The diplomacy of IT management

Your conversation skills may determine your next IT job before an interviewer even has a chance to take a second glance at your resume.

IT managers are looking for relationship or “”soft”” skills as an important adjunct to traditional technical know-how when interviewing potential candidates.

In some cases, those soft skills may actually take precedence.

“”IT is a service industry, from where we’re sitting. A lot of people find that amazing,”” says Sandra Milloy, director of IT for Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, one of Canada’s largest law firms.

Milloy insists her technical staff treat the lawyers as the IT department’s customers, rather than just fellow employees. In order for that relationship to work, staffers have to be as handy with polite conversation as they are with setting up an e-mail account. Both those skill sets are assessed in a lengthy job interview process. “”Whether it’s the network guys or the help-desk or the trainer, they all have to realize that within this industry and this environment, they must be acting as a client service representative at all times,”” she says.

There may still be a few enclaves of technical personnel who can get away with limited human contact, but few and far between are those that Jackie Santos calls “”the Linux secret society who don’t want to see daylight.””

Santos has worked as an IT director and chief technology officer for Canadian organizations like Carswell, a provider of electronic research solutions, and the Canadian Copyright and Licensing Agency. Most recently she has done independent consulting for not-for-profit organizations. “”When you start to read the job descriptions, it’s like three jobs collapsed into one. You’re sort of expected to do everything. It’s just become a very bizarre market right now,”” she says. “”Fifty per cent of anyone’s job is cultural and environmental. They have to fit in.””

IT professionals are hit with a double whammy, she says: the demands of the job have increased in recent years and the talent pool has swelled due to the recent economic downturn and resultant layoffs. In other words, Santos could afford to be choosy when hiring.

When Milloy brings a new-hire into her IT organization, the soft skills training begins almost immediately, and is tailored to the individual depending on their background. “”In some cases, they may have worked for a consulting company and they know exactly what we’re talking about,”” she says. “”In other cases, they may have worked in a help centre-type of environment where they’ve done it on the phone. They’ve got the technical background, they’ve done it on the phone, they just need to do the person-to-person.””

New employees are put on the buddy system, and teamed up with a company veteran on IT calls so they can learn the ropes and see how the company deals with trouble-shooting situations. Additional training may be necessary: “”You always have to factor in personality,”” says Milloy. “”We work with the individual if it’s required. Then we have meetings with the group to go over the dos and don’ts of what the required behaviour is.””

Complaints about an IT person may lead to extra training, and sometimes there just isn’t time to wait for the next employee review period. Milloy says she will step in “”as soon as it’s required. It would always be proactively done. You have to.”” She also makes sure an IT employee knows where to turn if they feel they’re having difficulty relating to the lawyers.

Santos says she has less trouble maintaining relationships between IT and clients than between IT and IT. Disagreements often result in stalemates when both parties believe their way is the correct approach to a high-tech problem. “”They both may work, but either way we need to find the middle ground. A lot of it is kind of refereeing and trying to get people to open their minds a bit around procedure,”” she says.

“”I had an incident at Carswell with the online environment and the back office people and the network people constantly pointing the finger at each other when something would go down. I was tired of it, because it’s very easy to blame somebody when you’re not looking at them.””

Her solution was head-on confrontation. She moved them all onto the same floor. “”I said, ‘Enough of this. Nobody’s getting off this floor until we all get along.’ They had to sit and work together all of sudden. . . . That, I found, was a very good solution.””

Both Milloy and Santos prefer to keep soft skill issues in the family and manage them internally. Milloy says her system works fine and she hasn’t felt it necessary to bring in outside consultants. Santos has tried it once, but feels the direct approach works best.

In the third and final installment of this series, the CIBC and London Health Sciences outline the steps they have taken to introduce a soft skills program. Plus, a specialist discusses the week-long seminar he offers for soft skills training and how participants will be taught to face situations far worse than what they’ll find in the office.

Comment: [email protected]

This installment of our Soft Skills series will appear in the August 23rd issue of Computing Canada

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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