The need to keep promoting Women in IT

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I read with interest this Quora post (http://www.quora.com/Computer-Science/What-are-the-disadvantages-of-being-a-female-in-a-male-dominated-CS-engineering-university#ans1240624) and it reminded me that in reality, we haven’t made much progress regarding women in IT in the 15 years or so that I’ve been involved in it.

There is definitely an IT stereotype – geeky male, muttering to himself as he clicks furiously away at the cheeto-stained keyboard, pausing only to drain what’s left in the Mountain Dew mug on top of his PC.  He may be a wizard of Dark Arts, but socially, fugheddaboutit, and women-folk are only seen on r/gonewild.

*That* stereotype *has* changed in 15 years.  As IT has matured, and become more integral to business operations (and business success), CIOs have become leaders that walk political tightropes with social skills far removed from that pocket-protected toner jockey.  The best example of this, that I’ve worked with, is Larry Rocha at WATG.  His adroitness at walking the political tightrope has manifested itself in his election as Chairman of the Board for WATG for several years now.  How many other CIOs have, or can, be a Chairman of the Board?

However, women in IT haven’t seem to make as much progress as one would expect, or hope.  Part of it may be because of the social awkwardness associated with IT, but that’s a rather flimsy excuse.  The vast majority of women in IT that I’ve been able to work with have been sales reps; whom better to send in to pitch some tech than a very good-looking female to a bunch of slavering geeks?

But that role, while not exactly denigrating (good salespeople are hard to find!), tends to shoehorn women into that expectation.  Do you like tech?  Acronyms?  Great, you speak their language, get out there and sell.

One of the best managers I ever had was female, and her technical knowledge was next to nothing.  But she was effectively the CIO (although they called her a director) of 8000 users and 80 branches across the US.  She was *constantly* terrified that her lack of technical knowledge would be her undoing, but it never was.  She was brilliant at personnel management and motivation, and surrounded herself with smart people that she trusted to make the technical decisions.  I don’t think I believed it before her, but you *can* be a leader in IT, without deep technical skills, if you’re simply excellent on the personnel/management side.

Again, I’ve been lucky enough over the years to see into a very large number of other firms, and the one consistent amongst the senior levels (C-level execs) was that they were, almost without exception, white males.  Silicon Valley tends to be a bit of an exception (See Whitman, Fiorina, et al.), but for the most part, females in support roles drift towards Admin, HR and Accounting.

I don’t have an explanation other than that other than it’s not right.  We, in IT, shouldn’t be “bringing up the rear” in terms of creating equal opportunities for women.  I don’t think pay is an issue as much as it is making IT seem like an attractive career path for smart women considering their options.

And the biggest hurdle – I assume – is that when women think about IT, their first thought is “male-dominated”.  The only way to overcome that is to aggressively attempt to hire, retain and promote women into IT.  We have a lot of catching up to do.

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Ah, sweet failure…

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I was recently asked to blog about some of my worst experiences, some of my failures in IT.  My initial reaction was “wtfbbqnowaykkthxbai”, but it really did get me thinking of some bad experiences, both technical and managerial.  I have a philosophy in life, and in IT (they’re rather bound together for me) that there is no such thing as a *100%*, completely bad experience.  No matter how grave or dire or distressing it may feel at the time, there is *always* some positive takeaway from it.

Terrible breakup with the girlfriend? Now you know what traits to look out for.  Formatted a raid 5 dataset because you were clicking too fast? You click slower from then on.  In the moment, the positive aspects may seem non-existent, or irrelevant at best, but time has a way of changing that perspective.

All that said, I think part of this blog’s goal is to inform, or educate, and if I can learn from my mistakes, why shouldn’t you? 🙂

The worst technical experience I’ve had – and there have been many – was for Waste Management (the garbage folks).  This was during my time at PBM, a VAR in Orange County.  I did various sysadmin things for the WM office in Irvine (including migrate them from token-ring to ethernet, which dates me), but not a lot as they were a Novell shop.  The head of IT over there was one of the nicest human beings I’ve met; soft-spoken, scholarly, low-pressure kind of guy.

My project was to set up RightFax for them.  RightFax is a server-based faxing solution, which basically allows companies to get rid of all the fax machines lying around the office and consolidate them.  I had done a ton of these, so I estimated labor at roughly 8 hours, and scheduled the install.

