Keil Hubert: High Tea Leadership

Technology leadership is a difficult concept for some people. Keil Hubert tries to explain what it is and why it’s necessary.

It’s no secret that I’ll be changing employers over the course of the next year. I’ve known for years that my current contract couldn’t extended, no matter how much my current boss might wish it otherwise. The way our rules are set up, you can only remain on the books for so long, and then you have to go elsewhere. [1] I’m glad that it hasn’t been a sombre thing. Quite the contrary, it’s been smiles and handshakes and well-wishes all the way around. My last division supervisor was even kind enough to let me take a little vacation time to go visit an employment fair over in Dallas during some downtime in the production schedule.

I’ve been helping my own people to prepare for new opportunities for years, so I felt reasonably confident when I reached the Dallas Convention Centre. It was your typical seekers’ faire: narrow booths separated by narrow isles, lots of precariously leaning signs, and far too few cheery HR spokespeople to manage the crush of nervous un- or under-employed folks decked out in suits. I’ve been to a lot of these events over the years, and this one was a great example of demand out-stripping supply. Most of the exhibitors did their utmost to collect CVs and re-direct would-be employees to online job boards as swiftly as possible. Kudos to the event’s organizers for making the best of a difficult situation.

As you’d expect, the tone of each company’s booth was different from its neighbours. Some outfits sported a contagiously upbeat tome [2] while others were more sombre and … reserved. [3] Some outfits deployed what seemed like an army to the floor [4] while others were represented by one or two overwhelmed reps who struggled to hold back the tide of résumés. [5] In some cases, you couldn’t even get close to the booth to speak with anyone. [6]

For the most part, though, the 124 of the 125 outfits carried on like you’d expect from seasoned businesses. The reps were genuinely interested in selling their product (their company) to the 3,000 eager customers. Given the CVs I snuck a glance at while I was stalled in the crowded aisles, it looked like a buyer’s (rather than a seller’s) market. I was surrounded by lots of highly-qualified, richly experienced folks with lots to offer. Most everyone stood to make out well from the event. Prestigious multinationals like Intel and IBM were sure to pick up some strong new talent.

As an aside, there was this one company that didn’t seem to fit in …

I’d already completed my circuit of the floor and had run out both CVs and throat lozenges. I was tired, hungry and desperate for a coffee. I was about to call it a day when a young lady nudged my elbow and said hello to me.

I smiled at her. I didn’t recognize her booth or (once I saw it) her company’s name, but that was no reason to be anti-social. I said hello back to her, and made a joke about how crowded it was around us.

The woman shrugged off the comment, stared past me as if already done with me, and then said, “What do you do?”

“I.T. leadership,” I replied.

“What’s high tea leadership?” she said.

I blinked. All right, it was a bit noisy in the hall, and I do drawl when I’m tired. High tea? That was probably my fault.

“No, eye tee leadership,” I said. “Information technology leadership.”

“Oh,” she said, nonplussed. “What’s I.T. leadership?”

I turned to see if she was taking the piss out of me. Her disinterested expression suggested that she was simply running on autopilot and hadn’t given the question any thought at all.

I was struck dumb for about ten seconds as my diplomatic filters all slammed down like airtight blast doors following a hull breach. I felt a bit like the Terminator, scrolling though a menu of optimal responses. The snarky and emotionally-satisfying response that appeared at the top of my list was “I’m sorry for troubling you. Do you have an adult here that I can speak with?”

Hence, why the metaphorical blast doors slammed closed before I could speak. That quip probably wouldn’t have gone over well, and would no-doubt have been looked upon poorly by passers-by. It was a silly question, but there was no need to be rude over it. The young woman clearly wasn’t fully engaged in our conversation.

I smiled and finally [7] said, “Well, generally, I.T. leadership is the person or people who guide and oversee a team of I.T. professionals in order to ensure that business objectives are met.”

She nodded, still not focused on me, and said “Is that like programming?”

I blinked. See previous, re: defensive filters.

The lass’s body language suggested that she wasn’t trying to have fun with me. It seemed that she genuinely didn’t know and didn’t care what I was talking about. I asked a few gentle questions about what she did, and quickly got her measure: In her world, “I.T.” was simply something arcane that other people did somewhere else for reasons that didn’t matter to her. She’d most likely seen Hugh Jackman in Swordfish and had made the logical leap that all us tech people were like Hugh. [8]

That brief moment of being utterly gobsmacked provided me with a welcome chance to reorient and change my approach. I’ve dealt with a lot of folks who shared this lady’s perspective; I just had to rummage around in the back of my conversational kit bag to find something suitable to reply with.

I’ve found that most small and medium non-tech-sector businesses neither understand nor appreciate the technologies that keeps their company running. E-mail and voice calls simply happen because they happen everywhere, all the time. You push some buttons and your iPhone sends a text or forwards a cute cat picture or places or acknowledges a phone call. It may or may not be magic making it happen, but how it works is immaterial to getting through your day. You take it for granted, and just assume that it’ll all work when you want it to. Then, when it doesn’t work, you get irate.

This young lady just happened to be one of those folks. From her vantage point, her company’s profits came through delivery of services. Technology simply wasn’t her problem, since she didn’t have to worry about all the telecommunications and financial and process control and messaging systems that made it possible for her employees to perform their required labours. No wonder she seemed surprised at my assertion that there was such a thing as “I.T. leadership;” in her world, there was no obvious, logical need for such a thing.

Hers is not an isolated perspective. I’ve consulted for many small outfits where the proprietor’s tech base consisted of a closet full of mysterious boxes featuring blinky lights. When pressed about what had gone awry with the kit, the proprietor had no idea – “It just broke,” they’d say, without being able to articulate what “it” was or what “it” did for them.

