A Business Technology Place

Dunking IT Developers in the river

My disclaimer this week is that I’m writing about an idea in my head. This is not something I’ve tried and have first-hand experience to report. But I’ve got feeling this idea will hold water if we can determine the logistics to make it happen. This I believe.

Setting context.

When I was a cooperative education student at Georgia Tech I was employed by a company in the northern Atlanta suburbs. The company setup a program that rotated two co-op students through different areas of IT so we could gain exposure and experience with different areas. My counterpart and I rotated different school/work quarters. While he worked one quarter I was in school. Then the next academic quarter we flipped. We had assignments in different groups including telephony, service desk, mainframe services, and networks. The program complemented our education at school and provided us with valuable experience to use when we graduated.

A larger version of this same principle is in corporations that have formal leadership development programs. High potential young employees are selected to go through a job rotation in different departments to prepare them for leading the business in the future. This is often coupled with exposure to international divisions in the business and includes rotations in departments like finance, sales, marketing, and operations.

Today, I was reading through some articles about job trends in Information Technology and I side-tracked onto an article from Fortune Magazine about skills employers want that are not found in a job description. Three of the five employee traits mentioned in the article can be strengthened by a job rotation program like leadership development or co-op rotation. They are 360-degree thinking, cultural competence, and empathy. I believe that these three employee traits are part of the challenge when people talk about the IT group not having alignment with other business departments.

The idea.

Put IT developers through a six week job rotation in the following departments: operations, sales, customer service, marketing, and finance.

 

The program would be setup put the IT developer on the front line of each department in entry level jobs so they can feel and touch the flow of business in the organization.

Black and White Concept Cartoon Illustration of Head Above Water Business Saying or Metaphor

Black and White Concept Cartoon Illustration of Head Above Water Business Saying or Metaphor

The objectives are different from a traditional leadership development program because this isn’t a program to develop managers or executives. But the objectives for developing more desired employee traits are the same:

  1. We want IT developers to be able to see business challenges holistically. This includes the viewpoint of the customer and the company.
  2. We want IT developers to create solutions that engage the customer and yet fit into the workflow of the business units behind their code. They’ll do this through cultural competence in their organization. Imagine how they might design a solution differently knowing how work is sold, configured, and produced.
  3. We want IT developers to be able to see business challenges through the eyes of other departments. A good way to break down barriers between departments is to walk a mile in their shoes.

Will the idea hold water?

Just like you, I can think of a hundred reasons why the idea would fail. Executing this idea would be difficult. The logistics of implementing the idea are complicated. Outside of the planning and job content, this idea requires cooperation from multiple groups of employees. For some it would mean slowing down to ‘train’ others. For the developers it would require they learn some skills outside of computer programming. Combine this with the trend that IT developers are becoming highly specialized in a specific area of the business or that IT developers tend to serve on one specific programming team because of technology-use and it would appear the idea has too many holes to work.

But I’m looking to build a more invested employee. I want to create a developer that can write code for solutions across a broader variety of disciplines.  This is about employee longevity, long term investment in talent, job rotation, and building patriots to the company’s mission.  

I see this like a baptism for IT developers by immersing them in the waters of the business river. When they come up from the dunking, they’ll have a new life with the ability to think more holistically, the ability to see business challenges through different lenses, and the ability to create solutions that are more connected to the business and customers they serve.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Igor_Zakowski

Push-ups to Push-downs.

Push-ups are for treats!pushup

One of my most memorable childhood treats was orange sherbet push-ups. I can still envision those pops with the plastic push sticks and the plastic bottom. Of course the plastic bottom was good for licking at the end! A paper covering with colored circles surrounded the orange sherbet that made for the tasty sweet treat.  Today, I’ve replaced Push-up pops with the push-up exercise, but I never lost my taste for orange sherbert.

Push-downs are for opportunity and growth.

At work, I prefer push-downs. I prefer to push decision making down to employees that are valued not only for their knowledge and skills but for their customer service and relationship skills as well. These are the employees closest to producing tangible output and closest to direct customer interactions. I use the word ‘prefer’ because I know there are pros and cons of decentralized versus centralized decision making. Decentralization doesn’t work best for all things (i.e. culture, philosophy, values). But a decentralized approach allows employees the opportunity to own the customer experience. That means opportunity for employee growth and a closer relationship to the company’s customers.

So push-up for strength and conditioning. But push-down for opportunity and growth.

Onward and upward!

Straight talk on developing employees

Employee development can be easy to overlook during the flow of normal business activities. I’m guilty of this as much as anyone because I get so busy running the business that giving thought to employee development becomes secondary. I’ve seen many managers compensate for this by compartmentalizing employee development into training. That’s easy. Set aside some training dollars. Set aside a week. Go develop your skills.

But employee development is better executed as an *ongoing* part of a business rather than an event.

Training and skills enhancement is a piece of employee development, but the bigger whole is in the day-to-day run. When I made this connection I started to think about how I conduct the day-to-day departmental operations in my group. Am I developing employees? Do I create an environment that promotes and supports development?

