How Questioning My Place in IT Makes Me a Better IT Citizen

min read

I work at Northwestern University Information Technology, specifically in the part of Academic and Research Technologies specializing in digital media and video production: the Advanced Media Production Studio. Although I am not a manager on any official chart, my colleagues and I are managers all the same, working with teams to complete projects and acting as leaders and followers as warranted.

This spring I attended the EDUCAUSE New IT Managers Program. The presentations and conversations with fellow students sparked an almost overwhelming number of thoughts and questions. The ones that most often stole my attention were those related to my professional growth:

  • Where am I going from here: Am I going to be a manager?
  • What parts of IT management would I find fulfilling?
  • I just don’t want to deal with some of these things.
  • Hmm, I might enjoy helping to define IT’s missions. Hey, I’m good at figuring out team dynamics! I would love to be a mentor some day.

While it may be counterproductive from an employer’s point of view to facilitate some of these questions (Do I belong in IT?), I believe that it’s this deeper pondering and questioning that is essential in energizing people and adding momentum to the work environment.

A wise person once told me that people are better contributors and more invested in their organization when they can see their current work as part of their broader journey and their longer-term goals—that is, when their work contributes to their individual professional mission. For me, professional development experiences do raise some big questions, but they also provide encouragement, clarify my contributions at work, and bring to light new information and possibilities. It’s important to acknowledge that employees have professional interests and that facilitating their opportunities for growth is key to realizing those opportunities. Equally critical is viewing people more holistically, seeing them as much more than their current job description.

Two of the group activities we engaged in during the New IT Managers Program were particularly impactful. In the first exercise, our team needed to figure out how to move information from one data center to another. I was assigned the leadership role. During our discussions, one person—who had seemed agreeable earlier in the day—refused to cooperate. He denied the possibility of success and derailed all of our attempts at productive discussion. At first, I thought he was being quirky or attempting humor, so with a smile, I sent him to “Attitude Adjustment Training.” But as the exercise progressed and his behavior did not, I became more flustered and uncomfortable. It became more difficult for me to concentrate on the task at hand or guide the discussion forward because half of my mind was busy thinking, “What’s the deal with this guy?!?” Earlier in the discussion, I’d been a focusing influence, but now I was communicating my distraction and contributing to the absence of team cohesion.

As it turned out, the facilitators of the activity had given this team member a secret mission—a mission that he thoroughly fulfilled. After realizing this and sharing a relieved, slightly awkward team laugh about it, I came to several conclusions:

  • I had allowed one person’s attitude to dictate the working environment and derail the train. I had observed this happening, but I did not take a different action after my first solution failed. So, if the team environment isn’t right, keep working to improve it. As a leader, you need to take responsibility for setting the tone.
  • When I was appointed the leader of the group, I was relieved because I don’t know how to move a data center; I do, however, have skills in breaking issues down and organizing people. As a leader, you can benefit from the knowledge of your team. Make sure they know you recognize their value: you don’t have to know everything they know.
  • I do not want to deal with moving data centers. Note to myself: Run and hide!

Another group exercise concerned the construction of a toy car. I was assigned as the observer—the person designated to silently watch team dynamics, group organizational structure, and the result of individual values. After the car was completed and raced, all of the observers summarized what they had seen and made recommendations for what could have improved the process. I was the last one to present and was a little embarrassed because I had three times the amount of notes as the others. But, full-steam-ahead, I shared almost all of them.

I had so many comments because I loved doing this! Observing the team and figuring out what was going on with the people and their communication was really cool—and it fit my natural tendencies quite well. I like being a part of teams, and both consciously and not, I observe and try to improve the emotional/interpersonal environment of these groups This second exercise made me look at my work for Northwestern University Information Technology and the ways I contribute. As I noted, I like trying to figure out interpersonal situations. For example, I might think the following during a group meeting:

This is not a huge crisis, so why is everyone stressed? Why is it that we’ve been saying the same thing for fifteen minutes and just now saw that we were on the same page—for the third time today? What are we trying to get out of this interaction? Are we operating on different assumptions? Do we have different communication expectations? Do we need more intercultural awareness here?

This reinforcement of the “non-IT” ways I contribute sent me back to work encouraged and helped me see my job as an opportunity to use and develop my nontechnical skills. Doing so tightens the link between my current work and any future goals, motivating me in the present while strengthening me for my future journey.

I do a lot of soul-searching. I’m passionately invested in my own growth and self-discovery. And I’m an advocate (perhaps obnoxiously so) for the idea that everyone has some growing to do and should be supported in this journey. I like touchy-feely phrases like “life mission,” “personal exploration,” and “feeds your soul.” These may not sound very “IT,” but I believe they are critical to the ongoing and future success of IT in an academic setting. We need to create IT citizens. To me, citizen is a more holistic description of a member of a group than employee. The word citizen implies a larger level of shared existence, investment, and participation. We want people to be invested in a positive IT culture and a common IT purpose. To achieve this means, in part, investing in fostering people at the individual level.

Professional development is not solely the responsibility of the organization—it is simultaneously the responsibility of individuals and teams to advocate for and invest in their growth. The video team of which I’m a part implemented monthly team-building lunches. Depending on project demands, we often skip them for a few months, and our cohesion suffers when we do. The activities vary but always contribute to the improvement of the group. These lunch meetings foster us in several roles:

  • As technologists, we share exciting new developments or possibilities to improve our workflows.
  • As communicators, we play team-building games or complete group challenges.
  • As unique individuals, we use assessment tools to explore our personalities and working styles.
  • As an interpersonal system, we work through sticking points and misunderstandings.
  • As a group of artists, we share work we’ve done outside the office.
  • As friends, we have fun.

I’m quite proud of us for developing and implementing these lunches. We saw a need for increased team cohesion and found a way to improve. It’s a flexible forum that we bend to fit the needs of the group. And even though the lunches don’t solve all of our issues, they are an important step forward in our individual and team growth, reminding us that we each have the support of the group.

I’m still early in my professional journey. Sometimes I forget that we are all, for the most part, figuring things out as we go along. What each of us is working on at a given moment varies, meaning that there are people we can turn to for help and support—people who have already done a similar thing, survived a similar stress, or had a similar setback. The mistake is to think that you, as a leader, have to figure it all out on your own or to think there’s shame in not already knowing everything. Alternatively, creating an environment of isolation, discouraging questions and ideas, or fostering feelings of embarrassment about not knowing something is a mistake as well. In every job, yes, there are things you should know. But even more important are the ways you could grow. This is what we want for IT!

Very few employees will stay with an organization forever. The key is to maximize the value of an employee’s time with your organization, with the goal of leaving both of you better off when the professional relationship draws to a close. Be a part of each other’s journeys by taking time to foster opportunities to mindfully grow—as individuals and as an organization.

Laura Kick ([email protected]) is Digital Media Specialist, Northwestern University Information Technology.

© 2015 Laura Kick.