The A-Team of IT — and How to Assemble One ;).
IT is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. And these days it takes a team of talented technology professionals, each with his or her own special expertise, to carry out mission-critical assignments.
But how do you assemble your Alpha Team to tackle a fast-tracked business initiative, to shore up a new attack surface in your infrastructure, to transition your IT operations to take advantage of the latest advancements?
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You start by choosing a tough leader who’s backed by friends in upper management and can keep everyone working together. You’ll need infrastructure sherpas to keep the packets flowing and coding geniuses to keep your software development on track. You’ll need experts in physical and network security (Mohawk hairstyle optional). And you’ll want people who have their eyes on usability and trends, to keep current with the latest generations of software and devices.
“It really is a team,” says Susan Anderheggen, VP of service management and field force support systems for Verizon’s (VZ) wire-line division. “There are very few programs that can be done by an individual, so you have to trust the other people on the team will do their part. You can’t be a lone soldier. You need to ensure you do have your ‘A’ people on your team because you need all of these components to get things done.”
Remember, there is no Plan B. Here are the seven essential members of your IT A-Team.
IT A-Team personnel No. 1: Air support
Every IT project needs a well-placed friend on the business side who can provide air cover from on high. The trick is to find the suit who will not turn out to be the evil mastermind who sends our heroes to certain doom — a movie cliché that too often plays out in IT special-ops scenarios.
Often this is a CIO who can assure other C-level execs the money they’re pouring into that IT project will pay off in spades over time. Or it might be a tech-savvy business analyst who fends off resource-sapping requests from upper management, or merely someone who takes cigarette breaks with the CFO and knows the organization’s pain points. Most importantly, this key team member acts as a bridge between the suits and the geeks to clear roadblocks and run interference when necessary.
“This person knows the political pulse of the organization and can get things done in an expedient manner by using unofficial channels,” says Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a business strategy consultancy. “He helps force decisions to be made that would otherwise stall the project in its tracks and serves as a buffer for the team, doing everything from preventing them from being called into pointless meetings to ensuring that ancillary players fulfill their responsibilities.”
This person doesn’t have to be a geek, but does need to be fluent in both tech talk and managementese. He or she also needs to master the delicate skill of telling the bosses no without offending them, says Adriana Zona, director of IT for Minco, a manufacturer of components for military and medical facilities.
“You can’t tell the business side an idea is nonsense if they’re the ones who came up with it,” she says. “I call these people the bouncers or gatekeepers — they guard IT from irresponsible requests. Half of their job is saying no in a friendly way. Every IT department is bombarded with these kinds of requests. If you did them all, you wouldn’t be doing the right thing for your company.”
IT A-Team personnel No. 2: Fearless leader
This no-nonsense, cigar-chomping leader is responsible for both assembling the right team and keeping it on task. It’s a job that demands equal parts technical know-how and management aplomb, not to mention financial savvy, says Abid Ali, vice president of Tata Consultancy Services, a global IT service and outsourcing organization.
“Team leaders are more like an army general,” says Ali. “They’ll need some grounding in technology, but they also have to have a good understanding of the business they’re delivering to, and of the bottom line. That is often what makes or breaks the success of a team.”
Ali says the key to a good team is diversity — assembling the right mix of system architects, database admins, infrastructure grunts, business and data analysts, security specialists, and so on — and getting them to work together. The right leader is one who can achieve this in a seemingly effortless manner. As you can imagine, these types are few and far between.
“Wouldn’t it be great if you could throw a bunch of professionals together and they just all get along and work wonderfully together?” says Brenda Kerton, owner of Capability Insights Consulting. “That can happen, but relying on it is rolling the dice. Most A-Teams got to that because someone paid attention to helping them gel as a team. The team stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing don’t go away just because we throw a good mix of skills together.”
Being the fearless leader also requires both extreme tenacity and excellent communication skills, says Verizon’s Anderheggen.
“They have to be able to take the bull by the horns and question things, yet also be likable,” she says. “A program manager who ticks everyone off will never be successful.”
IT A-Team personnel No. 3: Über hacker
If life were the movies, your special ops team would feature two standard players: an attractive, misunderstood psychopath who loves to blow things up, and a squirrely hacker who can penetrate NSA-level network security using nothing but a random password generator and a toothpick.
Sadly for your IT A-Team, the explosive babe is strictly optional, but a security expert is a must. The difference? Instead of trying to break into networks, your über hacker is there to keep the bad guys out.
“For everything you’re dealing with today, information security becomes key,” says Tata’s Ali. “For large programs, especially those involving Web 2.0, it helps to have an ethical hacker as part of your team — someone who’s working from the inside and incented to find the holes in your information privacy and security.”
Here, temperament and ethics are every bit as important as skill. Even if they don’t sport rippling biceps or gold chains, über hackers can be aggressively macho about their tech skills — and equally quick to get their buttons pushed, says Mark Kadrich, author of Endpoint Security. We pity the fool who crosses them.
“It’s not a good idea to piss off someone who can have you declared dead on every computer system on the planet,” says Kadrich. “You’re looking for people with the ability to break into systems and do things to people but who choose to use their powers for justice.”
They also need to understand physical security as much as network security, a factor many organizations overlook. If attackers can physically touch a system, they can almost always extract data from it, Kadrich says.
The problem? The obsessive-compulsive geeks who make the best security wonks often have difficulty working closely with other bipeds, says Kadrich. And many of them are a little too good at their jobs, adds Scott Archibald, a managing director for Bender Consulting.
“A lot of guys who know security really well can make something so secure nobody else can use it,” he says. “You need somebody who knows where to draw the line.”
IT A-Team personnel No. 4: Infrastructure sherpa
Somebody’s got to do the dirty work — keep the lights on, the data center humming, and end-users happy (or as close to that state as you can reasonably expect). That job falls to the infrastructure sherpas on your team. Though they’ll never be huge stars, they will have occasional heroic moments.
