Technology Is A Human Endeavor

IT leaders share their insights on why technology doesn't mean anything without people.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

May 5, 2015

4 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="" target="_blank">Michelle Zell-Wiesmann</a> via Flickr)</p>

Time Killers At Work: How To Avoid Them

Time Killers At Work: How To Avoid Them

Time Killers At Work: How To Avoid Them (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Last week, while covering Interop Las Vegas, I was struck by the number of technology leaders who didn't talk very much about technology. They talked about people. Even when asked how they deployed technology to turn around their IT departments, they talked about people. If Interop made one thing clear, a fully functioning IT department isn't about the interoperability of a network, or a storage system,  or a datacenter. It's about the interoperability of the people who put it all together.

In session after session, speakers at Interop emphasized this point in their presentations.

"Technology is fundamentally about people," said Eduardo Ruiz, Director of IT, Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health. "In the most critical moments, when everything is on the line, nothing is more powerful than the connection of one human to another."

People were top of mind for Terry Bradwell, EVP and Chief Innovation Office, AARP. "Our technology was developed with a social mission in mind," he said  "Millions of Americans over 50 are having trouble adapting to technology."

Johnathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC, advised: "Love technology, but love people more."

And Andy Aczel, CTO, The Specialists Guild, observed: "A good manager finds a way to bring out the best in people. Basically, that's your job. You are an enabler, so others can do their best job."

It is easy to discount this as something leaders have to say to get everyone on board and so they can move on to the "good stuff." But each of these leaders made a commitment to the idea that dealing with people was the "good stuff." The key to the turnaround or the new product or the better organization or the improved culture all started with people.

[ Want to learn more on what these same leaders said about innovation? Read Innovation Starts with Culture: Interop Leadership Track. ]

For example, when Feldman inherited an overworked, under-appreciated staff at the city of Asheville, he said it was easy to see that they were the "working wounded." "Miserable employees deliver miserable service," Feldman said. "There is a notion I learned working for the city that they use in firefighting called 'task saturation.' When a commander has too many things going on, bad things happen."

Avoiding the "bad things" comes down to the work you and your employees are doing (or not doing). Equally important is for an IT leader to take the time to learn about the work employees want to be doing. Bradwell said that when he assesses talent, he doesn't ask a person about their current job. Instead, he asks:  "Tell us, not what you do, but tell us what you can do, or what you have done, that is not relevant to what you do now."

Feldman turned around the old leadership question of what keeps people up at night  "I don't want to know what keeps you up at night," he said. "I want to know what gets you excited to spring out of bed in the morning."

This enthusiasm for the human side of tech was evident in the management tales these speakers told, as well as in their views of how to serve customers. For example, Bradwell talked about launching a nationwide campaign to train senior citzens to use technology, and shared how his team produced a tablet designed specifically for older people. Feldman and his team have launched award-winning apps to serve the Asheville community. With an IT team of only eight individuals, Ruiz takes care of the tech needs of a nationwide community of hospitals and universities by successfully deploying off-the-shelf software and cultivating a positive culture.

We often think of technology as a "0s" and "1s" kind of business. It is becoming increasingly clear that if you want to succeed at it, you need to put the human first. This is going to make some technologists uncomfortable, but if you aren't ready to do it, you aren't ready to lead. If you want to lead, take Ruiz's advice: "Invest in people. They are your greatest resource."

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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