IT manager’s survival guide: 11 ways to thrive in the years ahead

August 22, 2019

Originally published by CIO

Technology executives see a range of potential dangers to managers who are out of step with an evolving IT landscape, and some new research suggests IT managers are not quite as layoff-proof as in previous years.

An IDC report predicts that by 2023, more than half of CIOs — 70 percent — who “cannot manage the IT governance, strategy, and operations divides between LOB-dominated edge computing, operational technology, and IT will fail professionally.”

Joseph Pucciarelli, IDC group vice president and executive advisor, says new challenges have emerged as technology is often selected by multiple departments with different interests, rather than by the IT department alone.

“Historically, we used the term shadow IT to characterize technology not sourced by IT,” Pucciarelli says. “In our modern era, this is the new reality.”

Moreover, the rise of AI and ongoing shifts to cloud services could have an impact farther up the chain of command than is traditionally thought.

Lynne Williams, professor at the School of Business and Information Technology at Purdue University Global, sees a potential threat for IT managers if self-healing IT infrastructure can be developed in a commercially viable way, enabling AI to identify, predict and fix issues with software, services, and systems without the need for staff or, potentially, whole departments.

“If this AI-driven initiative becomes widespread, there will be less need for old-school system administrators and perhaps even CTOs,” she says.

To survive these and other changes, IT managers must adapt fast. Those who don’t may find themselves less essential to the business than they might think. Here’s how experts and practitioners see the responsibilities of IT managers evolving — and how you can keep relevant in the years ahead.

Adjust to AI

The adoption of artificial intelligence will force IT managers to evolve if they want to stay relevant by creating an effective AI strategy, says Turkmen Deniz, partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants.

“Developing an effective AI strategy requires the non-technicians to learn and use AI while the technicians learn more about governance, operations, reporting and organizational management — redefining the role of IT managers,” Deniz says. “It’s a matter of the two sides coming closer. And while this necessitates all senior management to learn and use AI, it certainly requires IT managers to broaden their talent and influence within their organizations.”

Get hip to business

IT managers who know how to align with business priorities are in high demand, and they’re something close to layoff-proof, says Charles Gerhards, executive director of the Government Technology Institute at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. Those who prioritize tech alone? Not so much.

“Those IT managers that are solely focused on the technology become commodities that have a greater probability for replacement,” Gerhards says. “IT managers that understand the business objectives and can effectively architect technical and innovative business solutions to achieve these objectives will be invaluable to organizations going forward.”

Pratyush Rai, CIO of Kaplan Higher Education, echoes this, seeing the popular adage “Every company is a technology company” as a bit off the mark in terms of IT’s true role.

“It’s even better to say that ‘Every technology department is part of business,’” Rai says. “It’s critical for technology managers to align their technology road map with business objectives, otherwise it’s purely a technology project and will gain very little traction within the organization.”

Keep an eye on the bottom line

Alvaro Oliveira, vice president of talent operations at freelance job site Toptal, predicts IT teams will shrink as new technology services emerge, but importantly, he like others points out that those services will still require managers experienced in dealing with vendors.

“You definitely don’t want to have third-party providers working directly with those who aren’t prepared to push back and understand what does or doesn’t make sense,” Oliveira says. “You end up with a massive spike in cost, and IT managers are the ones positioned to keep that under control.

Take risks

IT managers need to cultivate a mix of stability and innovation, says Tim James, director of global services at cloud-based collaboration firm TetraVX.

“The managers that are completely risk averse are the ones that are going to struggle,” James says. “Data analytics and AI are helping managers pull key data in order to make quicker and more educated decisions. Those that stay stagnant and can’t leverage the tools and technologies that will help them mature will fall behind a generation in technology lifecycles.”

Find a balance

There are two areas where IT managers need to excel to protect their roles, argues TetraVX’s James. “Businesses want to focus on their core competencies and find ways to improve process and implement tool sets that will help enhance — and not hamper  — their employee’s ability to get the job done,” he says. “They also expect stability and always available technology solutions. An IT manager needs to be able to provide the bridge between the need to keep the lights on and technological advancement. If an IT manager cannot find a way to find that balance, they will struggle along with the business to stay competitive in their industry.”

Get soft

AI and cloud technology have reduced some of the burdens of IT managers, says Lane Greever, senior vice president of enterprise at IT service management firm Modis. At the same time their adoption has made managers’ roles more complex and challenging — with a rising emphasis on non-technical know-how.