I was still on it three weeks later. Please remember that this was in the mid-90s, pre-Internet, or at least pre-Internet with any decent content.  I had a white box Novell 4.11 server, a Brooktrout PCI Fax board, and 2 DID circuits.  I *could* *not* *get* the DID circuits to work.  Yes, I had the special voltage power adapter.  Yes, I had disabled everything else and eliminated IRQ conflicts.  Vanilla install, scrub, reinstall.  Call the phone company.  Call RightFax. Call Brooktrout.  Replacement fax board.  Replacement power supply.  Nada.  Everything looked perfect, except the circuits wouldn’t come up.

You’ve probably already recognized my mistake by now, but late one night, roughly around midnight, I went back to PBM, took a desktop PC to the Waste Management offices, threw NetWare and RightFax on it, plugged in the card, and it immediately worked.  I had of course tried different PCI slots on their server, but there was just something about that server’s motherboard that caused the card to partially work, but not work with DID circuits.  I didn’t care.  I’ll be honest with you, at 2 am, after three weeks of slamming my head on this issue, and feeling incredibly guilty about not getting it done for the client, I got emotional.

The lesson I learned from this is that for every situation, there’s a “punt” timeout required.  We know about it in the micro; if you’re working on a pc for more than 2 or 3 hours, at some point you have to say “we’re just gonna wipe it”.  But the timeout exists in the macro, too.  You have to stay detached enough from the issue to allow yourself to walk away, take a break, or reset the situation and start from scratch in a completely different method.

On the managerial side, I think the largest mistake I’ve made – and to be honest, I’ve made far more mistakes as a manager than I ever did technically – was to not let go of employees that weren’t working out quick enough.  I’ve managed dozens of people, and fired more than a dozen, but there were a couple of instances where, for a variety of reasons, I just kept giving people 2nd and 3rd and 4th chances.

In all my years as a manager, I have only seen two occasions where employees in trouble turned it around and became solid, long-term contributors.  It is very, very rare.  When someone beneath you is sliding, you go through the steps: this is what you’re doing wrong, this is what you need to do, lets go do it.  And in my last mistake, that person would right the ship for a month, or two, and then slide back.  Unfortunately, this had an extremely negative effect on not only our customer service levels, but also within the IT group.  That latter problem is what takes my failure to manage properly from a casual mistake to a critical mistake, and I will live with it for a long time.  But the positive takeaway is, I won’t allow that to happen in the future.

I could have picked any number of examples, but these two have stuck with me, over the years;  I can tell you, at the time, I sure as hell didn’t think there was anything positive about either experience.  But I think that if you’re going to grow, be it as an IT professional or just as a plain human being, you have to take what you can from whatever you’re given.

Why one of your most important support needs might be the most overlooked

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There’s a new show on AMC called “The Pitch”.  Two ad agencies compete for a single account.  Although the situation is contrived, it is a fascinating look into both advertising and how businesses actually *work*.  I digress, though.  The key moment is when each agency gives… wait for it… the pitch to the client.  And in two of the four episodes that I’ve seen, that presentation has been derailed by technical issues.  You can literally feel the odd mixture of embarrassment, anger, and frustration just ooozing from the admen, and the looks on the client’s faces reveal what they’re thinking pretty clearly.

In my eight years as Director of IT for WATG, I *never once* sat in on a client presentation.  The only charette I went to was an in-house one that was specifically open to all comers.  That lack of participation is no one’s fault but my own; but I would gather that my experience is not unique.

If you’re reading the title and saying “wait, my mobile users get more love than anyone else” – I understand.  The concept of the “mobile user” – just saying it – starts to fill us with tension.  Okay.  Cell phone? Check. Integrate with email? Check. International roaming? Check. iPad?  Okay.  Laptop? Check. Laptop that runs Revit blindingly, has a 20″ monitor, and weighs under 3 pounds? Let me get back to you.  Understanding the difference between international wi-fi (free) vs $2/mb on cellular? Hrmmm.

It’s a struggle.  So much of your workforce is just putting round pegs in round holes.  Apply X to Y and repeat 200 times.  Mobile users are different.  But unfortunately, in IT, the common mistake is too often A) underserving mobile users, and B) not differentiating between “regular” mobile users and mobile users that touch the client.

