Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nature vs. Nurture for IT

A few weeks ago, I read (by way of @corpitguy) an article by Kerry Doyle on "Underrated IT Skills") and forwarded it along to my network. Further reflection made me wonder: to what extent is success in IT a by-product of nature vs. nurture?

Take project management. Nurture plays a role--one does not spring from the womb citing PMBOK. But isn't there also something to be said for intuition? An organized mind? Coping skills? There are people in this world born to manage projects and others for whom no quantum of PMI-accredited instruction would make a difference. Which leads me to the two essential skills (or qualities) missing from Doyle's list: problem-solving and resourcefulness. In my humble opinion, there may be no two more critical elements to a successful IT career. Allow me to explain...

Q: "How'd you figure that out?"
A1: "I read the manual."
A2: "Found the answer on Google."
A3: "Posted a question to a forum."
A4: "I don't know, I just did."

In the world of information technology, complex challenges come with the territory; it is rare that such challenges prove fundamentally intractable or truly unique, never-before-seen-in-this-world. Asking for help is normal, but nothing frustrates me (as a manager) more than when i find an answer to some impossible question upon my first Google search. Such situations belie a dearth of basic resourcefulness. Likewise, the unread user guide: a remarkably common failing in my experience. I understand where this comes from; there is a common assumption that product documentation stinks, but it is a dangerous and expensive presumption. Without a shred of hard data to support me, I would be willing to bet that millions of dollars are squandered each year on the effort of reverse-engineering or otherwise divining answers already made explicit in vendor-supplied materials... (FWIW, this problem is not unique to IT systems...I know I have paid the price for misplacing user guides for my television and DVD player!)

For an actual authority on the benefits of resourcefulness, check out this article from Harvard Business Review (HBR) regarding the criticality of this skill for executives.

The cornerstone of problem solving is taught in elementary school--the scientific method. Identify problem, state hypothesis, test hypothesis, repeat. From this simple building block people grow into talented or deficient problem solver; how much of that talent is acquired through drill and how much stems from a natural gift?

As a manager of a large IT organization, I have to believe development works... What are we doing to this end? Modeling, for one--investing effort in promoting successes and best practices for others to emulate. Advertising successes. Investing in professional training. Yet at the end of the day isn't an elementary-school technique (the scientific method) the most important tool of all?
There is a place for nature, too. In considering my own development, I do not recall explicit lessons in how to solve problems or uncover resources that might help me. I remember independence, the opportunity to shape my own destiny, engage the right partners, scour the Internet, whatever. My primary mission--and source of pride--was to solve problems. And that was something I was born to do.



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