Why Being Right Is Key to Working with IT

An IT manager at Purdue University details what he thinks matters to IT workers on the job, and what business managers gain to learn from this information. Having respect and being right outweigh almost everything else in ranks of the technology worker.

The disconnect between technology workers and business-centric workers is a theme you see regularly, and it couldn't be more important in challenging economic times. How you work with management, and how they understand how you think is of particular interest when the difference between your productivity and your peers' is being closely evaluated on a weekly basis. It could be the difference between you keeping your job and losing it.
So if you are looking for an article that helps cut through the misconceptions and exaggerations of technology workers, be sure to read "The Unspoken Truth About Managing Geeks" by Purdue University's Jeff Ello, who is a "hybrid veteran of the IT and CG industries, currently managing IT for the Krannert School of Management." Ello takes a stab at explaining-in great detail-what drives technology workers to perform well and what gets under their skin. In better understanding these issues, management and techies may be able to find better common ground to make projects more successful and less formidable.
Ello talks about the value of respect on the job, and calls it a "currency" that is not to be squandered:

"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."This self-ordering behavior occurs naturally in the IT world because it is populated by people skilled in creative analysis and ordered reasoning. Doctors are a close parallel. The stakes may be higher in medicine, but the work in both fields requires a technical expertise that can't be faked and a proficiency that can only be measured by qualified peers."

Ello goes on to say that IT workers would rather work for a jerk who is right than someone who makes mistakes regularly and is often wrong. Being wrong, according to Ello, is the worst that you can be in IT because it leads to failures and more unnecessary work and is considered an "evil." Ello continues:

"Capacity for technical reasoning trumps all other professional factors, period. Foundational (bottom-up) respect is not only the largest single determining factor in the success of an IT team, but the most ignored. I believe you can predict success or failure of an IT group simply by assessing the amount of mutual respect within it."

Ello's assessment is backed by Paul Glen, a principal at C2 Consulting, who is author of the book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology. In an interview with ZDNet Australia, Glen said:

"Their judgment is swift and merciless. When geeks perceive that someone in their work environment is ineffective due to incompetence or aberrant behaviour, they have a tendency to dismiss that person completely. They also take great pride in their work and take criticism personally. If a manager says a particular interface makes no sense, he has to understand that's like telling a geek his child is ugly. They put extraordinary effort into the creative solution of a technical or business problem, and they take it personally if that solution is criticised."

Glen goes further by outlining the challenge of managing people who know more about what they are doing than managers who own the project. It's not a power play, Glen says, but a more flattened hierarchy at play.

"Give up on power. Power is central to most ideas about management, but when dealing with geeks, it will lead you astray. Most managers' notions of their own power get rather wrapped up in their own self-image and become hard to relinquish. Unfortunately, since power is useless when dealing with geeks, managers must dismiss the idea that power comes from being a manager. It's not that there is no power in the geek manager role, but it comes from being in the center of all the activity-from being the hub rather than from being on top of everything, being the dictator."

Understanding the importance of respect-of business managers treating it a bit more seriously and of tech workers understanding the weight they put on it-could help ease some of the misunderstandings and project-related failures in technology projects.