Hiring Your Next IT Management Superstar

J. Freeman, Senior Technology Manager and Vice President, Dimensional Fund Advisors
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J. Freeman, Senior Technology Manager and Vice President, Dimensional Fund Advisors

J. Freeman, Senior Technology Manager and Vice President, Dimensional Fund Advisors

Let’s face it: IT professionals are often perceived to be a managerial pain in the butt. They are, on the whole, black-and-white types that are colorblind to shades of grey. Their world consists mostly of the Boolean data type, and they view the world from the lens of right versus wrong when it comes to how things should be done. They are uniquely imbued with the ability to discern which path leads to happy success versus miserable failure – just ask them.

But geeks aren’t just creatures of empirical logic, they are also creative artists that use an electronic canvas of pixels and wires to create the many wonders that make our lives easier each and every day. The really good ones are imaginative prodigies, with the ability to envision how things could be versus how it is today. When their technical prowess is combined with entrepreneurial spirit, good things happen.

Given this unique mixture of computational logic and inventive flare , IT professionals are considered to be many things, often with difficult to manage topping the list. So how do you overcome this? One key to having a smooth running IT shop is having quality technical managers who understand what makes their employee tick. The good news here is that it’s not that hard, and with this understanding in place, you will find that gaining managerial control of your IT organization will be less of a Herculean task. Here are some of the most important concepts that every manager of a technology staff must understand, and what you should be looking for when hiring your next IT manager:

1. It’s all about efficiency

Nearly all technical innovation comes from an innate desire to improve productivity to do things faster, easier or cheaper. IT pros are all about efficiency, wanting to find the most direct way to accomplish a task. To an IT professional, business challenges are much like the game of Tetris, where all the parts and pieces need to be configured optimally to make them fit in clean, simple processes. This is where IT professionals excel: give them the puzzle and they will find you a solution.

Want to drive your IT people absolutely nuts? That’s easy, interject a manager that throws up unnecessary barriers, artificial procedures and excessive administrative overhead that keeps them from working on solving real problems. It’s akin to putting a clothespin on a cat’s tail. Granted, no one likes the sometimes necessary bits of office minutia, but to the efficiency-geared minds of an IT staff, it’s anti-productive Kryptonite.

 But geeks aren’t just creatures of empirical logic, they are also creative artists that use an electronic canvas of pixels and wires to create the many wonders that make our lives easier    

A good IT manager knows this and uses this knowledge to define their job. Priority one is to bulldoze through the office politics and other things that impede their team of IT pros from doing what they are good at – solving problems. While your IT manager needs to be efficient at administration, budgeting, people management, and all the other things you would expect from a corporate leader, they must first and foremost understand that the team they will manage is looking to be shielded from the irksome details of corporate governance. Your technology team will readily accept a leader who makes getting work done easier, and quickly cast off anyone who doesn’t.

2. IT Managers must be technically proficient

Technology professionals, at least the good ones, are higher-order thinkers that live and die by the quality of their work. They strive for simple solutions that offer pragmatic elegance, and seek approval from other like-minded people who can appreciate the art of what they do. To understand this quality of work, an effective IT manager must be a member of the tribe and comprehend the work being done. Giving someone a corner office and a managerial title will not grant that person the respect of the IT troops if they lack the technical chops to actively engage at a technical level. Education, managerial experience and being a “people-person” will, at best, garner only tepid public acceptance of authority. Meanwhile, the water-cooler talk will seethe with loathing at the new unqualified hack because the leader is not able to actively participate and contribute. Worse, an insufficiently technical manager is apt to interject unnecessary complexity into situations due to their lack of knowledge and understanding, which creates the abhorrent inefficiency previously discussed.

3. Decoding common HR challenges

Many IT organizations are replete with problem children that are the bane of the HR department. Some of the most common challenges are:

• unmalleable and hard to deal with cynics that no one wants to work with
• narcissistic hotheads that require excessive management coddling
• whiny victim types that always have some new grievance
• insubordinate individuals that are constantly clashing with their management

In my experience, I have encountered few instances of genuine neurosis. More commonly, these are predictable response of ordered minds to illogical situations, and the volume of complaining is in direct proportion to the absurdity of the circumstances.

If your IT organization is at the center of the HR department’s problem radar, then chances are that something bigger is at the root then what meets the eye. Remember where we started with inefficiency? If you have people exhibiting a combination of the above anti-social behavior, then start looking at the environment for factors that are causing unnecessary work, taking extra time, costing more money, or impugning the credibility of the team. Have a lot of conflict and attrition? Take a look at your managers, especially newer additions.

One of the biggest mistakes to be made in this situation is to immediately assume these are individual’s personnel problems that can be corrected with management discipline. That’s akin to the old saying that beatings will continue until morale improves. If this stance is incorrectly taken, chances are you will run off some of your key technical talent, and it’s basically broadcasting to those left that corporate management embraces the poor environmental factors that are the root cause. Smart managers will evaluate what is going on, starting with asking simple questions. If you are bringing in a new technology manager to clean up a situation like this, ask them how they will do it, and make sure you are willing to back them in making process improvements to kill the real problems. If not, there is a real possibility of moving the situation from bad to worse, now with a new cynical manager who sees the problem but is not empowered to fix it.

4. Know your mission

One of the first questions that should be asked of any potential technology manager is this: “What is your mission?”

What you should be looking for in response is a simple, acute acknowledgement that the function of an IT support organization is to make getting things done easier. No matter your underlying business, be it manufacturing, marketing, construction, professional services or whatever, this simple axiom will hold true.

It’s easy to get pulled away from this central point.. As example, with the news headlines filled with stories of large companies and government entities being hacked, it’s easy to get suckered into thinking that the most important factor is internet security. However, consider the most secure computer network is one with no users and everything locked down tight. How well will your company run in that mode? Yes, this example is one of hyperbole, but it does make a salient point: your next technology manager needs to be in the business of making your business run faster, smoother and easier, not building technically optimal solutions that cost millions and fail to advance your firm’s true objectives.

A capable, professional IT manager knows that companies want their IT department to be an asset, not a problem. For this to work, they must be servant-based leaders who seek to solve business problems through technology, not implementing technology solutions for the sake of technology itself. Your next IT manager should be able to say this in simple words without the vomit-inducing flowery language found only in the realm of organizational management textbooks.

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