IT business skills

The stereotypical IT technician is an introverted, uncommunicative nerd, who uses language that is incomprehensible for “regular” people, and “geeks out” over every new technical innovation. For as long as I have worked in IT (which is more than 25 years now), I have heard managers complain about the lack of communication and business skills of their IT personnel, blaming their technicians for failures in software design and for business malfunctions. Their proposed solution is to train these people to acquire skills in communicating with those who are less versed in the technical sides of modern businesses. They deplore the fact that such trainings seem to fall on deaf ears with most techies.

My opinion is that the managers are approaching this problem (and it definitely is a problem) from the wrong angle. The solution is not to force the technicians to acquire softer communication skills. The solution is to train managers to acquire harder technical skills. The main reasoning behind this opinion is as follows.

People with strong technical skills are scarce. In the Netherlands, the number of job positions for IT graduates is several times the actual number of IT graduates. The situation is similar in most other Western countries. Technicians have plenty of work to do in their field of expertise, and do not have time to spare on receiving training for something that is not part of their core occupation.

“But,” you might argue, “if an IT technician does not communicate well with his directly supervising manager, he might be creating solutions which are suboptimal, or even do not work as intended. Surely, being able to talk to and understand his superiors is essential for a technician.”

My response is: indeed, a lack of understanding between a technician and his supervising manager is detrimental to the quality of the technician’s work. This lack of understanding is caused by a technician not understanding the business language of his manager, and his manager not understanding the technical language of the technician. So one of these two must learn the language of the other one. However, it is the manager who should expand his communication skills with the ability to talk to technicians, rather than the opposite.

Why? Firstly, a manager usually has to deal with many technicians, while the technicians only have one manager; it is therefore most efficient if the manager gets trained once, instead of each and every technician being trained individually. Secondly, managers are a dime a dozen, while technicians are hard to find; therefore, companies have to make do with any type of technician they can hire, while the selection of managers can be more rigorous. Thirdly, a manager is supposed to be in control of his team; a technician can do a good job regardless of who his supervisor is, while a manager of technicians needs some technical knowledge to get grips on what his underlings are doing.

A manager of a team of technicians is responsible for failures of that team. But a manager who does not understand what the people he supervises are doing, is not in control of his team, and cannot bear that responsibility. Therefore a manager should have enough technical knowledge to at least understand the consequences of technical choices and discuss them with his team. That does not mean that a manager of programmers must be able to program as well as his underlings, but he should be able to read code, understand the feasibility of technical solutions, and know the implications of technical choices.

A manager is supposed to have insight in business and understand business requirements; he must be able to translate those requirements in language that his team can understand, and be able to ensure that the requirements are taken into account when solutions are created. This is the main role of a manager, and the burden of being able to communicate rests with him, and not with the people under him.

In the past I have worked for a bank which employed several thousands of people, about 50 of which were IT technicians. Considering that all the bank’s processes were digitized, and that 95-99% of the money that went through the bank was processed without any human intervention at all, one could argue that this bank was foremost an IT business, in which 1% of the employees are in charge of virtually all the business transactions. In this environment, I found it mighty strange that none of the “higher-ups” had an inkling about the technical sides of their business. Like this bank, most modern business are built on IT, and most suffer from a similar lack of technical skills on the part of everyone who is not considered a “grease monkey”.

IT technicians who have some business skills are worth their weight in gold, but they are rare. Many of the people who get trained as technicians have no flair for business and no interest in communicating in business language. Yet these people are needed for their skills, and trying to force them to acquire different skills for which they have no aptitude is bound to result in failure.

Just like IT technicians with business skills, managers with technical skills are rare. The difference is that in modern businesses, which have IT at their core, for managers having technical knowledge can be seen as a necessary requirement. If they do not have it, they should get trained.

A manager who thinks that he can offset his lack of technical skills by forcing his team of technicians to acquire business skills, is suffering from delusions. If he cannot or will not get training, he is simply unfit for his job.

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