Leadership of IT/Software Teams in a Regulatory Environment

Part 2 – How Does This Apply to IT?

All right, so we’ve laid out what it means to be a leader – but how does this apply to IT?

At this stage we have to look at what it means to work in an IT environment – and there are some wildly different attitudes to deal with.  Let’s approach this from the two extremes, as the rest fall into an in-between type.  I will differentiate them using names that are general stereotypes, so please forgive me if you feel yourself categorized…my intent is to speak of generalizations, not specific persons.

The two types are:

Administrators:  generally these are “IT Managers”, “System Administrators”, “DBAs”, “Network Administrators”, or various other similar names.  The person with one of these labels is generally tasked with keeping things running smoothly so that users on the computer system can perform their tasks efficiently.  As a result, these persons are driven largely by the avoidance of downtime – and this means maintaining the network’s status quo.  All operations around operations such as monitoring for fault, storage maintenance, backups and recovery, etc.

…and…

Developers:  these persons are focused on creating new systems and software to enable users to accomplish their tasks in innovative or more effective ways.  These can be web developers, application developers, front-end developers, etc.  This career is dominated by a constantly-changing landscape of new languages and architectures, and where the Administrator has a fanatical devotion to defense of the existing systems, Developers have an equally devoted attitude towards inventing new systems.

Naturally, these two come into conflict when Developers have new systems they wish to add to the production networks.  Lately (in the last 5-10 years), this meeting point has seen the growth of a new “bridge” career, DevOps.

Additionally, let’s not overlook the elephant in the room here.  IT staff have a reputational stereotype of being less than optimal in their social skills.  I think we can flatly state that there is more than just a grain of truth to this, and in handling your staff, one should take this into account.  This isn’t making excuses for them, it is preparing you to handle them effectively.

Despite their differences, each of these career track personnel has many similarities when it comes to the exercise of leadership.  This is not an exhaustive list – just the major bullets.

Desire for Respect

Let’s face it – most of these individuals have an ego, and because they are not especially social creatures, they tend to be a bit sensitive.  Fortunately, as many of these persons tend towards an introverted personality, they don’t demand a great many special efforts in this regard, and often find displays to be uncomfortable.  That doesn’t make their need for respect any less valid, however.  In many ways, it actually makes it more challenging.  Often it can be best shown with an honest thanks for contributions.

Unlike a salesperson, whose recognition is often quite public and rewarded monetarily (my suspicion of why this is, is because it has been so easy to measure the performance of a salesperson in the volume of revenue they generate), awarding respect to an IT person tends to require a more personal touch.  It shows you know what they are doing for you (even if you don’t necessarily understand the nitty-gritty of it), and that you see the effort it requires to accomplish what they do.

Respecting your staff shows them that you do care, that you have commitment to them, is integral to good communication with them, and is a source of motivation.

Need for a Quality Work Environment

IT Workers spend a great deal of their time thinking.  This level of thought requires uninterrupted time spent researching, exploring, experimenting, or even simply sitting.  It is the antithesis to the “buzzy” open office which seems so popular among business-degree managers the last couple decades.  (One can easily unearth enough research to choke a horse demonstrating how bad an open office is for any worker at all, much less IT staff.)

I often tell people “IT isn’t rocket science,” in a turnaround on the classic cliché – “Because rocket science is only first-year physics, and IT is harder than that.”  To perform this sort of thought-work, one must have a work environment that protects the workers’ concentration.

In addition to a space to work in, proper tools and equipment are also needed.  IT workers can easily grow ‘stale’ relative to the rest of the industry if they don’t keep up to speed on the latest developments every so often, so a training budget and equipment budget should be included as part of the budgeted aspect of an IT position.

Providing a quality work environment shows care, expresses your knowledge of what they require, and demonstrates that you are committed to them.   

Desire for Recognition

I mentioned just before that recognizing a salesperson’s contributions is an easy affair – it can be tied directly to that person’s revenue generation in the form of commissions.  Measuring the contributions of an IT worker is much more difficult – and should be a major effort.  As leaders and managers, we must ensure that we put effort into recognizing the efforts of our IT staff.  This is a particular failing many companies have when dealing with Administrators in particular, because most non-IT persons really only think of the Admins when something breaks.

Quite often, the hardest tasks an IT person performs also end up being the least visible.  Ironically, some of the simplest things they do end up generating the most visible results.  This is enough of a truism that I will often instruct my junior employees that when someone thanks them profusely for something that really didn’t require a great deal of action, they should save those kudos and hold onto them for the time when they really do put a lot of blood and tears into something – because those big heavy tasks are often the ones that “keep the lights on” and the users never even know they happened.

