Do IT Leaders need to have a deep technical background? I don’t think the answer is always yes.
We need to start with this: The IT Leaders’ most important job is to know the business. Our team will know the technology systems, but the team won’t have the time to keep up on what is happening in the organization. The IT Leader is the only one that can do that.
In smaller companies, of course, the IT leader may need to be a player/coach. These leaders are individual contributors in some technical area as well as being the department leader. In these situations, the IT Leader must have strong technical skills.
As companies get bigger, however, growing up through the IT technical ranks doesn’t ensure success. In addition to technology, an IT Leader must understand business and managing people. Failure in one of those two areas means a failed IT leader.
In fact, I would say that of the three main areas, Business, People, & Technology, that technology may be the least important of the three. The rest of the IT department will be technically strong, but they won’t bring the depth of business knowledge nor a strong ability to manage people. Put another way, if an IT Leader is only going to be great in two of those three areas, technology is the only one an IT Leader can find strong support from the team.
Coming from the business has benefits, especially in larger companies. Someone with a deep understanding of the business and strong people management skills can work with the IT team to create strategies that work for the department and the company. Having technically strong leaders underneath makes a difference. In fact, in a large IT organization, if there are some strong future leaders, having someone from the business lead the department for a while can be a great learning experience.
If you are a future IT leader, coming up through the technical ranks, try to get some business experience. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work outside IT for a few years. This was a great experience for me and I learned a lot about how business works. When I came back into IT, I brought that knowledge with me and became a better IT leader.
Photo by John Bredesen