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Readers Sound Off: The IT Talent Problem

Raising the ‘business IQ’ of technology talent is not as simple as it may sound, say technologists and business executives.

It’s no secret that technology talent is in short supply when, perhaps, it is needed the most. But what’s not so clear is what to do with technologists who you hire and are not business savvy. As CFO columnist Martha Heller wrote last March, if business executives had one wish, an overwhelming number would want to a magic wand that they could wave and impart business skills to their technologists.

As Heller wrote, “Their [tech] people, they worry, are so narrowly focused on the technology that they fail to see the forest through the trees. They do not understand the business context of their technology work, nor can they have a meaningful discussion with the leaders of the business areas their technology supports.” The challenge is pervasive, she said: “Lack of business-savvy technology talent is a serious problem for every company that relies on technology to exist (which is, of course, every company).”

Heller went on to give CFOs some tips for starting leadership development programs that “fight the natural order of things” and develop a new high-value generation of blended executives — those who understand payback periods as well as they do programming.

The column truly touched a nerve, setting off a sometimes heated debate. The technologists weighed in heavily, and their comments make it clear: Not only is this an extremely difficult problem to solve, but also, in some ways, management is its own worst enemy.

First, off, yes, most commenters agree, IT staff devoid of business and finance knowledge is a problem:

So true. It's easy to hire coders, but to find one who has a basic understanding of what management wants and how to understand their requirements is like a miracle. So many IT pros just want to re-write their last system and make your business adapt it's way of doing things to their way of coding. Very few of them really listen to your needs and respond accordingly. When I look for software people, I look for ones with a successful system running somewhere. It's never an easy task.

So what’s the solution? In general, readers thought Heller was barking up the wrong tree, and offered an alternative:

That's the problem right there. The so-called "nerds" are often your best resource as a CTO. There's a defensiveness among medium-level business managers, arising from their own cognitive inferiority, necessitating a diffident attitude toward the people who are really good at IT. Some even pride themselves on not knowing *anything* about IT, which is a pretty transparent attempt at signaling social superiority to relieve a sense of being intellectually outmatched.

Business managers seldom have any idea of the complexity that goes into even a medium-scale software project, and the plain truth is that the IT department is almost everywhere composed of smarter people than the business side. (Which is why it's easier to teach business to the IT guys, than the other way around.)

Truly brilliant engineers will always have sacrificed a big part of their social capabilities to focus on their technical interests, in exactly the same way as a chess grandmaster or a theoretical physicist. These people are both exceptionally valuable, and useless at management.

The better solution is to employ an internal go-between who has the ability to understand how the "nerds" think, and how to get the best performance from them.

And demote anyone using the word "nerd". It's a sign of defensiveness and, ultimately, a hindrance to your IT efforts.

Has this been done before? Yes.

One Solution to this problem adopted in UK and MENA is to employ 'middle men' or Business Engagement Managers - Executives/Senior Managers that provide the necessary interface between IT Technologists and Business Heads. Good BEM's possess and balance just the right mix of Technology Knowledge/Skills/Experience with understanding of an Organisations Functions, Departments, Business Processes and Strategic Goals...An excellent example of this in evidence can be seen within Etihad's IT Organisation.

But there are issues with the middleman approach too.

"The better solution is to employ an internal go-between who has the ability to understand how the “nerds” think, and how to get the best performance from them."

100% agree. The problem is I've found is getting management to understand the importance of these go-betweens. On the surface, they look like a superfluous level of management. In reality, they are the glue between management and IT.

If middleman can be the glue, however, why not IT staffers? There’s a deeper issue, it turns out, to developing one reader called the “miracle man” who blends IT and business skills: the technologists themselves.

I'm sorry to say but i believe the rotational program won't work. Why I say so? well, have you asked technical people if they do want to start learning more about the business and less about technology?. I believe that for most technical people, me being one of them, is much more important to go and grasp as much knowledge on what we need to do our jobs than learning the business part it; after all, it's our technical knowledge that got us into our current jobs and eventually into the next one. I believe that if you can make IT people feel that this is the job of their life, that they'll grow a career in the company and that the company will continue to innovate in technology then they'll consider learning the business part of the company; but again, you run the risk of having these employees not keeping in pace with technology's new innovations.

