May 272011
 

When you’re an IT executive, make sure you have enough resources to do the job properly and achieve your goals and standards. If you don’t have enough good people, services, hardware or software, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Can I alert the top management and get more resources to properly do the job?
2. Can I somehow narrow our scope so much that the current staff can handle these tasks and still leave room for cross-training and emergency work (weekends, nights, systems downtime)?
3. Can I walk on water and feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish?

If the answer to all three is no, you need to start looking for a new job, because your current one is about to get ugly.

Navigate Through Work and Life

“The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore… Unlike the mediocre, intrepid spirits seek victory over those things that seem impossible… It is with an iron will that they embark on the most daring of all endeavors… to meet the shadowy future without fear and conquer the unknown.” [Ferdinand Magellan]

I grew up in a coastal city with a very strong sea captain tradition and many of my great grandfathers and their great grandfathers have sailed the seven seas, some of them leaving their bones on the sea or in ports all over the world. Having heard and read many stories about seamanship and navigating to distant lands and continents, I used to make this analogy about our IT work: we are like Magellan, on a constant path of discovery of new lands.  On that journey we have scarce resources, there’s little food and our ship is leaking water.  Our goal is to reach the port. Since there’s barely any wind we need to row, however, some will also need to pump the water out.  The problem is that we don’t have enough people so we’ll have to get very creative and do a balancing act, for if we don’t row fast enough, we’ll die of starvation, and if we don’t pump the water fast enough, we will sink and never reach the new port.

My last two bosses sent everybody to the pumps and forgot to row, what starved the teams. Both came from the project management field. Both of them were “a bit” long term goal challenged, control freaks, focusing on paperwork and a few big projects instead of building and empowering self-managing teams for long term goals, meanwhile keeping my support teams short-staffed and burned out for over a year. Nobody was allowed to talk to anybody out of department without going through them, thus creating many obstacles instead of empowering the staff, so then most projects except the ones they micro-managed came down to a crawl. The most frequent answer to everything was outsourcing, including staff, hosting and services. As much as I like to see a good project manager, I think they make bad CIOs.  Perhaps good Deputy CIOs and/or Directors, but as CIOs they keep their tunnel vision, cut corners and fail to practice holistic management. Fortunately for my health, they got rid of me after a year of my multiple protests about being short-staffed. Just around and after that time, some of my key players left. This confirms my theory about layoffs – unless you only get rid of the undoubtedly rotten apples, you will soon lose your best people. Unless you empower your staff and treat them with respect, when things get ugly and the ship starts sinking, your key players will leave first, because they have many options open and their “lifeboats” can reach many shores, so better treat them with respect (as you should everybody else.)

One of my best CIOs wasn’t technical at all.  After a successful several years with us he (unfortunately for us) went back to the academic world and became a college president. He didn’t need to be very technical because he was very close to the Big Boss and because he was (still is) very smart, had great political skills and relied heavily on us, his deputies and directors. We had his trust, empowerment, communication and respect. Aside from regular meetings with direct reports, first thing he did upon his appointment was to schedule a one-on-one meeting with every single IT staff member (there was about 100 of us) just to get a feel of how things run in the department, and he didn’t rush people during these sessions but listened instead.  By observing and connecting the dots, he soon obtained a very good picture of what was going on and what the biggest challenges, weaknesses and strengths were.  He kept and increased his power and became well respected by observing and understanding, managing by wandering around (I love that, but more about that in some other post), learning from his subordinates and users while keeping everybody up to date and controlling rumors and fears for which the best medicine is to have your employees hear the news from your mouth first, regardless whether they are good or bad.  

Unlike him, the last management team had very little communication with the staff, came with prejudice about past management, never learned the department’s business and instead relied solely on communication and relationship with new top executive who was most disrespectful of all, and as a result, all they planted was fear.  

