During a recent visit to the US, Peter Hind spent time with Professor Geoffrey Xie, a recognized authority on computer networks, who works in the Department of Computer Science at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. He reports on discussions he had with André Mendes, a past winner of America's IT Executive of the Year award. André is CIO at the Special Olympics, headquartered in Washington.
Amidst the stimulating dialogue with these prominent IT professionals, one point that André made resonated with me. We were discussing the IT skills crises and how a CIO can go about addressing these shortages. True to form, André had some original and perceptive comments to make. Firstly, he gave little recognition to candidates who possess MBA type qualifications. Secondly, he believes that the IT industry needs to realize that many potentially valuable employees can be recruited from outside the profession in diverse disciplines such as music and psychology. In his experience such people can not only help a CIO fill their staffing shortcomings but they can also stimulate valuable new thinking in the activities of an IT department.
Critical of MBAs
In particular, André was scathing about what he described as the emergence of an MBA industry. He believed that the main motivation many reputable academic institutions had in offering these types of courses was financial. As such, he considered that they were in reality diminishing their excellent academic reputation built up over many years. He gave examples of some American universities now charging over US$100,000 for an MBA course. He wondered how they could justify these exorbitant fees. In André's opinion they are charging these sums because students are willing to pay these amounts just so they can embellish their resume with a masters degree from a big name business school. To many of such students, it appears that the content of the course is irrelevant.
André has found that the result has been the arrival in the IT job market of a plethora of graduates who may well have MBAs but who have little else to go with it. In his experience many of these people believe that their new academic qualifications entitle them to a six figure salary on entry to the workforce. Moreover, they tend to look down disdainfully on the more mundane tasks which are part and parcel of the learning curve for any new employee in the IT department. Furthermore, he notices that they are often reluctant to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in during times of difficulty. André told me that in a past life he ended up firing two employees with MBAs from world renowned business schools. He found they did not deliver in the real world and they were also a disruptive influence on the operations of his IT department.
Music and psychology graduates
Instead André is now much more willing to look outside the nine dots when he comes to reviewing potential candidates for roles in his IT department. He mentioned in particular that he has been very impressed with graduates who come from the music and psychology disciplines. He believes that music teaches people structure and form and that such insights are extremely important when looking at processes and systems. (Interestingly, he is not the first prominent CIO to advocate that some of the best new IT hires are musical graduates. Tom Oleson, who for many years was CIO and then CFO at John Hancock, the American Financial Services company, also spoke glowingly to me of how well such people had adapted to work in the IT department). As for psychologists André feels that they are ideally equipped to help an organization implement change. Their training is about understanding people and situations. Since much of the work of a CIO is about introducing change André has found such insights are invaluable in helping influence end users to embrace new systems and processes.
Hire from outside
André also made another telling point about to recruitment. He thinks that organizations should place an emphasis on hiring IT executives from outside their own market sector. Frequently, he will encounter businesses in say the finance industry that are looking to hire an IT executive who must have finance experience. In André's mind that is only propagating unoriginal thinking. The familiarity such people have with industry work practices means that they are unlikely to challenge the "we've always done it this way" attitude. Instead, he believes employees from other industry sectors feel less constrained in challenging traditional work practices. André feels that the role of IT must be to question conventional systems because only then can a CIO look to effectively streamline work processes and practices. As such, he makes a point of hiring people from varied industry sectors as he has found that these employees will find it easier to query established work routines.
It seems that the demands for IT executives are cyclic and these cycles probably go hand in glove with how the economy is performing as a whole. Nevertheless, this industry has always had an ability to embrace outsiders. I speak as someone who entered IT all those years ago with a degree in town planning. Moreover, I have met many effective industry executives who have had no formal IT training. Perhaps then it was fitting that I should have been in America at the time as I can see many parallels between the IT industry and America. Both have made a success of absorbing newcomers with a 'can-do' attitude.
André Mendes is an acclaimed CIO with an impressive track record and in his mind, the industry has started to play it too safe with IT recruitment. He considers that this approach shuts out the enthusiasm of new recruits which has kept this industry energized for so long. As such, Andre believes those CIOs who are finding it difficult filling staff positions should think outside the box and get back to the traditions of the IT industry. They should be looking not for recruits with long resumes of past experiences in IT, but rather for those with a desire and motivation to break in to the dynamic industry in which we work.
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