A person does not rise to the position of boss because of leadership, innovation or production. They get there because of one thing and one thing only. Compliance. They do what they are told without questioning why.Aaron Clarey
Many people who I encountered in corporate information technology management during my 25-year career had no business calling themselves professionals. They were empty suits producing little or nothing of value. Pretenders on the corporate technology stage. Some were even taking away value. I will use my former employer as an example again. The environment there was so rich with hypocrisy, irony and cronyism that the article almost writes itself.
Four out of the five upper managers (I will not call them leaders) of my IT department held BS (pun intended) degrees that did not require any hard thinking and for which there was no quantifiable measure of success. Just essays with no wrong answers or theoretical case studies which never had to be proved in the real world. About the only real skill they learned was regurgitating their professors’ views and ideology in order to get a passing grade. Ironically, this served them well in their current professions, where they regurgitated back whatever any executive above them put forth, thereby retaining their positions.
- Director #1 – Bachelor of Applied Science, Psychology
- Director #2 – Bachelor of Science, Liberal Arts
- Director #3 – Bachelor of Arts and Science, Ministry and Business Administration; Master of Arts, Christian Education
- Director #4 – Bachelor of Business Administration
- Chief Technology Officer – Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting, Masters in Accounting
Do not lecture me about arts, history, business and psychology degrees being just as difficult and rigorous to obtain as hard science degrees. They are not. They are not even close. I have taken many courses in both. The hard science courses are far more difficult to pass. So much so that an average of 90% of incoming students dropped the first semester of the Introduction to Computer Science college course I taught. Furthermore, corporations who are in the business of producing profit place less value upon these degrees than they do technical degrees.1
Three of the four directors did not even care enough about education to continue on at some point for a graduate degree. The one that did, doubled-down on a worthless field that had nothing to do with information technology. Worthless in terms of the value for-profit businesses place upon them.
I have heard many times that technical skills do not equal leadership skills or the ability to manage. I agree. However liberal arts degrees do not equal leadership skills or the ability to manage either, especially judging from the “leaders” in my former IT department. I have also heard that management is transferrable across any field or business. This is false, although many people will try to convince you otherwise to perpetuate the “once a manager, always a manager” myth. Leadership may be transferrable, but none of these people were leaders. They were managers. There is a big difference.
So, what bearing does their choice of college degree have upon their actual job performance? Much, and I will tell you why.
- It indicates where their true interests lie, which is not information technology
- It indicates how much mental effort they want to expend to solve problems, which is very little
The degrees they pursued gives insight into the minds of these people. They would rather talk than think. They would rather champion vague processes than produce results. Their track record shows it.
I have also heard many times that a college degree does not trump experience or practical things people learn on their own. I completely agree. Let us examine the performance of these five executives to see if they are head and shoulders above their technical staff, as they should be based upon the positions they hold. Let us examine each of these five executives with respect to their leadership abilities and technical competence.
She majored in psychology and it showed in her dealings with employees and processes. Her approach was relational, rather than logical. People’s intentions, or rather her interpretation of them, mattered more than their actions. This gave some malignant people multiple opportunities to test the waters as to how much they could get away with. An example of this was how she dealt with a contractor who fraudulently represented himself as a company executive, giving directives to franchise owners that he was not authorized to do. When presented with video evidence of the contractor’s fraudulent activities, she simply dismissed it as him “meaning well” and being “overly zealous.”
On another occasion, the same contractor presented plagiarized documents a permanent employee had written about a legacy system 4 years earlier as his own work for a new system he had haphazardly installed. The director was informed about this and she took no action. Relationships seemed to matter to her more than integrity, falsifying documents, or good quality systems. This contractor went on to cause much more damage by overpromising and implementing unstable systems. As of this writing, he is still employed by the company.
This director made you feel like you were being heard and that your input mattered. She would seek you out to solicit comments, making you feel like you were considered in decision-making processes. However, when all was said and done, nothing changed. Her actions did not match her words. It simply seemed to be a tactic to placate you. It was as though you had said nothing at all. She was a crony of the CTO, brought on board by him.
It was clear from the start that she had no technical expertise, and to her credit she did not try to bluff or fake it. Her job as Director of IT Business Partners was to manage business relationships with different departments, which included the various third parties and contractors associated with those departments. I’m not sure if she used any of her psychology training when making technical decisions, but to all appearances she was partial to whoever talked the best game, exuded the most charm, or had the highest position. This rarely included the any technical staff with actual technical expertise and domain knowledge. She also seemed to cater to the demands of more vocal or difficult people to diffuse tense situations, at the expense of people who were following process and trying to do their jobs.
He was another crony brough on board by the CTO. I never saw him manage, lead or make any kind of decision. He would show up for meetings, ask obtuse questions, make even more obtuse comments, and then disappear just as fast as he had entered.
What on earth is a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts?!? That’s like me saying I am a steak-eating vegan. The director who held this degree did not fail to disappoint. In a meeting where dozens of us were held virtually captive online, he confidently declared,
Every company has something unique about them. That’s what makes them unique.
