I usually read articles about business management the way my dog watches us eat dinner: with hope – never quite crushed, no matter how seldom fulfilled – that some toothsome morsel will come to me. This one was a nice meaty steak, fresh from the grill. If you have anything to do with corporate IT, whether as a member, manager, or customer, read it. The premise is that geeks value competence, logic, and contribution, and reward these attributes with respect. Looking at that statement logically, you can see that the contra-positive must also be true: if you are not getting respect from your IT department, you should look to yourself to see why not. If you ask a good IT person to do something dumb, illogical, or counter-productive, he will object. If you force the issue, you may get compliance but you will certainly forfeit respect. This is where a good IT department will start to rot. IT people tend to view management incompetence as a bug, and if they cannot fix it, they will come up with a work-around. If the bug is in corporate management, the IT department will pursue paths that they believe are better for the company’s interests than what they were told to do. If the bug is in IT management, there will be subversion, factionalism, and low morale, since the IT staff knows that IT management is not effectively representing them to the rest of the company. Either situation causes a split between IT and the rest of the company which may not even be recognized until there is a major failure.
I lived through one of these case studies some years ago. A senior VP with no technology background was given a performance objective for the coming year: put together a web application for the bank’s investment customers. That was about the extent of the mandate. It was the 1990’s, after all, and top management knew the buzzwords but not much more. The team started off with her trusted subordinate who actually had real expertise. Some of the next hires doomed the project. For example, one manager was hired for her generic management skills, but had no idea what her staff was doing. She tried taking a basic HTML/Intro to Web Development course but dropped it before the mid-term. Any request from the business users was treated as a divine law, regardless of what it would take to implement it or what it would do to the rest of the project. You may be familiar with the “big red button that you just have to push it and it does everything.” This beast, like the chupacabra, has never been seen in the wild or captured alive. Despite everything, we wrote the data dictionary, got the data imports right, designed and built the database, made the GUI, tested everything, and got as many things done well as we could during the breaks between screaming sessions. Phase 1 was implemented and the external clients loved it; I had a contract with one of the clients later, and they didn’t know how they would manage if the plug were pulled. When they found out I had worked on it and could show them some tricks and tools, that was as close as I have ever come to being a rock star. When the bank was later acquired by a competitor, this client gave the new owner an earful about shutting it down. Back at the bank, internal customers and other IT groups hated it. It was either too much trouble to learn, too disruptive to the way they were doing things, or represented a turf invasion. For example, we were denied licenses for a software development tool because it was already being used by another IT department which would not let us purchase additional seats. Most of the team, top to bottom, was laid off while phase 2 was being developed, although a few managed to get to other parts of the organization.
Looking back, it’s clear that the job got done despite management, not because of it. It’s not the first or last time that I’ve run into management by self-destruction. Clearly, the team had gone around the bureaucracy to find out what the ultimate client needed, and built that instead of what they were told to do. IT people are naturally self-organizing anarcho-capitalists. Maybe the lesson is that if you find yourself herding cats, you should either get yourself some sheep, or at least ask yourself if the cats might have reasons for going in a different direction.