Caution! Sharp People: Managing Cutting-Edge Talent in the IT Shop

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10 | 2008
In This Issue:

With this issue of Cutter Benchmark Review we focus once again on the management of IT talent. Over the three years of my editorship at CBR, we have published benchmark studies on the offshoring of talent ("Offshoring: Lessons from Successful and Challenged Adopters," Vol. 7, No. 10, October 2007), on the development of future IT leaders and CIOs ("Career Isn't Over: How CIOs Are Reaching New Heights," Vol. 7, No. 4, April 2007), and on managing dispersed development groups and virtual teams ("The Virtual Team Is the New Team: Get Ready to Manage It," Vol. 6, No. 7, July 2006). In this issue we turn once again to the managerial and human resources challenges in the IT shop by focusing on managing technical talent.

The idea for this issue came about through a discussion I had with my older brother Angelo. He is a computer engineer with a past as a database administrator and database architect who has recently taken the helm of the IT shop in his organization. As it often happens, the transition has been very rewarding for him personally, and as he would put it, he has "grown a lot." That's of course code for: "I like the increased responsibility that comes with the job and the opportunity to have a positive impact on the firm and on my team, but some days I am extremely frustrated and wonder why I ever agreed to take up a management position." As we were reflecting upon the sources of this frustration, we kept coming back to people and relationships. At one point he said: "How do you handle sharp technical people in your team? People who are very good at their job and who often feel they know what they should be (and not be) doing?" I answered with an honest "I have no idea!" followed by the realization that I had heard similar remarks many times before from other friends who had transitioned into management from technical positions. I thought that a really good issue of CBR could be framed around this question, and that, while I am not an expert in the management of IT talent, I knew just the people who did a lot of work in this area. I set out to recruit them the next day.

I first contacted Jo Ellen Moore, a colleague who has been extensively studying IT professionals in her research, and I asked her for insight. She mentioned that my idea for an issue was quite timely as she was involved in some work that used social psychology theory to develop better approaches to bridge the gap between the geek and the non-geek in the organization. She explained that there are some forms of stigma that are prestigious in nature and worn with pride by those who are stigmatized -- I know, it sounds nonsensical, but you will understand if you read the academic contribution in this issue of CBR very carefully. I was intrigued and signed Jo Ellen up right away (also because I knew she did great work so it was a sure win). Careful though, this is not the usual issue about how to attract more people in our technical courses of study in universities or how to attract more people to the profession in general. It is not an issue about the geek stigma that prevents us from inviting more women toward a technical career. Those are important considerations, of course, but this issue has been designed to answer my brother's very tangible problem: How do you manage cutting-edge IT talent so that your people feel motivated and appreciated and are willing to be team players in the organization?

To help us achieve this mission, along with Jo Ellen, who is currently a Professor of Computer Management and Information Systems at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (USA), our academic perspective is also provided by Mary Sue Love, an Associate Professor of Management and Marketing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (USA).

Our contributor from the practicing side is Tim Stone, a 30-year veteran of the industry currently working for a large financial institution. With his vast practical experience in working with and managing IT talent Tim is the perfect counterpart for our academics on this issue.

Jo Ellen and Mary Sue begin their contribution by providing some formal definitions of the terms they use in their article. I encourage you to pay close attention to those definitions as the insight in their article hinges on them. With the basics out of the way, they then identify the positive and negative attributes associated with the geek qualification. Within this framework, Jo Ellen and Mary Sue evaluate and comment on the survey results using the data to extrapolate a playbook that you can implement when interacting with others (geeks and non-geeks) and when managing your staff.

Tim takes a broader perspective, focusing not only on the interplay and tension between the geek and non-geek personas, but also on a category of IT workers he calls "highly talented." With this notion in place, he uses the survey results to discuss the characteristics of highly talented workers as the basis to evaluate a number of opportunities and pitfalls in their management.

As I said in our previous issue, "at CBR, we feel that we have done a good job when we are able to frame a question of interest to the readership, to gather data from real organizations so as to benchmark the state-of-the-art in that area, and then draw on the expertise and different perspectives of our contributors in order to offer tangible guidelines that you can readily implement in your organization." There is no doubt in my mind that we have done so this time. My brother will be my test.