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

Feeling pigeonholed at work?

Have you been pigeonholed at work?
Getting pigeonholed in my career is something I work hard to avoid. Unfortunately, it’s a tough condition to shake and my experience is that I have to initiate the shaking-and-moving to stay get out of the hole. This is an important topic for professional workers that don’t want to grow stagnant and that continuously seek new challenges.

Pigeonholed is an expression with various meanings depending on context. For this writing, I’m referring to it as a verb meaning “to assign to a definite place or to definite places in some orderly system”. We use the term to refer to people in the workplace that are locked into a position or a set of responsibilities based on past achievements. Colleagues, management, and others place a label on the person which makes changes in positions or responsibilities difficult.

One of the reasons workers get pigeonholed is they perform well and there is no one else in the organization that knows how to do what they are doing. Often there is not a sense of priority to make sure the person has a back-fill or that that work rotates among people. Organizations get caught up in managing the day-to-day operations of the business and personnel matters are often pushed to the bottom of the to-do list.

Cheryl Dahle captures this thought in an article in Fast Company entitled Escape Your Pigeonhole.  Dahle explains the conundrum as “How do you develop the expertise to be known as the go-to guy or gal for certain projects or jobs without getting so tightly defined that you’re stuck working on the same project (or in the same industry) year after year?”

The remainder of Dahle’s article gives four areas of practical advice that professionals can use to escape and avoid the pigeonhole. A common theme in her recommendations is that we are responsible for moving our own careers towards paths that interest us and that match with our skills and strengths. We can’t rely on our managers, human resources, or anyone else to take us there.

What are you doing about it?
A former colleague once told me that “everyone should be fired or reassigned from their current jobs every three years.” His idea may seem a bit extreme, but his point was that companies benefit more from fresh ideas this way. It keeps workers motivated and challenged and allows them to grow. His thought follows the same mindset as executive leadership programs within some companies where they identify employees with “leadership potential” and change their job function and responsibility every 24 months.  It’s a form of job rotation.

But there is only so much an individual has control over in their workplace. Even if they are doing things to avoid a pigeonhole and to advance to other areas, there is no guarantee they’ll change perceptions of others. Which is exactly why this is a difficult condition to avoid. Just how do you change someone’s perception of you?

I’ve been pigeonholed.
In my personal career I’ve had success and failure getting locked into a position. I know of two times that I have been boxed-in by a pigeonhole. In both cases I had to leave the situation to escape the hole.

The first time was after I entered the organization as a college cooperative student (similar to intern). I stayed with the company after I graduated because they offered me full-time employment. After a couple of years however, it became apparent that management still thought of me as a college co-op student. There really wasn’t any opportunities to continue personal growth. To get out of that pigeonhole I had to leave the company.

The second time was with an employer that no longer exists (due to acquisition). I worked in the IT group as a product manager for many years and sought to advance within IT leadership by moving into management and gaining a broader breadth of responsibility. I felt I was a good fit because I had previously been in roles of analyst, project manager, and network engineer which gave me knowledge of systems, networks, and programming. I knew the business side more than most because of exposure to clients and Sales. But management went through a time of hiring outside people into the positions I was interested in serving. I was told at one point “Just keep doing what you are doing. You are good at it” (AKA – pigeonhole). To escape this pigeonhole I finished a MBA and applied for a position in eCommerce Marketing. It worked and I moved on to new challenges and opportunities for service and learning outside of IT.

Why does it matter?
Getting pigeonholed limits our experiences. It cuts down on the skills we could develop. It reduces the breadth of opportunities which directly influences career choices. This isn’t a power-play to climb the traditional “corporate ladder”. It’s about personal satisfaction with our work and output. It’s about serving others by staying motivated. It’s about learning and growing.

I’d love to hear your experience on this topic. Have you avoided being pigeonholed? Have you escaped a pigeonhole?