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Why IT managers don’t have to be found in the IT department

By Patrick Martlew
Fri 12 Jan 2018
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Article by Leon Adato, SolarWinds technical evangelist and head geek

What do an arts major and IT manager have in common? In short, the answer might be “a lot more than you might think.” Personally, I have been involved with the arts from the age of ten and had no intention of going into technology until after I had left university. The greatest programmer I ever worked with had a philosophy degree and throughout my career, the majority of my colleagues didn't offer computer science degrees.

While many IT pros may have come from an academic background relating to IT, it’s most certainly no longer the only way into the field. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, the STEM-only mindset is all wrong.

In today’s digital economy, you have to be able to look at the context in which technology is used, and understand the human behaviour that drives it. So, what is it about the arts department that makes it the perfect ground for sourcing the IT pros of tomorrow?

Soft skills that go a long way

While a computer science degree may give you a number of hard skills that remain relevant throughout your career, technology will change quicker than you can graduate. Jumping into IT with a fresh perspective could actually be a benefit. Soft skills have long been praised as the most transferable of skills when in the market for a new job and nowhere are they more cultivated than an arts major. Some of these skills include:

Writing

Often seen as the bane of the developer (or even the sysadmin), having the ability to write clearly and with the proper level of detail is a skill that will help IT pros to thrive. The ability to gauge an audience and write for them—not so simple as to seem patronising and not so technical as to lose their comprehension—is a huge asset.

Speaking

The stereotype of the IT geek is that of an introverted loner, the person who is most comfortable in a department of one. The reality is that tech is enormously collaborative.

Not just with peers within the team, but with peer groups within IT, the management who serve as sponsors of various initiatives, and the user community who often are the beneficiaries (or at least recipients, hopefully not victims) of the technology we create, deploy, and support.

The ability to stand up in front of a crowd and speak confidently and clearly, in a way that puts them at ease, is more often cultivated in an arts classroom than a computer department.

Lifelong learning

To pursue a career in the arts is to commit yourself to a constant state of “I don’t know, but I want to find out.” Nobody takes on the role of Einstein already knowing everything about Einstein. Nobody decides to paint a classic building already knowing everything about its architecture, history, etc.

Artists take on new projects precisely because it puts them (and their audience) in contact with the unknown and it is the artist’s goal to bring the subject and audience closer as a result. IT professionals often know a great deal about their craft—they know how to program, they are familiar with the intricacies of the operating system, and they have experience and expertise with failure modes.

A willingness to learn new technology, delve into new framework, and pivot their career into new areas is what separates the leaders from the rest.

Project management

Putting together a production, filming a movie, preparing for an art show, rehearsing for a concert—these are all things which have a huge number of moving parts and require a significant amount of planning, tracking, and management. The ability to juggle these elements would be an asset to many fields, particularly the IT department.

Even softer skills the arts department cultivates

Even beyond this though, there are a number of traits arts majors tend to nurture and value, which are often lost on the IT crowd:

  • Personal empathy – The ability to assess an individual or group’s current emotional “place” and speak within that context.

  • Technical empathy – Putting yourself in the shoes of the “other”—the user, the developer, the approver—and crafting your responses, questions, and comments to address that person’s mentalof reference.

  • Aesthetic – Being able to see the beauty in technology is often overlooked. Take Apple and its aesthetic, which is one of its most defining characteristics. While many recognise Steve Job’s impact at Apple, few recognise that sensibility in their tech hires.

While the similarities or transferable skills from an arts major to the IT department might not spring straight to mind, skills outlined (as well as many others) can have a measurable impact on IT deliverables, on IT teams, and on the business overall.

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