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Mentoring in IT

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Attention American IT Managers:  Within the next decade most of your best people will retire or die. Your senior staffers are baby boomers with twenty years or more of experience in their field.  They built the systems: they learned the operating systems as they were created: they know what they know from real life experience that cannot be learned in school.  They are also somewhere between their late forties and early sixties.  They rose to the top while competing within the largest workforce America has ever seen.  When they leave they will take a level of efficiency and expertise with them that will take twenties years to replace. 


To make matters worse, the population of appropriately educated Americans coming up behind them is far smaller than the population getting ready to move out.  Do the math.   Start now.  To try to buy that talent later will not only cost you a fortune but you will be competing for a very small population of such individuals, with the entire world. 


In this corporate environment where everyone is disposable and so much work is done by contractors so that companies can avoid having to make a commitment to personnel, it is far too easy to miss this growing danger.  Business Managers may have learned this—but probably not.  However, IT managers usually have not had much exposure to this concept.  They live in a world of projects that staff up for the project and then disband.  How to you bring up the next crop of leaders in such an environment? This is going to take far too many companies by surprise!  But IT is going to be hit much harder than most other departments.  I know of no other area of corporate life that is so project oriented.  In the IT world, you build a team and disband it a few months later--even when they do outstanding work.  All in the name of avoiding long term cost.  It also avoids long term success.


There is also an emotional and psychological component to this problem.  After the Dot-Bomb debacle, many people with decades of smarts were kicked out due to layoffs, or companies failing, or being eaten by  a bigger company that had its own staff.  Why do we eat our seed corn?  Those that survived are still concerned about it happening again.  And it could.  It makes them conservative.  Possibly even a tiny bit timid and less likely to share their knowledge freely.  I don't blame them.  Because our corporate mentality is to cut the expensive people and replace them with contractors—that we can easily get rid of when the job is done.   What a vote of no confidence!  This is considered to be a strategy.  OK…I will accept that.  It is a strategy.  But it is a very short sighted one.  Where is the mid-range planning? 


So, what do you do?  In this article and podcast, let us restrict our focus to Mentoring.  Future articles and podcasts will explore other activities that are also proven and available.


Do you have a mentoring plan in place?  I don't mean the typical, "oh, we believe in mentoring around here" kind of plan.  I mean a thought out purposeful plan whereby you determine which journeyman IT personnel have the potential to grow into those senior roles and have your baby boomer senior staffers truly mentor them to bring them along.  I doubt it.  It does exist; I know of a few such companies.  But it is rare.


Part of the problem for those that want to create a mentoring program is that it is not so simple to identify candidates.  Let me help with that.  Not everyone is a candidate for mentoring and few people are cut out to be mentors.  It's sad but true.  Don't spin your wheels and exhaust your enthusiasm backing the wrong plan and/or individuals.  You need to have some way to identify in whom you want to invest.  And, please understand, it is an investment.  You will invest money but not only money.  You will invest the time of very busy and critical people.  That will hurt a bit—but you don't really have any choice.  If you are responsible for future planning in your organization, ignoring this process is irresponsible. 


Here is a handy way to help make these determinations.  A friend once told me that he had learned in a sales course at IBM, decades ago, about a concept that went something like this—and I may be mangling it so please forgive me.  It was not meant for IT or Mentorship purposes, but I have adapted it.


There are four levels of competence.  They are listed in order from least capable to most capable in performing their job.  Oddly, this does not represent the order in which they are most effective in a mentoring program.


  • Unconsciously Incompetent
  • Consciously Incompetent
  • Consciously Competent
  • Unconsciously Competent

Unconsciously Incompetent:  This person doesn't know that they don't know.  They are not a candidate for this program—but may need help in learning to learn. 


A famous story about Thomas Edison says that he used to test fresh new Engineers who wanted to work for him by putting them in a lab with a very unique and oddly shaped glass container.  He would tell them to figure out the internal volume of the container.  One time he watched a new graduate work out the problem by measuring all the diameters of the odd twists and turns of the glass and carefully making the calculations on his slide rule.  When he presented the answer, Edison said, "You got the right answer, but I can't give you the job."   The young man asked why and Edison responded by picking up the container, filling it with water and pouring into a graduated beaker, getting the answer in ten seconds.  He said, "Son, I am glad you know the answer, but I'm afraid you just don't know the question."  The Unconsciously Incompetent person does not know the question.    


Consciously Incompetent:  This person knows that they don't know and is probably working to get better.  They are a junior person with potential.  Such an individual bears watching—and possibly a little testing.  Don't make it something too hard, but it should be a little scary, something that makes them stretch.  See what happens.  This is a good candidate to groom for middle management.


Consciously Competent:  This is where the high performers stand.  They will be in middle to senior management already.  These people are two-for-one sales, all by themselves.  They are both someone to be seen as a candidate to RECEIVE mentoring—for senior management—and the ideal person to PROVIDE mentoring for the Consciously Incompetent candidate. They have a high level of skill and consistently perform very well. 


This person knows what they are doing, and remembers learning how to do it.  They are not as capable as the Unconsciously Competent person.  Nevertheless, they know what they know and they know how to transfer it to someone else--if they are motivated and are not afraid of losing their own place.  If they know that they are part of something stable and long term and can afford to create their replacement—they are who you need.  Because that is exactly what you want them to do.  You want them to create their own replacement.  You want them to bring up someone that will ask management for less, has a longer run in front of them and to know that they are not committing financial suicide by doing so.


Not all people in this category will make good Mentors as communication skills and a desire to teach are critical components to performing well in the role.  I know many individuals who are extremely skilled and have the sort of knowledge that is transferable—but who could never serve this role with someone successfully.  You need to keep other variables in mind.


  • Communication Skills
  • A temperament that tends toward explaining what they are doing, rather than keeping things "close to their vest."
  • Good people skills


The people that will make the best Mentors are already doing it.  They are respected by their peers as someone that is very free with their knowledge.  They are just informal about it as there is no real structure.  Find those people and give them a mandate, the time and some guidance and they will do a wonderful job for you.


Unconsciously Competent:  The highest level.  This person doesn't even know why they are so good anymore.  Everything is so effortless it is unconscious.  This is the best you can get and you may only meet a handful of people like this in your career.


Don't touch this person!  There are two very good reasons why. 


They are not replaceable or reproducible.  They really are unique.  Give them whatever they want to keep them doing what they do and don't distract them! 


The other reason to keep them away from a mentoring program is because they make terrible mentors.  They have no idea how they are doing what they are doing.  They just do it--better than anyone else.  But, they can't teach what they themselves don't really understand.  Treat them as the gift that they are and get out of their way.  

Additionally, the probable failure in their attempt at mentoring will mess with their confidence.  You don't want that.


There is a lot written on mentoring techniques, so I will not belabor the point.  You, the IT Managers, may not have the authority or sense of security to set up this sort of program.  I understand.  However, if you want to do it and you have the authority, it isn't really hard to begin.  There is a lot of material already in publication about various approaches.  This is not a new concept.  Available resources will probably not be specifically IT management related, but you can apply their lessons.  My goal in this article is not to present something you have never heard of before.  Rather, it is to remind you of what you already know--and to demonstrate how critical it has become to use that information.


Projects are also an opportunity.  If you allow less capable people to work with more capable people, or more accurately, tag along, relationships can be created.  Make the project oriented nature of our industry, which is its greatest weakness in this regard, become a new strength.


Follow Barry Koplowitz on Twitter @bkoplowitz 



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