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IT Management: The DIY Culture of IT

Other business functions can learn a thing or two from the do-it-yourself culture of the IT profession.

Romi Mahajan

In his provocative and brilliant book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft” (Penguin Press HC, 2009), Matthew B. Crawford makes the compelling argument that those who actually build things with their hands should be accorded no less a station in life’s hierarchy of achievement, intellect and value than “knowledge workers.”

Similarly, in his seminal work “The Mind at Work” (Viking Adult, 2004), Mike Rose argues that “normal” jobs such as waitressing require enormous empathy, intellect and innovation. This is much to the chagrin of the self-appointed, highly educated “meritocracy” who make millions and news headlines. The academic Richard Sennett discusses in “The Craftsman” (Yale University Press, 2008) how connection to a craft makes for better work and a happier life than jobs fully performed in the ether.

As a 15-year veteran of the technology industry, these points of view are of enormous interest to me—partially because they reinforce a notion that I’ve considered for years. IT professionals are a special category of people.

How did I go from the philosophy of work to the existential worries of IT professionals? It’s a pretty simple logical chain. The connection point is the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture that makes IT the most innovative part of the organization.

The mainstream press has found a way to discuss innovation as though it were a point-in-time miracle (the media’s gods in this case are mortals like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos). In reality, innovation is a process that benefits from the virtuous cycle of trying, failing, learning, improving and succeeding. This process is best conducted in a milieu of tinkering and collaboration. It’s rarely the product of some unitary genius.

Hand-Hewn IT

Enter the IT organization. IT exhibits core characteristics of an innovative culture in so far as it possesses:

  • A heavily collaborative culture
  • A direct connection to (internal) customers
  • Problem-solving orientation

IT professionals also exhibit dynamic proclivities, including:

  • Love of the hands-on approach
  • Desire to tinker and improve
  • Egoless utilization of peer networks to create value

The IT professional as an individual very likely chose the profession in order to have a direct connection to technology. In the organizational context, the IT professional’s positive biases are enhanced by a culture of problem-solving and customer service. This is what sociologist Manuel Castells would call a “milieu of innovation.” This is a necessary step in what I call the “evolution of value.”

For those outside the IT organization, this concept can seem somewhat far-fetched. This is the unfortunate result of the attenuation of most professions and the rise of “automation,” in which many roles in the organization are managerial or overly systemized.

Take marketing as an example. Just a few decades ago, marketing professionals developed creative concepts, planned campaigns and literally “cut and pasted” marketing artifacts. Now, what I call “marketing systems management” is the essential ingredient for success in this profession. Another example would be finance. Financial professionals don’t “think math,” as much as they use spreadsheets.

IT professionals are a different breed. They tinker, fix and find new ways to solve problems. “Try this, and if it doesn’t work, do that,” is the kind of phrase you expect to hear from IT professionals. IT professionals are never resigned to partial answers or to accepting mysteries as mysteries. You can attribute this squarely to the DIY culture that is the nature of IT. This is a culture that other professions would do well it adopt. Instead, from today’s marketing professionals, you might expect to hear phrases and excuses such as, “The system says X, so …” 

Take O’Reilly Media’s Maker Faire, the Cannes of the DIY culture. At this event, thousands of people gather to build things, share and show off. The subject matter and media are as diverse as making the best paper airplane and democratizing design animation for the festival.

Recognizing the vast desire to explore and foster the DIY culture, O’Reilly Media has a series of books and magazines dedicated to the DIY persona. Well-known technology entrepreneur Vivek Bhaskaran once said he was inspired more by Maker Faire than he is by the thought of making millions of dollars. As a result, he writes actual code for the companies he runs and has a hands-on approach to the normally commoditized area of server management.

This is not to paint a picture of perfection of the IT professional. Instead, we should celebrate the crowning achievement of IT: the ever-burning desire to fix, to improve, to try and to take risks. That’s at the heart of the DIY culture. IT professionals and the culture of IT could teach the rest of us a thing or two about taking matters into our own hands.

Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.

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