When I was first starting off as a tech sector entrepreneur, I’d (foolishly) embrace these challenges, thinking that a successful small businessman must have some interest in or understanding of how their critical systems functioned. Time and again, I was astounded when I discovered that my irate client simply couldn’t give a damn about the core systems that ran their business – they just wanted their current problem to “go away” (whatever it was) so that they could go back to doing the things that they understood: stocking shelves, running a till, recording sermons, or whatever.

After several years, I stopped doing technical support entirely as a line of business. The decisive moment for me came from a painful engagement with the marketing department at an import/export concern. The marketeers had cobbled together an ad hoc network in order to share digital files and a colour printer. Their printer had stopped working, so they called. It took me several hours to sort things out and get the machines re-built. I’d under-bid the job in order to earn a long-term client, thinking (foolishly) that once they were sorted, they’d put some effort into staying sorted.

Two weeks later, the client called me again for a late-night emergency visit. It seemed that their shared colour printer wasn’t working. When I reached their shop, I found that the employees had forgotten how to access the shared printer … and that had inspired one enterprising soul to physically pick up the printer and carry it from deck to desk, plugging it in as a directly-connected peripheral each time … and she’d then set each computer up to re-share the bloody thing. In less than two weeks, there were over five-dozen iterations of this one printer on their six workstations, as each PC mounted the printer and then shared it to the others, who (in turn) re-shared it with the rest of the network, ad infinitum. Their print jobs were, unsurprisingly, disappearing into the ether.

I wasted four hours undoing all of that damage, all for a measly hundred quid. As I left that night, I warned the manager that the employee with the “good idea” should be forbidden to configure anything ever again. I explained what had gone pear-shaped, and how to keep things running smoothly. She swore that she understood.

Of course it didn’t take. The company called me again a week later. Same problem. I asked if the “good idea fairy” had taken it upon herself to change everyone’s print settings again. “Yes,” the manager said, clearly vexed. “Because the printer had stopped working. So we had to fix it and now it isn’t working for anyone.”

Ten years later, that outfit serves as a shining example of why any business large enough to need a production network needs someone in an I.T. leadership role.

To be clear: this little company didn’t warrant a Chief Information Officer. An I.T. director would have been overkill. Even a dedicated I.T. manager was probably more than they required.Someone, though, needed to be on staff to oversee the company’s tech functions and to ensure that everyone abided by certain rules in order to keep the operation running smoothly.

This import/export business already had a sysadmin – they employed three full-time fellows to run their servers, manage their accounts and keep the cables connected. I met them. Their techs were Windows-only men, and the client who had hired me came from the a department which had decided to go Macintosh-only. Rather than (a) learn how to support the alternative workstations, or (b) provide the workers with PCs that would meet their needs, the sysadmin and his two assistants had simply washed their hands of the entire department and left them to their own devices (literally).

It was no wonder that the marketing department’s equipment was in awful shape; not a single one of the marketeers felt that they were responsible for learning how to use or maintain their tools. They treated their computers like appliances, and then got miffed when their toasters broke. When they went to get help from the resident boffins, the supposed tech department closed the proverbial door on them. Rather than learn to be self-sufficient, they got petulant and ruined their own kit.

That’s where I.T. leadership comes into play. A reasonable and responsible manager would never have allowed the situation to degenerate the way it had at this company. All that these people needed was working tools, policies for how the equipment would be supported, basic controls over untrained users’ ability to destabilize their gear, and some training in how to troubleshoot common errors. The leadership part of that isn’t execution of those tasks – it’s understanding what the business needs, assessing what the employees can and can’t do for themselves, and then enforcing the required standards of conduct. It is as much a diplomat’s art as a boffin’s task-list.

The larger the organization becomes, and the more kit that’s involved, the more there’s a critical need for I.T. leadership. The tech director’s job isn’t a sinecure; it’s a critical position, akin to a ship’s navigator. If you want to get your organization to reach the captain’s objective, then someone has to plot the course and monitor the team’s progress … all the while point out the problems on the horizon that need to be avoided.

All of that history flashed through my mind as the young lady at the jobs booth asked me what I was on about. I smiled at her, cleared my list of snarky replies, and told her, “It isn’t programming, really. It’s more like getting all of those programmer working together effectively.”

The HR lass shrugged her shoulders, unimpressed, and asked if I had a CV that I wanted to give her to pass on to someone in HR.

I smiled and said (honestly), “I’m fresh out. Sorry. But thanks for asking.”

She gave me a reflexive half-smile and went back to listlessly scanning the crowd.

As I made my escape, a gentleman that had been close enough to overhear my exchange with the young lady rolled his eyes in empathy.

“Can you believe that?” He asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I see it all the time.”

[1] There’s an exception that allows you to stay if you replace your boss, but there’s no realistic way to do that given how many people are competing for so few positions. Luck of the draw.

[2] ‘Best of show’ went, hands down, to United Health Group for fielding the most effervescent and cheerful reps on the floor. I spoke with three of their people and couldn’t help but tap into their collective good humour and intoxicating sense of optimism. Well done!

[3] Out of courtesy, I’d prefer to not name those folks.

[4] I’d bet you twenty quid that J.P. Morgan Chase had darned near three dozen reps on the floor. Those folks came in force.

[5] More kudos to an outfit called Glazer’s Distributors. A very cheerful gentleman named Anthony not only answered all of my off-the-cuff questions about his business, its century of history, it’s place in American law, and their product line … He tackled everything I could fire at him while greeting everyone who drifted into the orbit of his booth. Never missed a beat. I thought briefly about hiring him for my outfit just to secure his communications skills.

[6] Amazon: I’m looking at – but not getting to converse with – you. Gadzooks, what a scrum.

[7] Once I’d F5’d my response menu until an appropriate option appeared.

[8] If only …

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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