Everyone in this business that knows me well, knows that I have a strong contrarian view on what a techie needs to know about the business. I attribute this to when the Big 6 (when there was 6) accounting firms started an Information Technology Consulting arm. Time and time again, they won a contract because they had “the business knowledge” as well as the technology knowledge. They were business know-it-alls as well as technology strategy, direction, and implementation know-it-alls.
Let me say one thing. I’ve made a great deal of money cleaning up the mess that these so-called business-IT experts had made. However, that theory (or what I call sales pitch) is very hard to kill. It is evident in the job postings. Top of the list of requirements is the knowledge of the business domain. At the bottom of the list (if it is even mentioned) — must have good verbal and communication skills.
OK, I’ll try to calm down a bit to explain my contrarian viewpoint. It is true (as Harry Beckwith pointed out in his book Selling the Invisible), that most executives (and business people alike) are too busy ducking falling trees to see the forest.
It is all technicians’ job to be curious. They must ask many questions of several business people. With their analytical skills (honed so well by technological practices) that they see a pattern. The pattern needs to be vetted by those that provide food for our children to eat (paychecks).
WE CAN NEVER KNOW AS MUCH ABOUT THE BUSINESS AS THOSE THAT LIVE IT EVERY DAY.
We can, by being an outsider, see a pattern. The mistake that business-knowledge IT folks make is that they are know-it-alls and ignore asking questions that will show the real patterns. They will also alienate the business community. How can you have a working relationship when you are telling them how to do their jobs?
When I interview techies to interact with the business, I identify their curiosities. I want to know what they want to learn about the business. I want to see that they want to extend their knowledge-base if they have some of the business experience. I listen for the enthusiasm to learn with ears towards listening, a mind that thinks, and a voice of “what-if’s.”
Sure, knowledge is very important. However, I would much rather hire a techie that has knowledge about how to ask questions, analyze the information, and question his/her observation by vetting a visible pattern to them. This shows they are humble enough to know they are not know-it-alls on everything. This shows they care enough about the business to be a continual student and a team player wanting to work together to move the business forward (versus a dictator). This shows you are a visionary leader. It shows that curiosity trumps knowledge.
Let me ask you one more question. If you know about the business better than the business community, then why aren’t you doing their job? It probably pays much more.
You might think, “But Pat, it saves time if we hire someone that already has the business knowledge, too.”
Oh really? How much? Was the project done on time because the team had the knowledge of how derivatives work? What was coded? Was it the techies point of view or the business’ new direction? How many defects are tied to maintenance projects because the techie “knew” the business and didn’t bother asking questions? Add that to the “schedule” and see if the project really came in earlier.
A good technician asks questions rather than validate a theory in his/her head. A good technician asks questions out of curiosity. He/she knows the type of information they need to build systems. They know how to ask questions to get that information without any bias towards a business solution.
I love to learn about business. My curiosity and enthusiasm to learn about it comes across to the business community. They will spend time with me and teach me how it works because I ask questions. They listen to my analysis because I question my own understanding. The business community approves or tweaks my analysis. Then I build THEIR system.
Ninety-eight percent of the time, I do not have any knowledge of their business. If they have a data, process, or object model, I’ll study it. I’ll Google a bit about their business and competitors. I never have the “I already know that” attitude. That attitude would lead me to stop questioning and listening to the business community. If I have business knowledge, I leave it at the entrance door of the company. I’d rather a business person think I don’t know anything because they will tell me more.
You ask: “But Pat, doesn’t the business community give me more respect because I understand the business?”
YOU CAN NEVER KNOW AS MUCH ABOUT THE BUSINESS AS THOSE THAT LIVE IT EVERY DAY.
Don’t give them the impression they can skip over and not tell you something. You will miss a nuance of where the business is trying to change and grow.
Here’s another way to look at this. The broader your business knowledge, the increased ability you will have to see patterns. Because you have a broad business experience, your ability to see things differently actually helps the business to see opportunities to change their lives. Why do you think so many C-Levels change due to their leadership expertise and not because they came from the same industry.
You ask: “But Pat, I’ve been working for this same company for 5-10+ years. How can I leave it at the door?”
This is the most challenging part of the techie’s role. Payroll systems work similarly at every company. Sales customer information (CRMs) databases have a great deal of common information across businesses. My question to you is, “Do you really know the business and how a user uses your tools or do you know how the tool (CRM, payroll systems) works?” The answer is that you know how but not as much as why the user wants it to work or (works around the tool restrictions) to get what they want it to do. Set your mind as if you are going to be a trainee working for that business person. Keep telling yourself that you are new to this and keep asking the questions as if you are building this for the first time.
This is a contrarian point of view: a viewpoint that has made every project I’ve been on successful, created a great working relationship with the business community and paid off my mortgage!
What’s in it for you?
An appreciation by the business community that you respect their knowledge (are curious about them and how they want to enhance the business). That is the real value they see in you. That is the value that keeps your relationship growing.
Be curious about the business and the people in it.