I felt so much better with him at the helm. Yes, that is sarcasm. I never once saw him make a relevant decision or provide relevant guidance, much less actually produce anything of value. He was the quintessential yes man who could morph onto any track and simply let the current of those under him carry him along. The CTO, who was a relatively astute man, brought him along from his previous company. I cannot fathom what value the CTO saw in this man. Perhaps it was loyalty.
I saw no evidence that this man, Director of IT Systems, had even the most basic grasp of technology. He was the classic example of the trope those who manage what they do not understand.
The director with the Master of Arts in Christian Education was nicknamed “The Reverend.” He offered up eloquent prayers prior to meetings and invoked the name of Jesus to bless business efforts. That’s great, but it belongs in a church or seminary, not an IT department. My guess is that he discovered that churches and seminaries did not pay as well, but did not want to put in the effort to really learn about information technology.
My personal experience with him was when he was the boss of my boss’s boss for about a year. I had a required (by him) one-on-one meeting with him. After greeting me and telling me this meeting was for and about me, he spent the rest of it staring at his phone or computer while I talked. He would nod absently and say “uh huh” and “that’s great.” Realizing that he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying, I injected some outrageous comments like, “I think developers should all get a 50% pay increase” and “There are some serious problems in the department with contractor fraud.” His response? “Uh huh, that’s great.”
This man wasted both our time and violated one of the basic principles of Leadership 101 while wasting it. I saw more focused attention from generals while talking to private soldiers during my years in the military. His frequent prayers and invoking the name of Jesus made him seem like a complete hypocrite, whose lofty words in no way matched his disregard for the people under him. Yet, he steadfastly retained his position.
Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouthsIsaiah 29:13
And honor Me with their lips,
But have removed their hearts far from Me,
And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.
He knew the buzzwords and could throw them out eloquently in between his prayers, but it was clear that he was just a mouthpiece supporting whatever ill-advised technical decisions had been made above him. In fact, he made it a point in every meeting to echo what someone above him had said and give it a hearty “that’s great” endorsement. I never saw him make any technical decisions, which ensured his longevity because he was never held accountable for the string of bad ones made by the company over the course of more than a decade. His title was Director of IT Solution Optimization, but the only thing I ever saw him optimize was his own job security. It was amazing that over the course of over two decades in a technology department, he learned very little about technology.
This director was another of those who ensured his longevity with the company by never making a decision or taking a stand. He was one of the most spineless individuals I have ever met, although it took me years to realize this because of his quiet charm. He was twice the interim CTO when the person occupying that position either quit or was fired, but he never assumed the role permanently. This confused me at first, but I finally understood that as CTO he would be responsible for what worked and what failed, something he seemed to want to avoid.
Instead, he parlayed his business accounting skills into providing oversight for the financial portion of agreements with departments, contractors and other third parties, portraying it as being a manager. He quickly pawned off the technical responsibilities to others so that he would be absolved of any technical failures. “I just make sure the contracts are sound and the bills get paid.” He was easy going and approachable, but did not display a single leadership trait. He was like the guy who prepared your tax return.
Although I watched this man work for over a decade, I still cannot speak to his technical competence. He didn’t try to bluff or fake it. It was just missing altogether. He did not make any technical decisions, just put some technical staff member in charge of handling it. That would have been an acceptable approach, if he had backed the staff members with resources and managerial support. He did not. He just floated and avoided making waves. As Director of IT Transformation, he transformed very little.
The Chief Technology Officer
The CTO was brought into the company by the Chief Financial Officer, a fellow accountant with no technical knowledge. The logic, or lack thereof, displayed here is mind-boggling. If I needed my taxes done or finances reconciled, the last thing I would think is, “Hey, I’ll call my fellow software engineer buddy to handle that. He would be a perfect fit for the job.” Yet this is exactly what legions of C-level executives do every year. Then they wonder why they are hemorrhaging money and implementing one failed system after another. Corporate cronyism at its finest.
Even so, the CTO was the only manager with education in a real skill, two accounting degrees. However, this mostly translated into running a technology department by cutting costs. He may have understood numbers and math, but he did not understand much about technology or how to best implement it. Buying the least expensive tech or the one with the best amortization is not connected to what will work the best, or even work somewhat well.
Although my initial impression of him was less than favorable, I quickly reversed it and came to respect him, even if I did not always agree with his methods. My respect for him stemmed mainly from his brutal honesty. He didn’t try to blow smoke up the tailpipes of those below him. His approach was no nonsense and somewhat rough. He made no excuses for hardships. As a former soldier, I understood this and respected it. As a civilian employee, it was my choice whether to partake of it or move on, but at least I was well informed about his intent. I chose to move on.
He was not the best leader I have encountered, but he was a competent one. He was driven, single-minded and focused, expecting the same from those under him. He was straightforward and honest about his expectations, with no manipulation like many other corporate executives. You either toed the line or you were gone. He would make efforts to place people in positions commensurate with their skills and desires, but he was clear that there would not always be a fit. He was not very good at motivating people to buy into his vision and support it. However, that was not a show stopper in the high churn, revolving door of tech staffing. He was very eloquent and well spoken. He also cut an impressive executive figure who carried himself well. This helped carry his position.
