Business leaders tend to have strangely unrealistic expectations about what constitutes a good IT leader. Keil Hubert suggests that a change of perspective is in order.
I wanted to cover something that would resonate with the members of our profession for this week’s piece since this my fiftieth (50th!) column for Lyonsdown. I started the conversation last summer with a discussion about how and why IT people are still vitally important for businesses of all shapes and sizes. I submit that little has changed in industry since then – yes, the global economy has continued to sour, but business grinds on, and we boffins are still important to our employers. What has changed a great deal over the past several years is how our IT role within the business has lost cachet, even as the demands placed upon us have significantly increased. This has led to some peculiar notions among upper leadership about what constitutes an appropriate IT leader.
I was chewing on several different topics this morning when I saw where Ms Maryfran Johnson, Editor in Chief of CIO Magazine, had touched upon this idea in her column in the week’s print edition.  To quote the editor directly:
‘These days, the ideal IT manager is seen as someone deeply technical yet business savvy, wonderfully communicative and, of course, a strategic thinker. In other words, as mythic a creature as a unicorn.’
I can relate. When I first started working in tech, the IT department was usually considered a utility, much like plumbing. In fact, we tended to use plumbing metaphors to explain to tech-oblivious managers how network congestion worked. For years, my fellow nerds struggled to explain to all and sundry how we in IT were critical enablers for our respective lines of business. We automated and streamlined and reinforced and made possible the actual production of goods and services. We mattered. We were rarely understood, but we slowly gained some respect for our contributions.
In all that time, we’ve gained some ground. We’re now an indispensible part of the modern business – but we’re also a despise-able element thanks to our inability or unwillingness to explain ourselves clearly. If we over-promise a technology’s capabilities, we’ll fall short and get blamed for missing production targets. If we conservatively under-promise our capabilities, then a slick sales weasel will convince our higher-ups to buy a useless piece of shiny kit, and we’ll get blamed when it doesn’t deliver. No matter what, the folks who don’t understand how tech works will always be deeply suspicious of us; they sullenly suspect us of scamming them. Truth be told, some members of our brotherhood have done exactly that, and (in doing so) have made life infinitely harder for the rest of us.
Over time, this has led to our upper executives to develop one of two very different expectations of what an IT leader is supposed to be: they demand that a prospective Top Geek be either ridiculously over-qualified or staggeringly unqualified.
When many top executives go out looking for a new top tech head, they build lists of ‘requirements’ that no legitimate human can offer. Sometimes this is to ensure that only a single human (i.e., their pre-selected golfing buddy) can make it through screening. Most of the time, I suspect it’s because the people advertising the position have no clue what it actually requires.
Back in 1996, I read a posting for an IT director that required the applicant to have a ‘minimum of 15 years VMS and Windows NT integration experience.’ Given that Windows NT was barely three years old at the time, I had to assume that anyone who qualified for the gig must also own his or her own time machine. Or a magic wand.
I once sat an interview for a CIO position where one of the board members asked me to explain a cryptic acronym to him. I asked him if he was referring to the ‘Plans, Programs and Budget System’ that governed his funding. The interviewer sneered and told me ‘No, I mean the secret internal program that uses the same name, but is completely different and is only used here inside the organization.’ Having nothing to lose, I asked how many applicants were interviewing for the billet from inside the organization and, therefore, might have such mystic insight. The answer was ‘no one.’
I was flown cross-country to an interview once where, upon arrival, the hiring manager demanded that I prove that I was already be an expert on the protocols that made up their core product line before they’d consider me. In that same discussion, one of the company’s engineers admitted that they were the only company in the world actually developing a product using their chosen protocols, and no one inside the division had the management skills needed to take over the role.
In all of these examples, no applicant could ever ‘qualify’ for the role. Posting the billet was a waste of time; the interviews were equally pointless.
The utterly unqualified.
It goes the other way, too. Many times, the powers-that-be are so intimidated by the boffins that they’ll only hire someone to lead their IT arm that doesn’t frighten them. Anyone who actually knows more than the other executives is considered inherently terrifying. Therefore, the only ‘acceptable’ candidates are ones who have no idea what their boffins are doing. Many are too oblivious or too proud to bother to learn, as well. Scott Adams made a career out of telling these stories in the person of the Pointy-Haired Boss.
I’ve been to a lot of places where the proficiency gulf between the top tech leadership and the line was so vast that translators were needed inside the department in order to facilitate basic decision-making.
Back before the bubble burst, I was building a Dot Com outfit in Houston. I got into a nasty scrap one day with the IT director over ‘how many nines’ our department was going to guarantee. When I told her ‘none whatsoever,’ she went berserk. ‘We must,’ she said, ‘deliver either four or five nines of uptime to the business.’ I pointed out that she’d refused my original technical design to run the business with a UNIX solution because she was only ‘comfortable’ using Microsoft Exchange. When she blinked like a dog that had been shown a card trick, I suggested that we’d be lucky to keep downtime under 1-2 days per month.  The director threw a public temper tantrum and demanded that we go ‘buy some more nines.’
