Greg Enright: How to live with a Luddite

Our story on page one, “Execs no IT geeks”, highlights a problem that has afflicted enterprise IT people for decades: the fact that many upper-level executives are in the dark as to just what exactly the people in those back rooms full of wires, monitors and flashing lights are doing.

Back when the mainframe dominated the IT landscape like a tyrannosaurus rex, this wasn’t a huge concern for the average computer keeper. The IBM monoliths hummed along, punch cards were inserted when they had to be, and the CEO was routinely handed with a nice package of data every week or two. These things rarely went down, leaving the CEO free to enjoy his 18 rounds without a computing care in the world. He might not have even known the computer guy’s name.

In the more recent past, however, with the advent of the Internet in particular, things are obviously different. Technology, unlike the situation of even eight years ago, is an integral cog in the enterprise’s wheel. The CEO has much more reason to get to know his or her IS personnel. With so much of the company’s well-being tied to databases, intranets, wireless systems, etc., it would be a foolish move not to.

This increased interaction does not, however, mean that the CEO is any more knowledgeable, or interested in, technology than his or her predecessors from the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, with the overall complexity of information systems increasing at a rate that makes Moore’s Law look turtlish, it can be convincingly argued that executives are more easily frustrated with technology than in the past.

Of course, there are many top dogs who truly “get” IT and are highly interested in how it works. But it is impossible to deny that there are many more who view it as a necessary evil and would rather concentrate on accounting issues or higher-level corporate visions.

Such is the harsh reality for many IT managers. How best to get the ear of a senior purse-string-puller who would rather turn a blind eye?

– Aim for the stars, but expect the moon: Set your goals high in terms of what attention level you expect from the big bosses, and be satisfied if you get one-third of it. For instance, ask to have a regular, 60-minute meeting once a week to review the IT situation. If you get 20 minutes, rejoice in the knowledge that if you didn’t ask you might not have anything at all.

– Let your (controlled) passion come out: Even if you know the CEO might only grasp half of what you’re talking about, don’t let that diminish your fervour for the cause. If you repeatedly show that you care about your work, any CEO worth working for will eventually recognize it and reward it.

– Put yourself in the boss’s shoes: Accept the idea that your leader might never be comfortable with computers. Empathize and deliver your message accordingly, even if it means swallowing a bit of pride.