IT’s split personality has business implications

Those who work for vendors and those who work at end-user organisations are an increasingly different breed, says David Moschella

Recent columns in Computerworld US, plus some excellent reader letters, have explored the long-held stereotypical notion that many IT professionals lack sufficient people skills. Normally, I would think that these exchanges covered the subject sufficiently and that I should write about something else. But this particular topic has such great currency within our client base that I can’t resist the temptation to weigh in.

The issue plays out on two levels. When companies search for a new CIO they usually seek people with CxO-class skills. This means people who put the business first, and think and act like any other member of the executive team. Unfortunately, while many CIOs fit this profile, it’s generally accepted within the recruitment industry that there just aren’t enough people like this within IT. This helps explain why as many as half of CIOs these days don’t have a background primarily in IT. Many companies are more comfortable giving the job to someone who has already proved himself or herself as part of the executive team.

But the issue of executive talent shortages pales when compared to the need to get the overall IT department thinking more in business terms. Companies are looking for IT people who have consulting, negotiating and industry-specific skills that many IT pros simply aren’t interested in. Our CIO clients tell us they’re concerned that their employees are still more comfortable toiling in the basement than getting out and discovering what the business really needs. One CIO client ruefully noted that one of the reasons his staffers like open-source software so much is that they can tinker with everything, even the drivers.

The reasons for these behavioural and cultural gaps go beyond the pros and cons of being an introvert or extrovert. Once someone is trained in IT perhaps the biggest career decision they make is whether to work for an IT vendor or customer. Since there is little movement between these two worlds, the decision often determines one’s career trajectory. My view is that those who choose the vendor path are (and increasingly become) very different from those who work on the customer-side.

Consider another stereotype, the Silicon Valley animal — entrepreneurial, self-promoting, job-switching, hustling, always selling something and looking out for number one. This stereotype is just as true and just as false as that of the socially inept IT professional, and all of us who deal with IT vendors know that the stereotype exists for a reason. Aggressive IT workers are attracted to the vendor world and then are increasingly shaped to that mold. It’s one reason why many people leave the Valley. They don’t always like what they see and who they are becoming.

While most IT workers on both the vendor and customer sides are well adjusted, we need to recognise that these two environments tend to be both self-selecting and self-reinforcing. The more entrepreneurial types tend to choose the vendor path, which makes them more vendor-like over time. Those less interested in buying and selling are more likely to work on the customer-side, which can easily make them less business-oriented over time. While there is no easy answer to this dilemma, being aware of it is certainly the necessary place to start. Each side can learn a great deal from the other.

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