Relative Importance of IT Domains

The following is a guest post from my friend Jim Hall. He’s best known as the founder of the FreeDOS project, but he’s also the Director of IT at the University of Minnesota Morris. A while back, he ran a survey for people at all levels of IT to collect some data on how required skill sets change as people move through an IT leadership chain.

I helped him promote the survey and let him know I was curious about the results. My husband works in IT as well, and conversations among the lot of us frequently touch on how organizations and projects are managed–for better or for worse. He offered me this guest post to get the information to a broader audience than would read it on his own blog, which has a largely academic readership. I know I have a lot of readers in IT. Enjoy.

Some time ago, I posted an online poll to survey the relative importance of four qualities at various levels in an IT organization. With the help of other bloggers, and through retweets, we got the word out to as many IT folks as possible. We received responses from all across the globe (though most were from the U.S.) representing private industry, higher education, and government. The poll was up for about two months, but most of the responses came within the first few weeks. I’d like to share the results with you.

The survey asked respondents to self-identify their role in the IT organization (“staff”, “team lead”, “manager”, “director”, “CIO”) and to rank four qualities (“technical”, “strategic”, “interpersonal”, “finance”) relative to one another. This was not just a simple “1-2-3-4” prioritization exercise. Rather, the survey asked folks to consider how each quality fit into the overall importance of their work, and rank the importance of each on a 0-100 scale, where the total of all four also must be 100.

The data were sorted by role, and each quality was averaged for that role. This provided a good reduction of the data. The standard deviation was a little wider than I’d prefer, but this was an unscientific poll with only self-selecting respondents.

This is a similar approach that many other surveys have taken in measuring relative importance. However, I admit that my poll was an unscientific one. Yet the results were very consistent across each role, and somewhat surprising.

First, let’s review the four qualities in more detail:

Technical: The tasks that are very “hands-on” by nature, often managing servers or databases or supporting other systems or desktop environments.
Strategic: Time spent thinking about the overall IT organization and how the organization needs to respond to meet new challenges.
Interpersonal: Building relationships, the “give and take” of interacting with others.
Finance: Factoring in costs, either at the small scale (tools, etc.) or at the larger scales (budgets, etc.)

Note that the qualities aren’t “skills” per se, but how important each quality is to the work performed at that role. You may consider this the contribution of each quality to the role’s function in the IT organization.

And how these qualities were ranked relative to each other:

Relative Importance of IT Qualities
The shape of requirements changes drastically as one moves through IT roles.

But what does this mean? There are several interesting things about these results. Let me note a few key interpretations of the data, as trends:

1. The vanishing value of Technical, and the balancing act of the Manager

Not surprisingly, the relative importance of Technical drops very quickly the higher you are in the IT organization. For a CIO, the importance of Technical is almost zero. That’s not to say that a CIO may not have the skills to, say, set up a Linux server, or to edit web pages. But this is not what a CIO typically does in his or her role.

This is also why most Directors and CIOs tend to place such high importance on “desktop standardization.” It’s not (always) about controlling the risks of the desktop. From the vantage point of the Director or CIO, they place little importance on Technical, so it seems more strategic to settle on a single platform to minimize the Technical in managing those desktops. And then they buy a site license for Windows.

Also, note what happens at the Manager level. Three of the four qualities have equal relative importance. This is often why IT managers have the most difficulty in reaching the next level in an organization. Successful managers have learned to balance their attention across Technical, Strategic and Interpersonal. They have the necessary technical background to address IT issues with their staff, and have developed a more strategic view of the organization.

There’s a conventional wisdom for new managers that “what got you here [Manager] won’t get you there [Director].” Rising through the ranks of an IT organization, Technical plays a key role at the staff, team lead, and Manager level. In most IT organizations, staff become team lead and Manager through demonstrating their proficiency in technical systems. The reward for good work can be more work, and eventually a bump up to the next level.

Until you reach Manager. At that role, your technical background becomes less important to reach the next level. But to take that next step to Director requires putting aside that technical background, to focus more on larger issues. When you’ve spent so much time and energy trying to balance the demands of Technical/Strategic/Interpersonal, it is awfully hard to finally “let go” of Technical so you can focus your attentions on new strategic thinking. Note how Strategic takes a big jump in moving from Manager to Director.

2. The sudden focus on Finance

If you watch the Finance line, it’s fairly flat between staff and team lead, and between Manager, Director, and CIO. But at that increment from team lead to Manager, there’s a step up.

Speaking from my own background, at the staff and team lead levels, there usually isn’t much need for financial planning. Sure, you need to keep costs in mind when you’re working on systems or proposing new changes, but most organizations leave the finances to upper management.

And that’s what we see in the survey. When you become a Manager, you now need to balance a budget for your unit. In some organizations, the Manager may only need to provide a purchase plan. In larger units, the Manager may be responsible for submitting a fiscal budget.

There isn’t much change in Finance as you reach the upper levels of Director and CIO. While the scope of these positions is quite different, the thought process is about the same. The relative importance of Finance remains approximately flat after Manager.

3. Managing relationships at all levels

It’s often true in executive leadership that “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” While the relative importance of Interpersonal seems flat across the different IT roles, there’s a definite upward trend the higher you are in the organization.

Technology staff and team leads need to maintain good working relationships with one another. At the other end, the CIO needs to build partnerships and navigate organizational politics to achieve strategic goals. Technology is an ever-changing landscape, and CIOs often find themselves the “change agent” for the institution. To implement change successfully, the successful CIO often relies on social networks with others. There should be little surprise in the sudden uptick in Interpersonal’s relative importance at the CIO level.

Relative Importance of IT Domains
The Bolingbrook Babbler:  The unbelievable truth is now at

2 thoughts on “Relative Importance of IT Domains

  1. 1

    So i guess this explains why companies like RIM, Nokia and Microsoft (and many others) are headed down the drain – the lead executive are non-technical.

    Steve Jobs on the other hand?

    Correlation does not imply causality as the saying goes.

    A lot of CIOs are non-technical because they are older, having been selected because they are older, have no technical skills other than knowing how to use a spreadsheet and maybe install software (if it’s easy enough).

    Having held all of the above roles and being both formally trained as a computer scientist (old school – pre Microsoft product destruction of many schools) and still happily hands-on i can tell you that the above “results” are not only misleading but dangerously reinforce a false view of reality.

    If a person if shallow in technical know-how how on earth can they be expected to have a clue about valid directions strategically (queue RIM, Nokia…)?

    Show me a CIO who does not at least grasp the basics of compiler theory (or OS design etc) and i’ll show you a fake who secured their job because he/she was selected by other non-technical idiots. I’ll also show you an unending line of company and project failures.

    I’d like the see the above figures plotted against education, experience and skill – based not upon self evaluation but some real tests.


  2. 2

    Hi, thanks for making the synopsis. Pretty edifying, yes? Especially the interpersonal vis a vis with the change agent role. Nice.

Comments are closed.