Talking with Kevin Nicholls today about IT Leadership. Kevin has moved in and out of leadership roles in his career and brings a unique perspective to the challenges IT Leadership faces. We’ll discuss how to manage reporting to a non-IT person and how to best use communication skills in those instances. Towards the end of our discussion, Kevin will give his advice on being in IT and how being in IT Leadership is a responsibility.

The brief history of Kevin

  • Director of client services in metro Detroit for a web hosting company
  • System Engineering manager of an international services provider
  • Team spread across US and some overseas
  • Prior to this, he was an Email and messaging services architect
  • Gone back and forth between systems network engineering and leadership from 1999-2000
  • Been in IT since 93-94. First real position in IT was System Admin in 1996 so, over 20 years in IT

Today talking about being an IT manager/leader and what it’s like and how it works when you deal with leaders who do not have an IT background

Information Technology Creds

  • What are the inherent advantages of being IT when you are in IT Leadership? – It buys you credibility
  • Could a person with an IT background step in and make configuration changes with their staff? Maybe, but not necessarily.  The IT background provides insight into what you are asking your team to do on a day to day basis. Having had time in the seat, you have the background to understand the impact of what your staff is doing and how long it will likely take.

Flip IT good

Flipping that, when you are a techie and reporting to someone who does not have an IT background…it’s daunting. Is it more than just not understanding the technology or is there more to it?

There are two major obstacles:

  • You feel your manager doesn’t know what you do. How can this person rate me when he/she doesn’t know what I’m doing?
  • The other obstacle is there is a tendency to put on a show using unreal references. An IT person may not want to deal with them and may not respect them.
    • The non-IT person/leader may genuinely ask if they can provide hands-on help with your work when you know they can’t really help…and this can make things more difficult. While sincere, the IT person knows the leader can’t help technically and this can further detract from the relationship.

A cowardly and superstitious lot

  • IT people are a controlling lot. When working for those above us who we view as not knowing anything technical, there can be a tendency to be dismissive. Because an IT person wants to keep that control and honestly, some can be paranoid about it. IT people should certainly try to be more understanding in this regard, but its not something that comes easy to everyone in the IT space.  This isn’t an excuse, it’s a more of a personality flaw influenced by the nature of some technology.
  • If you were able to start from scratch with someone new in an IT leadership position without an IT background, keep this in mind…IT leadership is different than straight IT work. What we rarely see between IT leaders and staff is the communication of the why for a request. Why is a project needed by an unrealistic time period? Or why is a particular piece of software to be used instead of another?

Leadership Quality Assurance

  • Recently, Kevin had a request come in for additional Quality Assurance (QA) to be performed. The non-IT leader who made the request didn’t not know this was already being worked on. Kevin took this lack of awareness as a sign he needs to communicate this information better than it being a slight against IT or someone being clueless. The advice is this…keep in mind, while a person may not understand the fine details of technology, their role is to take your work and plug it into the goals of the company as a whole. That may cause some overlap and require communication improvements.
  • IT Leadership can’t tell you everything going on in an organization. It’s not possible. You have to go on the assumption there is a good business reason for something…that’s not always a rule however. The relationship you build depends on trust. Falling back to the idea the non-IT leader just doesn’t know anything useful just hurts the chances of an improved relationship.
  • Sometimes it’s a resource issue or a constraint. The person without an IT background may not know the fine details of how long something may take to do and simply look for a body to fill a role without the knowledge of the skillset needed.

Communication Digestion

  • A lot of companies (small and large) will allow working from home or leaving early to do things such as life in general.  Doing so can help with developing the trust and build the relationship. So, when something is needed, it makes things more digestible.
  • It truly is about communication, it’s about building trust, and it’s about understanding what the requirements are and building from there. However, this isn’t universally exactly the same everywhere. It varies for different people and situations.
  • Part of being in IT leadership is it’s your responsibility to communicate what is occurring in the company (tech wise and otherwise) to those who report to you. Recapping every meeting for the week would likely be very boring. It’s unnecessary. Stick to those things most applicable to your team. Product launches, etc. and provide details to those interested. When you have IT experience, you can temper the communication for your IT staff.

