An industry badly in need of advice

The faster the world spins, the more things are likely to fly off. — Anonymous

I’m afraid one of the things that’s in danger of flying off, if it hasn’t already, is the art and science of giving advice in IT, of providing guidance — the more experienced to the less experienced developer, the older to the younger analyst, the wiser and carefully measured to the wildly enthusiastic and unrestrained manager.

I got to thinking about the subject when I read an interview with a Calgary-based CIO in CIPS Magazine. Dennis Kalma, the CIO for the Alberta Electric System Operator, said: “I came out of university at a time when there was a lot more time for management in organizations to teach and to coach, so I had a real opportunity to learn from experienced people. Nowadays, the workplace is so hurried, that those who could mentor are too busy to do so.

There’s no time for quiet reflection; for sitting back and admiring the problem. We’re not taking the time to teach people how to do things well the first time. And the people that have those mentoring skills will be retiring in the next decade.” Ain’t that the truth? I’ll go one step further, beyond that formalized thing they call mentoring. Calling it mentoring makes the whole wonderful and sometimes messy range of wisdom-passing and people development sound more formal and organized than it really is.

Despite the proliferation of accountability agreements, formal performance reviews, and 360-degree feedback, we’re still missing the mark somewhere. Seems to me that all of these tools are helpful, but they’re often used as a poor stand-in for the real work of helping people along in their career.

And I’m not just talking about the positive side of feedback and guidance, either. I’m also talking about the times when a more experienced hand should say to a less experienced staffer, “why don’t you come in to my office and we’ll talk about it for a while?” And if the less experienced programmer/analyst/manager/whatever has screwed up badly enough, the request to “come into my office” might be followed by “and close the door behind you.”

Have you ever seen a junior guy screwing up in your shop? Ever seen him or her do or say something in a meeting that you once did or said yourself, and later regretted? It’s enough to make you cringe, isn’t it?

How about the bright and aggressive young manager who is completely tone deaf to his own poorly written e-mail, and doesn’t seem to know when his abrasive style is ticking people off. How about the analyst who writes three-page e-mails when a single paragraph would be much better?

Weren’t you thankful that, because they had the time and the inclination, someone senior took you aside and pointed out where you might want to revise your behaviour? Don’t you wish you had the time to take someone aside now? Maybe it’s a function of my advanced years (42), but I’m finding that a lot of the folks in this business my age and older hearken back to good advice or good examples they saw in the past: “I learned from my first boss…”

Even if the junior folks in the IT business now were amenable to this kind of help, I’m afraid we don’t have the time to give it. As an IT manager today, can you imagine logging in your time-capture system “two hours spent with one of our young programmers helping them understand the best way to get a message across to one of our VPs.”

The Gartner Group indicates that one of the highest priorities for CIOs now and in the future is recruiting, retaining and re-skilling IT employees. How ironic that as things speed up, we have so very little time to spend with our employees making these things happen.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at

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