Thursday, November 17, 2011

Part 5 - There's no such thing as a Vulcan death grip.

(This is part 5 in a series of 16 posts about IT leadership in higher education titled Everything I Need to Know about IT Management I Learned from Star Trek. See Part 0 - Introduction for the full list.)

For folks not familiar with obscure Star Trek episodes, Spock used the so-called "Vulcan death grip" on Captain Kirk as a means to fool the Romulans into believing Kirk was dead, so they could escape without causing suspicion. Afterwards when informed of the incident, the ship’s nurse exclaimed "But there's no such thing as a Vulcan death grip." Kirk replied that the Romulans did not know that.

The Vulcan Death grip was a very effective deception. My experience with this particular Star Trek rule is that you can only use a trick like this one once before folks are on to you. Not telling the truth can be effective, but only temporarily. As soon as someone discovers you’ve been hiding something, you’ll be in worse trouble.

If we were to translate this Star Trek lesson to IT, I would urge caution. I’ve seen an incredible number of IT folks try to baffle non-technical clients with technical jargon. Nobody likes being talked down to. Nobody likes having to bow to the high priest of technology. So don’t pretend IT can perform magic like a Vulcan death grip. Always try to give your clients plain English explanations.

For example, when I interview technical people my favourite question is how would you explain a compiler to your grandmother? The best people I’ve ever hired are the ones who can answer that question in plain terms. If you can’t answer a question like that, you shouldn’t be in a client facing IT department (and in my opinion, we all have clients). In case you were wondering, the best answer I ever heard to this interview question was “it takes words we understand and translates them into words a computer can understand.”

Another example, with a not very happy ending, occurred when I was working at an insurance company. We had an infrastructure department that tried to use the Vulcan death grip approach on their clients. They acted like the high priests of technology. They used their knowledge as power in the organization. Instead of working with their clients to develop solutions, they used it to dictate solutions to their clients. I would characterize their behaviour as using their power for evil rather than good. And here is the thanks they got: they annoyed the organization so badly they were completely outsourced – lock, stock, & barrel. Be wary about using a Vulcan death grip in the real world.


No comments:

Post a Comment