Based on my experiences and observations, the personality of an IT person generally does not include keen interest in business management. He or she, while very intelligent and analytical, would rather solve complicated situations to satisfy his or her ego than participate in day to day business activities. I suggest that companies should do the reverse - find business-oriented persons and rotate them in IT-related activities. That is the foundation of excellent CIOs - expert knowledge ot the company business and basic knowledge of IT work, capabilities and limitations.

Sangalang comment is right on the money! That is the correct way to go. This has been demonstrated in the Healthcare Industry where for instance nurses became IT leaders. However it must be said that the academic education of techs needs to be broader and include humanities to hopefully allow them to better relate and serve the non-tech clients.

But there are IT people who are interested in expanding their knowledge base and making the leap, and who don’t conform to the stereotype:

I am a developer. And I can tell you that around 40 out of every 100 who start out as developers in a consulting firm or around 2 out of 5 within an in house team tend to develop an interest on the managerial/business side of things. A large percent of them do not want to be developers throughout their career.

What organisations need to do is not run a lean team where each technical person has time and energy to focus only on technical things. Staff your team adequately so that some of the technical developers tend to look into non-technical aspects with the time and settings available to them.

Some IT professionals insist that even if they have an interest in making the move, companies are not as sincere as they sound in their desire to impart business skills to IT staff.

It is my anecdotal experience that IT is the lowest on the totem pole and no respect is ever given to IT professionals. My current organisation is absolutely phobic about promoting IT in to management positions, even when qualified. IT is frequently left of organisation diagrams while other non-core functional groups are included (eg, HR). The only way up the chain is to wait for your current IT manager to die or retire. There is no engagement with IT. Most internal jobs go to friends or a direct report of the decision maker, with a rubber stamp from HR or upper management. IT does not move in those circles. So, having no busines-savvy IT is a self-fulfulling prophesy.

Yet, as soon as I reveal my technical IT background, I am categorized as a "techie", and out flies my chance to excel in what my education was all about. I have an MBA from a well-reputed U.S. university. This problem is to a large extent recruiters fault, them being obsessed with various unscientific personality categorization instruments (personality tests) where they feel they fail unless being able to put you in a specific box - and their clients, the companies needed the talent this article is about, buy it...

The same is true at large consulting firms like Accenture, where upon hiring, I was promised to be able to rotate from IT into corporate strategy. but in reality, that was just talk.

Being a tech, I would love to learn more about the business end.
I've found the people in my industry (largely ad agencies and media companies) don't want me involved with it, they would rather keep me in a walled garden.
I dare say some feel threatened. I suppose the only route is a personal one, not in company which would be the best way. Always learn by doing.

Some random comments from my side...
Rotational Method:
I work for a large financial institution and I face similar issues. However I am one of those that has decided to involve myself on the business side because I feel I want to 'see things from the other side.' And also because I can never understand some of the decisions the business guys make. I always land up having a different idea on how to do things. When I point out the gaps, the managers downplay it almost ignoring my suggestions. Based on my own experience and feelings I believe the rotational method will work ONLY if the techies are willing.

Managers:
As so aptly pointed out above, the smartest ppl are usually the techies and its much easier to teach a techie the business than the other way around. The sad part is that the core manager (as Joyita pointed out) is a not a qualified skill anymore. I think it was previously the notion that the core manager can 'manage' without understanding the underlyings and that seems to still be the notion of today. (I have a friend who is an IT program manager and who also takes pride in not knowing anything about IT). However with this kind of management there has to be alot of trust in your techies. But with so much insecurity, I see for myself there isn't.
I've always maintained that a good IT manager will understand IT but an even better one will have come up the IT ladder, and have gained experience at the different levels to truly understand how IT projects function and the work/difficulties involved.

Compensation:
Regarding the financial compensation mentioned above, I agree with H Singh's comment. In addition I find that the people who know the least (with no offence to core managers) get paid the most. Whilst techies who actually 'make it happen' get the least recognition for the work.

