This follow-up to Note to IT: Stop the whining seeks to give IT pros some usable advice for how to clean up their tarnished images.
My last blog, Note to IT: Stop whining, seems to have hit a sore spot. The preponderance of comments were negative, ranging from the childish ("screw you"), to the amusing ("may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits"). Nestled in the sea of negativity was some truly insightful commentary. Feedback that the tone of the article was overdone was fair, yet the sea of downright puerile comments lends some credence to what offended readers most: the image of the IT pro, a brilliant mad scientist type with limited people skills stewing in a sea of angst and aggression. Certainly this image is not representative of the entire IT industry, and many commented that they put up with the negative aspects of an IT career because they truly love their work with technology, which is laudable.
Perhaps the most helpful comments were that the article's point was well-taken, however after casting stones, it failed to deliver any insights into how to change this state of affairs. In addition to assurances that my armpits are flea-free, I offer some thoughts on how to move beyond the whining.
We've spent more than a decade in IT talking about "alignment" and "getting a seat at the C-suite table." In contrast, look at counterparts in Finance, Sales, Marketing or Operations. There is no talk of aligning Sales with "the business," and rarely do you hear CFOs or COOs lamenting their inability to get the CEO's ear. We tend to focus on technology as the sole reason for IT's existence, rather than the tools of the trade to accomplish the company's objectives. From the CIO on down, IT needs to see technology as their toolkit, not their raison d'être. The best carpenter will work with you to design a new porch for your house, determining how you intend to use the porch, addressing aesthetic and pragmatic concerns, and asking questions you might have otherwise not considered, well before the first nail is hammered. Too often in IT we show up with nails and hammer in hand and start working, when the problem might require a plumber instead. IT's role should be more about joint problem solving and diagnosis than just implementation.
The IT Human Resources process is broken
I lamented the tendency of IT to "certification surf" in a past column, with HR making hiring decisions based on what certifications were on one's resume, then summarily "downsizing" those people when technology changed or the skill was no longer relevant. While any corporate function has a need for those with unbridled technical experience, be it Sarbanes or .NET, I firmly believe IT frequently fails in developing their peoples' abilities to learn, solve problems and interact with the rest of the corporation. IT has focused on hiring wonks rather than hiring for skills that can grow inside and outside the IT organization. The best solution to this problem is simple, yet time consuming: IT needs to go back to interviewing holistically rather than certification surfing or pure skills-based interviewing, and rigorously developing their people. If mid-level managers and CIOs put as much zeal into evaluating their people as they put into evaluating new technologies, IT will excel.
You're going to be outsourced. Unless...
Interestingly, several comments in the blog I referenced earlier accused me of coming down from my ivory tower, traipsing around to clients and leaving a sea of outsourced IT departments in my wake before hitting the links for a martini or three. The truth is my golf game is horrendous and I prefer Manhattans. Kidding aside, nowhere in the previous article did I mention outsourcing, save for a reference to outsourced payroll functions unrelated to IT. Outsourcing is an obvious concern for many in IT, since it has become increasingly easy to outsource commodity business functions. Where IT should find hope in that last sentence is that outsourcing requires a commodity job function to be successful.
If you're the stereotypical propeller head toiling away in a cubicle slinging code, the bad news is that you're going to be seen as a commodity. The good news is that if you can develop a deep understanding of your company's business, or critical relationships with counterparts in other business units you're no longer a commodity. IT needs more of the latter, and by developing your relationship-building skills, and ability to articulate and solve business problems, you're ahead of the game and on the shortlist for a promotion rather than on the outsourcing blocks.
While it's obviously critical to keep up on your technical skills, avoid getting lost in a tech "arms race" at the expense of other developmental aspects of your career. Hot technologies eventually go cold, but superior people skills, problem solving ability or customer service are always in vogue.
At the CIO level, shift your focus away from commodity functions. Outsourcing is not always the best option, and I've advised many clients to "insource" a commodity technical function. Let that crack young manager take over network ops and have full reign of the roost, coming to you only for a budget allocation and reports on the internal organization's performance, managing every aspect of the function as if it were an independent business. This gives your people valuable experience, potentially provides a more compelling cost structure, and gets you out of the business of having to make those 3AM calls when the network goes down rather than focusing on the more important strategic aspects of IT.
Beyond the whining
I stand by my frank assessment that many aspects of an IT career are technically and intellectually challenging, yet utterly thankless and that this is true in every other corporate function. Those who dismissed payroll processing as a simple matter of entering numbers are no different than those in Finance who dismiss IT's role as shuffling a few DVDs into a server and pressing Enter. The infrastructure and utility aspects of every corporate function are baseline expectations, and will go unnoticed until they go bump in the night. Rather than lamenting this fact of existence, focus your efforts on delivering value beyond this baseline. At the C-level, it might be identifying an existing system that could speed the launch of a new product or be leveraged to deliver new capabilities. At the line level, it might be an hour or two spent helping someone in accounting learn a database tool that will save them weeks of spreadsheet jockeying, earning you undying admiration and building esteem for IT as a whole.
If you're mired in firefighting, look at how you're working, and the lost opportunity cost engendered by lack of focus on highly visible and highly valuable opportunities. There is likely a valid business case for anything from a maintenance contract on a particularly troublesome piece of hardware or software, to dumping a system or creating a new insourcing mini business unit within IT to get out of the firefighting mentality. In short, instead of whining, present the problem and offer a solution. A CIO I recently spoke with said he's never fired anyone for a good idea, and every leader worth their salt will entertain a good idea for positive change. Rather than being seen as a group of complainers, seek to make IT an organization that's a font of great ideas, the only lament coming from leadership being that there's no time to implement them all. That, and be sure to check your armpits for fleas!
Patrick 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.