You’ve got it all covered: security, budget, stakeholders’ needs. Or do you? These common self-deceptions can come back to haunt your IT initiatives — and your career.
By Christina Wood
CIO | JUN 4, 2020 3:00 AM PDT
Some lies are necessary. Like that smile you fake when agreeing to a budget cut. But there are lies you tell yourself — either because of optimism or to sleep at night — that are time bombs. And when they come for you, you’re rarely able to cope with the disaster they bring.
Maybe you sat through the morning meeting and believed everything was fine. Or perhaps there’s a crisis percolating that you’d rather not see. Maybe you’re doing math with blinders on. The lies we tell ourselves are pernicious. And often, when you’re the IT manager, no one calls you out on them.
To ferret out these self-delusions, I asked IT managers with a high-level of self-awareness to share the biggest, most insidious lies IT managers tell themselves. They have either lived through consequences, built the tools to help other IT managers cope, or have learned from the school of hard knocks.
Here’s what they told me.
The lie: I’ve got security covered
“The most dangerous lie IT managers tell themselves,” says Craig Mackereth, GVP at Rimini Street, “is that my systems are secure.”
Mackereth’s background is in two industries: financial and aerospace — two highly regulated sectors, with a serious focus on security. When he became exposed to less regulated industries, he was startled by practices that are prevalent. One of those is IT managers who believe they have security under control because they’ve installed the latest patches.
That, says Mackereth, is “security theater.”
In aerospace, he explains, “the only secure network is an air gap. And by that, I mean it is disconnected.” Anything with a connection to the internet is, by its very nature, not secure. “A determined hacker, given the right tools and opportunity, can and will breach your environment,” he says.
Many companies struggle with security, and it’s not entirely due to self-delusions, Mackereth says: “Their IT teams know security is important. They’ve read the headlines. They see the high visibility breaches. But getting justification to spend money on tools or processes is tough.”
“What you need,” he says, and what big companies in regulated industries have, is “people who wake up every day thinking, ‘How am I going to protect my systems?’ And people who go to sleep thinking, ‘How am I going to protect more systems?’ Because there will always be people — internal and external — trying to get in.”
The lie: The project is green
More often than not, when a team labels a project green, meaning it is on track in terms of timeline and budget, it’s not.
“I promise you it’s not,” laughs Bassam Chaptini, chief technology officer at Unqork. “You keep rebasing your project so you’re either below green or green. But all you’re doing is saying it’s an entirely new scope.” This isn’t particularly dangerous. “It’s not a lie of intention,” says Chaptini.
It’s worth noting that simply because everyone believes everything is fine, does not mean it is. Someone has to step back and see whether the latest effort to bring project status to green has real-world consequences. (Chances are, that person is you.)
Also, all this rebasing and scope adjusting can be time consuming and take effort away from the actual work.
A better idea, says Glen Alleman, a program performance management consultant who has worked with the DOD, DHS, DOE, NASA, and the DOJ and is the author of Performance-Based Project Management: Increasing the Probability of Project Success, is to “keep the program green.” That way the meetings to rebase the reds to green and the ambers to green will be short.
“Keep on schedule, keep on budget, keep on technical performance,” he says.
The lie: I have budget for this
When it comes time to deploy a new tool or integration, you do the math, talk to the experts, find your vendor enthusiastic and your team on board. And you are certain you have the budget to move forward.
Beware: That last part is often a lie.
“Almost always, people underestimate the cost of deployment and integration,” says Ryan Denehy, CEO of Electric AI, an IT support company. “A lot of IT managers underestimate how expensive it is to properly implement and integrate tools.” It’s one thing to get a single tool working. But getting it to work with everything else can run into time and money that isn’t in your budget.
Denehy sees this a lot. “An IT department will spend $30,000 to $40,000 on a tool,” he says. “But they’re not taking into consideration that you have to spend another $10,000 or $15,000 to properly deploy it.”
The lie: Someone will tell me when something is wrong
At every meeting, the team tells you everything is going great. The whole room agrees. You look around to nods and smiles. So, everything is going great, right?
This is, unfortunately, another common lie.
“A lot of IT managers assume that people will speak up when something’s off,” says Mike Saccotelli, director of software engineering at SPR. Except they won’t.
“People will discuss it internally,” he says. “But when it comes to escalation, speaking up to the manager, and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t right,’ they either don’t feel empowered or don’t want to step out of line.”
They know it’s not going to end well. But they’d rather watch it happen than step outside their role to stop it. This is a function of “group think” or protocol. And it’s a failure of management to let it sink your projects.