Managing business employees has parallels to managing sports teams. Sports coaches prepare their players for games by providing time for skills improvement as well as game time strategy. When the time comes to play the game, the manager watches from the sidelines while the players execute the plan. The manager calls adjusted plays based on events of the game. But the players must execute. Managers of business should be functioning with the same type of mentality. They don’t execute the business plan, but they train and prepare the employees to execute the plan.

So as I thought it, there are several recurring situations each week that provide opportunities for me to develop employees (and develop myself!). The primary principle that drives how I approach these situations is that employees are motivated and developed through challenges when they execute the plays for themselves.

Situation #1 – An employee comes to my office to talk about a new problem.

Translation, someone or something has done something unexpected. We need to react, adjust, or execute plan B. The first thing to do in this case is to stop what I’m doing to listen. That means stop typing on the computer or even to get up from my chair to remove all other distractions. It means I should be engaging with the employee to discuss. But it does not mean that I should inherit the problem resolution. To develop the employee and to respect their level of responsibility, the goal is for the employee to leave with a plan or an approach to resolve the issue.

Situation #2 – Approaching a skilled technical employee about the game plan.

Approaching highly technical employees can be tricky. They’re a different breed and can be temperamental. My approach for this is to first always acknowledge that the employee knows more than I do about the technology set. They are the expert.I let them know that we need to discuss and I need their guidance for options and recommendations for a solution. This accomplishes two things. First, it shows a level of respect and helps the employee to feel valued and engaged. Second, it provides an opportunity for me to share the business drivers for the technology solution. Together, we work towards a plan of action and solution.

Situation #3 – Share and discuss departmental metrics with employees.

I share company metrics and department metrics with employees to create awareness, discussion, and involvement. If there is a key metric that is below desirable levels then changing that metric is not something I do alone. It takes the full team working to correct it. Employees *are* concerned about the health of the business. One way to provide development, is to involve them in the results and plans that affect the health metrics. That’s business acumen development and something that all employees need.

Working from home is intertwined with employee retention and relationships

Should working from home be listed as a company benefit?

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer created an industry stir recently when she announced a ban on working from home. That’s the type of announcement that will send media and bloggers straight to their keyboards as they position what it means and what motivated the action. A spokesperson for Yahoo! gave this quote a few days later, “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home–this is about what’s right for Yahoo, right now.” That quote captures the key point. Mayer is operating and making decisions on what she believes is in the best interest of Yahoo! Individual policies are a means to an end for her. These policies are not her ultimate goal which is to make Yahoo! a healthy and growing company financially.WorkFromHome

Working from home home is not often listed as a company benefit. In many companies, it’s an informal agreement between the manager and the employees. It’s a perk. It’s part of the work hour flexibility program. It eases work-life balance for employees with long commutes. It can often be used as a salary offset (what’s a day at home worth to you in salary?) I’m not sure about other functional areas of the business, but working from home at least once a week has become an expectation for today’s technology work force.

Employee retention is at the core of the conversation.

Beneath the surface of this conversation on working from home is employee retention. Mayer wants to encourage closer collaboration from teams by eliminating some of the challenges with remote communication. But if good employees leave does the policy back fire and end up hurting Yahoo! more than it helps? Employee retention is now a critical metric for technology leaders. Outside of their technology skills, employees have institutional knowledge composed of systems, business rules, customer knowledge, and inter-departmental relationships. When a good employee leaves their institutional knowledge leaves with them.

Can you build relationships at home?

Laurianne McLaughlin of InformationWeek.com captures another piece of the core implications in her commentary about the Yahoo! policy on working from home. She includes a quote from Martha Heller, a CIO and IT leader recruiter, “The No. 1 skill in IT leadership right now is the relationships they can build with people in the company. CIOs have an issue right now where they can’t find people to report to them with that skill. You can’t build that at home.”

Good relationships will keep teams together and bad relationships (or no relationship) will break them apart. Technology leaders need team members that work well together and they need team members that work well with employees outside the technology department. While communication from remote employees is technologically easy, it does not enable the full relationship benefits people receive from being together.

Working from home once a week does not make building relationships unachievable. But once a week is 20% of the work week. If team members work from home on different days of the week it creates a more complicated matrix of when they can interact. The amount of time when the full team is together decreases and the idea of building relationships through co-location is more complicated than it seems on the surface.

So what does a technology leader do about it?

Allowing employees to work from home is a means to an end. A primary end goals is employee retention. Working from home isn’t for everyone. Some employees may live close enough to the office that they would rather be in the office each day. Some employees may recognize that they are too easily distracted with home life to be productive. But for others, working from home may provide them with the flexibility they need in their personal lives so they can be a full contributor to the team success. So I believe a work from home policy must be handled individually but should be supported in general terms as a company policy.

Building relationships is a key component to employee retention. Technology leaders need to stretch themselves in this area and try new techniques. That may mean using video conferencing services (i.e. Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.) instead of text based instant messaging. That works for team meetings in addition to one-to-one conversations. It may mean creating “drive-bys” for remote employees as well. We get interrupted each day from co-workers that stop at our desks to chat. Why not do the same for remote employees to create the in-office feel? Maybe that becomes to disruptive, maybe it doesn’t. But the bigger point is building and maintaining relationships that help with employee retention and ultimately productivity. I suspect technology employees are open to trying new ways to make it better. Just make sure someone still brings the donuts on Friday morning.