Walled Garden:
Dave aptly described the usual tendencies by business ppl. Keep you in a walled garden and most probably because of insecurity. I feel the same here. There are alot of places in my company that I can get involved in and personally (if i dare say so myself) do a better job. It's purely insecurity. Nobody likes to be showed up. But also those ppl don't push themselves to learn more and do better. I've seen that. I suppose thats another long discussion.

Yes techies are usually the smartest ppl in the room. The idea is that if they can grasp complex problems and solve them then they can grasp & solve business problems. Developers are usually more logical and coherent in thought and their work and usually think of a problem from many different angles. These skills can be applied in any job. Hence techies ability to adapt/change/move and even become management if the desire is such :-)

Indeed, it can be hazardous to a career to stay pigeonholed a techie.

If a company is able to make you a techie you'll never be able to get out without leaving them and unfortunately that experience will also send you down the wrong path with your next job.

You should just hide that from anyone you work with.

It's ironic that companies have to lie by saying there will be business opportunities for techies but then don't value them once they're in the job - or at least don't value them in terms of salary and career progression.

So where to develop the skills to understand the business context of an IT project? It won’t necessarily solve the skills problem corporations have, but, ideally, there is a path that could help develop a talent pool with these capabilities. It requires IT people to take a bold step.

Being business savy is not something you learn in some training sessions, it's something you learn in the treanches when you setup your own business. The rest is just theory.

I left the purely technical field to setup several businesses about 10 years ago. It has given me a broader perspective on everything. When it comes to handling money for instance, a technology decision really needs to make sense in order to adopt it. Techies usually know the common terms such as "ROI" or "cost efficiency", etc., but they don't feel them. One needs to feel these things in the gut in order to make the right decisions.

However, if I went back to the workforce I don't know if I would be more hirable, since other factors such as age come to place. The truth is that technical professionals do need to learn business skills, by not gambling their future on being hired by some "smart ass" manager who decides if you can work or not. Realiace on being employed is a terrible gamble. Once you realize that, you start searching for ways to create your own business. Even if you don't have money, you learn to think about how to finance your venture, a *key* business skill.

Interesting article and even more interesting comments. My take on this is that as a "techie" at my present job in a developing African Country, upward career progression is kind of limited and I have realized that to move higher the ladder I need to learn other languages, do more certifications etc. Then to enter managerial positions, at least an MBA is required. I have thought long and hard about this, instead of slaving to re-certify and learn more languages and do an MBA then land a job with a little more pay and still another boss above me who doesn't really understand what I do, I'd rather open my own company, which is what I have done. This way I can really bring the solutions I envision into existence and reap the full worth/consequences of my actions, lots of cash or misery in case my plans don't pan out. As someone who believes in taking responsibility for oneself, I see no need in complaining about IT guys having no career progression and other such complaints. If we are really smarter than the other guys, then we should use that same intelligence to get ourselves out of the mess we now find ourselves in. The situation is not about to change, IT foot soldiers will always be undervalued, but hey at-least you got a job and somewhere to start your empire from if you are a dreamer like me.

One thought on “Readers Sound Off: The IT Talent Problem

  1. As a Chem E with an MBA who became a software engineer and then CEO via co-founding a business app software company, I understand both points of view displayed here.

    I remember business / marketing types who made NO effort to understand technology. I remember techies who made NO effort to understand how marketing and sales worked. Neither were in their comfort zone.

    We only hired both types who WERE WILLING to learn. We educated them in each domain. We studied before teaching sessions what their right brain / left brain tendencies were. We rewarded them. And we made them work together all the time.

    The efficiency in a small entrepreneurial company ( 75 people, $10mm revenue ) was powerful. Our team could things in 6 weeks that our less-enlightened competitors 6 months or a year.

    It starts at the top with leadership. And shedding assumptions. And respecting people’s preferences but leading them to respect others.

    It can be done. It should be taught. But few attempt it and fewer achieve it.

    Regards,

    Ike
    a successful software entrepreneur

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