Don't manage IT like the Titanic

Put engineers in the driver's seat, and don't let nontechnical product managers get in the way

Ever seen one of those movies, such as "Titanic," where the passengers and officers dance and dine on deck in luxurious comfort while hundreds of sweaty, tough men toil below in the suffocatingly hot engine room?

Leave aside for a moment the immediate physical dangers these men face, their short life spans, the deprivation of basic creature comforts they suffer. There's another problem: They have no idea where the ship is going. They're just following orders, providing an input, as in "ahead half throttle" or "full reverse." In addition to brutal conditions, they can forget about any kind of self-actualization.

Ever feel like that in your job in IT? Or worse, does your staff ever feel like that? If so, I recommend reading a recent interview with Bill Campbell, a former college football coach (Columbia University) and now one of the leading "management mentors" to technology CEOs in Silicon Valley.

Campbell is a bit of a Silicon Valley insider hero, worshipped for his roles helping grow companies such as Intuit, Apple, and Google, but relatively unknown outside Northern California. His specialty isn't technology, but people: how they get along; how to enable their best work; how to lead and mentor them, empower them, and hold them accountable.

He was recently interviewed in The McKinsey Quarterly, and he certainly doesn't come from the engine-room school. By contrast, he's brusquely straightforward about one key point: As much as possible, engineers should be running the show in tech companies, not highfalutin product marketers.

"Engineers need to have clout," he asserts, to sustain a culture of innovation. "Engineers should have the ability to say this is what we want to do, and all the product managers in the world aren't going to talk us out of it."

Campbell goes on to recount an incident where he caught a newly hired product manager trying to dictate functionality to the tech guys. "If you ever tell an engineer what features you want, I'm going to throw you out on the street," Campbell recalls telling him. "You're going to tell the engineers what problem the consumer has, and then they're going to provide you with a better solution than you'll ever get by telling them to put some dopey feature in there."

This sounds dramatic, but there's an important lesson here. In an age of modular processes and distributed labor and virtual workplaces, it's very easy to become disconnected from the work itself, to become a provider of an input such as horsepower or compute capacity. And that's as bad as the engine room -- bad for morale, for productivity, for innovation, for profitability.

If you're an IT manager with a large organization, think about how you can engage everyone on your team so that they don't feel stuck in the engine room. (One piece of advice from Campbell is to have engineers meet regularly and informally with the captain, so they feel they have his or her ear and understand what's going on.)

Geoff Penney, a former Schwab CIO, once told me that as bad as IT gets on the worst day, "it beats shoveling coal with your bare hands." That's true, and it should also beat working in almost any engine room -- if you're doing your job right.

Shocking stats dept.
Speaking of coal, a new report out from the Economist Intelligence Unit says that 42 percent of IT executives say their firms don't monitor their IT-related energy spending at all -- and an additional 9 percent aren't sure. Furthermore, 54 percent of those polled said their firms don't measure the environmental impact of their IT systems and policies.

The report concludes that most companies are simply paying lip service to green issues, and that power consumption is not a significant criterion right now in IT procurement. Too bad -- if you're the person responsible for the IT operating budget. Energy prices continue to rise, especially as the dollar falls.

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