The outsider’s guide to IT management

I am embracing that great tradition of those who can't do, teach by offering advice on how to be a successful manager of IT. Unlike many articles, my advice does not rely on authoritative surveys, interviews or research, as I think anecdotes and personal recollections are often undervalued as training tools.

Contrary to popular belief, having a well-regarded IT operation does not rely on the latest technology, tight systems integration, proven processes or business fit. It depends solely on meeting expectations

One problem for managers of IT is choosing a job title from the myriad available, such as Director of IT, CIO, General Manager IT, MIS, ICT Manager, DP Manager (in companies who have maintained legacy titles with their legacy systems) or Technology Team Leader, if you've been given all the management responsibility but not the salary. If your business cards do not have an impressive title like CIO or IT Director, get them reprinted. Job titles are rarely read by anyone inside the company, so it's a well-accepted practice to create your own. I've made up all but two job titles in my career, although it was my PA who invented my most impressive sounding one when she thought my given title was inferior to others being handed out in the office.

Simple Minds

I'm a simple person (as many have pointed out) and look for simplistic solutions to complex issues. In IT management, I see just five areas to handle:

  • People you report to

  • People you work with

  • People who report to you

  • People you buy from

  • Systems you're meant to manage

People are hard to handle, so I'll start with the systems. Contrary to popular belief, having a well-regarded IT operation does not rely on the latest technology, tight systems integration, proven processes or business fit. It depends solely on meeting expectations. Set them low and then over achieve. If you believe an upgrade or roll-out will take three weeks, say it will take five weeks and look like a hero when it's finished in four. This technique was made famous by Scottie from Star Trek — although given his ashes were recently scattered across the heavens from a rocket, Scottie is now Lost in Space.

Any system performance specialist will tell you (at least after a few drinks) that a five second response time is disastrous if people are used to sub-second response, but a 30 second delay is fantastic if everyone was expecting one minute. This is why Disneyland has big signs saying: 45 minute wait from this point. Imagine my delight when it took me only 35 minutes to get to ride on Dumbo. (Imagine my chagrin when I realized that I was the only adult on the ride without an accompanying child.)

The problem with setting expectations low is that most of your users have home computers that give them more function and better response times. This can be deflected by pointing out that an enterprise-wide system with multiple servers and redundant networks is much more complex, and hoping they don't figure out that should provide a better, not worse, IT system.

I note many CIOs are already doing this. A Forrester Research report has found that CEOs have low expectations of their IT shops, particularly when it comes to business innovation, but had no complaints about IT performance.

Great Expectations

Expectations are also the key to managing people you report to and work with. Document what you're planning to achieve (aka your Strategic Plan) with lashings of innovation and innovative, unless your CEO is risk averse, in which case the word security should be employed. This document is most effectively presented when the year is nearly over, and your plan happens to slightly exceed what you've actually achieved. If it's created on the official HR planning template, your boss will believe it was first presented at the beginning of the year, and he or she didn't get around to reading it.

Managers love seeing figures, especially in areas that are hard or impossible to quantify. Consider using the "IS-Impact" tool developed by Queensland University of Technology (QUT), which measures the value of enterprise IT systems. This survey-based tool scores four aspects of an IT implementation, which is good for your detail-oriented managers, and an aggregate score suitable for the just-give-me-the-bottom-line CEO. Include this information in your technology report, provided it yields good numbers. If it doesn't, treat it like the personality questionnaires found in all the women's magazines (so I'm told) — go back and re-answer the tool's questions until you get the answer you desire.

Your number one management goal is to get your IT budget increased even if all other budgets are being slashed. Lines like: "It's our IT systems that have allowed the rest of the company to be more efficient, so to save even more, give me even more!" can be helpful. Who knows, it may even be true. Worldwide IT budgets are expected to increase by an average of 3 percent. Be an over-achiever — aim for 8 percent!

Managing the people who report to you is exactly the same — but different. By all means, get them to set out their own goals for the year, but theirs must be in by end of first quarter so you have time to just summarize and present them as the departmental goals.

With the IT skills shortage mounting, lots of companies are looking for good IT people. To ensure they don't pinch yours, your staff must love working for you. IT people like Web surfing, blogs, social networks and media downloads. Irrespective of limits on Internet use placed on other users, impose no restrictions on your staff. This is more valuable to them than salary (and they'd bypass any limits anyhow). Most importantly, provide good coffee.

Maintaining low staff turnover is vital, as hiring people is really tedious and eats into your day. Remember, every four people whose resumes you need to review and then interview is one less round of golf for you.

Team building and rewards are essential, but tricky. Avoid following HR's advice on team building exercises, since HR managers deal mostly with extroverts who just love getting together in large noisy groups. IT people tend to prefer being in smaller groups (usually groups of one) so subjecting them to big off-site team events seems more like punishment than reward. Consider offering them individual packaged holidays as a bonus. With airfares so low now, it's an inexpensive and effective way of both motivating your people and getting them to take some of their mounting leave, which in turn will make you popular with the CFO. It's win-win!

Dealing with the people you buy from can be very rewarding. Some CIOs unwisely regard vendors cynically as adversaries who need to be constantly vanquished on price. This is counter-productive and short-sighted. Vendors are the source of two most valuable resources — people who actually understand the products you're using (their technical engineers), and people who understand how the technology can enhance your business (their architects or, if you spend enough and are really lucky, senior account execs). These people are valuable allies and not worth losing by penny pinching.

In times of negotiation for a new major system where your CEO, CFO, HR manager, department heads and users have all got themselves involved, you can become lost in the internal politics. The vendor techos and architects are talking to all parties, hearing the conflicting requirements and importantly finding out the real budget. Use them as your eyes and ears to find out what's happening with your systems in your company.

I am certain that implementing my advice will either bring you enormous success as an IT executive, or bring you a lot of additional free time so you can at last really improve your work/life balance. Either way, enjoy it. That is the best advice.

Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT satirist and professional speaker ­specializing in leading edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much as "dot com" as "dot comedy"

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