Avoid Cherry Picking

  • We want people to have as much info as is useful to them without causing panic or seen as coming from left field. Not just IT items either. It could be as simple as a dress code change. Keep it high level and detail out bits and pieces as necessary.
  • In the future, it will likely change how reporting certain things occurs. As a practical matter, it’s probably not a good idea to come right out and say a company is doing really bad off the cuff to a group of people. It may be truthful, but it’s impact can be harmful obviously.
  • It’s really a selective process. Not cherry picking, but selective to those who need to hear certain things. Everyone is different and will react differently.
  • Cherry picking could also contribute to the credibility problem. You look like a cheerleader more than a leader. One of the functions of IT leadership is knowing you have a substantial amount of info and knowing what is relevant and what is good or bad and they have what they need.

It’s not easy leading teams

IT Leadership (and leadership in general) is not an easy thing. Going from IT techie to leader is not what you think it will be. You may flourish and you may not. There are people who have done really well in a technical role and then moved to IT leadership because they did so well in IT.  This could be called the halo effect. Kevin prefers “Puma’s on Hover bikes” from . The best IT person in the group has his thumbs cut off and pushes a cart around to hand out Band-Aids when he really wanted to just be on a hover bike. This describes IT leadership well…on some days.

What’s the most difficult part of the IT leader job? There is a misperception it is a reward. If it’s what you want to get to, then yes, it is a reward for you. But, if it’s not what you aspired to, then it’s not what you really want and it’s likely not a good move. People see it as a logical promotion path but, its not what they really want to do.

Predict what’s next

Battlefield promotions occur in IT a lot. The next higher role is given to you based on attrition or need. When the manager/leader role comes along, you want to really consider if you want to be taking it. Does this mean you shouldn’t take advantage of an open leadership role? No. However, you need to be flexible these days in IT. Maybe this will mean you want to consider the IT leader role and maybe not. Don’t turn down a role just to keep doing the exact same thing over and over because you will become stagnant.

With IT you need to be thinking about what’s next. The longest role Kevin had was a broad-based IT role and you don’t see those much anymore. The workforce itself is more attended to technology now than in the past. There are companies who buy Mac books with Apple care and send people to the Apple store for support…you get to go to the mall instead of waiting for IT.

Back in the day, Kevin was a serious Blackberry admin and very good at it. If he was still doing only Blackberry now, he would be sad…because it’s used much less these days. What is hot today may not be hot in 3 years. So, chose carefully. Become awesome at what you are doing but, keep an eye out for what is happening next.

Remember the good times

One piece of advice for those in IT working as or heading towards IT leadership, understand the people you are leading more than anything and the nuances of an IT department…even if it involves working hands on in the department for a time.  Remember the IT leaders you have had who weren’t very good…remember what happened and don’t do that as a leader. Be the manger/leader you wish you would have had when you were starting out. Remember what you have seen and where you came from.

IT leadership is a task, not a coronation. Keep your ego in check. You have a good perspective being in IT and you can make good decisions for you and your staff based on your experience.

IT/Geek Speak this episode:

  • Quality Assurance (QA) – Not really IT specific. A method/process for performing check on the quality of what is produced to make sure it meets particular standards. The item produced could be a physical product, a piece of software, documentation, or anything else.
  • Blackberry – From the 1990s through mid-2010s, one of the most used mobile devices for receiving emails and pages (basically pages are what text messages were before they were called text messages.) Blackberry isn’t used as much as it once was due to Apple and Android taking over in the smartphone space. You still see it used by high security government employees, but even that is changing quickly. Blackberry now makes software for Android.
  • Compile Code – A piece of programming (software) which converts software from one code language (Pascal, C, or others) into a machine language a computer processor (the computer brain) can understand and process. Think of it as an interpreter for computers.
  • Linux – A largely open operating system for computers and other devices. It works in much the same way as Windows, Apple IOS, or Unix. It is used in a variety of devices and there are nearly limitless variations (distributions) available.
  • Kernel – In this case a computer kernel. This is the core of the operations system (Windows, Linux, Apple IOS, Unix) and is arguably the most critical part of how it runs as it allow access to the keyboard, screen, mouse, memory, storage, etc.


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