How to Survive in IT (the soft evil skills)

Monday Dec 7th 2009 by Steve Andriole
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It’s important to have good technical skills, but a variety of soft skills are also essential for success in IT.

I have a friend who has three rules of business: “people suck, people suck and people suck.”

Sure, he’s a little paranoid but he’s also essentially correct (reminding us that paranoid people can have real enemies). Most of the problems we face as professional technologists are related to people and their personalities, biases and intellectual abilities, among other features unique to the human species.

There are so many jerks out there that it’s impossible to know how to survive – especially if your company is jerk-prone. And there are lots of companies that are jerk-prone.

There are a couple of ways to go here. The first tried and true way is to complain incessantly about the idiots. We’re well aware of this approach. Many of your colleagues have perfected this approach after years – and in some case decades – of honing just the right complaining twang.

While complaining all the time can actually make you feel good – depending upon your own personality – it can also make you depressed since complaining doesn’t actually change anything.

The other way to go is to identify and implement a set of manipulative soft skills designed to get you what you want. Manipulative? Absolutely. Soft skills? We all know what they are, but many of us just can’t master them.

Why not? Because we don’t have the personalities? Because they’re too difficult to learn? No, because we’re not motivated to implement them.

So let’s get this out of the way right now. Many of us are unwilling to kiss ass, work the troops, sandbag or play politics, not because we can’t, but because we don’t want to. You have to decide what you want to accomplish and the tools you’d like to use to achieve the results you deem important.

We’ve already dismissed the complaining tool. Now we can examine some other tools: the soft skills from the dark side.

Kissing Ass

We all know this tool. If we’re honest, we’ll admit to using the tool in our personal relationships: it’s a rare friend or spouse that hasn’t kissed ass at some point to get what they want.

But in the workplace it’s more complicated. On the one hand, it’s a tool that can make insecure managers and executives feel good about themselves and therefore about the ass kisser. But on the other hand, use of this tool means that you have to swallow truth and objectivity and fawn all over stupid, nasty idiots – who clearly don’t deserve any form of respect or adulation.

Can you do this? There’s a credibility issue at work here. If you compliment idiots for doing stupid things, does that make you an idiot?

Regardless, ass kissing can be very effective – especially if done in private. Credibility (and other things) suffer when you kiss ass in public. Don’t do it.

I knew a guy who kissed so much public ass that we used to handicap when his head would bury itself … well, you know where. Consequently, no one took the guy seriously (except himself and the asses he kissed).

Playing Politics

This tool is hard to use. Sort of like a 64-degree wedge (if you play golf). But once mastered it can be extremely effective.

The first step here is to profile the players. Who’s got power? Who are the boss’ friends? Who will be the next VP? Who’s on their way out?

It’s essential that you get this right. Once you’re confident about the players and their positions, map out their individual strategies. Then locate all of the intersections on the maps.

The game is played from the intersecting points on the maps of the current and projected power brokers. Make sure that you cater to them – and their objectives.

You can ignore – insult, if you’re bold – those falling from grace. But always use the profiles, maps and intersecting points to make even the simplest moves.

Sandbagging

Good consultants know how to under-promise and over-deliver. It’s a good practice. The trick is to sandbag just enough to stay out of trouble.

Next Page: Chameleon Leadership

Make sure that you always deliver but don’t under-promise so much that it looks like you’re over-protecting your flanks.

Image management is the objective: you want the power players to think you deliver, get it done, can be trusted to consistently come through.

Chameleon Leadership

This one is really tricky but incredibly important. The skill here is to make everyone think you’re leading when in fact you’re leading at cross purposes.

Your project team thinks you’re in their corner, leading them to victory. But the managers understand that your team is far from perfect and if it wasn’t for you they might very well fail. You get the idea.

So that’s the short list of evil soft skills. But just so you don’t think I only value evil soft skills, there are good soft skills – project/program management, negotiations, communications – and, of course, good hard skills – specific technology skills – that are almost as important as the evil ones.

But when push comes to shove in corporate America, it’s better to be evil than good.

ALSO SEE: The 2010 IT Salary Guide

AND: IT Salary Levels, 2004-2009

AND: Understanding Your 'Idiot' Manager

AND: When Just Enough Is Enough To Be Fired

Steve Andriole is the Thomas G. Labrecque Professor of Business at Villanova University where he conducts applied research in business technology convergence. He is also the co-founder of The Acentio Group, a new economy consortium that focuses on optimizing investments in information technology, executive education, Web 2.0, technology audits and pilot applications. He is formerly the Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer of Safeguard Scientifics, Inc. and the Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President for Technology Strategy at CIGNA Corporation. His career began at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency where he was the Director of Cybernetics Technology. He can be reached at stephen.andriole@villanova.edu.

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