The four IT personalities: part 1, the technology administrator

This is the first of a four-part series describing the main IT personalities. The intent of this series is to assist organizations in defining and hiring the right IT staff for their needs. In categorizing the personalities I will be making generalizations. In fact, many individuals will demonstrate traits of several of the personalities I define. In many cases, a person may be shifting from one role to another. However, I think there is always a dominant personality that an IT worker innately possesses and it’s a rare instance when they completely change to a different one.

A passion for technology

The most common personality is the technology administrator. How did they get here and where did they come from? Almost all IT staff begin their career in the help desk, a typical IT entry level role. The interests of techies are generally in system or network administration (I would guess 50-60% of all IT staff). Most IT staff go into IT to play with technology, so by default they want to learn how technology works.  Once they figure out one piece, their interests shift to the next piece of equipment. From one candy bar to the next.

Ambiguity in IT titles

As they increase their breadth of knowledge amongst the tech equipment, some begin to pick up ambiguous titles from their organizations. Microsoft and Cisco (and others) create certification programs that bestow new credentials that the IT person can proudly boast. However, these certifications are not equally viewed or recognized. What accolades are there for a competent COBOL programmer?  When did I become a certified IT strategist? While there is nothing wrong with these certifications, just remember that the titles are directed at an IT person’s ability to solve technical problems, not business problems.

While there exists a variety of these ambiguous titles, the majority of IT management candidates can be described as technology administrators. It’s the natural progression after years of experience and good work. However, many organizations don’t understand this and promote IT individuals from within, or the IT person grows into higher roles as the company grows.  The problem that arises here is that many business leaders are not technology savvy, so when they go to hire or promote a new IT leader, the natural assumption is that the most technologically competent individual will be the best fit. Any business leader lacking an education in technology can be easily awed by tech speak and promote the person versed in this foreign language to a position they might not be competent to fulfill.

Understanding the limitations of the IT administrator

What is the risk with promoting an IT individual to a higher role? These individuals do not help solve business problems. They were trained to solve technical problems and there’s a place for that. However, business problems are messier, and usually don’t have a manual you can refer to. These people in IT leadership roles will always focus on infrastructure; most do not understand the difference between reporting to a CFO or COO. Almost all their initiatives will include building and controlling more IT equipment.  In many cases, they won’t take ownership for the applications that reside on the servers and their selection and support fall to the business units themselves. Their IT departments are almost always reactive and not proactive.

So, let system admins run systems; let network admins run networks. Find a technology leader that understands that technology is there to enable and change the business.

The dual role of IT: Transforming businesses and processes

I meet with a lot of companies and still the two most-asked questions I hear are: “What is the value of IT?” and “How come my IT group can’t offer strategic value?” The nature of these questions can almost always be traced back to the perspective that IT is an Infrastructure Provider (equipment, network and applications).

The first question usually comes from an organization’s underlying desire to keep costs as low as possible. The second question usually arises when the IT group sees themselves as merely the infrastructure providers while company leadership looks to them for more.

The beginnings of IT

Historically, IT was solely focused on infrastructure. In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the department was commonly called Data Processing and reported to the CFO. The mission was to automate accounting processes to reduce accounting costs. The focus on automation for cost reduction remained a primary focus into the late ‘90’s and it remains an important mission of IT today.

However, with the emergence of the Internet, a clear awakening occurred with the recognition that technology can leapfrog competitors and introduce new businesses. A strong strategic IT leader was offered a seat at the table and is now valued equally alongside other company leadership.

(Mis)understanding the role of IT

While standard business functions have been around for centuries, accounting, payroll, operations, etc., IT is new, barely 50 years (if you’re being generous). We’re barely into the second generation of business leaders with this function. Is it any wonder many companies don’t really know what do with or what to get from Information Technology? Developing the role of IT has also suffered from constantly changing leadership due to the nature of how IT staff mature in their career (but that’s for a future post).

So how do we blend the ever growing need for IT’s skills with an organization’s need for technology direction and leadership? Information Technology needs to retain its job of optimizing systems and processes in the most cost effective and efficient manner. At the same time, the department also has the job of evaluating and advocating for how technology can be used to transform the business so that it survives and thrives into the future. I believe the Information Technology department is responsible for change: promoting it, accessing it and implementing it. If not IT, then who?

This does not restrict innovation to IT but it does place responsibility for change on the entity that is best equipped to carry it forward.

It’s time to call a spade a spade and expect and hold accountable IT organizations for this mandate. In order to be successful, IT leadership has to thoroughly know and understand the business. Only then can they accurately discuss what changes will be useful. The department tasked with changing your organization should have a seat at the leadership table.

Sitting by the pool: A practice in mental retreat

Photo courtesy of Martin Abegglen, twicepix

I wanted each of these posts to provide my readers with a unique insight or call to action. I hope that through my writings I can motivate some of you to make a small change that improves your business or life.

I wrote the title for this post before I had the content. I liked this title because everyone can immediately visualize the scene. You can see yourself lounging by the pool or dangling your legs in the water. You can feel the sunshine against your face. You can hear the water splashing against the pool wall or trickling from a waterfall. You can smell the fresh air and floral fragrances of the flowers flanking you.

This is a place where there is little stress and it is a place to recharge. It doesn’t matter what you do by the pool: swim, sunbathe, drink colorful beverages, read, people watch, sleep or think. From all this, you come away recharged. Even if you’re physically tired or exhausted at the end of the day, you’re mentally recharged.

Take a minute to think about or imagine your favorite poolside experience. Maybe it includes a poolside pedicure or the cute wait staff never letting your glass get empty. Was there a little cabana with a big screen TV? Did you have the right tunes or the perfect book? I see myself playfully splashing water on my friends.

Whatever you did, I’m sure you felt relaxed.

That’s my point. It’s great to go to the pool. I encourage you to do this, or anything else that recharges you, as often as you can. And if the pool is several miles or several months away, you can bring the pool to you. Give yourself a ten-minute “pool” break everyday to recharge. Put it on your calendar. Relive your favorite recharge moments or preview the moments to come. See how it changes your stress level.