IT managers outline their career stepping stones

Canadian IT managers may not like to think of themselves as reactionary, authoritarian bureaucrats, but they say sometimes you need those qualities to get the job done.

Shane Schick’s Computerworld

The philosopher and the IT manager

In a Webcast discussion on Thursday, IT professionals from a variety of industries took part in a panel discussion called “What does it take to become an IT manager?” The event was held the same day U.K.-based management-services firm Chartered Management Institute released the results of a survey that said IT management styles are having a negative impact on employee health and morale. The survey said the most widely experienced management styles in the U.K.’s IT sector are reactive (45 per cent), bureaucratic (38 per cent) and authoritarian (24 per cent). As part of an online Q&A, ComputerWorld Canada asked the panelists if they encountered such management styles, and what kind of approach they try to take.

“You do need all three of those relatively negative classifications, but you should be more than those bits,” said Brett Bergerman, IT Manager with Calgary-based Connacher Oil & Gas Ltd. “At times you need to be authoritative, especially if there’s a lot of discussion and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and you want to keep the momentum going. You have to be able to react to the unexpected. And you need to have the processes in place to be effective.”

John Morton, technical manager of high-performance compute facility Sharcnet, agreed, adding that “bureaucracy” doesn’t always have to be a dirty word.

“Putting in place processes and ensuring that users’ requirements and auditors requirements are met is hugely important,” he pointed out. “Reactive is definitely a word we’re trying to avoid in IT. We’re trying to move more to the proactive approach working with strategy and operations planning (staff) and setting out the budgets that don’t have huge line items.”

Ken Sutcliffe, director of IT services for the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres (OACCAC), said IT managers have to have confidence that the people who gave them the job trust them to do it. If that means setting up bureaucracies and reacting to events, so be it.

“The key is to know that you’re using one of those approaches and that it’s in control and in context,” he said. “You have to be enabling the positive aspect of whatever management approach you’re doing as opposed to employing a negative style.”

Dan McLean, IT World Canada’s editorial and research director, said IT managers have to inspire people as much as they challenge them.

“To be a successful IT leader is to be a consensus builder – to be able to look at a lot of ideas and give the sense that everyone has ownership in the process,” he said. “They definitely have that ability . . . we all want to work for people like that.”

The IT managers agreed that you don’t need a specific postsecondary degree in order to succeed in the field. More important were a variety of business and technical skills.

Bergerman, who has been working with the University of Calgary to create an IT management program, said employers he’s consulted with are looking for everything from a knowledge of programming to finance, economics and human resources.

“Certifications are definitely not a requirement,” he said. “They were more interested in general degrees, if looking for educational requirements. Although people with certifications can move into that area, they have a lot more business experience to make up for.”

Sutcliffe said a lifelong learning approach is best, possibly through distance education programs where you can apply what you’re studying online to real-world situations you face on the job.

“I’m not necessarily convinced that any particular degree is the right one. I think there will be a combination of things that will work for you, coupled with the development of an IT knowledge,” he said.

As they move up through the ranks in the IT department, panellists said prospective IT managers might face the awkward situation of being put in charge of coworkers who were formerly your peers.

Morton, for example, said he had to work with someone who was up for the same position he got.

“That’s made it extra difficult,” he said. “You just have to treat them professionally and hopefully they will see the situation has changed.”

A change in title doesn’t mean it’s time to throw your weight around, Bergerman added. Instead, it’s an opportunity to show leadership.

“You’re not necessarily a boss,” he said. “You might be more of a facilitator to let them do their job more effectively.”

The Webcast was the final part of a five-week series called Ignite Your Careerhosted by Microsoft’s TechNet program.

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