12 Sep Dude, what happened to my job?
Madison, Wis. There’s been a lot of discussion in the industry recently about making the transition from IT manager to IT executive, mostly to the tune that the skills that got you to that transition might not carry you beyond it. If you’re the kind of techie whose personal ambitions don’t include the corner IT office, you’ve probably read the first few sentences of those articles and thought “cry me a river” before moving on to something with a bit more technical meat on the bones.
You might want to spend a little more time understanding what works and what doesn’t in the manager-to-CIO transition because those same dynamics are coming to a cube near yours sooner than you think. Buried in all that chatter about business alignment, talking the language of business, outstanding political savvy, and excellent financial acumen is a new reality that reaches far beyond the CIO. For all my clients and in all my conversations with IT leaders (both on and off the org charts), it’s becoming clear that no matter what the pay grade in IT, tech skills aren’t enough any more. They’re necessary, but they’re not sufficient.
In one example, an IT exec described a steady transition in the make up of his staff. There were no more pure software engineers. All that work had been outsourced. The technical analysts who used to do design and maybe some prototyping were now beginning to handle requirements and collecting specifications. The business analysts who used to thrive inside the confines of IT, lobbing requirements questions over the fence, were now forced out into the wilds of their organization, doing detailed business process analysis and improvement.
So if you’re not contemplating a move to India, what should you do for career planning, even for the most technical of jobs? The first step is to understand what’s driving the business decisions of your tech and organizational leaders. Outsourcing isn’t a driver, it’s a response. Budget cuts aren’t a driver, they’re a response. Re-orgs and right-sizings (gack) and flattening are all just responses. If you want your next career move to be anything more than just a reaction to somebody else’s decision, you’d better start shifting your focus from the responses to what’s driving those responses.
There are some archetypal drivers to help start your search, but they’re just archetypes. The payoff for career planning is in the specifics of your organization. Changes in the competitive climate often force business leaders into action. Do you know what drives the bottom line of your organization? Is it a particular product line, a service, a government regulation? Do you know what other companies share that focus (they’re called competitors)? How are they doing? Having they been gaining market share? Are they struggling? Have they just been bought by some faceless global entity that’s going to force economies on them, dropping their prices, and undercutting your revenue stream leading to budget cuts in your department and layoffs and outsourcing? Not the kind of thing you probably picked up in a computer sciences or MIS program at school.
Another archetype is transitions on the growth curve. Is you organization hiring its first dedicated IT manager? Is it opening its first remote office? Is it moving from family ownership and leadership to outside management? Is it acquiring other companies to grow or is it at a point in its growth that bigger fish are beginning to eye it as their next meal? Is your market expanding? Is it stable? Is it played out? Every one of these transitions will impact the time, attention and resources leaders are willing to dedicate to IT concerns and impact their expectations for the participation of IT in non-technical decisions. Again, not the kind of thing you probably picked up in school or even necessarily in the first five or ten years of work experience.
If you think about your job not as a limited specific set of skills but, rather, as an example of a larger, repeated need throughout your organization and across your particular industry, you can begin to generate a list of archetypes on your own. You can then follow those archetypes into your organization and into the future of that business. You already do this when dealing with technology. Almost everybody directly involved in technology has some level of systems thinking skill, the ability to see how the parts fit together and impact one another, how they are like other parts in other systems and how they are unique (what was that command line syntax we used before drop and drag)?
Organizations are systems. They’re much more random and less reliably structured than most computer systems, but they are systems. Certain events will have somewhat predictable impacts. Certain components have somewhat predictable behavior, strengths and weaknesses. There will be inputs and transformations and outputs. You may not have been trained to understand and decode that type of system. You work experience in the old, isolated world of IT may not have prepared you to predict what will come next.
But you’re not starting from scratch either. As you look up from the explicit systems represented on your screen to the implicit systems flowing across your desk and down the hall and out into the wider world, bring along the skills you’ve developed in decoding systems, understanding the pieces parts and putting them back together in something that works. You may have to learn some new vocabulary, a little tolerance of ambiguity, and even a bit of interpersonal savvy, but the pay off is some confidence in navigating that next wave of change washing through your organization wherever it comes from and whatever it’s size.
I can’t end on a water note, without sending out my thoughts and prayers to those affected by Hurricane Katrina. I have friends and family on the Gulf Coast and in the Big Easy. They’ve all survived, but there is so much work ahead. Please find a way to pitch in and help.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.