Monday, September 18, 2006

De-Nerding Your Geeks

It seems that everywhere I am reading another article in some trade rag about the need for technology people to have "soft skills" and be able to communicate with non-techies. Here's a quote from a particularly good example that I stumbled across from the Australian version of It goes so far as to quote one frustrated CIO who said 'Forget the technology skills, give me business skills and I'll teach them the technology'.
"I don't know what exactly happened, but when the program director came back he was very concerned about the project. I had expected him to be pleased," Setty, now chairman and chief evangelist for US-based Cignex Technologies, says. "I asked him what he was concerned about."

It turned out that program director had asked programmer whether he could make some changes to the program, and if so, how long they would take. Programmer, thrilled at this unexpected chance to flaunt his ability, had launched into an elaborate rundown of the work involved. As a result, program director got intricate details of child and parent windows and other jargon the intensely non-technical director could only translate as gobbledygook. That led program director to two misguided but deeply disturbing conclusions: the team was doing something like rocket science, and there was great strife ahead. "I asked him for a simple change. Now it looks like it will take three days and there is a risk to the project," the program director complained to Setty.

Setty soothed program director's ruffled feathers and assured him his team could indeed make the changes with little risk. That left program director with just one question: "Are you sure you've got the right team for the job?"

Of course, hardly anyone sees today's CIOs as geeks: most CIOs long ago discarded their white socks and sandals for the business suits that gave them passage to the executive suite. But the best laid plans of CIOs can and do often "gang" astray when the geeks who work for them slip their restraints and rub shoulders with - and the sensitivities of - non-geeks of influence within the organization.

Too Many Egos, Too Little Time

"My organization has plenty of people with massive egos that need to be soothed," says one CIO. "If they're having trouble with the computer I can't send some punk into the office who mumbles, won't look them in the eye and grunts, or next thing I know they're on the phone saying: 'I'd like to be treated with respect. I tried talking to him but he couldn't even be bothered answering me'."

So having expelled every last shred of geek-hood from their own bearing, CIOs must now find ways to start purging any symptoms of same from their staff.

"One of the biggest things that geeks have to learn is how to communicate with a non-geek," Setty says. "It's so important. The reason is, the budget most of the time lies with the person who is not a geek: it's with the CFO or a line of business manager. Typically at that level IT staff can't go down to the details of how exactly the software works. These managers just switch off if the geek starts explaining why this 'thing' happens," he says.

Many CIOs have become so sensitive to these difficulties that finding IT staff with business skills is becoming a major preoccupation, says Gartner Executive Programs managing vice president Mary-Anne Maxwell. "CIOs know IT staff need those business skills, and it's getting to the point that a lot of them are now saying to me: 'Forget the technology skills, give me business skills and I'll teach them the technology'. Over the long run that is more important than hiring a person who has a particular outlook on a technology that day."

For more fun reading, check out: CIO | De-nerding Your Geeks


Ashish Chatterjee said...

How about also thinking of "Re-nerding your boardroom CIO"? :-)

Of course all round skills is usually good in any given role, but maybe not for the actual 'ultra-specialists' (given the trend of specialization in the information worker age), which is why one has co-ordinator roles to buffer between the two worlds.

Also, I won't count those inhouse IT staff whose role is to actually fixing "trouble with the computer", as a good example as their primary role is outward/customer facing and business/people skills are an implicit requirement.

Philip Hartman said...

Hmmm... re-nerding the CIO? I'm afraid that thought is like swimming against the tide. The trend of I/T executives coming from the business side with little or no I/T background seems to be accelerating. I will agree that the deskside support person may not be the best example of a role needing business skills. Thanks for your comment!

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