Monday, September 17, 2012

The Carpenter or the Saw?

In this era where more of us do work with our minds and not our hands, we often hire others to do craft work for us.  If the sink breaks we call a plumber; tall grass merits a call to the landscaper; oil changes lead us to Jiffy Lube.  We use lots of different ways to pick the best service providers: Yelp!, word of mouth, Google searches/reviews, or advice from our friends.  In almost every case we choose providers based upon the results that they have delivered to others.  But do we ever ask the plumber what type of wrench he uses or the landscaping company what type of mowers they use?  Probably not. In fact, I don't think I've ever disqualified someone from working on my lawn because they use Toro mowers instead of Craftsman or John Deere machines.  The fact is that I don't care if my landscaper uses hand scissors just as long as the results are there and the price is fair.

All of what I've said about service selection seems pretty rational so far, right?  Well, I can guarantee that the same logic does not hold true when people calculate their worth in the realm of information technology.  Depending on your perspective and whether you have been inside or outside of IT during your career, you may either understand exactly what I'm talking about or not have a clue.  Let me explain further.

Within IT, many people identify themselves very closely with the tools that they use.  People who program for a living usually self segregate themselves by a tool or grouping of tools.  So you don't just hire programmers, you hire a(n) .Net/Java/SQL/J2EE/Cobol/etc. programmer.  You don't hire a plain database administrator, you (usually) hire someone with a specialty in either Microsoft SQL, Oracle, or DB2.  When it comes to ERP analysts, it *really* becomes complicated.  People in that line of work are specialists in one of more than a dozen different environments.  A subset of the plethora of choices includes:  SAP, Oracle, JD Edwards, Microsoft, Epicor, Baan, etc., etc. 

To be fair, there are a few reasons why people might want to specialize in a particular tool.  With a strong skill in a "hot" application, a person acting as a consultant can ask for and receive big money.  But it makes much less sense for someone building a career inside of a company IT division to strive for specialization.  Sure, getting better at using a tool (application, language, etc.) to solve business problems will help someone advance in rank, pay, and prestige.  But many, many people in IT tie their whole identity, sense of worth, and job security to just one or a small subset of tools.  In other words, they perceive that if that tool is no longer important to the company or in active production, everything up to and including their jobs are at stake.  I've seen this play out too often in too many places to believe that this belief system is not somehow embedded within the psyche of IT cultures everywhere.

As a CIO and senior leader, what I try to reinforce time and again is that successful IT groups are not tool specialists with a narrow scope.  They are problem solvers who are called on to support companies with ambiguous problems, needs, and circumstances.  I encourage people to see themselves not as saws but as the people that wield them - the carpenters. 

If you are reading this blog and still doubt where and how you provide value, please consider this thought.  Like people, companies change and evolve.  Sometimes the change is quick, other times it only creeps along.  Your greatest asset will always be in your understanding of the company and how you can position yourself as a problem solver.  Remember - unless you're a hired gun (consultant), the tool is just a means to the end.

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