Stereotype of IT geek doesn’t hold up for public sector IT professionals

IT professionals have what some would call a well-deserved reputation for lacking people skills. Descriptive terms such as “”computer nerd”” or “”techno-geek”” suggest that prowess in technical matters comes at the expense of interpersonal capabilities. Based on this principle, when hiring an IT professional,

the candidate that performs most poorly in the interview would be likely to have the greatest level of technical knowledge. Thus a team consisting of badly dressed individuals who never look one another in the eye would likely be highly successful at installing and implementing computer systems.

Relying on soft skills

This popular stereotype of IT professionals may ring true for some — particularly for those who gain their insights from Hollywood movie portrayals of computer specialists. The only problem is that it’s simply wrong. There may be IT professionals who match this description, but in all likelihood their careers would be marked by more failures than successes. Information technology in local governments and in private industry is a social science. There is no gauge we can use to show that a Windows operating system is better than another one. There is no way to show that one program is better than some other program. The measure of good and bad in IT is subject to human perception. The IT professionals who successfully turn raw technology into successful business applications do so by using their interpersonal skills.

During a recent interview with, University of Winnipeg IT instructor Eugene Kaluzniacky stated that it is necessary “”to involve the ‘whole person’ when dealing with IT problems.”” Kaluzniacky is the author of Managing Psychological Factors in Information Systems Work: An Orientation to Emotional Intelligence. He promotes the use of a psychometric evaluation tool to assist in evaluating the emotional needs of IT project team members to help the project manager better understand how to guide them. Kaluzniacky points out that unlike some other professions, the technical knowledge that IT professionals possess becomes obsolete on a continuous basis. This forces IT professionals to become reliant on “”soft skills”” such as teamwork and stress management.

When we consider the many problems, both technical and human, that IT professionals must overcome to successfully complete a technology project, it becomes obvious that interpersonal skills must be an important factor. IT project leaders must understand the values, needs and pressures of their customer in order to develop or select a technical product that will be satisfactory. They must understand the fears and priorities of the end user in order to obtain acceptance and regular use of the system being implemented. Most importantly, IT professionals must establish and maintain a relationship with managers, supervisors and other key players in the customer’s organization in order to ensure their commitment, in spite of technical issues that are bound to arise.

These skills are particularly important in a local government, where the additional factors introduced by the political environment and the public’s perception of a project can affect the customer’s level of commitment. There is no shortage of examples wherein a perfectly sound business system failed miserably in a public sector environment. The factors that distinguish a shining success from a miserable failure are most often those that arise from interpersonal considerations.

Certainly there are “”nerds”” or “”geeks”” to be found in the field of IT, just as they can be found in engineering, accounting, science and medicine. Any successful IT project team may find a need for a “”geek”” or two in their ranks to research solutions and overcome technical issues. The essence of a successful technology, however, is the extent of its use. Customers will not use a technology for anything important unless they feel they can trust it. It is therefore the skill to build the relationships that foster this trust that distinguishes the most successful IT professionals.

Rob Carnegie is the director of corporate services at the City of Chilliwack, B.C. [email protected] or

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