I once rebuilt a knowledge management solution for a development house that was about to default on a make-or-break contract. The owner of the company asked to add me to his ‘distribution list’ that was, he said, used for all official business. I discovered very quickly that his ‘official business’ communiqués were all forwarded urban legends. The man was so gullible that he couldn’t differentiate between truth and obvious fabrication, which was why his technical employees had been able to snow him for months about a product that had never worked. When I gently pointed out that his product wasn’t ready to ship, he (thankfully) cut off all communications with me … and shipped the broken product anyway.
I understand how some of these people came to occupy positions of power that far outstripped their ability to deliver. Back in the 1990s, the post of Chief Information Officer was usually a sinecure given to a political ally, golf partner or drinking buddy of the CEO or CFO. Those appointed CIOs didn’t have to know anything at all about technology; they simply had to green light whatever new piece of shiny kit the CEO wanted. They didn’t even need to have a track records of success – when their bad decisions caught up with them, they simply sacrificed a minionfrom within the IT team and moved on to another CXO job. When I went to NDU for their Defence CIO program, we spent an entire forty-hour block of instruction discussing this problem, and how to mitigate it.
What we really need.
Let’s go over Ms Johnson’s list of requirements for the ‘ideal IT manager’ one more time and see if they make sense:
– Business savvy
– Technical savvy
– Strong communications skills
– Strategic perspective
I see nothing whatsoever unreasonable about those requirements, so long as the bar for each is set at a reasonable level for the position. It’s ridiculous to assume that that a candidate must have written a best-selling novel in order to be considered to possess ‘strong communications skills.’ Likewise, there’s little reason to demand that an applicant possess either a computer science degree of an MBA in order to manage a team of desktop support techies. What qualifies a lad or lass for technical leadership is their track record of success within the tech field.
I submit that IT leadership is a synthesis of technical knowledge and leadership ability. You can have one without the other and be suitable for a lower-level position so long as you have the demonstrated ability to learn. For a higher-level position, you need a reasonable and relevant mix of both tech and leadership skill. Certifications and degrees and awards all suggest that an applicant is qualified, but only a comprehensive interview can tell you whether or not they can actually do the job.
For higher-level IT leadership position (e.g., CIO-level, Director level, or even Senior Manager), I’d only add two more critical elements to Ms Johnson’s list of unicorn traits. Perhaps these additional criteria will mark the difference between a pedestrian unicorn and an elite, left-handedunicorn:
– Demonstrated leadership skills
– Healthy cynicism
Both of those characteristics are pragmatic, which makes them testable. As we talked about last year, you can cheaply and easily weave practical exercises into your hiring boards that will definitively confirm or disprove whether an applicant actually possesses the skills that they claimed on their CV.
For the leadership aspect, do this: Bring a ‘problem employee’ into the room and challenge your applicant to learn how and why the employee isn’t performing, and then task them to craft a corrective action plan on the fly. If they can perform admirably on the spot, with no warning, and with zero assistance, hire them. If they can’t, see if there’s a less demanding position where they might contribute while you mentor them. Leadership is a function of getting results from people, not from products.
As for the cynicism aspect, do this: Present your applicant one of the many security warnings that flooded the community last week about the disposable mi-fi appliance that shipped in some copies of Forbes. Ask them to evaluate the actual security risk and to draft a plan on the fly to protect the organization from it. If the applicant slings some horse crap about how the little mi-fi toy could bring down Western civilization, politely show them the door and shred their CV. If, on the other hand, they talk about taking reasonable precautions and suggest some practical user education, put them on your short list as a contender.
Even if we’re not receiving the consideration that we might deserve, that’s okay. IT leadership still has an important role to play. No matter what people might allege, we’re critical to conducting business. We’re necessary. That doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily appreciated or respected … and that’s okay. In order to be taken seriously as profession, we need to demonstrate that we understand our business, our bosses, our co-workers, our market and our own limitations. We need to clearly communicate that we’re as committed to the operation as everyone else in the office. Finally, we need to be sure that we’re presenting ourselves as reasonable, approachable, and authentic people – not mythic or arcane caricatures straight out of pop culture.
The magic unicorn archetype might have fit for a Top Geek in the 1970s, but we’ve evolved beyond that. Next time you’re in an impossible interview for a top IT job, help the selection panel understand that you’re not ‘Gandalf the Grey’; you’re just Bob Gandalf, the friendly bloke from Systems & Network, and you’re here to help. Let’s all do our best to help obliterate the myths about our profession that make our lives so unnecessarily difficult.
 1st May 2013 edition, page 4, paragraph 3.
 This director was eventually relieved for cause after misrepresenting the IT department’s architecture to the board of directors. In that same outfit, at about the same tie, the company’s CFO was relieved for cause once it was discovered that the man couldn’t use Microsoft Excel. Small wonder, then, that the company folded not long after.