When people unfamiliar with information technology or with corporate environments ask me what I do, I often say I'm a programmer. It's a title the most computer-naïve can grasp, and it beats trying to explain what a director of corporate IT does. The point was driven home when my 15-year-old nephew, Stephen, visited my office recently.
He knows I work with computers and has called me with PC questions and for help with a programming class in school. But when he visited my office, he asked simply, "What do you do?" So, I gave him a tour. I showed him the inventory of PCs being deployed, the computer room and the help desk, where we take about 1,000 calls per month. I introduced him to people on my staff and described their roles. I pointed out the administrative group and explained that they purchase about $10 million worth of hardware and software every year. Stephen took all this in. Then he asked, "What do you do?"
Stephen's parents are a doctor and a registered nurse. He knows what they do—they treat patients. But he's never been exposed to an office environment. He saw me take phone calls and handle e-mail. To him, that was not work. Everyone he saw was sitting at a computer, and to him it didn't look like they were working.
Stephen's question could've easily come from the executive suite. The boardroom has come to accept the need for IT, even if it's unsure of what IT staffers do day-to-day. But upper management constantly questions the costs and return on investment for everything, including staffing, capital investment and support services. Instead of trying to satisfy them with PowerPoint presentations and three-year plans, perhaps I should deliver answers that are easily digestible for a 15-year-old.
The best way to do this is to answer in terms of specific benefits. For example, "We're letting our clients order our products twice as fast," or, "We're helping the shipping department get products out the door two days quicker," or, "We're giving our managers easy-to-understand information to make better decisions." You get the idea.
Sometimes you need to fight fire with fire. When management questions the scale of IT, respond in kind with scale. "Why do we need so many people at the help desk?" "Because we're supporting 1,000 users, who call 3,000 times a month seeking assistance. It takes this many people to respond fast enough so that users don't waste time waiting for help."
Don't forget that seeing is believing. Consider giving upper management types the same tour I gave my nephew. Let them see the staff, the hardware and the operations they're investing in. Show what IT offers employees, customers and partners today, as compared with what was available a year ago.
Above all, provide executives with explanations that they can repeat to others. Terms such as "RAID Level 5," "clustering" and "fault tolerance" are better left as footnotes and collectively referred to as "redundancy," which in turn is best described as "little or no downtime." "Directory services" will make them glaze over, but "information at the click of a mouse" will be remembered.
But the art of communication always is easiest when you have a compelling message. If IT is creating, demonstrating and measuring its value to the company, its customers and clients, the value of your IT department may just speak for itself.
Brian D. Jaffe is an IT director in New York.