It may well be among the most brutal 30 minutes I’ve ever spent in my life.
I was asked to take part in Bring Your Kid To Work Day – not to bring in a child, since mine is under two years old – but to explain what my department does. Which meant, in addition to going over the fundamentals of journalism, sketching out the entire IT industry. To a group of four grade niners. By myself.
It’s almost impossible to describe what happened next.
On my way into the boardroom I was warned by a colleague they were “pretty dead.” This was an accurate description, except that if they were actually dead their eyes might have been closed. Instead they were slumped in their chairs, eyes trained on me. Judging me, I felt. Waiting for my failure. I tried asking questions, and got no response. I tried talking straight-forwardly about enterprise IT and realized it sounded like I was using a foreign tongue.
This is probably the first time I fully appreciated what it must be like for an IT manager to stand in front of an audience of his or her coworkers and explain a policy, project or product. I knew these kids didn’t really hate me – that would have required more emotion than they were willing to expend – but after a career filled with public speaking I suddenly felt a rush of panic like never before. I was dying! Bombing! What do you?
Just before I went in someone I work with said she assumed I would be giving them a writing assignment. I wish I had thought of that earlier. Another colleague said I should take five recent issues of one of our magazines and have them pick their favourite. This was easier to do at the last minute, and I managed to eat up a whole five minutes in letting them deliberate and jot down their thoughts on a piece of paper. Although open-ended questions had elicited nothing so far, the idea of “homework” obviously resonated. They dutifully came up with some opinions, which were shared and discussed as a group. They were still pretty tentative, but it was something.
Involving your audience is not a new idea, of course, and one that I’m sure many successful IT managers deploy all the time. They ask staff to walk through their typical work process. They get them to draw a diagram of how information should flow. They ask them to vote on a proposed policy. My little exercise was a great way of helping me get to the point I should have come up with all along: although the concepts behind IT are complex, we need to create strong images on our covers to get the point across, and that usually involves focusing on the people behind (or in front of) IT. Leave it to a bunch of high-schoolers to remind me of one of the IT manager's most important lessons.