What learning a trade taught me about IT leadership

Aside from some much-needed physical exertion, trades like plumbing and electrical work have several lessons for IT leaders.

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Due to some work-related scheduling, I found myself with some free afternoons and evenings during the past few months, and decided I'd finally tackle finishing a workshop and movie room project that I've delayed for several years since our house was built. We had a detached garage that was framed but otherwise unfinished, and thinking it would be interesting to learn something new, I decided to do the majority of the finishing work myself, from framing a bathroom, to plumbing and electrical, to flooring and trim. I found many of the parallels between this type of work and the IT space surprising. Here are some of the lessons I learned during my journey:

True craftsmanship

Every business book has some hackneyed expressions about doing good work when no one is watching, and construction visually proves this point. Trades like plumbing and electrical are largely hidden behind walls, but as my skills grew I noticed slipshod work in other parts of our house that was hidden in crawlspaces or behind drywall. As I learned to set tile and made my share of mistakes, I began to notice the quality of tiling jobs in offices and businesses I visited. Interestingly, I'd find exceptional tiling jobs in unexpected places, and low-quality work in high-end venues. Much of our work as technologists is "hidden" from view. As leaders, it's our job to ensure that even behind-the-scenes work is done well.

Plan and prepare

I've always enjoyed physical work, so when I had a few hours to work on my project, my bias was toward picking up a tool and getting to work. However, I quickly discovered that careful planning and preparation ultimately resulted in an easier time doing the physical work right the first time. Everything from rough-fitting plumbing fittings to simply laying out all the tools for a job avoided rework and substandard results. It's tempting to jump right into execution after weeks or months of hard-fought effort to secure funding and resources to complete a project, but taking the time to plan and sequence activities will ultimately save time and produce a better output.

Hire problem solvers

I previously considered construction a simple manner of unthinkingly following a blueprint. However, my carefully-crafted measured drawings and well-laid plans often unraveled moments after I picked up a hammer or noticed a challenge in an "easy" job. I'd frequently have to change my plans when conditions "on the ground" made it clear my careful planning was no longer viable. We often underestimate the importance of problem solving, flexibility, and creativity when hiring and developing our staff. These traits can be more important than technical "chops," especially when reality rarely matches the PowerPoint or project plan.

Customer service

I hired a few subcontractors to complete work that required significant labor, like hanging drywall, or specialized tools or licensing, like starting the HVAC system. In one case, the chosen contractor made me part of the process as his assistant, answered my questions, and educated me about the work he was doing and why he was performing each step. In another case, despite being outwardly polite, the contractor assumed I was a "dumb homeowner." He diligently nodded his head as I explained the nuances to some wiring, but ultimately ignored me and ended up wasting several hours trying to debug a non-existent problem at his cost. Like it or not, we're all in the customer service business, and doing it well is more than just politely smiling and saying the right things. When we collaborate and listen to our peers, our value is amplified in the eyes of our client.

Evolve with the times

Despite most of the construction trades having centuries of tradition, I was surprised to find that techniques, materials, and technologies were rapidly evolving in everything from tile adhesives to plumbing venting techniques. YouTube and various internet forums provided an oftentimes overwhelming education, while friends and employees at various supply houses filled in the gaps. Like technology, keeping current with this rapid evolution can be a challenge, but has the dramatic benefit of allowing for new capabilities and easier execution. Just because you've always been an "Oracle shop" or made a significant historical investment in a particular development toolset doesn't mean you should stop evolving with the times, and at a minimum, keep aware of new techniques and tools.

Swing a hammer

Even if you have no interest in a full-scale construction project, being able to solve a physical, three-dimensional problem is a deeply fulfilling mental exercise. Whether you're building a home or cooking dinner, being able to immediately see the results of your effort and tweak your approach in real-time is a refreshing change from projects and initiatives that might take years to bear fruit. If nothing else, I highly recommend finding a physical activity that can help provide a perspective on leadership that's uniquely yours.

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