How I became the IT boss by accident

The last thing I wanted was a coup d'état. But desperate times call for desperate measures

Back in the mid-’80s, I was the No. 2 guy in a small tech-support and implementation group, working out of the headquarters of a company with offices spread across the country. Mainframes still ruled back then, and microcomputers were snotty upstarts that “real” computer users sneered at. I found the little buggers fascinating -- and I really liked DOS. Those batch files were so cool...

My boss was leaving for another job, and when we found out that her replacement was going to be slightly delayed, she asked me to cover for her until the new boss showed up. I wasn’t wild about the idea. I hated management and much preferred being the department techie, messing with hardware and software. But unless we put one of the mainframe folks in charge, I was the only reasonable choice.

I decided I could handle the “opportunity to excel” for a couple of weeks. My boss actually apologized that I wouldn’t be getting the post permanently. But apparently senior management didn’t feel that I had the necessary experience. Hey, that was fine by me!

My new-boss-to-be was finishing her master’s degree in computer science at a university on the other coast, a process that ended up stretching into months. Meantime, I managed new equipment rollouts, user complaints, network outages, endless staff meetings, and all personal problems of the crowd of people who now reported to me. It wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared, and I even succeeded in making a case for the new PCs.

Finally my savior arrived. “Naomi” didn’t make a very good first impression. In fact, she didn’t make a very good second impression, either. She was unkempt, she interrupted people when she found them boring (which was most of the time), she wore too much perfume, and her PC know-how was all theoretical and mostly wrong. As the lead manager of a group that had to deal with department heads on occasionally touchy matters -- particularly deploying PCs -- she was a disaster. Her only frame of reference was the mainframe.

After about a month it became painfully clear to me that Naomi was an absolute disaster; she was alienating my users and driving my tech people nuts. I briefly considered quitting, but that was not a reasonable option, for reasons that I won’t go into.

That left me with only one option: going to the head of data processing (he’d be the CIO today). I started reciting the litany of ways Naomi was driving me crazy, which I intended as a warm-up to asking for a transfer. Before I got too far, he started telling me all the things that Naomi was doing that were driving him crazy. “And that,” he said, “is why I need you to take over as group manager.”

Hmm. That hadn’t been where I was going when I stopped by. What about my lack of experience? Nope, my weeks as temporary manager showed I was qualified. The users liked me, nobody wanted to deal with Naomi, and he was putting me in charge, effective Monday. Naomi was being moved to “special projects.”

Aiee! But that was that. I ended up rolling out PCs to our regional offices and diffusing them through headquarters. It really was an opportunity to excel. And it was deeply satisfying. Who would have guessed?

But I swear, taking over was the last thing I had in mind.

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