The CTO possessed a rudimentary understanding of systems. He took the time to educate himself at least somewhat on technologies and best practices, but relied heavily on contractors and cronies to guide him. He tended to choose technologies that had a proven public track record with return on investment, even if they were disliked by the technical staff for being over engineered or too cumbersome. He appeared to view that as an acceptable cost for the benefit. This proved very problematic when the technology’s track record was mostly a result of sales hype that produced a lot of revenue, without a good system behind it. This is where seeking the advice of technical staff would have been beneficial. He did not seek this advice.
Nothing sticks to them. Director seems to be the magical position for corporate executives who want to rise up, yet not take many risks. They are up high enough that they can pass down things they do not know how, or want, to do. Yet they are just below the “blame line” where they will not be sacked for failures, unless they run security or some other critical department. None of the four directors above ran “real” departments. They are often cronies of and protected by the CTO. Two of the four directors above were cronies. The combination of these dynamics enables them to assume responsibility for success, but delegate failure to someone below them. I personally saw Directors 1 and 4 set up technical staff members to assume responsibility for failures in areas where they did not make decisions. All four directors failed to back technical staff or provide them resources they needed, as this would be tacitly approving a technical decision which might backfire on them if it failed. They did not want any technical staff member later declaring, “The director supported me on this.” Instead, they were vague, smarmy and non-committal. Working with them was a tremendous chore.
One of the previous company CTOs was a pretty good leader and manager. He wasn’t a technocrat. I doubt he had a technical degree. He never even made his degrees public. He relied solely on his leadership and management skill, and it worked. What was his secret? He treated people like human beings, supported them in doing their jobs, rewarded independent though and innovation, and chose his advisers well. He was not a yes-man and did not employ yes-men. The culture and environment actually matched the lofty words like “empowerment” and “servant leadership.” When he supported people, that support extended through both successes and failures. His employees knew that and worked hard for him because of it. This management style trickled down to the lower levels, where directors and managers were expected to support their employees too. It amazed me at how fast that changed back again to vague, non-committal, cover-your-posterior management after he left.
What were the results? The best work environment I had during my decade plus at that company. Morale and trust were both high. Technical staff improved and streamlined many systems because management gave their suggestions credibility and considered them. Systems and software were actually analyzed by technical staff based on their quality, ease of use, interoperability, and scalability … rather than on only the price tag or the charm and talking skills of tech salesmen and contractors. Requests and demands from other departments were evaluated and implemented based upon their feasibility and value, rather than just rubber-stamped and left to the staff to figure out … and later take the blame.
So, you may say, doesn’t this CTO’s performance refute my assertion connecting worthless degrees with worthless corporate leadership? On the surface it certainly seems that way, however that is only part of my assertion. A person hanging their hat on that worthless degree and refusing to budge from it, while trying to lead in an area in which they are wholly unqualified is the connection to worthless leadership. Then they double down by trying to use principles learned as a part of that worthless degree in a hard science area. In a nutshell, it is laziness and refusal to do hard thinking that results in this aspect of worthless leadership. This CTO did the opposite, working hard to transcend and learn, rather than clinging to the auspices of an easy degree. He also put his own skin in the game by actively and vocally supporting his employees. Ironically, he was abruptly fired one day without any explanation why. Perhaps doing nothing and floating along, exemplified by the directors, is more conducive to corporate longevity. Perhaps he made other executives uncomfortable by shining the light on what they were not.
Possibly the biggest problem these types of people bring to IT departments is merry-go-round of poor platforms, software and processes they approve and purchase. Since they have no technical skill with which to evaluate these things, they rely on what they know: words and cronyism. They approve and buy whatever one of their friend’s companies is selling or whatever the most charismatic and smooth-talking salesman recommends. The words or relationships of their own internal IT staff rarely, if ever, overcome the recommendations of cronies or salesmen. I have never seen one of these approvals or purchases work out well. In fact, I can count three instances of millions of dollars blown on such failed endeavors just with my previous employer.
Another big problem that runs a close second is failure to support their staff. Leaving employees twisting in the wind to be blamed for failures, while the directors take credit for any successes, breeds contempt for them. It will make people work just hard enough not to get fired.
Third, since these people have no technical abilities or understanding, they rely on meaningless metrics and the systems that collect them, over actually producing anything of value. The more astute staff members realize this early and just game the metrics, without producing any value either. Actual value-producers who do not have time (or desire) to game the metrics are then called to the carpet because they fail to meet some random, bogus key performance indicator. Many people left my company because of this nonsense. That did not seem to matter to the directors, as they simply replaced them with cronies from their former jobs.
However, in this company and many others, nothing is done to change it. The management seems comfortably ensconced in the current system that affords them benefits with minimal hard work or risk. It is a corporate welfare system. Therefore, they perpetuate it. As long as enough profit flows in to sustain the organization, they will continue to cling like barnacles to the corporate ship. By all means keep doing it if it works for you, but do not expect an ounce of respect or admiration from people like me.