Too Many Geeks!

The Biggest Problem In IT.

August, 2011

The Bobs During a recent consulting engagement, I had assembled the IT middle management team to get their thoughts. I'd been asked by my client's senior leadership to help them improve IT and its image among the business. It can be difficult to get people to speak candidly in such meetings. Tom Smykowski's hilarious paranoia aside, it is true that introducing a consultant can often be perceived as a threat. In the room were four technology managers representing infrastructure, data services, desk-side support, and the service desk. I tried to put them at ease. "So how are you guys?"

"Tired," they replied, nearly in unison. Opening up, they went on to describe their pain in some detail. Their project backlog was overwhelming, and the support load was killing them. "I haven't slept in three days," the database manager told me. I believed her. These were not happy people. In spite of this, they were fiercly loyal to their boss, loved their work, and believed in the company.

I had the opportunity to review their backgrounds before the meeting. Each had an undergraduate degree in computer information systems, and their experience ranged from three to six years with most of that time in an individual contributor role (DBA, Server Admin, Desktop Support Technician, etc.). I was told they were the best technicians on their respective teams and that that had earned them their promotions into management. With one exception, these were their first leadership roles.

They were unanimous in their view of what they needed to resolve their problems. To them, the solution was obvious, and they were frustrated that their bosses didn't understand. They were sure that what they need was to hire more technical people to help cover the workload. But no amount of pleading seemed to convince the boss. Meanwhile, upper management was equally frustrated. Projects were late and over-budget, there were numerous service outages to critical systems, users constantly complained about the quality of service coming out of the help desk, and there was no appetite among senior management to increase their investment in technology.

Before entering the technology field, I spent a few years managing a small tire store in New Jersey. Reporting to me were a team of tire installers, mechanics, and retail salespeople. I was a young man, maybe 19 or 20, and it was my first leadership experience. It turned out I was not yet ready for the responsibility. I fired a mechanic after he threw (and broke) an expensive tool across the shop after busting his knuckle with it. Bernie had worked there for more than five years, and he was a good employee and a competent mechanic who made money for the owner. He represented the store well, and the customers trusted him amidst an industry whose reputation suffered a bit. The owner took the opportunity to talk with me, rather partiarchally, and it was one of the few times as a young man that I was smart enough to listen. I went to Bernie's run-down apartment that night to apologize, and I was greeted by his pregnant wife while she held an infant boy. This was my first lesson in leadership.

I remembered this experience as I looked across the table at these bright and overworked young managers. They were tired. You could see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. They were in the office before daylight, drove home in the dark, and their company-issued cell phones rang before they got home. They complained about unreasonable management, stupid customers, unfair compensation, and poor work/life balance. They were weary from having to repeatedly explain to management that upgrades had to be applied to comply with service agreements and that downtime was often the result. They were irritated at being asked to justify investment in new technologies. I wondered how tenable and sustainable their situation could be. These were talented people with impressive technical abilities. Their institutional knowledge would be tough to replace. How long would it be before some recruiter called with an offer of an increase of ten large and weekends off?

I asked them if they had tried to isolate their project resources from production support to improve their ability to deliver reliably. I asked if they had tried to level their project resources for more accurate project delivery dates. Have they tried some level of change control to help contain unscheduled outages? They scoffed, "Don't you get it? That'll never work. Management wants everything done right now and they don't want to hear otherwise. Period!" They were absolutely convinced that their management was beyond the capacity of reason and the only way to solve their problem was to add headcount.

My report to the client could be summed up in one word. Leadership. There was no system of IT governance in place, there was no problem management process or root-cause analysis being performed to eliminate defects or prevent problems from recurring, valuable people were being neglected, and the business was suffering as a result. There was no leadership!

Look, I have no issue with people making their way through the technical ranks and taking on management positions. I did it. But I do take exception to putting people into positions for which they are neither prepared nor trained. Despite prevailing thought, just because we use funny words like java or heaps, Information Technology is no different from any other business discipline in the respect that it needs to be managed. It needs leadership. It needs vision, organizational development, fiscal discipline, legal consideration, customer service, and every other business management skill not found in a CIS curriculum.

My client wanted to know why senior management held IT in poor regard (putting it mildly). Why were costs so high and escalating? Why so much downtime? My finding was that there was a leadership deficit. In short, the problem with IT is that there are too many geeks!