The great IT debate

There is a great debate within the IT ranks, , , ever wonder which side you are on?

The debate about whether the IT Manager should be technically competent or not has been going on since the first commercially available computer systems hit the scene in the 1960’s. This is not a debate fought in the “public eye” so many people aren’t aware it occurs in companies every day.

The debate is simple and there are definitely two different opinions in this one:

1.   The manager must be technically competent to know what the technology resource can do and how to manage such a person effectively.

“You can’t manage someone effectively if you can’t walk in his/her shoes.”

2.   The manager does not need to be technically competent in the technology to be an effective manager of resources supporting the technology.

“You can’t stay technically proficient and manage effectively at the same time.”

Let’s address my position on the issue right up front. I am a “non-technical” manager. That means that I’m not an expert on systems, networks, or business applications. However, I am definitely technically oriented and was once proficient with certain technologies.

I now know how to identify issues that exist in a company’s technology and how to prioritize the project initiatives that need to take place to mitigate risk and to provide real value for the company.

In my opinion, the best IT managers are business oriented first and foremost and know how to apply technology resources to address company issues cost effectively. That’s who I am. Early in my career I was a technology expert on certain business applications and computer systems and liked the role very much.

You will never find me learning how to do data entry in a business application or to configure a Cisco (no relationship, , , and they spelled it wrong) router in a network.

As a CIO or an IT Manager, that’s not the value the company needs to get from me. My job as the manager is to organize and focus the resources on the issues that give the company the greatest payback for its technology investment. When you consider IT expenses usually run anywhere from 1% to as much as 10% or more of the company’s revenue, it is a big price tag for most companies.

You might be confronted by a “senior programmer” or “senior network administrator” as their new IT Manager or CIO.  They may challenge you in that you don’t have the right credentials to manage their group. I can assure you that you don’t have to be a programmer or a network specialist to manage those type of people effectively.

In fact, being a technical expert will actually hinder you in a manager role.

You don’t have to be a technical expert to be able to identify issues that cause risk or that offer potential savings for your company. Experience, a solid understanding of the business operation and the industry, plus knowing how to achieve a true Return on Investment (ROI) are much more valuable than knowing the inside workings of an operating system or how the router works when you are in a management position.

The manager needs to know how to find the experts and focus them on the appropriate priorities, not do the job.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in staying current with what’s taking place in technology. It’s changing more rapidly than ever before and every IT manager needs to stay current to some extent with the issues of the day.

Keeping up with what’s happening doesn’t mean continuing to be the expert. There simply isn’t enough time.

One of the best pieces of advice I got as a young manager was that to be effective, “You have to let go of the technology and the desire to be proficient in it when you become a manager. If you don’t let go, you aren’t spending the time or making the effort you need to in your management responsibility.”

Managing people and organizations is an entirely different discipline than being a technology expert. One of the problems technology organizations have everywhere is that too many managers are focusing on the technology and not on the business. That’s why you hear so much about “technology needing to be properly aligned with the business” these days.

A few years ago I conducted an IT assessment in a small manufacturing company. The proposal being presented to the CEO was a $350,000 upgrade to improve the company’s network. He called me in to take an objective look because he wasn’t certain it was an appropriate investment.

Key findings in my assessment were:

  • the network had up time of 99.9% for the past 3 years
  • the data center was immaculate
  • the company had recently reduced its number of employees by 18% by consolidating operations to adjust to economy impacts
  • the department managers were very unhappy with business application support and Help Desk

Are you getting the picture? The IT manager was a former network administrator and probably a very good one. The problem was that his focus was on the network technology that he understood, not on what the company needed. He was spending too much time dealing with technology and not enough time in understanding the business issues and needs.

The morale of the story is that we saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in a two week assessment and refocused IT on issues that had real value for the company. I’m all for spending and making investments in technology, but only when it provides value.

My recommendation is that when you have the opportunity to manage technology resources, focus in on the skills of management, understanding what the business needs and how to get things accomplished through your people. Let go of the need to be technically proficient.

If being the technology expert is what you like, great, , , take that path and you will probably be a lot happier and more effective.

The debate goes on, , ,

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