprising (and upsetting) to me, especially coming from a female author.  :-(

bmerc
bmerc

Typical upper level management shenanigans. 


If you're in this situation it's because Management made it happen. No expert created this scenario, but that expert is the one who pays the price. 




edulike
edulike

What happens when you repeatedly bring up that only one person in the department is skilled enough to do 50% of the tasks and the other ones can't be bothered to learn?


IT people often report to non-IT people like FDs who have no idea what they do all day. It is more likely that the company will abuse the worker than the other way round, normally by cutting staff or training in a capricious manner, because that looks good o this quarter's balance sheet.

jsargent
jsargent

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

The CIO’s worst fears came true when several of his top six-figure experts opted to leave for other companies that had organizations that they were more comfortable with.

“I had anticipated and included the loss of key technical contributors in my risk management strategy, had discussed it with my management and had obtained their buyoff. I was ready to move in with a temporary staff of outside IT consultants until we could rehire for the positions,” he said.

Odipides
Odipides

"What happens, though, when IT changes direction or reorganizes and an expert suddenly feels threatened? If an organization has relied heavily on a particular individual, can he hold it hostage? And if he does, what do you do?"


What happens when management hold IT personnel to ransom? Since the latter is about a hundred times more common than the scenario you've painted above it strikes me as being more off an issue.


Just a load of "pointy haired manager" self-congratulation.

Marcus55901
Marcus55901

There are organizations where expertise is valued and nurtured.  Rather than assuming the expert is a potential hostage-taker, why not assume they are an asset worth cultivating?  This dichotomy and the implicit assumption that all IT personnel should be interchangeable drones are at the root of a lot of job dissatisfaction in IT.

Thomas Kuhlmann
Thomas Kuhlmann

http://www.aquarterit.comGenerally a good article - however, the title suggests to some extend malicious intend on the side of the expert. I think it needs to be clearly said that most specialists are not comfortable with being the only go-to resource with a very specific knowledge because this usually comes with 24/7 on call duties and a severe impact on their work/life balance. 


Mary mentions that being able to handle the loss of this specialist is part of a disaster recovery plan; I challenge this statement since it gives the impression that losing a specialist is a disaster and that there is a technical solution. But I think we can all agree that this is actually part of a business continuity plan - same as for every other key resource in the company, there should be a comprehensive plan that addresses the inaccessibility of key players in the organisation (and being made redundant or quitting the job is just one part - an individual might also just get sick or have an accident). 


Every person in a company can for some reason become unavailable - and in smaller organisations, the person who does the payroll is as vital as the IT engineer that runs the entire company data centre.  


Losing a key player does not constitute a disaster - it is business as usual. 


There should be standardised procedure in place for dealing with such an event. And yes, if the person affected is so critical to the organisation, addressing this issue as part of BCP might be a good idea.



Thomas Kuhlmann

www.aquarterit.com

maj37
maj37

The idea of understudy and cross training is great but if you have an upper business management that wants everything cut to the bone and an IT management that goes along with it then you are left with no one with the time to understudy or cross train for critical technical positions. 

tim.lovegrove
tim.lovegrove

@cwe20 I view them as articles which can be put forward to non-technical managers & directors to support a business case coming from the IT dept. People with broader business and management experience can often present a point of view that people entrenched in IT can't quite verbalise. As someone fairly new to IT management, I find them quite useful in their straightforward simplicity.

fizban64
fizban64

You are quoting Bill and Ted right ! lol

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