The exact kind of infrastructure infantrymen will vary depending on your environment, but if you must pick a generic skill set, networking expertise is a good bet, says Bender’s Archibald.
“If the environment isn’t highly specialized, I’d look for someone who understands the networking/telecom side and the server infrastructure,” he says. “Data centers have a lot of servers, and someone who understands the server infrastructure and hardware usually also understands the client connectivity issues that can come up. What you really want is someone who knows when to dig in and learn more and when to call other people on their BS.”
Even then, every infrastructure grunt these days needs to be a little bit of everything: virtualization virtuoso, cloud connoisseur, mobility maven. The ability to wear multiple geek hats is essential, says Bob Cuneo, CIO of IT recruiters Eliassen Group.
“Within each technical discipline individuals must be multifaceted and dexterous in their ability to handle a wide range of assignments,” says Cuneo. “For example, a network engineer must be able to handle architecture, as well as configure and manage switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers, WAN accelerators, spam, Web filter, proxy appliances, and other similar devices.”
They also need to be experts at change management, says Joe Tait, director of IT at NMS Labs, a clinical toxicology lab, and a chapter board member of The Society for Information Management.
“The most important part of infrastructure revolves around change management,” says Tait. “At NMS we mostly try to follow the core parts of ITIL. Someone once said 85 percent of the problems you encounter in technology result from someone making a change to something. You want someone who does things in a structured way, pays attention, and keeps careful logs.”
IT A-Team personnel No. 5: Coding genius
Here the challenge is to find someone who mixes the requisite coding chops with a measure of humility, says Minco’s Adriana Zona.
“You want the genius guys who aren’t arrogant,” she says. “They want to impress you, so they do in an hour what would take standard developers a week. But the most important thing is they don’t challenge you. You don’t even have to explain what you want or provide a document. They just complete the job.”
Though extremely rare, the humble coding genius can be found via word of mouth, says Zona. She also weeds out the arrogant ones by asking prospective employees to rate their skills on a scale from 1 to 10.
“A good developer will never say 10,” she says. “Technology changes so rapidly no one can possibly know everything. But the arrogant ones will. And a nonhumble developer will destroy your department.”
If your strategy is to buy what you need rather than build it, you gotta have someone on the software side who knows what solutions are available and how they fit into the larger business needs, says Archibald.
“My bias is toward someone who understands basic database and software principles, can evaluate software, and works well with vendors,” he says. “They need to be able to apply that software to a business problem and tie it back into the company’s strategic architecture.”
IT A-Team personnel No. 6: Usability wonk
No mission can be considered a success if it results in a fix nobody uses. Here, a usability wonk is key. After all, if you can’t get people to use your in-house development projects, you might as well have invested that money in “MacGruber.”
“The user interface is an integral part of all software, as important in the enterprise as it is in consumer products,” says Rene Bonvanie, vice president of worldwide marketing for security vendor Palo Alto Networks. “If you and I stood on top of all the software that was developed and never touched because it was unusable, we’d be on a pile taller than Mount Everest.”
Though not necessarily a coder, the usability wonk needs to work closely with the coding genius, whether it’s on a mobile app for your sales team’s smartphones or a new module for the ERP system, says Annette Priest, a user experience architect and principal of UI consulting firm Revel Insight.
“You need someone who understands the pros and cons of different approaches to UIs and is good at negotiating with the design team,” says Priest. “If they recommend one approach the dev team rejects as too time-consuming or expensive, the usability engineer may have another approach that works for both the customers and the tech team.”
When it comes to software UI, a lot of enterprises are still stuck in the 1990s, says Priest. They tend to be slower in adopting the kinds of industrial dashboards common to modern software in part because they’re afraid they might break something in the process. Yet for the newest generation of employees raised on iTunes and Facebook, these interfaces have become a working requirement.
“People coming into the enterprise today have very different expectations for usability,” says Tata’s Ali. “You’ll want usability experts as part of your testing and assurance team. For a lot of IT users, the functionality of a system and what it delivers in terms of technology and business processes is a given. Whether they like or dislike it comes from how easy or tough it is to use.”
IT A-Team personnel No. 7: Cultural attaché
Your special-ops assignment may have been heralded a complete success, but there’s always a sequel lurking around the corner. After all, nothing in IT stays static for very long, which means your team has to stay on top of technology trends or risk losing its alpha status. In fact, sometimes the most successful A-Team mission is the one that is avoided altogether — by keeping ahead of the curve.
“It is essential that A-Team members remain vigilant in the evolution of technology,” says Eliassen Group’s Cuneo. “This is not only important from a purist sense, but also from a practical sense in order to provide optimal business solutions.”
Though you may not necessarily want to hire someone who does nothing all day but keep an eye on trends, you’ll want members on your team who live and breathe the the technology your users are using every day.
“Give me somebody who understands the shifts in how the different cultures and generations use computers,” says Archibald. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ anymore. Gen Z/Millennials would rather have an iPhone/Droid and a tablet with no cube, or maybe a couch. Baby Boomers are still using tower desktops and want an office, not a cube.”
A-Teamers must be up to speed on the smartphones, tablets, social networks, and mobile apps du jour. If popular enough, these items will eventually make their way into your organization, whether you like it or not. You’ll need to be ready for them.
“The biggest thing you should look for is people who come in the door with a consumer mentality,” says Bonvanie. “They understand how technology being used by consumers is being brought into the business. You want someone who’s always trying out new things, that superuser who knows more about Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace than the 24-year-old MBA who just walked onto the sales or marketing team. That’s what it takes to stay ahead in IT and keep your job.”
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Who said? Dan Tynan said ;).