“There’s a higher demand to learn new technologies and skills,” Greever says. His company’s recent survey of tech and engineering leaders suggests that soft skills are getting harder to find. “As technical skills evolve and intensify to match the pace of technology, successful managers will also have to hone their soft skills in order to remain competitive.”

Never stop learning

And while it’s hard to keep up with the rapid pace of change, Greever, says, IT pros who keep their focus too narrow will find it difficult to stay relevant.  

“Effective IT managers recognize the danger of developing a narrow scope and ignoring these changes,” Greever says. “In light of recent advancements in AI and machine learning, computer technology and robotics, it’s important to focus on continuous education and upskilling employees and managers to keep up with increasing demand in tech skills.”

Those who can’t successfully look ahead will fall behind, says Purdue’s Williams.

“It depends somewhat on the IT managers themselves,” she says. “Just as Novell Netware experts are no longer in demand, if the manager has been paying attention to current practice and looking ahead, they’ll remain in demand. Those individuals who haven’t updated their skill sets and points of view will be more vulnerable to layoffs.”

Delve into data

Analytics is fast becoming the top differentiator for companies and IT managers alike. Those who become adept with data are destined to thrive. And it’s not just at technology startups or consumer-facing businesses where data is playing a defining role. CIO roles will also shift as the internet of things (IoT) fast tracks integration between IT and operational technology, Williams says.

“OT equipment is increasingly able to communicate directly with the IT infrastructure,” she says, “which makes it more straightforward to keep track of status, workflow efficiency and many other OT activities that once ran almost independently of IT. The future isn’t very bright for those IT managers who aren’t actively leveraging the increasing amounts of data being generated by OT through the IoT to support business objectives.”

Prioritize security

Security is another area of increasing emphasis, with the need to consider security-related issues becoming integral at every stage of development, wherever technology is found. Sumir Karayi, CEO of IT software and services firm 1E, calls for IT managers to work more closely with their security colleagues, as IoT, automation, and AI find their way into operational technologies.

“In today’s high-risk landscape, IT, security and operations need to be working hand-in-glove,” Karayi says. “Through collaboration, these entities can get a better handle on the organization’s assets along with the risk profile associated with each and devise a cohesive strategy to address the organization’s compliance and security needs. Without this cooperation, IT managers — and the entire organization — will continue to waste time, money and effort putting out fires, while the competition inches ahead.”

Embrace the new

Dwight Specht, vice president of data and analytics/technology at North Highland Worldwide Consulting, says his company’s research shows executives and line management aren’t responding fast enough to take advantage of new technology.

“We don’t believe they should be implementing these without consideration, but we don’t see any attention paid to a steady consistent process for evaluating new technologies,” Specht says. “Take a look at the last 30 years of history under the CIO’s office — in every case where the CIO office could step up and become a transformational leader they have, for the most part, delegated themselves to support and maintenance or held tight to outdated deployment models. The future holds more of same unless IT fundamentally changes to being a transformational team rather than a foundation support team. As long as IT, as a function, doesn’t drive digital transformation, they are a cost center and subject to layoffs, outsourcing and job automation just like any cost center.”

Still, even in the drive to experiment, business value must be kept in mind. Kaplan’s Rai says IT managers are facing new technology trends nearly every quarter. “The fast pace of change is putting everyone under pressure,” Rai says. “However, it’s important for IT managers to factor in the hype cycle of new technologies, and understand the business value that a particular technology provides. The principle of keeping it simple applies regardless of technology.”

Keep a level head

Sue Bergamo, CIO and CSO at software firm Episerver, doesn’t see IT managers being in jeopardy because of the rise of technologies like AI and the cloud. Instead, she sees these as opportunities to create value by quickly streamlining data and scaling operations.

“Organizational needs have grown more complex, which is where the value of IT comes in,” she says. “While cloud computing can help address the bulk of these complexities, there are limitations, and human ingenuity is still critical to creating processes that work and managing upkeep to ensure operational efficiency.”

Here, securing the organization’s data against threats is also playing a role in revitalizing the importance of IT management.

“In today’s digital era, there’s a lot of information out there that people want,” Bergamo says. “And regardless of the type of data — email addresses, marketing content, etc. — businesses have become a primary target for spammers and hackers. With that in mind, it is more important than ever for organizations to make IT management a priority.”

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