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De-nerding Your Geeks

De-nerding Your Geeks

Having expelled every last shred of geek-hood from their own bearing, CIOs must now find ways to start purging any symptoms of same from their staff.

The need to align with the business forced most CIOs to change from geek to chic - jettisoning their old school mentality toward IT and swapping their Dockers for Hugo Boss in the process. But convincing the rest of the IT department to follow suit may prove to be a much tougher job . . .

With Rajesh Setty tied up in a meeting, the program director thought he would do the obvious: consult direct with one of Setty's team members. Now the program director was in Setty's office, agitated, exuding ill will and looking for all the world like a man who had lost any shred of confidence in the project.

Setty was in France, managing a large, six-nationality-strong team implementing sales force automation for 600 salespeople at a division of major electrical contractor Groupe Shneider. He had felt the project was going well, but the program director was obviously not a happy man.

"I don't know what exactly happened, but when the program director came back he was very concerned about the project. I had expected him to be pleased," Setty, now chairman and chief evangelist for US-based Cignex Technologies, says. "I asked him what he was concerned about."

It turned out that program director had asked programmer whether he could make some changes to the program, and if so, how long they would take. Programmer, thrilled at this unexpected chance to flaunt his ability, had launched into an elaborate rundown of the work involved. As a result, program director got intricate details of child and parent windows and other jargon the intensely non-technical director could only translate as gobbledygook. That led program director to two misguided but deeply disturbing conclusions: the team was doing something like rocket science, and there was great strife ahead. "I asked him for a simple change. Now it looks like it will take three days and there is a risk to the project," the program director complained to Setty.

Setty soothed program director's ruffled feathers and assured him his team could indeed make the changes with little risk. That left program director with just one question: "Are you sure you've got the right team for the job?"

Of course, hardly anyone sees today's CIOs as geeks: most CIOs long ago discarded their white socks and sandals for the business suits that gave them passage to the executive suite. But the best laid plans of CIOs can and do often "gang" astray when the geeks who work for them slip their restraints and rub shoulders with - and the sensitivities of - non-geeks of influence within the organization.

Too Many Egos, Too Little Time

"My organization has plenty of people with massive egos that need to be soothed," says one CIO. "If they're having trouble with the computer I can't send some punk into the office who mumbles, won't look them in the eye and grunts, or next thing I know they're on the phone saying: 'I'd like to be treated with respect. I tried talking to him but he couldn't even be bothered answering me'."

So having expelled every last shred of geek-hood from their own bearing, CIOs must now find ways to start purging any symptoms of same from their staff.

"One of the biggest things that geeks have to learn is how to communicate with a non-geek," Setty says. "It's so important. The reason is, the budget most of the time lies with the person who is not a geek: it's with the CFO or a line of business manager. Typically at that level IT staff can't go down to the details of how exactly the software works. These managers just switch off if the geek starts explaining why this 'thing' happens," he says.

Many CIOs have become so sensitive to these difficulties that finding IT staff with business skills is becoming a major preoccupation, says Gartner Executive Programs managing vice president Mary-Anne Maxwell. "CIOs know IT staff need those business skills, and it's getting to the point that a lot of them are now saying to me: 'Forget the technology skills, give me business skills and I'll teach them the technology'. Over the long run that is more important than hiring a person who has a particular outlook on a technology that day."

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