Thursday, December 22, 2011

Part 15 - Even in our own world, sometimes we are aliens.

(This is part 15 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.)

In any IT environment you always face a vast array of varying technologies. With many different technologies you will be faced with many different subject matter experts. For example, almost all IT shops have a mixture of Windows and Linux servers. If you are an expert in one area you will inevitably be an “alien” in terms of technical expertise in another area. As a manager, you can’t know everything about every technology. So invest your own intellectual capital wisely. Become an expert in the high priority stuff and let someone else learn the rest.

The hardest part of moving into a leadership role in IT is to let go of technical skills, but the temptation to help out is always there. One evening I was working late and one of our programmers was trying to solve a nasty mainframe data conversion issue (we were running a project to shutdown the mainframe). Since I used to have some mainframe skills I offered to take a look at the problem. Together we solved the problem, which was good. Unfortunately, he told everyone else, and that was bad. The last thing I wanted was other folks asking me for help with their mainframe problems. So sometimes it is good to be the alien!

But when dealing with your clients, you don’t want to be an alien. You want them to feel like you’re one of them. You want them to feel like you’re on their side. I strongly recommend looking for ways to lose the alien “IT guy” tag. Build partnerships and positive relationships anywhere and everywhere you can.

As an example, we had initiated a statistical analysis reporting project. We worked closely with the business unit to build a development environment and reporting system. Their folks and our folks worked as a single team to deliver systems such as an interactive reporting cube that was ecstatically well received by our clients. We were a success because we were a team and not aliens. From a client point of view you couldn't tell the difference between the business unit and IT staff. First prize.

Another example was a desktop standardization project. Information Systems, Accounting, Purchasing, and Advancement all worked together to set standards for an organization-wide computer purchasing process. We developed a process that we all had a stake in. There were computing standards that fit our IT architecture. The ongoing acquisition model streamlined the purchasing process. The transaction processing model met the accounting group’s needs and the strategic alliance with the vendor met Advancement’s needs. We merged four very different “alien” cultures into a single team to develop a model that benefited the entire organization.

For those times when you are working closely with your customers, you must overcome that “alien” label. When you need to distance yourself from the day-to-day technical details, it can be useful to be an alien. As a manager, the trick is to know when to be an alien and when not to be.


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