The return of the Renaissance man

Since the dot-com bubble burst a few years back, IT people have suffered much of the fallout through a rash of layoffs, plummeting salaries and shrinking morale.

To make matters worse, IT budgets have also shrunk and, after experiencing unprofitable technology implementations, CEOs and CFOs are starting to take more interest in where, when and how technology is implemented.

“More and more I’m in boardrooms…with business managers with large organizations who have very solid understandings of [the] applications and tools their businesses are using,” said Ben Watson, product manager of Web services at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont. “They’ve chosen to educate themselves so they can make better decisions.”

With upper management increasingly focused on the microeconomic side of technology, and implementations based more on ROI than boosting efficiency, IT professionals must learn the language of business if they want to partake in the decision-making process. The alternative is to have their roles eclipsed by their more business-savvy colleagues.

“With most technology solutions today, the cost-benefit scenario doesn’t fit…and I think that’s why IT has been burned so often,” said Tim Aubrey, senior vice-president of finance at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc. in Toronto. While their intentions are good, IT workers usually think in terms of service rather than money.

“People in IT just typically think ‘If we buy more servers then we’ll have more availability.’ But they never think to say, ‘Are we willing to pay more dollars to have that smaller margin of higher availability?'” he said.

Aubrey said an IT project can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sometimes a project seems to make sense because it has the potential to improve a business process, but financially it’s an unnecessary strain. As a result, business people need to become more tech-savvy, and IT people need to know how to fill in the business part of the equation when pitching new projects.

Microsoft’s Watson agreed. “What has happened as IT budgets have shrunk, is both the developer and the IT professional are now in the position where they’re accountable for the business bottom line.”

Before joining Microsoft, Watson was the CTO of Key Media Inc. in Toronto, where he reported directly to the company’s CFO because IT was considered a basic corporate cost. But now that IT is more integrated with the business, the business responsibility for IT professionals and developers is growing, he said.

While there is still some space for IT professionals and developers who want to work in a purely technical capacity, he said there are very few of these roles available at Microsoft Canada.

“I think they’re going to be sitting on a big team developing a project, but they’re not going on the field implementing because the implementation of software within a business requires both business acumen and technical acumen,” Watson said.

The rebirth of IT

Eugene Roman describes this movement as the Renaissance Effect. “Back in the Renaissance [period from the 14 th to 16 th century] there was no separation between technical and business skills. Somewhere along the line, the two separated.” Now the industry is returning to its own Renaissance period where business and IT skills are re-converging.

“How business people and how IT people look at the world is typically very different,” said Roman, chief information and technology officer (CITO) of Bell Canada in Toronto. “IT guys look at it in terms of the systems, the processes around systems, and they encode the business world in these systems. The business people look at it in terms of how this can help them generate revenue, make business happen faster and help them manage costs. The trick is to bring those two together.”

Roman explained that the birth of the IT professional – groups of data centre specialists and programmers – occurred in the 1960s with the rise of modern computing.

Since then there have been two major turning points, each marked by a push to re-merge business and IT, Roman said. The first happened in the 1980s when personal computing became pervasive. At this point it became crucial for IT professionals to understand users, and especially those who were bringing cash into the company – the customers.

The second point happened around 1996-1997 with the rise of the Web, Roman said.

“The Web put the network out,” he explained. Computers, which previously weren’t really hooked to anything, all of a sudden were massively interconnected. “For a lot of IT people that was pretty spooky because IT people are used to centres and are used to controls.”

In no time IT was starting to be asked if it understood e-business, which is what started to drive this next movement to converge business and IT skills, Roman said.

Self-imposed hurdle

However, IT also built itself some difficult perceptual barriers, which it must overcome in order to be taken seriously by business people.

“To some degree that’s the fault of the earlier IT professional,” Watson said. “We didn’t speak in business terms 10 years ago, we spoke in IT terms. We used acronyms not dollar signs.”

Now that the shift in skills required to climb the corporate ladder on the IT side is clear, companies are looking for ways to help their IT professionals master basic business principles.

Bell has instituted programs for both technical and business people to help them understand the other side of the coin. This included instituting a “Finance 101” course for techies and an “Understanding IT” program for business people.

Robert Garigue, chief information security officer (CISO) of BMO Financial Group in Toronto, said one way to ensure IT people and business people learn about each other’s roles is by providing professional development experiences and job-shadowing to allow people to have blended experiences.

Unfortunately, some companies still treat IT as a back-office function, which does not provide an employee with the right environment to learn about the business side of their workplace, Roman said. A good indication of how a company sees IT is to find out who its CIO reports to, he added.

“If the CIO reports to the financial officer then typically it’s a back-office structure because it’s treated as corporate function,” he explained. “If it’s a front-office function, the CIO sits at the table in the senior management team.”

Although it’s difficult to overcome an IT-unfriendly environment, there are still steps individuals can take to educate themselves about business. Watson, who started out as a graphic designer, taught himself both business and IT skills over the years by taking courses and reading a lot of books. He cited Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities by John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong, as the instigator of his interest in melding the two disciplines of IT. He also suggests reading the financial section of a newspaper to help understand why business decisions are made.

Back to school

Another option for career-minded IT professionals is an executive MBA. To date, however, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., offers Canada’s only MBA for Science and Technology.

The program was founded in 1996, and has 74 students enrolled this year. Only one-fifth of those students have IT backgrounds, while the rest come from such varying disciplines as engineering, chemistry, biology and life sciences. The program’s mandate is to provide technical people with the skills they need to move over to management, said Jeff McGill, director of the program.

According to him, these students, with an average of seven years of professional experience, have one thing in common. “They’ve reached what seems to be a stopping point in the technical side [of their career] – they want to move out into broader areas,” he said.

“I’m guessing, but many of them would be reporting to people with Bachelors of Commerce and MBAs who they would view as seriously technically deficient relative to themselves. [They are] possibly seeing what they would view as bad decisions being made because of ill-informed individuals…and they may feel they could to a better job.”

McGill said the program not only focuses on teaching core business skills such as accounting and management, but also helps students deal with issues such as personality conflicts and morale issues that might arise in a management role.

Many graduates from the program were hired by consulting firms, small start-ups, and Canadian banks and telcos. Hiring activity by consulting firms has dropped off in recent years, but McGill said graduates are still placed quite broadly across the industry.

While such programs are useful, Watson said the best thing to have on a resum