Management Memo: The true IT pro

During my career, I have encountered hundreds of IT professionals at all levels, from operators on the machine-room floor through to CIOs. Some of them have been mediocre performers (at best), the majority all right, and a very few superstars. What then differentiates the really good IT professional from the rest of the crowd?

The superstars let you know exactly how it is – anything from their feelings on a particular issue through to the status of a project. Their opinions are always reasoned judgments, practically thought through and delivered in even tones – no ranting or raving. The pros never try to conceal the reality as they see it. In addition, their behaviours are consistent and directed towards what is best for the business.

True professionals can net out in 25 words or less what it takes others more than a 100 words to say. Also, they recognize the audience they are addressing and will ensure their vocabulary makes the message completely understandable. Even if the message is unpleasant, the true professional will find a non-irritating, yet accurate, way to convey it and will find a way to get people onside towards an effective solution.

Pros also listen well – really listen – not only understanding what is being said, but the way in which the message is being communicated. Their subsequent interchanges reflect their understanding of this verbal and non-verbal comprehension.

Superstars understand the importance of selling their ideas and what it takes to get people excited about a direction they think is best for the organization. They realize that ideas, no matter how logical, do not sell themselves and will probably meet with some resistance. Also, they demonstrate a quiet assertiveness and confidence, which gets people onside rather than putting noses out of joint.

The true professionals realize that everyone in a group or department has a contribution to make and deal with their colleagues accordingly. They also have excellent judgment of people’s strengths and weaknesses, and, if asked by their boss, will honestly provide such an assessment.

Superstars respect the fact that for sound IT service and project delivery, predefined processes, methodologies and controls should be rigorously followed. At the same time, however, they are not blind to sound professional judgment and commonsense, and won’t hesitate to adapt a given methodology for the technical or business situation at hand (of course, they will document their rationale and, if needed, seek approval for any deviation).

Superstars like to see a job well done, whether on their own or as a result of their participation in a team. This includes not only exhaustively testing a work product with the intention of making it fail, but also ensuring it is maintainable through, believe it or not, sound documentation practices. They don’t seek the limelight as those problem solvers trying to be heroes. Rather true professionals see the problems well in advance, resolving them before they become visible issues.

Superstars understand they are paid for the job they do, not the hours they keep. At the same time, they are sensitive to their coworkers and do not abuse this privilege. They tend to lead balanced lifestyles, but when they are on the job they really work hard! Superstars know their stuff. Certainly they can be outclassed by some of their coworkers in a specific area, but they see the big picture – the interaction among various technologies and the business potential arising from their integration. They may not be the most intelligent or creative individuals in your group, but typically they are the ones you call on when you need a sound appreciation of what is going on and what it takes to implement industrial-strength solutions.

True IT professionals understand why they are there – to enable positive business change through technology and redesigned processes. They can ignore tempting projects if they deem no business value, even if the technology involved looks very interesting.

If I were discussing any other discipline, the above list would probably be the same. Take time to think about your top performers and what really sets them apart. More importantly, take time to think about how to lead them to their next performance level and, ultimately, their true potential.

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–Graham J. McFarlane, P.Eng., ISP, FCMC is a consultant who has worked with IT management, both in Canada and internationally, since 1978, focusing on improving IT effectiveness. Prior to this, he spent ten years with IBM Canada.

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