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People are the hard part
Quint Wellington Redwood is an Amsterdam-headquartered management consulting firm that helps companies solve corporate IT management challenges in areas such as Agile transformation, Lean IT, and cloud strategy and implementation. In addition to its Amsterdam headquarters, the firm has offices in, Madrid, Bangalore, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo; the firm’s 300 consultants and trainers operate in 48 countries. Maurice Boon, who has led Quint since 2008, first as Managing Director and then as CEO, talked with CIO Straight Talk about what it takes to be a good tech manager in 2018.
What do people misunderstand most often about leading a technology team?
The fact that technology is not complex. It might be difficult, but it’s possible. The hard part is getting people to build and manage it.
Isn’t IT leadership getting easier, now that companies are getting more used to IT development?
No. Even in an Agile team or a DevOps team, the level of discipline, the level of responsibility that sits with the individual team member is much higher than it used to be. There’s no process to hide behind, no organization that can take over. You are responsible, and you really need to take and feel that responsibility, together with your team members.
Agile helped to open up a dialog with business. With Agile, the product owner is never a techie. It’s the business owner. So Agile brought IT closer to the business and the business closer to IT.
Now DevOps is breaking down another big wall, between development and operations, which is good. But as we see more and more movement from what’s classified as operations to development, we need to remember that in the end, it’s not an application that needs to be built, it’s a service that needs to be delivered. And a service is not a one-day or a one-week or a one-month project. It’s a long-term engagement.
Why is DevOps hard to get right?
From an application development point of view, it’s easy to tell the IT operations guys to open up and allow for the development of some new great idea. But from an IT operations point of view, there’s more to it than simply coming up with a new way to do something. Operations focus on continuity. They think about what will happen if? instead of let’s do it and let’s see what happens. It’s a different mindset. Just as Operations needs to share some of the Development vision, Development needs to keep an eye out for the operational shoals that might be out there.
Do these challenges mostly stem from trying to keep up with the technology?
Not really. Yes, technology is rapidly changing. But these days, the crucial questions in any digital strategy are, who is the end customer and can you develop a detailed understanding of that customer’s persona. The customer focus, thinking about the customer that’s not the IT user, that’s what’s really changing the whole mindset of our industry.
Many organizations have to cope with legacy systems at the same time as they press ahead. What’s the best way to do that?
Legacy is not itself bad thing. The question is, how can you add value-added services on top of that legacy? Replacing entire legacy systems is a very expensive game unless it adds value or functionality to your end user.
This means that at most companies, the reality they need to deal with is how to operate at two speeds – the old, plodding speed of legacy maintenance, and the new Agile-DevOps speed. The complexity comes in how you connect those two different speeds.
The key is to accept that this transitional period might not be temporary, that it will take a long time to move from 100% legacy to 100% Agile. And Agile can’t solve everything, anyway. Agile is nice when you want to innovate, to speed up. But for operations, we prefer to begin with Lean management. Lean is a more generic practice you can use everywhere all the time. Then, when you want to innovate, use an Agile approach.
But to an extent, all of this is less important than leadership. From a management point of view, I would say a digital strategy starts with leadership. Are you really ready to open up to others – to your people, to your employees, to sourcing partners – to see if they can help you innovate? You cannot innovate yourself. If you could have, you would have done that already. You need other people, other partners, new ecosystems, to think out of the box to innovate. That means that you need to open up. But most of us are defensive. Let’s make sure this report is OK, so I can sign it and then move on. That’s not the way to innovate.
How should you choose an IT partner?
You need a partner with a broad range of capabilities who understands many different solutions and knows how to integrate them.
Should you look for innovators?
Yes, but innovation must begin at home. A lot of customers complain about the missing innovation paragraph in the contract with the outsourcer, but innovation starts with the business. IT services are making serious investments in AI and DevOps. But the real innovation needs to begin on the business side.
How will you know if you’ve picked the right partner?
You never know if you have chosen the right partner until you’re working together. Cost savings, price points – that’s the easiest way to select an IT partner, but you’re better off paying attention to whether you like the people and the way they work. The proof of the pudding is in the ease of the eating!
But it’s also true that, in a long-term relationship, after five or ten years you may need to add some fresh sparkle to that relationship.
How do you ‘add sparkle’?
Try changing the team members before it’s necessary. Most people-changes occur when it’s necessary, because there’s been a fight or misunderstanding. Try swapping out staff before that happens. Sometimes a change by itself can ward off problems.
If I’m a young tech leader, what’s the best way to improve my management skills?
Read a good book about Lean management and think about the leadership principles in that book. Play football, play rugby, or any team sport. Or spend ten years as a Royal Dutch Marine officer – that’s what I did! That taught me exactly what leadership is all about.
You also need to be very involved. A manager who is not part of the value stream – where is his value?
What are some good signs you’re in the right line of work?
First, you find it fun! You like change, and you aren’t afraid of the pace of change.
If you like change, IT is the place to be. And if you want to be a leader who has an impact, digital transformation is the biggest opportunity around. If you look at the success stories – of which there are not many – the tipping point is leadership.