Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is it Art or is it Science?

When I write these blogs it is usually just me, my keyboard, and maybe a little Pandora radio in the background.  While I know that people will read my material, I never know who, where, or when our connection will be made.  So the challenge is to find a way for us to connect, not just through words, but through emotion and experience.  As the saying goes, over 90% of human communication is non-verbal so what I say must be able to transcend words and reach you in other ways.

This week marks what would have been the 41st birthday of the singer Selena.  She was murdered 17 years ago in 1995 right before she was to turn 24.  If you don't know who she is/was, I dare you to go out and download her single "I Could Fall In Love".  If the raw emotion, power, and feeling don't move you, then you're probably made of stone. 

The sad truth is that there are any number of artists that we lost too soon - Mozart, Elvis Pressley, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Buddy Holly, Gershwin, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, James Dean, Heath Ledger, Brad Nowell, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, and just recently Thomas Kincaid.  Yet, their works even today have a profound effect on us.  No matter how much time passes, the beauty and influence of what they created lives on and on and on. 

Many people mourn these artists as individuals, but I would posit that, like me, most mourners never knew any of them personally.  No,  whenever artists like these pass, what we all truly lament is the fact that a unique source of wonder and beauty has been forever removed from the world.  No matter the level of our grief, there is nothing that will ever bring back what is lost.

That is what separates art from science.  What defines "good" science is that it can be replicated, exactly, by anyone, given the availability of resources and time. Not so with art.  No matter how much money, time, or effort we expend we will never be able to replicate the works created by the artists who are no longer with us.  Art is special because it is unique, like a fingerprint, to the person who created it. 

What I'm about to say may seem odd to many a reader, but here it is.  All IT professionals are artists.  Yes, they use science and technology as their tools, but not a single one approaches their work in the same exact way.  While there are many examples that I could cite, the best one might be to look at the work of programmers.  In the creation of a software application, a programmer uses a combination of English language commands and, in some cases, graphical tools to create a finished product.  If you could open the code like the cover of a book and read it, you would find many parts unique to the person or people who created the application.  It could be the arrangement of words, the order of commands, the art for the graphical display, pretty much anything.  The fact is that every IT professional approaches their work in a unique way.  A way that no other person can exactly match or duplicate.  And that makes them artists.

So when you think about the people who work in IT and have a sense that they might be a little bit "different", or more "eccentric" than people in other departments, you are probably on to something.  The secret of the science behind the delivery and support of IT is simple:  it's all an art.

If you're an IT manager, appreciate each and every member of your team.  Because when they're gone, life will still continue (usually) but you'll never be able to duplicate exactly what each of them has done for you.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

You're their Superior; does that make you "superior"?

I've been thinking about writing this post for several months and recent events in U.S. politics have given me the impetus to actually write.

From a macro perspective, all of human civilization is more or less built upon the concept of hierarchies.  More simply, according to traditions as old as humankind, the person(s) above you, by nature of their position(s), are smarter/better/superior to you.  In ancient times, that meant that you took orders from a warlord, who was endowed by god, the gods, or superior muscles, with the wisdom and intelligence to guide you to a better and often longer life.  Over time, the warlord gave way to kings and queens, who in turn ceded power to politicians.

During the Industrial Age, which started in the 1800s and hit its peak in the 1950s, companies and corporations adopted the same model.  At the top would be a singular leader, usually the president or chairman.  Below this individual would be a small group of highly influential people - executives, vice presidents, and the like.  Then below them would come another layer of broader and less empowered people, and the cycle would continue down unto the bottom of the pyramid.  This group of people, by far the most numerous, were and still are called by the term "rank-and-file" employees.

The reasoning behind the various levels of empowerment within the pyramid was simple.  The people at the top, by virtue of being the smartest and most capable individuals (similar to the concept of "divine right"), would make all of the important decisions and hold all of the power.  The people lower in the pyramid near the "base" are never called on to think much about anything.  Their job is to execute the wisdom of their superiors.

Without really knowing it, corporations evolved much like monarchies did by assuming a core belief that humans within an organization have such vast differences in capability, knowledge, and vision that the majority must be ruled by an elite minority.

Now, I am not advocating for a complete re-engineering of the corporate model or stating that high level executives are not (a) very capable people and (b) decision making power should be distributed like an Athenian democracy.  What I'm saying is that in the corporations of today, the capabilities, intelligence, and vision of "rank-and-file" employees are much different than would have been found within the average employee from the Industrial Era.  This is even more true within IT organizations.

Most IT professionals today hold at least baccalaureate degrees if not master level distinctions.  They are also, in general, well educated in areas of business, project management, and finance.  As a senior leader and especially as a CIO, it is critical that you get to know your people and understand their capabilities.  If you are a good leader, odds are more than likely that you are NOT more capable than your employees in their specific areas of expertise.  And while you may be a more strategic thinker imbued with more inherent organizational power, don't think for a second that the professionals that work for you are simple.  In fact, if you work in the United States and employ people from countries such as India, China, or many other Asian nations, you can pretty much assume that they are as least as educated as you are, if not more so.  Competition in these nations for opportunities is so fierce that typically only the best do well enough to earn the chance to work overseas.

In the end, don't make the mistake of thinking that holding a high position of power automatically makes you superior to your employees.  Know that today's workers come with hefty "toolkits" both mentally and intellectually.  Find out what your people can do and work tirelessly to empower and train them to the maximum of your ability.  After all, "A rising tide lifts all boats."