If you work in IT, you're in the people and influence business

The prevailing view is that IT is a business where abilities matter more than presentation skills or personal interactions. Wrong.Wrong

Your aptitude should speak for itself. You shouldn't have to dress a certain part or act a certain way to get a job done or advance your career. Your performance should speak for itself and people should trust you to do the job.

That is a prevalent thought in information technology, a business where the promise was that nerds could excel and science geeks could thrive on their abilities not their presentation skills or personal interactions.

Wrong, says Don Crawley. IT is very much a people business and successful IT pros rely on their ability to present themselves and influence those around them as much as any technical skill.

Crawly is the president and Chief Technologist at soundtraining.net, which trains individuals and teams in Information Technology and recently published The Compassionate Geek: Mastering Customer Service for I.T. Professionals, a guide to IT pros to improve their interpersonal skills, which far too many, he said, disregard as inconsequential to their job performance.

"I hate to use the term selling, but as humans we turn people on or we turn them off," he said. "We are in the business of convincing people to buy our services as employee or contractor [or to follow our instruction]."

"If you are in IT you are often in the position of convincing people to do things that they aren't inclined to do," he said. "One of big issues in IT has always been security. Sometimes it is difficult to persuade a C-level executive to do simple things like use a complex password. Or you might be asking for something more complex, like a budget issue. If you don't present well, the executive will write you off. You can't persuade anyone to implement something while they don't respect you."

The message to IT Pros: To be successful, sharpen your influence skills to those of lawyer or sports agent.

The message to IT Managers: To run a successful department, invest in people don't just know the IT, but present well and can influence users and executives.

Get hired

Presentation  is also a factor in hiring and career advancement, an area that too many in IT disregard as being solely decided on the technical qualifications and performance.

"The reality is, if [a company has] a choice between two people equally technically qualified, but one cares more about the job and is easier to get along with, why would they choose the guy who isn't those things?" he asked. "Why would they select the guy who is arrogant, or too cocky, or doesn't present himself well."

Crawley's best advice is basic, but overlooked.

  • "Know the dress code, don't guess... overdressing can be as inappropriate as underdressing."
  • Be meticulous about grammar and spelling in your resume and cover letters. "Many people don't care, but if you get someone who is sensitive to it, you will turn them off."
  • Don't let age change the way you talk. If you're interviewing with someone younger than you, a phrase like ‘young lady,' will land you in trouble. Remember: they hold the cards."

Listen to their emotions

Crawley also recommends honing your EQ or Emotional Intelligence, as a means to better present yourself and influence people.

Where to pick up these skills? Aside from Crawley's book, he recommends the organization Toastmasters International, which is kind of like a support group for the shy. Members teach each other to improve their communication and leadership skills.

Or you can continue to trust that your aptitude and performance are enough to carry your career.

"It's like professional athletes," Crawley said. "There are a handful of players good enough to be signed to the NFL or Major League Baseball or the NBA without regard to personal behavior; based solely on talent. Most are in a mid-range, where there is competition and those things come into play. IT Pros are the same. You might be very good at your job, but not so good that an organization can't choose somebody else."

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