The traditional IT professional is a shaman, according to Robina Chatham, formerly an IT director and now visiting fellow at the Cranfield School of Management. "Characterised as having access to powers most ordinary folk cannot get hold of, shamans have often had their own cult status within their respective societies," she says. "They learn strange, often incomprehensible dialects and are treated with a mix of awe for their powers and contempt for their often antisocial behaviour."
Before you get hot under the collar, Chatham thinks these shamanic tendencies are becoming less pronounced as technology and IT professionals become more enmeshed in business. "The circumstances which allowed IT people to develop shamanistic roles within our organisations are fading away," she says.
Hard-core technology people often fit the IT stereotype, immersing themselves in the technical issues, while disregarding their surroundings. According to Ed Darnell, ex-IT director and founder of ITsecondment.com, "There are people who would rather be sat in front of a computer than talk to someone. There are a lot of these people in the highly skilled areas, such as second-line tech support, where they are away from customers. They have very high IQs, are into problem-solving and are, by nature, less interested in people."
Many IT people see nothing wrong with this. In fact, a certain type of respect is reserved for those who display these characteristics, precisely because they are often excellent techies with high IQs. "There is a lot of internal respect in IT teams. This is about how smart you are, how well you understand the technology and can solve problems. That's how IT people judge each other," says Darnell.
Despite this propensity to be less sociable, IT departments tend to be cohesive. "I've always found that there's a lot of camaraderie in IT, a lot of high spirits, identifying with their own team members and having fun," says Ed Hurst, occupational psychologist with workplace specialist SHL Group.
This can be partly attributed to the fact that the majority of IT professionals love their jobs since technology and problem-solving are stimulating and there may be like-minded people in the department. "If you get a collection of people thinking in a similar way that tends to define what the culture is like," says Chatham. "If what turns IT people on is the intellectual challenge and solving mathematical problems then it is often a deeply embedded life interest and it attracts those sorts of people."
Also, there is dedication to the cause. Software testers, for example, can become obsessed with eliminating bugs from new systems. IT professionals are very hard working and committed to getting their job done but they sometimes miss the bigger picture. "They tend to be very good with detail, being very logical, objective people, which is fine in a way, but seeing things in black and white can mean it's hard to see beyond that," says Chatham. "IT people can be a bit rigid and inflexible."
Because IT is so logical, she says IT professionals are used to sticking to benchmarks and following the right way to do things. This leads to what Chatham calls the sergeant major profile, "where people are very good at following orders and implementing them on the ground". She explains, "I do psychometric testing in IT departments and most of them are sergeant major types. They are good at following the tried-and-tested route, not so good at challenging authority or making strategic decisions."
Darnell agrees that IT departments are populated by sergeant major-types. He puts it down to IT's self-image. "It feels like a service organisation and as a discipline it has become a lot like that, right up to IT director-level. It takes orders, follows them and delivers them, when really, it needs to make a bigger role for itself."
Things are changing, of course. IT now has a place firmly in the business world and this has required IT professionals who can operate on business terms. "There's a whole breed of more customer-facing roles where people skills are an important part of the job," says Darnell. "As a result, there are more IT people with those skills."
Be it helpdesk support, consultancy, troubleshooting, business analysis or any of the other more high-profile roles, IT professionals fulfilling these requirements are more outward-looking and less focused purely on the technical.
This has attracted people into the profession who are as interested in what they can do for the business as what technology has to offer them. They see a direct career path and are keen to develop their communication and business skills. And this, says Hurst, is excellent for IT team dynamics. "The teams that perform best are those that have a variety of ways of operating. You have to have the analytical thinkers, people who are capable of thinking in an abstract way but you also need the people who can interact and communicate well."
How business leaders view IT professionals
In a survey of 72 senior managers across a variety of business disciplines, Robina Chatham found that
- 98% thought IT professionals were poor at accepting criticism - often rationalising it away
- 95% felt they avoided making decision when there are no "provable" right or wrong answers
- 90% viewed IT staff as uncomfortable with ambiguity and unpredictability and like to follow clear and unambiguous rules
- 84% agreed with the statement that IT professionals live in a world that is black and white with no shades of grey
- 81% of respondents thought ITers were politically naive and lacking in business awareness and interpersonal skills
- 78% felt they were unimaginative and do not think laterally or creatively
- 65% of senior managers said ITers were comfort with logic, data and facts.
This was first published in October 2002