I’m often asked what classes are important to take in high school and college in order to achieve a reasonable level of success in IT management. For me, this is an easy answer, but before I unveil it, let me provide some context around my answer. For me, there is one specific class with a specific teacher that I feel was the most important class I took when I was in school.
Obviously, an IT management career requires a broad education. CIOs and IT Directors need to understand technology to a point at which they can make good decisions regarding direction or at least understand enough so that they can put into action the plans from their staff members and link these plans to business goals. In this context, it’s important to have a reasonable technical education, although it’s possible to pick up what’s necessary in on-the-job efforts, too. Personally, my degree is in Computer Science but I took a broad-based curriculum that included a lot of underlying Comp Sci courses, including COBOL and Pascal, but also courses on data design and workflow logic. Much to my surprise, shortly after graduating from college, I discovered that, at the time, the most valuable course I took in college was COBOL, at least as it pertained to my first IT job. It was in my COBOL classes that I learned to read data definitions and data types and I was putting these skills to work immediately upon starting my job. While I was taking the COBOL courses, which we required, I didn’t see the value in the “dead” language-which we know is far from dead-but once I got into the real world, I realized that my college learning was necessarily all about the topic at hand. Sure, I learned COBOL, but it was the framework around which COBOL operates that was the real benefit. Of course, I took the required general education courses, which included economics, accounting and physics. Believe it or not, I came very, very close to changing my major to accounting.
Bear in mind that information above was at the end of just my first two years in college; I did not attend under a traditional timeline. It was after my first two years that I started my first IT job.
My second two years of college still had some computer science elements, such as Java programming, but this part of my college career was undertaken after spending some time in the field, so I had a better idea as to what I ultimately wanted, which was to move into IT management. In addition to computer science courses, I took courses on leadership styles, power structures and organizational dynamics. My focus in my last two years was much more on how organizations operate, but still within the context of Information Technology. By this point, I had my eyes set on the CIO chair.
From here, the rest is really history. I continued to move around to different jobs, moving up the organization until I eventually became an IT Director and then CIO, a position I left last November to start my own consultancy.
So, looking back, what class do I feel had the most impact on my career? This is a question that can only be answered after more than 20 years. It was my 11th grade high school English class that really shaped my career. I didn’t know it at the time, but it put me on the path to where I am now. I didn’t really care for English or Language Arts up until that point, but I was fortunate enough to have a teacher that completely turned me around to a point where I skipped 12th grade English and took college English in my senior year of high school. It was in 11th grade English that I learned that I actually enjoyed writing, telling stories and sharing experiences.
Obviously, from a writing perspective, which is an important aspect of my career these days, the skills I learned in that English class are obvious. However, even as a CIO, I learned that the ability to communicate is, by far, the most important skill that a CIO can have. In fact, I believe that every IT staff person should be a good communicator. IT is still a black box to so many people and the cryptic communication that sometimes comes from IT does nothing to help the department’s image.
Never forget that the act of sending a communication or giving a speech is not communication in and of itself. “Communication” implies that there is an understanding of the material at hand. If the recipient does not understand the message, communication has not taken place.
Don’t take this to mean that it was just English that has helped my career; it just had the most impact. Frankly, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, almost all of the courses that I took in my formal education have been important in one sense or another. Even my economics and accounting courses came to the front and center a couple of years ago when I rebuilt my employer’s long range financial forecasting model from scratch. Educationally, nothing has gone to waste.
Since leaving college… a few years ago… one thing I’ve never forgotten is that success comes only through lifelong learning. Sitting still isn’t something I’m good at, so I read pretty voraciously and “play” in my home lab when there are new software releases that interest me. A good education is just one aspect of a good CIO, but it’s an important one.