So the question here is how do we find events worthy of recognition in a group whose events are not necessarily widely visible?  There are a few ways to approach this:

  1. Observe events around the world. IT is not restricted to geography any longer, and these people are guarding you from a wide variety of threats as well as building new systems for you.  The worm “NotPetya”, for example – this was a global event that cost in the ballpark of half a billion dollars in the firm Maerck alone.  Did your network suffer from it?  If the answer is ‘no,’ then there is a good example of where your networking and system administration personnel did their jobs well.
  2. Establish a career track for tech employees. Often, firms will have career tracks that have only one lane, and end up in a business office.  Following this track is both limiting – there can only be so many managers – and crippling:  by promoting a successful IT staffer, you can gain a crappy manager at the expense of a good tech.  If, on the other hand, you put together a “graded tech track” with steps that have both titular and compensation benefits, you can establish a clear path of recognition that IT staffers can aspire to and excel in.
  3. Budget for career-based training. This is closely tied to ‘quality work environment,’ but is also a recognition factor – you recognize value in an employee by keeping him/her relevant to moving technology.  Each of your employees has a salary figure and an overhead figure that goes into your budget.  Training costs should be included in that overhead figure – enough to send someone to a week’s training once a year is what I’d advise.  Tell your employees and have them choose what that training money gets spent on.  Inform them to pick something relevant to the job, or sell you on why it is relevant if you don’t see it.  Once they have something, send them.  Give them on-the-spot bonuses for becoming certified in some technology.  Pay for the first exam and maybe even a re-try if they don’t pass the first time.  A classic story about this, I don’t recall where I first heard it:

Manager: “I want to spend $x to send so-and-so to training”

C-level:  “Why?”

Manager:  “Because it’ll make them better employees.”  (Duh.)

C-level:  “What if I train them and they leave?”

Manager:  “What if we don’t train them and they stay?”

Recognition of your staff sends a message – it is clear communication.  It also falls into the zone of commitment, care, and demonstrates that you have a personality that shows long-term integrity.  Not surprisingly, it is also a great source of motivation, so long as it is provided with fairness.

Need for Downtime

Not everyone can be constantly on an A-type personality frenzy bender.  IT persons in particular don’t enjoy stress situations.  They can burn out just like anyone else, and quite often the crises they deal with have a far more strategic impact than most of the rest of the company.  You want to make sure that IT staffers have a clear head when tackling your businesses’ problems, because if they don’t, the repercussions can be more far-reaching than you wanted.  So…provide them with some downtime.  Many startups see this in the form of games (ping-pong tables, foozball, etc.), and the best ones recognize it with time itself.  I recommend giving your staffers a “20% buffer” – meaning that during a given week, they can spend a day’s worth of time researching new stuff, exploring new tech, etc.  Back when I first started in contracting in the 90s, our firm gave us a mandate that 80% of our time needed to be spent on billable action, the remaining 20% was ours.  Building stuff, reading up on new tech, whatever.  This was a really great way to let off some steam, and the team knew not to abuse it.

Some admins are on call 24/7.  Many developers and testers will spend loads of extra hours at crunch-time before a release.  Remember when they have to put in those extra hours, and give them downtime to compensate.

IT people also tend to get lost in tunnel vision very easily, spending far more hours in the office than they should, and this can cost them in their home lives.  When the 5 O’clock hour hits on a regular day, tell them to go home.  Help them keep a good work-life balance.  A burned-out employee who quits the job after two years is of no use to you, and letting them burn out that way negates the need for care that they trust you to have.  You need them to be willing to spend that extra time when it’s needed, and never take it for granted.

Providing downtime again demonstrates you care, that you have the knowledge necessary to lead them, that you are committed to their well-being and long term career, and motivates them to learn more to help them excel in their jobs.

Mediation

Lastly, I want to focus on an aspect of your role binding the entire team together.  At the beginning of this part, I pointed out two separate groups that have conflicting agendas – admins, who wish to maintain a status quo of sorts, and the other actively seeking to change it.  These two groups often come into conflict, and they also come into conflict with other parts of the company.  It might be professional, it may very well be personal friction.  Whatever the cause, if a serious conflict is left to fester it can damage your team irreparably.

Whenever these conflicts arise (and let’s assume you know which ones can resolve themselves successfully and which ones require your intervention), your role becomes that of a mediator.  I strongly suggest you enroll in a mediation communication class, or at least read a few books on the subject (surprisingly a lot of books focused on relationship therapy can provide some insight here as well).  This skill is an absolute must have if you wish to be a leader rather than simply a manager.  A famous line about proper mediation is that when a compromise is found, neither side goes away happy.  However, as a mediator you can at least see to it that the sides also don’t go away mad.

Proper mediation relies entirely on your skill as a communicator, and will strain your listening muscles heavily.  It is, however, a key element in demonstrating to your team that your integrity is of value to them.

Summary

The aspects of leadership play out in a lot of ways – subtle and not so – with IT workers, who are a rather unique bunch.  Their needs and desires

The six qualities of leadership (care, personality, knowledge, motivation, commitment, and communication) all contribute in different ways to meet the unique needs of the IT team.  When you meet those needs for recognition, respect, downtime, fair mediation, and provide these in a quality work environment, you actively use each of the six to help your team.  And as your actions serve as mechanisms for communication, the team will recognize that you are leading, not just ‘managing’ or ‘ordering.’

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