I have a story about fear vs. respect.  My wife is of Mexican origin and being curious as I am, I had to learn a lot about their history, so among other things, I learned how Hernan Cortes was extremely successful conquering new territories for the Spanish king with a handful of soldiers.  I don’t have a high opinion of great conquerers throughout human history because most of them were war criminals lacking a court to sentence them. But one great thing I respect about Cortes is that he burned the boats once his soldiers landed on the new soil, so they couldn’t go back to the mother ship. He succeeded and conquered vast lands in what is now Mexico not just because of this determination and courage. He was also very lucky: what profoundly affected and facilitated his miraculous conquest was the animosity of many local tribes towards the current empire, the Aztecas.  Since their rule throughout the conquered lands was based on blood, terror and fear, once a worthy opponent (Cortes) showed up, all the tribes chose the lesser evil, allied with Cortes and the Aztec empire fell in a puff of smoke. On the other hand, few centuries later when soldiers of already independent Mexico fought on their own ground for a cause they believed in, 4,000 of them were victorious against the 8,000 better equipped and trained soldiers of Napoleon III, the best world military of the time that had not been defeated for almost 50 years (see Cinco de Mayo, or the Battle of Puebla.) Similarly, rule of fear and no respect toward your employees can get you far, but only until they smell your blood.  Respect will get you much further and they will give you their best when you need it most. What goes around… :-).  

When the last CIO got appointed at our place, the story goes that his old staff had a big internal celebration. The huge difference between us is that outsourcing seems to be his solution for everything, and I have a saying for that. When the only tool I have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. On the other hand, I’m quite the opposite and I believe in in-sourcing and open source solutions.

New management made many questionable moves and there were numerous hints that things were getting ugly. Staff was required to pay for the company cell phone calls, work long hours most of the time, have no life and no family, be careful how many vacation or sick days they take, the main attitude being that everybody is replaceable. If you hang that sign high on the post as your motto, people will soon replace themselves and leave you to be replaced. Human resources are our most important resources, but when you don’t understand that and want to rule by fear, most of the good, reliable and knowledgeable people will leave for places that treat them with respect. The new people will need to deal with the messed up situation and institutional knowledge discontinuity. In the long run the IT experts in general benefit as the situation will create far more work to fix the problems than it would have been needed to maintain the organization at a functional level, but the organization suffers cumulative damages in user productivity and systems downtime.

So let me repeat the three questions you need to ask yourself when things are not going right:

1. Can I alert the top management and get more resources to properly do the job?
2. Can I somehow narrow our scope so much that the current staff can handle these tasks and still leave room for cross-training and emergency work (weekends, nights, systems downtime)?
3. Can I walk on water and feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish?

If the answer to all three is no, start looking for a new job before things get uglier. Even if you can get more people hired, you have to be careful about one other thing – the revolving door. Don’t let too many people leave at once as the problems will start piling up when your institutional knowledge flies out the window. You can hire a bunch of top level IT specialists with an IQ of 200 and a photographic memory, but that still won’t show returns during the first several months to a year while they are learning the ropes. By the time they are up to speed and things start getting back to normal, you may be gone.

Not being a quitter, I mistakenly clung to the job for a year after stating to the first of the two last CIOs that I have a feeling the things will get ugly.  I was right, but I didn’t walk the walk and let my actions speak, although I was ready to walk out soon after this realization. Unfortunately, I’m sometimes too stubborn and don’t detach easily, particularly when I have staff with whom I share mutual trust and respect, so I stuck around just to see what happens until they fired me (laid me off) and now they have several scapegoats to blame for everything that is going wrong. I’m not sorry about them, but I do feel sorry about their customers, hard working kids in one big US city. So, if you feel the ship is sinking, get that lifeboat and jump ship before you’re up to your nose in water. Having been without a job for over six months, I’m still so much happier and so far from the nervous and irritated wreck of a man I was last year at this time. You CAN find respect, or if you can’t, jump ship again and again until you find the place. Some intangible things are priceless. Peace of mind is one of them.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

(required)

(required)