IT managers must emerge from backroom

To support their company's evolving business requirements, tech professionals must stop talking to machines and start talking to people in their organization, urges president of IT Management Association.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

If there is one thing IT managers should bear in mind, it would be that change is the only constant in today's business environment.

With the industry moving at a much quicker pace, business requirements and user demands will inevitably change frequently. To keep up, IT administrators must emerge from the drone of the server room and communicate with their business counterparts in order to better support their company's growth strategy.

Some skills cannot be built through studies and grades alone. You really need some kind of personal engagement to build up the competency.

Eugene Chang, ITMA

According to Eugene Chang, president of the IT Management Association (ITMA), gone are the days when IT managers need only work in the backroom and focus solely on fulfilling technical requirements. To be a successful IT head today, tech professionals must have the "people skills" to interact with various departments within the organization, as well as manage relationships with external vendors, he said.

Chang's day job has him as director of operations and support at the Defence Science and Technology Agency, a statutory board under Singapore's Ministry of Defence which is responsible for driving the country's defense technology strategy and infrastructure.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, he noted that many IT managers today still lack insights that would enable them to better support a company's business needs and pointed to mentoring schemes as a way to plug the gap.

This, he said, is an area the ITMA is currently looking to address for the IT community in Singapore. Set up in 1998, the association aims to provide a platform for IT managers to network and exchange ideas. It currently has over 200 members.

Q: How has the IT manager's role changed over the last 20 years?
Chang: The job is getting more complex with the change in IT requirements. In the early days, IT was just a productivity tool and pretty much a standalone part in the organization. Now, it's more integrated into the business process. And with IT increasingly ingrained in the business process, the IT requirements become a lot more complex.

So it is no longer sufficient for IT managers to know IT [in terms of] the technical aspect. They also need to understand the business part of IT.

They need to know how to run the business, too?
It's not really about running the business, but CIOs need to understand the business process so they can identify how IT can be leveraged and can better support the business.

So, is it sufficient to have university degrees in IT and engineering?
Yes, that is still a requirement because you still need to have technical competencies. But you also need to be able to talk to your peers in other aspects of the business.

In the old days, IT managers [kept to] the backroom, sat in the background and worked on the technical requirements. Today, if you want to be a successful IT manager or CIO, you can't do that anymore. You need to understand the business and have the softer skills to communicate with people in the organization.

You no longer simply talk to machines, you need to talk to people.

What should companies look for today when they hire IT managers?
First, the technical expertise is still very important. Equally important is the understanding of the business, as I've mentioned. They should also look for people who have domain knowledge of the industry that the company is in. Such specialized knowledge will give the IT professional a headstart.

Of course, having softer skills and the ability to quickly pick up new skills are also important criteria. You need someone who has the people skills not only to manage your IT team, but also the vendor relationship, especially with the increased uptake of outsourcing and cloud computing services.

Some skills in financial management can also be useful. For some companies, the IT department runs as a profit center so IT managers here will need to work out the P&L (profit and loss) and identify ways to generate revenue.

What are IT managers today most lacking in terms of IT, management or personal development skills?
This is what the ITMA is trying to address by establishing some kind of certification to help build up the IT management competency of IT professionals here. We're looking to start a mentoring scheme where more senior CIOs can guide and mentor more junior workers and help build their competency.

Some skills cannot be built through studies and grades alone. You really need to have some kind of personal engagement to build up the competency in understanding business operations and experience in supporting a company's business operations. You can gain technical skills through studies, but for the softer skills, you gain through experience.

A lot of IT professionals today lack the understanding of how to deal with the business aspect of supporting an organization. Today, you don't get this education anywhere because it's situational. You have to learn through experience. So, by having a mentoring program, you allow more experienced IT managers to share with the younger ones, and hopefully, impart some competency and knowledge.

Are there any differences that IT professionals should bear in mind should they change employment between the private and public sectors?
I guess in terms of IT, I don't really see a big difference. Previously, you could say the public sector had more policies and governance, but today, that's also true for the private sector with regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX).

So there really aren't any huge differences. And as far as IT managers are concerned, they are quite mobile when it comes to switching jobs between the private and public sectors.

What is the one key challenge of managing an IT team today?
It's not just about managing an IT team that's varied, with members from different age groups, but about managing user requirements that are also becoming more varied. All businesses will change their requirements very frequently because things are moving at a much faster pace these days. Now, with IT supporting business growth and expansion, the expectation of IT is that [IT professionals] need to keep up with all the changes.

Demands are always changing and IT managers need to manage their company's outsourcing contracts amid these changing requirements.

These changes must make it hard to manage IT projects. What are some common pitfalls that IT managers should be mindful of in terms of project management?
Because of ever-changing business requirements today, a lot of things will change from the time the IT project is conceived to when you're supposed to deliver the results. You'll find that the allocated budget is insufficient and the delivery date slips. These are things you have to manage along the way.

It seems really difficult to do that when there are always changes.
What's important for IT managers here is to establish the baseline. When the project is conceived with a stipulated budget and delivery timeline, clearly articulate the requirements for these objectives to be met. The clearer you can articulate this, the lesser the risk.

If all parties have different interpretations of what the project is expected to yield, that's where problems will come up along the way. There are proper business process management tools to help document all this so that all parties are clear about the deliverables.

What are some technical skills that all IT managers must have today?
Security is certainly something the IT management team cannot ignore. You need to understand the company's IT security architecture very well in order to function well as an IT manager.

Outsourcing, especially cloud computing, is also something future IT managers ought to look at and understand.

Any advice for IT professionals aspiring to be CIOs?
At the end of the day, if people want to go into this line, be prepared to work hard! I think it's a rewarding career because this is an industry where you really see things happening.

Also, a lot of CIOs, because they know the business so well, actually become CEOs of the company. That's a good testimony of the importance of the CIO role.

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