IT goes crazy for a sharp dressed man

When I first started working for ITBusiness.ca, I learned there were actually impromptu seminars to teach reporters how to put on a tie.

Such is the reputation of journalists: we’re slobs. I was told to wear a dress shirt and tie when attending industry events or interviewing executives.

Our office is staffed with reporters in their late-20s, early-30s, and if we want to be taken seriously by industry high-fliers, we should look the part. At least, that was the rationale. I grew up in England, where school ties are practically required from birth, so I can put one on in my sleep, but I balked at the idea of being made to wear one.

A dress code probably wouldn’t sit well with some IT staffers more accustomed to wearing jeans and, say, a ZZ Top T-shirt. One of our own internal IT staff defines his sense of style as Hawaiian shirts and day-glo orange shorts — even in November. (Lest he be reading this, I should add that he’s a hell of a guy, helpful and patient, and has a witty riposte for every lame “”Wanna turn down the volume on that shirt?”” comment.)

RHI Consulting released a survey this week which asked more than 270 CIOs to rate the importance of dress when interviewing IT job candidates. “”Very important”” weighed in at 42 per cent, followed by “”somewhat important”” at 48 per cent. When I interviewed RHI manager Stephen Mill as part of the soft skills series published on ITBusiness.ca, he told me that dress sense is just another facet of the soft skills in IT phenomenon: enterprises are bringing in consultants and sending employees off on training courses to brush up on their communication skills and learn how to put a tie on straight.

It all vaguely smacks of insult because it’s such a delicate subject. A letter from one of our readers in response to the series accused the IT managers I quoted (and me, for that matter) of creating a rift between IT staff and management with their approach to soft skills training. It’s a highly skilled job, the reader argued, where there’s little time for chit-chat and a vocabulary gap between IT and non-IT that cannot be breached. He’s right about the first part: technology jobs are by definition the result of advanced knowledge of complex systems. But the second part, by all accounts, is equally part of the job these days.

The IT job market has become so competitive that the ability to banter and break vocabulary down into comprehensible chunks can only be an asset for interview candidates. Users will appreciate any attempt to translate the jargon and help them understand why they need an accounting software upgrade or their desktop rebuilt.

If there’s one thing I took away from writing the series, it’s that some staffers are starting to appreciate the recent emphasis on user/IT relations. By no means is every attempt at putting a skills program in place successful, but a rapport with users only made one tech support analyst’s job easier, according to his letter.

A growing number of soft skills programs are self-directed, which can only be a good thing. It’s tough to be honest when a manager asks you where you think you need improvement, but at least you’re allowed a hand in your own fate. The real communication work should begin with those managers, who need to explain, not dictate, the importance of developing those skills.

I still have to wear a tie when I go out on assignment, but it’s feeling less like a noose these days. Maybe I should ask for a clothing allowance.

nsutton@itbusiness.ca

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