The IT manager as outlier

Published: December 11th, 2008

I’m putting off reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers. Not because I think it’ll be a difficult read – his work is never less than entertaining – but because its premise goes against everything I like to think about how you achieve success, including as an IT professional.

As with his previous titles, The Tipping Point and Blink, you can spend more time reading about Outliers than you will actually read in the actual book. The word outlier, in this case, are the over-achievers like Bill Gates or Wayne Gretzy whose accomplishments are almost impossible to explain except by attributing it to innate genius. Perhaps Gladwell offers the best synopsis on his Web site:

“We’ve been far too focused on the individual—on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world,” he writes. “And that’s the problem, because in order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them—at their culture and community and family and generation. We’ve been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looked at the forest.”

The patterns Gladwell pulls together include common birthdays of successful software entrepreneurs, rich people and soccer players. He points out the disproportionate number of high-profile New York lawyers who happen to come from Jewish backgrounds. He looks at the family life and cultural backgrounds of those pilots who manage to avoid plane crashes and compares them to the ones who crash and burn. Turns out it not only takes a village to raise a child. Behind every great man or woman is a great collection of stats.

I doubt Outliers devotes a chapter to highly successful IT managers, because it’s not a profession that’s typically broken out and analyzed the way doctors and lawyers are. If we took Gladwell’s approach, however, we might see a lot of the clich

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