As important as it is for CIOs to treat all team members the same, there's no denying that IT professionals command a different set of leadership strategies.
"The reality is tech support people, engineers, and developers have more in common with each other than they do with anyone else," said Paul Glen, an IT management consultant and author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People who Deliver Technology. "We see the world somewhat differently and we, as groups, interact differently."
Such differences create challenges for software companies and auto manufacturers alike. According to Glen, 92% of technology professionals work for traditional, non-technical corporations and only 8% work in high-tech firms.
So how can senior-level executives effectively lead and manage IT professionals? The first hurdle, Glen said, is overcoming some common misconceptions about techies, their work style, and how to manage them properly.
Misconception #1: Techies approach projects the same way as everyone else.
Not so, according to Glen. "It really boils down to the fact that we actually see the world in fundamentally different ways," he said. "For geeks, work is about solving problems; that is the nature of our work. If we don't have a problem in front of us, we really don't know what to do. For non-geeks, they see the world much more about achieving a vision and what they want to accomplish." As a result, Glen said techies require "a very organized structure" with strict "rules of logics and proofs" to begin a project and see it through to its proper conclusion.
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Misconception #2: Techies are simply being evasive when they refuse to commit to a timeline.
While non-techies are known for fudging the truth now and then about project costs and deliverables, Glen said techies see such haziness as outright lying and "a serious offense," especially when it comes to committing to an exact budget or product development timeline. "Geeks are constantly being pushed for a date and often they just say, 'Well, I don't know when it will be done.' Leaders have to recognize that businesspeople and technical people have very different definitions of lying."
For example, Glen said while a CIO might just "be asking for a target, geeks feel as if they're being asked for an absolute answer." As a result, he said, "leaders experience geeks as being evasive, non-committal, and unmotivated because they refuse to give them answers." However, by "being explicit" about simply desiring an estimate, Glen said leaders stand a much better chance of getting answers out of their truth-bearing techies.
Misconception #3: High-tech jargon makes techies poor communicators.
Despite being known for using "a certain amount of jargon," Glen said the communication breakdown between leaders and techies extends far beyond obscure acronyms. "It is a much deeper problem than not speaking the same language; it's not about specific words," said Glen. Instead, he said, "for geeks, language is all about transmitting information. For non-geeks, language is much more indefinite and ambiguous. It's much more about building relationships."
Because of these two distinct communication styles, Glen said techies and leaders alike have a tendency to "not understand what others are talking about and then just write them off." However, by "making allowances" for communication barriers, and "adjusting our understanding of how to present issues clearly to one another," Glen said techies can ensure they're being heard correctly.
Misconception #4: Techies rarely express emotion because they simply don't care.
IT leaders would be wise not to mistake techies' reserved disposition for apathy. Rather, Glen warned, "The cues that non-geeks look for in geeks, like enthusiasm or commitment, are subjective experiences. However, geeks work hard to avoid being subjective." At the same time, Glen said, techies need to learn that persuading IT leaders to rally behind a project takes more than cold, hard facts. A little bit of emotion-charged persuasion never hurt anyone.