“Often, if you tap people on the shoulder and ask them directly how things are going, they’ll open up,” Saccotelli says. So it’s a good idea to do one-on-one meetings with all the staff that’s working on a project. “If you don’t make that effort,” he says, “things start snowballing.”
The lie: When I get money, IT will run perfectly
“One of the biggest lies I’ve heard IT managers tell themselves,” says Electric AI’s Denehy is, “things will be better when I get a bigger budget. If my CFO gives me another $200,000 or $400,000, I’ll hire some people and we’ll get this humming along.”
Denehy has bad news for you: “It’s never going to happen,” he says.
Electric AI is in the business of providing support to IT departments so Denehy speaks to a lot of IT managers about their needs. “I could count on one hand the number of companies I’ve talked to where the IT manager says, ‘I’ve got the budget I need. I’ve got the people I need. We’re good,’” he says. “The hundreds of other companies I’ve talked to say, ‘Maybe I’ll get more budget next year.’”
At least it’s comforting to know that you aren’t the only one, right?
The lie: I know what the business wants
The biggest lie IT managers tell themselves, according to Unqork’s Chaptini, is that they know what they are building because they completely understand the business team’s needs. That sounds like an insult but he’s pointing out what is, essentially, a language barrier between technical people and business teams.
“The businesspeople come to the IT team with an idea,” explains Chaptini. “They knock out a document they believe is a detailed blueprint for what they want. The IT team goes over it, agrees, and goes off to build it.” They believe they know what’s needed and what they are setting off to do.
“This is the biggest lie,” says Chaptini. And the moment this lie rears its ugly head is when the IT team returns with a finished product.
“They build it, and go back to businesspeople thinking everyone will be happy because they built it to spec,” Chaptini says. “And the businesspeople say, ‘That’s not what I wanted!’ or “My needs have changed.’”
It happens constantly. The reasons are complex, of course. But these two groups are, essentially, speaking different languages and building technology is often too complex and specific for non-IT personnel to fully grasp. How to mitigate this issue? Document, document, document.
The lie: I have great relationships with my vendors
Another way IT managers fool themselves, says Rimini Street’s Mackereth, is by believing that their relationships with their vendors are terrific.
“If IT managers took a cold, hard look across their fleet of vendors at the people they have relationships with and ask themselves who they have this relationship with, they’re likely to find that they have a relationship with a salesperson or account manager but not with the people delivering the service,” he says.
An account manager’s job, he points out, is to build relationships. So they are easy. But what about the people delivering services? Do you call them directly? Do they know who you are?
Mackereth strongly suggests you alter your definition of “good relationship” to mean that you call technical people directly and have a good relationship with them.
The lie: I’ll find the time to learn new technologies
“I’m always telling myself I’ll have time to learn some new technology,” admits SPR’s Saccotelli. “Which I never get around to.”
The job is demanding. Everyone is trying to find balance between work and life. And learning new technologies, after a day of work, falls somewhere behind everything else.
“There’s an argument to be made, though, that it’s damaging, long-term, to your career to go stagnant,” Saccotelli says. “No one wants to become a relic, stuck in Cobol. But staying on top of new technologies is hard.”
The same is true, he says, for your team. If you are asking team members with skills in one area to get up to speed in another, remember that learning new technologies is time consuming. “The onus is on us as managers to make sure we properly support our teams by giving them enough lead time and setting proper expectations,” he says. “Despite the difficulty, it’s imperative I push myself, and my team, to stay diligent about learning and improvement.”
The lie: My customers are idiots
“As much as it pains me to say this,” offers Electric AI’s Dennehy, “I think that the failure of IT departments to adopt the mentality of retail, which is that the customer is always right, is one of the biggest things missing in the IT end-user experience.”
In IT, he admits, “this concept is almost unthinkable. If you were to say to IT managers that the customer is always right, they’d rip their hair out and insist the users are always wrong.”
But consider what happens when you go into a clothing retail space with no idea what you want or what they have. You know only that you need something to wear. You ask for help, and a salesperson asks questions then chooses items that suit your needs, size, and budget.
“If you walked into IT,” laughs Dennehy, you might say, “‘I want a blue sweater’ and the response would be, ‘We don’t have blue sweaters.’ But then they’d tell you ten other names for blue that are technically blue but not actually called ‘blue.’”
“Most of the time, the users don’t know what the problem is and are not good at articulating what’s wrong. But they are having an issue. That’s what they’re right about,” he says. “If we operated like they’re right, in the sense that they know they need something, there’d be a more collaborative relationship between the IT department and the rest of company.”