From The IT Shop To The Boardroom

Oct 23, 2002

Sharon Gaudin

When Kim Wellman, a professional computer programmer, made the leap from the technical side of the building to the business team, she had to do more than change the language she used and the office she worked in. She had to change the way she thought.

"It's more about looking at the big picture," says Wellman, who today is marketing manager at SilentRunner, Inc., a Raytheon company focused on network security and analysis. "I had to stop focusing solely on the technology and more on what the customer wanted. I like solving problems so I just had to change the focus. I still love the technology but it's an instrument to deliver what the customer wants."

Wellman isn't alone. Industry analysts say a growing number of people from the IT field are working their way onto the business side and sometimes even into the boardroom. As information becomes the hottest commodity and IT becomes increasingly business critical, the people who know the technology become increasingly valuable.

And analysts say that means there is a steady flow of IT workers having a say in business decisions, guiding business processes and thinking as much about the market as they do about the capacity of the database.

Totally Different Perspective

It's a culture shock, to put it simply. To move from the IT shop where people are immersed in talk about chip speeds, clustering capabilities and grid computing is a big leap to the boardroom where the talk is more about return on investment, market fluxuations, and customer service. And IT workers may want to be prepared to make the switch without getting lost amidst the different dress code and the different focus.

"It's a huge transition," says Judith Hurwitz, principal at CycleBridge Technologies LLC, an analyst firm in Newton, Mass. "People underestimate what it means to go from being purely a technologist to being a technology/business person. Suddenly you have to think from a totally different perspective. You don't lead with the technology anymore. You have to think about how the business works, how business changes, what's happening with the market."

Hurwitz notes that it can be a difficult transition since just because someone knows the technology doesn't always mean they're practiced at communicating with various departments -- which often don't understand the technology -- or with thinking about the overall business.

"You've got to think about process issues," she explains. "There are different ways of behaving that are not necessarily the same as when you're a technologist. And communication is the number one difference. When you have a specific, technical job, things are black and white. You make the switch and then you can't just get enamored with the tech and forget about the context of the business problem the technology is supposed to be dealing with."

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata, says making the move from IT to the business side means a complete shift in thinking. And that's not always an easy thing to do.

"You can have very different cultures up in the senior ranks," says Haff. "It really goes beyond a deep understanding of an individual technology. Breadth becomes more important than depth. You can't be technology-oriented. You have to be people-oriented."

Chris Geiger, executive vice president of business development and marketing at Darwin Partners, an analyst firm in Wakefield, Mass., says even if an IT worker doesn't necessarily get promoted or moved into a business job, she may find herself working on a business team anyway.

"Increasingly, companies are creating joint teams, mixing marketing people with IT people with sales people," says Geiger. "They want all these people joined at the hip...Hard-core techies very rarely migrate to business but they may end up on a mixed team despite that."

Crossing The Culture Gap

Geiger notes that mixing IT workers in with other departments, if nothing else, serves to break down the natural divides in the company between technologists and business executives. He points out that IT departments are often located in the basement where the servers and mainframes are set up. And the CEO and CFO are up on the top floor -- separated by several floors, as well as a wide gap in company culture and mindsets.

But SilentRunner's Wellman has used those differences to her own -- and her business' -- advantage.

"I loved the logical aspects, as well as the creative parts of programming," says Wellman, who as a programmer often worked with the business clients, figuring out their needs and then developing the software for them. "It was a gradual move but instead of being drawn to just writing the code, I started being drawn to solving the problem."

For Wellman, programming was a competitive thing -- writing the tightest and fastest code. It also was about being analytical and focused and organized.

All of that holds true for her work on the business side. Her competitive nature fits right into the business arena, and she's just as analytical when it comes to setting up a direct mail campaign as she was when she was creating code.

Same skills, different focus.

"I think my technical experience gives me an edge," says Wellman, who has coupled her degree in information security with an MBA. "When I work closely with the technical team, I know the language they're using and the problems they're working with. I can meet them on an even plane...Use your technical background to your advantage, but remember that your focus has changed."


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