The bar for a teleworker can (and should) be different than for a rainmaker.  Yes, the teleworker is a key contributor, they have deadlines, etc., etc.  But the salesperson – the pitch man – is ultimately the one that factors hugely into whether the client chooses *your* firm vs. firm x.  And to that end – just as technology has saturated every single process in our lives; it has saturated the sales process.

It starts with basic phones and communication.  Email working *all the time*?  Spam filters easy to use if that client’s email from Kazakhstan gets blocked? Making sure the user’s cell phone has coverage no matter what country they’re in?  VPN easy and straightforward?

Then there’s the equipment – the lightest laptop possible based on their needs.  A quality portable projector if needed.  Tablets, iPad, mobile hotspot, *whatever it takes* to make sure any engagement with the client is seamless and easy, easy, easy.

If you’re operating at the higher end of the IT pyramid, the conversation needs to be “what technologies can we leverage to help our firm sell/present/charette better?”.  That is when technology becomes fun, but you can’t have that discussion unless you’re 100% confident that you have the basics covered.

If you’re on the IT side and reading this, make an effort to reach out to one of your rainmakers who travels consistently, and ask them how you can make their job easier.  If you’re on the leadership side reading this, consider sending some of your staff along on the next client engagement.

Because our mobile users are the neediest, and quite often the noisiest, it is all too easy to fall into a semi-adversarial relationship with them.  They are *not* like other users.  And for those that are the public face of your firm, they also are projecting your firm’s IT capabilities.

One of my key phrases that I like is that IT’s message should be “go concentrate on design; we’ll be ubiquitous”.  There is perhaps no area where ubiquity is more important than with your firm’s rainmakers.

In IT, if you’re not moving forward, you’re dying. Here’s why.

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No, this is not a shark analogy.  It’s not even about staying up to date with the latest and greatest technology. It’s really about setting and exceeding corporate expectations, and the dangers your firm faces if you don’t.

I tried to explain this concept to a potential client recently, and I don’t think I did a great job.  In a nutshell, I think we can categorize most or all of our efforts into three general categories: things that we’ve got down to a science and don’t really have to think about (Got It); things that are in our wheelhouse, but require some oversight (Working It); and things that make us stretch ourselves; doing research, trial and error, failure and success (Pushing It).

Those of you amazed with my prior graphics skills will especially like this:

Just as someone could classify their *personal* work efforts into these categories, so can groups and departments, and even whole firms.  In a healthy IT group, this arrow is a good representation of how the group has the basics down pat; actively supporting customer (end user) needs; and investigating new ways of helping the business.

However – in many firms, for any number of reasons – the IT department is stuck in what we call “maintenance mode”.  This is equivalent to having a bunch of mechanics riding around in the car with you.  They’re filling the tires, changing the oil, and if a gasket (not really sure what that is, TBH) breaks, they hop right on it.  What they’re *not* doing is researching new cars, new ways of improving fuel efficiency, and they have no clue about something called satellite radio.  Maintenance mode IT groups have an arrow that looks like this:

 

In this mode, there’s really no “subconscious” / got it mode.  The very *basics* of what the IT group should be doing are now in “Working It” mode; and their day-to-day support is the “pushing it”.  This group will spend most of its time fighting fires, and have little to no time to aggressively implement new technology.

So what causes this?  Lack of funding is a key contributor, but can’t be blamed for everything.  When funding is an issue, it tends to be for personnel – too few mechanics for too many cars leaves no time for “Pushing It” mode.  Lack of attention to my “Applying Mazlov’s Hierarchy to IT Departments” philosophy, or key blocks missing from the pyramid.  But IT staff *cannot* blame low funding for everything.

I can hear the IT guys out there saying “but Mike, we have no budget to “push””.  Irrelevant.  No excuses.  The number of free/extremely cheap IT tools and end-user products out there is near-limitless.    It doesn’t always have to be client-facing.  Monitoring. Management.  Instant Messaging. Wikis.  You *have* to have a mindset of constant improvement, of motion forward, or you’re really just a mechanic sitting in the back seat.

And why should firms care?  Because it hits the bottom line.  When your basic infrastructure (files – email – backups – etc) are in the “Got It” mode for the IT group, I *guarantee* you your downtime is absolutely minimal.  If you’re having outages that impact business delivery, the odds are really high that your IT group is looking more like the latter arrow than the former.

That first arrow is a good indicator of what a healthy IT group looks like.  And a healthy IT group really does contribute to a healthy firm – *especially* in the AEC vertical.