Newbies Learning from Each Other: The EDUCAUSE New IT Managers Program

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I've spent nearly two decades — most of my professional career — in higher education information technology. At the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where I worked for 16 years, I was the junior member of a two-person sysadmin team for the first seven years. For the remaining nine, I was the sole IT professional for a scientific research department responsible for system administration, user support and training, audiovisual support, website maintenance, social media, and more. As is typical with "lone wolf" IT positions, I learned how to do a little bit of everything; however, I gained no managerial expertise.

In June 2014, when I became the help desk manager at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia, I inherited a team of three full-time employees, eight student workers, and much greater financial and equipment management responsibilities. I realized that in addition to the immediate learning I would acquire through "on-the-job training," some formalized managerial training would greatly improve my chances of success.

Enter the EDUCAUSE Institute New IT Managers Program (NITM), which I attended at EDUCAUSE Connect Denver in March of this year. NITM is a two-day small group track (our cohort consisted of about 40 people) within EDUCAUSE Connect.

I've attended many large-scale conferences (e.g., CES and MacWorld) where individuals are lost in the crowd and there's little to no interaction with faculty or session leaders. I've also been a speaker at smaller conferences (e.g., SecureWorld Expo and ACCS-VA) where that role separated me from the other attendees. NITM was a new experience, a workshop that fell in between the huge shows and the smaller events. At NITM, it was all about interaction — between attendees (one-on-one and in small groups) and between attendees and the two-member faculty.

Small group activities are not my favorite thing, and surely many in our profession can relate. Indeed, IT professionals are often stereotyped as lacking "people skills" — often we're introverts who were drawn to the field because we prefer to interact with technology rather than people. As we rise through the ranks and become managers, however, increased human interaction is unavoidable, and we might need additional training or practice to increase our comfort level.

Keeping this in mind, I forced myself out of my comfort zone and participated in the small group activities, discussions, and projects NITM had to offer. A very rewarding experience was accepting the proposal to sit at a different table on the second morning and meeting new classmates. I discovered that whether our situations are similar or dissimilar as new managers, we all had something to learn from each other and fascinating stories to share.

Throughout the two-day workshop, we received expert guidance from EDUCAUSE staff and outstanding faculty, who struck a great balance between presenting and facilitating. Time was set aside for small group projects and discussion on each of six topics:

  • Interpersonal Communication. This foundational topic, covered in two consecutive sessions, was particularly fascinating to me — what we learned here influenced our discussion in all subsequent areas. A short self-survey determined each participant's dominant communication style among four types: intuitor, sensor, thinker, or feeler. Armed with that knowledge, we determined how we as managers can better communicate with our team members who might communicate through a different style from ours. We also explored various communication channels (for example, the strategies used for communicating in a department-wide e-mail might differ from those used for staff meetings or in one-on-one conversations).
  • Project and Portfolio Management. This session began with some basic definitions (helpful for those of us with very little experience in this area). What is the difference between a "project" and a "portfolio"? Why do some projects fail, while others succeed? We discussed effective ways to propose, structure, and staff projects as well as best practices for tracking projects.
  • Budgets. Everyone wants to know how IT money is spent. Often, it's not clear to non-IT leaders why technology is so expensive. The faculty encouraged us to use our budget and other numbers to "tell a story." But the numbers alone aren't enough: we need to remind campus leaders why technology is crucial, and avoid the common pitfall of "nobody pays attention to IT until something goes wrong." We also discussed making the case for increased funding when necessary and using the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service for benchmarking.
  • Performance Management. Like me, many new IT managers are supervising other employees for the first time. We discussed evaluating current employees, coaching and correcting behavior, evaluating candidates for new hire, and interacting optimally with the HR department. The session concluded with a fun K'Nex construction toy exercise that demonstrated many commonalities with real-life projects.
  • Time Management. Many new IT managers often struggle with the concept of delegation. This is especially true for managers who have learned to do everything themselves out of necessity in previous positions (sound familiar?). The idea of "why delegate when I can do it better?" is a common pitfall. The faculty demonstrated why a manager's most critical asset is time, and how delegation and prioritization can help protect that asset. We also discussed the pros and cons of meetings and some strategies to make them more effective, as well as the dangers of trying to multitask.
  • Managing Up and Moving Up. Our final session at NITM first addressed "managing up" — how you can have the most effective relationship with your supervisor. We discussed helping our bosses protect their own time and related this back to the first session: How does your own boss communicate? What are the most effective strategies for communicating with that person? The second half turned to "moving up" — getting that next job. We need to be aware of opportunities when they arrive and keep our resumes and LinkedIn profiles up to date. The best way to get your next job is to excel in your current one: the faculty used the phrase "be in the top 20% of the job you have." As an IT manager, you never know who your next boss will be, so don't make enemies. Networking is critical, both within your institution and with organizations like EDUCAUSE.

NITM was an intensive experience that covered a lot of ground in two days, and it was absolutely fascinating and enriching to be in a room with other new IT managers. While many in the room face the same daily issues and concerns that I do, others surfaced problems and solutions that I hadn't even considered (but might face in the future). I made some great contacts I can ping for feedback or suggestions in the future, and our e-mail list has already been quite active.

I'm so grateful that I was able to attend the EDUCAUSE New IT Managers Program. I strongly encourage rookie IT managers (or those looking to become managers) to register for NITM in 2017, which will again be offered concurrently with EDUCAUSE Connect in Portland, March 13–14, and in Chicago, April 10–11.

I also highly recommend the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, which offers many opportunities for new managers to network and learn. At this year's conference in Anaheim, October 25–28, my colleague Bryan Lewis, director of client services, and I will present "Designing IT Guidelines for Global Programs" on Thursday, October 27, at 2:40 p.m.

Eric J. Rzeszut ([email protected]) is the help desk manager at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.

© 2016 Eric J. Rzeszut. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 BY 4.0 International.