The unspoken truth about managing geeks (Article Review)


Just finished reading “The Unspoken Truth about Managing Geeks” written by Jeff Ello and was blown away by how insightful his assessment of the psychology of IT workers was and how gosh darn practical his advice was on structuring an organization and managing technical people to maximum effect.

This is not just another blog article that rehashes something we already know, it is a refreshing new look on the consequences and reasons for behaviors and attitudes that we observe and identify with in our careers programming or managing programmers.

I encourage you to read the entire article, but here are some choice bits that really hit home for me.

“Few people notice this, but for IT groups respect is the currency of the realm. IT pros do not squander this currency. Those whom they do not believe are worthy of their respect might instead be treated to professional courtesy, a friendly demeanor or the acceptance of authority. Gaining respect is not a matter of being the boss and has nothing to do with being likeable or sociable; whether you talk, eat or smell right; or any measure that isn’t directly related to the work. The amount of respect an IT pro pays someone is a measure of how tolerable that person is when it comes to getting things done, including the elegance and practicality of his solutions and suggestions. IT pros always and without fail, quietly self-organize around those who make the work easier, while shunning those who make the work harder, independent of the organizational chart.”

Ego, as it plays out in IT, is an essential confidence combined with a not-so-subtle cynicism. It’s not about being right for the sake of being right but being right for the sake of saving a lot of time, effort, money and credibility. IT is a team sport, so being right or wrong impacts other members of the group in non-trivial ways. Unlike in many industries, in IT, colleagues can significantly influence the careers of the entire team. Correctness yields respect, respect builds good teams, and good teams build trust and maintain credibility through a healthy projection of ego. Strong IT groups view correctness as a virtue, and certitude as a delivery method. Meek IT groups, beaten down by inconsistent policies and a lack of structural support, are simply ineffective at driving change and creating efficiencies, getting mowed over by the clients, the management or both at every turn.”

The victim mentality — IT pros are sensitive to logic — that’s what you pay them for. When things don’t add up, they are prone to express their opinions on the matter, and the level of response will be proportional to the absurdity of the event. The more things that occur that make no sense, the more cynical IT pros will become. Standard organizational politics often run afoul of this, so IT pros can come to be seen as whiny or as having a victim mentality. Presuming this is a trait that must be disciplined out of them is a huge management mistake. IT pros complain primarily about logic, and primarily to people they respect. If you are dismissive of complaints, fail to recognize an illogical event or behave in deceptive ways, IT pros will likely stop complaining to you. You might mistake this as a behavioral improvement, when it’s actually a show of disrespect. It means you are no longer worth talking to, which leads to insubordination.”

“Insubordination — This is a tricky one. Good IT pros are not anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity. The difference is both subjective and subtle. Good IT pros, whether they are expected to or not, have to operate and make decisions with little supervision. So when the rules are loose and logical and supervision is results-oriented, supportive and helpful to the process, IT pros are loyal, open, engaged and downright sociable. Arbitrary or micro-management, illogical decisions, inconsistent policies, the creation of unnecessary work and exclusionary practices will elicit a quiet, subversive, almost vicious attitude from otherwise excellent IT staff. Interestingly, IT groups don’t fall apart in this mode. From the outside, nothing looks to be wrong and the work still gets done. But internally, the IT group, or portions of it, may cut themselves off almost entirely from the intended management structure. They may work on big projects or steer the group entirely from the shadows while diverting the attention of supervisors to lesser topics. They believe they are protecting the organization, as well as their own credibility — and they are often correct.”

“Unlike in many industries, the fight in most IT groups is in how to get things done, not how to avoid work. IT pros will self-organize, disrupt and subvert in the name of accomplishing work. An over-structured, micro-managing, technically deficient runt, no matter how polished, who’s thrown into the mix for the sake of management will get a response from the professional IT group that’s similar to anyone’s response to a five-year-old tugging his pants leg. What IT pros want in a manager is a technical sounding board and a source of general direction. Leadership.”

Finally, executives should have multiple in-points to the IT team. If the IT team is singing out of tune, it is worth investigating the reasons. But you’ll never even know if that’s the case if the only information you receive is from the CIO. Periodically, bring a few key IT brains to the boardroom to observe the problems of the organization at large, even about things outside of the IT world, if only to make use of their exquisitely refined BS detectors. A good IT pro is trained in how to accomplish work; their skills are not necessarily limited to computing. In fact, the best business decision-makers I know are IT people who aren’t even managers.”

The unspoken truth about managing geeks

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