Improving IT through mentoring

A tribute to the late band leader, and mentor, Maynard Ferguson

I always knew this day would come. I’d be talking to somebody and they’d say: “Hey, did you hear, Maynard Ferguson died this week?” I knew I’d go home, crack open a beer, crank up the stereo, and retreat into the pure raw energy of a jazz trumpet legend, one of my lifelong heroes.

Now that my eardrums are officially retired, I want to say a word about Maynard and the lessons he offers to all of us, especially those in IT.

For one, longevity. In an age when many technically talented people strive to retire early, the idea that this guy had his first touring band at 15 and headlined his last gig at 78 is pretty cool. Second, his adaptability. Maynard was one of the only big-band leaders from the ’40s and ’50s to successfully make the transition into rock and pop fusion in the ’60s and ’70s — that’s like an icon of mainframe architecture spearheading the SOA revolution. And most important, mentoring. Maynard kept touring until a month before he died because he loved playing local gigs, raising money for high school music programs, talking to high school kids, and getting them fired up about music.

I saw Maynard play last year in Walnut Creek, Calif. The local high school jazz band opened up the show, and they were pretty weak. Then Maynard’s smoking hot band came on stage and blew the doors off the place. But for his last tune, “Birdland,” he invited the high school kids on stage to play along and lined them up in front of his band. He’d practiced with them that afternoon. He smiled and joked with them and said some encouraging words. And when the juice kicked in behind those kids, you knew they’d never be the same.

I’m sure Maynard never read any Gartner reports, but he would have liked a recent one entitled “New Demands for Training IS Staff in Higher Education.” The basic premise is that more attention needs to be paid to training, retaining, and mentoring the next generation of IT talent by today’s top-of-the-heap professionals — before their institutional knowledge is gone and it’s too late.

“Mentoring younger employees should be obvious,” Gartner writes, “but it’s not often practiced. Many institutions have begun mentoring programs to help capture the wisdom and knowledge that longtime employees have gathered.”

There are also some ad hoc programs around the country, such as an effort by some California CIOs to inject a stronger IT component into educational curricula. By serving as university guest lecturers, sitting on university advisory boards and even raising funds for IT scholarships, they’re aiming to improve IT education at universities across the country. I’m sure there are similar efforts under way elsewhere; I just haven’t heard about them.

Although it’d be nice if such efforts were more systematized and scalable, what I learned from Maynard was the impact a single individual can have on others, even huge numbers of people — raise your hand if you played trumpet in high school. And by the way, in case you’re curious, when I saw him play last year at age 77, Maynard still had it — he could still touch the sky. And he was loving it.