Parenthood, progressive elaboration and the potential of IT managers

A lot happened in the four months I spent working part-time hours: An earthquake in Japan, a royal wedding, a federal election and the death of Osama Bin Laden. If these things were distracting for IT professionals running data centres, imagine trying to keep up with the news while looking after two children under the age of three.

I had a wonderful time looking after my two sons this winter and spring, but what I didn’t love was trying to squeeze in my other duties on the side. Although I’m pretty fast as a writer and editor, it wasn’t easy trying to get everything done in the two hours I (sometimes) got in the afternoon while the kids were taking naps, or in the few hours at night left before I had to turn in, too.

The rest of the time I was going to the library for storytime programs, swimming at our community centre and, once it was a little warmer, taking the boys to the park. To call this activity “work” would be inaccurate and insulting to my boys, but it kept me as busy as I’ve ever been. And fulfilling as it was, I found creating the right balance more difficult than I imagined. In some weird way I can’t help but liken it to the challenge of working in enterprise IT.

We always seem to hear the same thing: that IT managers and CIOs spend so much of their time keeping the lights on, and not enough time on the innovation or business-enhancing activities they’d like to do. This can be a big cause of the burnout that happens in this industry, and why outsourcing, cloud computing and other approaches for offloading the grunt work seems so attractive. In my case, looking after the kids is where I got to innovate and learned the most. Doing my regular job two full days a week and the equivalent of one other day a week from home was the domestic equivalent of “keeping the lights on” in the data centre.

I had tried to delegate what I could at work and winnow down some of my responsibilities but like most people in management, it’s really hard to determine what a part-time version of your workload looks like. It brought to mind the notion of “progressive elaboration.” In project management circles, this refers to the fact that no matter what kind of initiative you undertake, you likely won’t anticipate all the details that will arise. So you have to keep modifying, creating and adding in steps that will take you towards your goal.

Progressive elaboration helped me a lot in the last four months. I started to realize there were certain parts of the day when being accessible via e-mail is critical, and others where it isn’t. I came to know how much time I really had from the time when my baby boy woke up from his morning nap and when we could actually make it to the indoor playground before he would be sleepy again. I determined that there was no point in working on anything that required intense concentration before 8 p.m. at night when the kids are asleep, because in the afternoons I would be too worried about when they might wake up.

In enterprise IT it’s a matter of not only fitting in the server maintenance and fielding help desk calls but finding golden moments to consider what real collaboration could look like in your organization, or how the right approach to analytics will transform management’s decision-making process.

I don’t know if I did the best job as a stay-at-home dad, but I relished it. They will never be that young again, and I may never again have the opportunity to make the kind of impact on their development as I did this year. So it is with enterprise IT. Companies are always growing, maturing. The chance to really help shape them are fleeting. Dream big, take progressive elaboration into account, and don’t waste a single moment.

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