Business Tech: A Seat at the Table - Part 1
Good News! Things are getting better for IT people in the business world.
Back in the '90s, I used the term "the stench of IT" to describe the way other departments seemed to treat anything connected to business tech, especially their own staff. While there are still pockets of this, things are getting better.
Companies are seeing us in a new light. It's an exciting time to be in IT.
Bad News! We Aren't Ready for the Good News.
While some of us are, many of us aren't prepared for this more enlightened time. That can cause us to miss opportunities. Whether we find ourselves invited to more planning meetings or, perhaps, get a real seat at the table like a full partner, we need to know how to contribute at that level.
This isn't about how smart you are. This is about something else.
Hong Kong Gaffe
It was 1999 and I was in Hong Kong on business. We go to a fancy restaurant and I am comfortable. I've been using chopsticks since I was little. This is my second trip, so I know my table manners are acceptable.
An individual bowl of rice is placed beside each of us. I lift my bowl, add food to it from the communal dishes, and look up to see the shocked expressions on my table mates faces. Apparently, eating as I was is a "home" behavior. It is suitable for friends eating in public or for family eating in private.
In short, I didn't do anything wrong IF I'd simply done it somewhere else. What we do in the IT department, with pushing back in our rolly chairs so we can shout to our co-workers, may not be boardroom behavior. So, knowing which manners to bring to each situation matters.
None of my Business
Odds are, I don't know your specific company. Please take anything I say in this series with the understanding that "your mileage may vary." Wherever you are, there's a high chance that you have some "home" habits that need to be suppressed on occasion.
This is part of why we've been disincluded in the past. What's comfortable to us can come off as bluster or arrogance outside of our circles. This isn't to say that the Director of Marketing isn't a Monty Python fan. He or she already knows not to say "Ni" in a meeting with the clients. Your COO might be more into Star Wars (or model trains or what-have-you) than you are, but they know which rooms that plays in and which rooms it doesn't.
Most companies are over the shock of finding out that they are really tech companies. Courier companies survive by providing analytics to their customers and by data mining their deliveries. Garment companies are pivoting on model stock and JIT manufacture. HR companies are awash in specialized reporting. Pick an industry and you'll see market forces, compliance requirements, and general expectations all driving them to technology questions that require our sort of answers.
We aren't getting the seat because we've earned it. Hopefully, we've been putting in the work all along. We are getting the seat because they need what we know earlier in the process. You might not realize it, but that's how every seat in that room has been earned. Sales is called in when Management sees the need for them to be there. Our omission in the past was upsetting to us but it was less personal than it might have seemed.
We can also thank the stock market. When companies like Apple, Alphabet (Google), and Microsoft duke it out for the top spots in the market, being seen as tech-forward has become appealing. When many of your fellow employees carry a computer in their pocket, and one in their backpack, and has two more at home, your interest in technology puts you in the mainstream.
Remember that the other folks in that room have been invited for long enough that they may forget what it is like to be the new kid. They've been getting their invites regularly. They know the dress code, and when it will vary. They know the key phrases that open wallets for funding. They know the words which bring scowls.
Every shop has its own variations. I've worked in places where I had to be in a two piece suit with a tie made by my company every day I showed up. I've been in places where funny t-shirts are expected. It has nothing to do with the size of your salary. Often it has little to do with the industry you are working in.
In the upcoming issues, we'll talk about how to talk in meetings, present in meetings, manage your e-mail persona, and more things that will help us succeed when we get our invitation to the big table.