Friday, August 25, 2006

Mr Angry's Top 5 Tips for becoming the grownup who runs things

I thought it was time to follow up my earlier post on why IT people seem to hardly ever run IT companies or even the IT department. I'll start by repeating my original point, the biggest reason for this is that most IT people don't want to be in charge and for good reason. The passions and goals that drive a committed IT worker are not the same goals that drive someone who wants to rise to the top levels of management.

So there's the first lesson: in all probability, you're going to have to adjust your goals and passions in order to succeed and be happy as a manager. In fact, "adjust" is too mild a world. If you are a "hands on" IT worker with a real passion for the work you are doing, you are going to have to leave it behind completely. And I mean completely. There's no "keeping your hand in" by occasionally delving back into the nuts and bolts. As a manager it's your job to manage. Trying to get involved at the detail level is selling yourself short in terms of reaching your potential as a manager and more importantly, selling your team short in terms of what they need from a manager. Be sure that you want to make this change and be honest about whether you can leave your IT work behind, because if you don't enjoy being a manager, you won't be successful.

The next thing to do is make sure you understand the role of both management and IT from your company's perspective. Forget why you think IT is important, find out why the company thinks it's important. Techies are excited by IT for its own sake. Business are excited by the outcomes created by IT. So what outcomes is your company looking for? Is it simply to support business processes, to increase productivity, to reduce expenditure, to open up new market opportunities or some combination of these things? Work out how you can translate your knowledge and skills to serve these goals. Better yet, find a way that you can expand the benefits IT provides the company without limiting the existing goals. This change in mindset is fundamental if you're going to be a good manager.

The third thing you are going to have to do is make sure you are up to dealing with the level of interaction and communication required of a manager. Let's be honest, the reputation of IT people being introspective and having low people skills is not totally undeserved. This is not talking about "schmoozing" and socialising for its own sake, this is talking about developing the skills needed to successfully interact with other people both inside and outside IT circles. It isn't limited to learning how to talk to other people (although that's important) - you need to learn how to really listen to other people and respond to them in a way that lets them know you heard and understood them.

I wouldn't recommend a management course, most of the ones I've seen are a waste of time and money. The world doesn't need more MBAs, the world needs more people with genuine passion and real experience in their field of choice. Finding a way to develop these skills while staying in your job is the best way to go. Look for a mentor in the workplace - someone whose management style you respect and preferably someone who has influence within the company. If your company has an official mentor program, all the better. If not, make the approach yourself. Genuinely good managers are usually eager to help others develop (even if they're not your manager) and might even be flattered that you respect them enough to ask.

Another good strategy is to increase your confidence in expressing yourself in a context outside of the workplace. It may seem to have no relationship to moving up the management chain at work but you'd be amazed at how developing your confidence in one area spills over into other aspects of life, making you more confident and successful generally. Think about a public speaking group like Toastmasters. Maybe coach a sporting team. Hell, if you want to go crazy, try some standup comedy. Don't forget written communication. Try blogging regularly if you're not doing it already. Although don't make it a blog where you regularly spew forth your anger at the world generally and your workplace specifically. Then you'll have to make the blog anonymous. Trust me, you don't want your employer finding out about that aspect of your personality.

But if you're really driven to succeed and are sure you have exactly what it takes to succeed, here's the top tip for you: Do it yourself! Don't wait for the greyhairs to retire, don't fight your way through the corporate jungle, don't expend all your energies on workplace politics. Get out there and do it! The times have never been better for starting an IT business. With proper planning you can keep costs low and your reach is limited only by your imagination. Hell, there are people out there earning six figure incomes from blogging, imagine how well you could do if you were doing something that's actually worthwhile! Start a Micro-ISV, develop a product, sell your services or write a book. If there's something you can do better by yourself than you can inside the confines of a big company, don't let anyone stop you.

So to summarise, Mr Angry's top 5 tips for IT workers who want to run the show are:

  1. Shift your focus to management rather than being a hands-on techie
  2. Understand the company's view of management and IT
  3. Improve your communications skills - find a mentor
  4. Build up your confidence
  5. Do it yourself!

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