Are IT Professionals Too Good At Math?

Elliot Luber is a visiting assistant professor of Business, Management and Leadership at SUNY Empire State College's School for Graduate Studies. Here, he shares his guidance on how to leave the comfort zone of "Math Land" and apply your skills to solving real business challenges.
5 Traits Effective IT Leaders Need
5 Traits Effective IT Leaders Need
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Neuroscientists like my sister tell us we program our brains over time. We behave in learned patterns. A history of associating behaviors with direct rewards hardwires our brains for specific behaviors. These can be good for us, like sticking to an exercise regimen. The trick is to be fully aware of such behaviors.

It's the same for the so-called "nerdiness" some associate with software developers and other technically skilled people. But if we compared MIT's campus activity to that of a less-technical college in the Boston area, we might be surprised by the sense of community. Still, stereotypes about the "math whiz" persist.

Back in the first grade, our teacher asked us to add three plus four. Many of us knew the answer and proudly raised our hands for generous praise. Endorphins flowed. Life was good. Over time, the questions became more challenging, but we were conditioned to the endorphin rewards because we were "good at math," motivated, and hardwired to keep climbing.

[ Don't do it like this. Read 8 Ways To Fail At DevOps.]

Over time we became the kids at lunch who would explain more difficult math like calculus to the others. We were the kids who learned to program -- who would later sneak back alone to our college dorms with a cool problem to solve. We would ultimately put a man on the moon and create an information economy.

While some of us participated in IPOs, many more technical professionals feel perennially passed over -- relegated to a dark room to code rather than making bigger decisions. It's a common complaint in IT circles: 'We've got the best analytical minds around, yet the business executives never seek our opinions!'

It turns out, we're too comfortable in "Math Land" -- a term from a Donald Duck cartoon I saw in middle school. We've not only hardwired ourselves to focus intently on math, but we're hardwired to close ourselves out of our immediate surroundings. Picture Sheldon Cooper in the process of solving problems. This is how you may appear to your business colleagues. We often don't catch the nuance of what happens around us, but when it's laid on our desk we devour nuance.

So how do technical people reconnect for business success?

The short answer is to learn to habitually force yourself out of the comfort zone in which you wait to be rewarded again and again for your deep knowledge. Instead, learn the proper relevance and application of those skills to the business.

Realize all business is all about the customer, not only the process. There are people who have very outgoing personalities, typically in sales and marketing, and they know the customer domain deeply. They don't hold the technical skills to solve customer problems. A technical voice can ground them in science as they can enlighten developers to the market need. One IBM sales veteran once told me (and many others) that in 20 years he "never had a customer come up to ask if I could bring another salesman around to call on him, but if I show up with a technical expert, the customer is always delighted." One person can make a difference. You can make the difference. You only have to find that equation hiding in the word problem. Then, endorphins will flow anew.

There are a bunch of guys, and increasingly women, meeting over in that large corner office. They are making important decisions about the company and, perhaps, your future, but someone dear to us was not invited. First, learn to speak their language, fit in, understand the rules of the game, and find a mentor to teach you these things. Paying an outside coach is an option -- and they often help. But if you can find a coach within your company, one who already has a seat at that table, you'll have more than a mentor -- you'll have a true advocate.

"But I'm really good," you say. Yes, and you may be so good your boss doesn't know where he or she will ever find another like you. There is, therefore, no incentive to promote you from within. What motivates a boss to promote someone? When the value you add helps the boss move the needle in the corner-office meetings. Your technical work must align with company strategy on the NEXT level. Managers are chosen for their people skills, so great technical managers are somewhat scarce, but directors above them are chosen for their backbone, an opposite skill. Help your manager get promoted, and you create motivation and a vacancy. Think like a boss. Be strategic.

At the end of the day, getting out of your comfort zone and aligning your activities with what matters most to the business is what gives your career critical mass. Technical excellence alone will take you only so far, unless you are a true outlier.

People with complementary skills abound. Learn to work with them. Get to know people in other departments (and cultures) with other perspectives. Listen carefully. Look out from your cubicle once in a while. Say good morning. It won't hurt. Show up at social events. Eat with strangers in the cafeteria. Build trusting relationships by talking about things other than work when you can. Meet customers. You may have amazing skills, but sitting alone in a dark room is no way to be discovered by anyone but future paleontologists.