I’ve worked in the IT industry for 20 years. All of my experience began as an 11-year old with the first computer on the block, sequestering myself in the basement to dissect and analyse this new puzzle without any outside influence or assistance. Despite never having a degree in the field, I clawed my way up the ranks and broke past the ceiling of gainful technician employment, making my way into upper management and, I had erstwhile hoped, eventually executive levels. I’ve made more money in the last few years than I thought I’d ever make in my life a decade ago (although I have to confess my standards were fairly low).
So why have I just quit, and signed myself up to return to university for a total career change?
If you are on LinkedIn, then you are most likely familiar with business lingo and associated terms. Agility, growing business, methodologies, six sigma, ideation, value-added, resource allocation, leveraging assets, etc. If you haven’t experienced them first-hand or ever had to string them together in a presentation, chances are you’ve at least been in a meeting with them used, or seen a facsimile of that experience in a movie. You might have the impression that every company probably has at least one guy who just loves uttering these phrases to unintentionally humorous effect and is somehow tolerated by the top brass. Unfortunately, the truth is more somber.
I worked as part of a team of five people managing production support for a client with a database measuring in the terabytes. We used a well-known third-party frontend system to allow them to run a call center, manage their inventory, run reports, and import new prospect data. This frontend required certain expertise and had some mechanisms that were inscrutable to anyone outside of those who created it; in other words, just like every other piece of technology, it both created and needed technical specialists. This was our job. I was a bit unique in that I was part manager, part talking head for the client, and part subject matter expert.
Problems will always occur of course, and our system was no different. Complicated infrastructure spread across multiple sites (and multiple companies) meant daily life was a string of alarm bells going off. I won’t bore you with details or jargon, but if you think your Windows computer has issues, you can imagine running 1500 of them spread across the country, all using a system managing data for millions of active customers. Five people wasn’t enough to get this done, but we made do and put in plenty of overtime.
As you can imagine, we had to report to someone above us on a frequent basis so that the brass had an idea of where the account stood and the kind of service we were providing. Based on the scene I’ve set, how many higher-ups would you guess we had to work with in similar capacities? One, two, five?
Ten. For our group of five people, I can easily think of ten others who needed weekly or daily meetings with one or more of us in order to “stay informed”. I’d say at least a full quarter of our working time was devoted to regurgitating the same information to multiple hungry mouths. As far as we could tell, the entire set of duties each of these people performed revolved around translating the same information into simpler (read: dumber) terms for the people above or around them. We’re talking about people easily making six-figure salaries, spending their hours each day putting together spreadsheets and presentation slides, bloviating in meetings, researching new terms to slap onto existing processes like a “fresh” label on meats in a market. This defined half of my own duties, since I was half a manager.
It’s odd to say it, but this is actually big business. There is an entire industry centered around perpetuating upper management value by constantly redefining it and little else. In my experience, and with all the objectivity I have, I do not feel as though most managers and executives are skillful or more capable than average (good outliers skew the curve). You might expect that people who have risen to this level would be the cream of the crop, but the reality is that they represent their own separate industry, and contain just as many or more poor performers as any other. When I think of America’s issues with being a service-oriented economy and wondering to myself why we’re in such a sinkhole in that respect… this is the first place my mind goes. Imagine just how much money is spent on people playing hot-potato with each other, turning it over to show a new side each time and calling this discovery something of their own. Every manager trying to fabricate value for their own position adds to the collective effort of all managers to make the position itself worth employing. As I spent more and more time on my managerial duties, I became increasingly disgusted with myself, despite receiving accolades from my peers.
But I’m not here to complain; I’m here to make a suggestion. Here it is: rely on your experts.
If you hire someone to do a job, let them do their job. Yes, there will always be risks and you will always be tempted to micromanage them, but spend more time on the front end during the interview process and work harder to avoid hiring people out of desperation or lack of a talent pool. Transfer proven employees laterally and vertically to take on new skills and keep investing in them. Later, if and when problems develop, don’t succumb to the fear-based response of assuming failures are occurring because of personnel. Failures are most often and most likely from software and hardware defects, limitations, and restraints. Good and even adequate employees handle these issues without assistance and pass on relevant knowledge. The first question you should ask as a manager to an expert you’ve hired is not “What went wrong and why, and how can we fix it?” You don’t need that information; even if you’re feverishly curious, you shouldn’t be spending your valuable time on trying to understand these details, any more than they should be trying to build the personal relationships you probably have with a dozen clients and other departments. The correct first question to ask technicians is “Are you able to handle this problem now, and next time it happens?” You will then get a valuable response that is of interest to your position in a number of ways. Now and then, you can ask them individually if they have any concerns over the performance of their peers. Again, they will give you good information. No need to try to become a pseudo-expert to make your own determination; instead, place your trust in them, and you’ll feel their appreciation.
I now see managers as something like bacteria. One or two hanging around is easy to control, and some types are beneficial in balance. But if you leave them alone to multiply and take over their own territory, they will hurt the parent organism. The space in which this infection grows is the gap in knowledge required for understanding, where confusion can fester and flourish, masking true needs and resources. In many industries it is not difficult to grasp what is happening at the ground level. In IT, this gap is so large it may have no equal.
Of course, if you the reader are working in upper management, I don’t expect you to put your job willingly at risk, nor do I imply that you personally are not providing your worth. But I do suggest that a sort of a reckoning might be on its way, and you could be very well served by adjusting your strategy in dealing with your technical groups now, as opposed to fighting to avoid downsizing later. There’s a new kind of internet-bred skepticism taking hold. Just witness growing trends of active disinterest in politics and television media, and the artificially constructed delivery they employ. I’d love to think this means people are getting tired of being fed BS, and will bring that more and more into the workplace.
Me, I’m checking out, and moving on to an industry in research and manufacturing. I’ll stay involved with computers of course, but only as a tool and a hobby. Obviously the same issues with management can happen with any other industry, but as mentioned IT is unique in the depth and breadth of specialities involved, and the distance between novice and expert make closing the gap a fruitless effort. It’s akin to the manager of a hospital ward asking a brain surgeon to describe how a brain stent was installed in a stroke patient, such that the manager could replicate the surgery; whether you spend hours going over details or just “ballpark” it, it won’t be accurately passed on because the manager is likely either not a trained doctor or is not specialized in the same area. The amount of time a full knowledge transfer would require makes the endeavor itself a waste of time, and anything less will be dangerously incomplete and will only succumb to the grapevine effect as more managers become involved.
The sooner the industry catches on to the reality that IT managers will never efficiently understand technicians and must instead seek only to support them, the healthier the workplace, and possibly the country’s economy, will get.