Yau-Man Chan, a Fan Favorite of "Survivor" TV Show Applies Resourcefulness as a Real IT Leader

The reality television series "Survivor" may seem like an improbable teaching tool for an IT executive. But in today's changing workplace -- where business users wield more tech choice and power -- Yau-Man Chan has found kindness and smarts can be powerful weapons in an IT leader's toolkit.

What does IT have in common with the reality television game show Survivor, which tests contestants' survival skills in remote locations as they compete for the grand prize?

For Yau-Man Chan, quite a lot. Both call on his defining traits of kindness and intelligence.

Here's one illustrative scene. Last year on a deserted island in the South Pacific, burly men tried to open a wooden crate filled with supplies. Their muscles were flexed for cameras filming the first episode of Survivor: Fiji, but their attempts were in vain.

Then, a slim Asian man with glasses picked up the crate and smashed its corner against a rock. The crate broke into pieces. “The corner is a rectangle's weakest point,” says Chan.

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Yau-Man Chan, "Survivor" contestant and CTO. Photo courtesy of CBS Television.

"Muscle for muscle, I know I cannot compete with them, so I have to use every resource to advance things to the next level," says Chan, who holds a physics degree from MIT. Intelligence and resourcefulness, particularly as an underdog, were two of Chan's best tools during Survivor: Fiji—and at his full-time job as CTO of the College of Chemistry at the University of California Berkeley.

Chan bolsters his smarts with kindness. In Survivor: Fiji, Chan, 55, wasn't expected to last long against his younger, more athletic rivals. But thirty-nine days after the crate bashing, Chan finished the show in fourth place, he also became a favorite of millions of techies' and reality-television viewers, receiving the highest popularity rating on that season's show.

Applying 'Survivor' Instincts at Work

Chan's obstacles on the job are in some ways similar to his Survivor challenges: He must use his intelligence and personality to do well. "Like on the show, I have to tread very gently and make sure not to offend anyone while convincing them to go along with me," he says.

At UC Berkeley, Chan's IT team has little authority over the researchers: Policy allows them to use whatever technology they want; Chan can only pull the plug on technology that poses an outright legal or security risk, such as an infected computer. What makes the situation more difficult are the rogue IT departments: Within a research group, says Chan, there's usually a "computer guru"—a chemistry grad student "masquerading" as a computer expert—who troubleshoots computers, for example, or sets up a rogue wireless hub or loads software.

More IT leaders are finding themselves in a similar predicament as business users take control of technology. Free Internet tools such as Google Apps mean business users can use technology without IT's knowledge or permission more easily than ever. Emboldened by such freedom and finding strength in numbers, tech-savvy business users are demanding that IT support consumer devices like the iPhone.

This can be especially pronounced in a university setting. "Researchers have academic freedom," says Chan. As far as they are concerned, we're impeding their progress." Yet IT is still required to support them and maintain network integrity.

All the more reason to create a peaceful, friendly environment. Remarking on Chan, Survivor host Jeff Probst told the New York Post last year "There are just some people who have a way about them—instantly charming—that makes you want to pull for them."

For instance, rather than clash with researchers who wanted to use their own computers to tap into the university's network, Chan politely asked that they bring the computers to him so that he could create a ghost image on a disk. Many took him up on the benign request. When a malicious bot took out the computers, Chan was prepared.

When researchers called him for help, Chan told them that he could restore their infected computers' original applications within two hours. Grateful researchers asked why their administrators' computers weren't affected, and Chan informed them that it was because his staff manages those computers from cradle to grave.

No longer perceiving IT as a threat, more researchers began following his policies. (For more on influencing colleagues and staff, also see How to Influence Colleagues and How to Influence People.)

Chan doesn't win every battle, of course. He's had issues with researchers wanting Vista. And though as a fan favorite he was invited back for a second season of television (Survivor: Micronesia), he did not last long the second time.

Still, "He's a smart person who attempts to work with everyone, and is very good at solving problems...and is generally respected among the faculty and staff alike," says Johnathon Kogelman, operations manager of information systems at the College of Chemistry. "He is indeed similar to what was displayed on the Survivor series." Kogelman has worked for Chan for five years.

Most days, Chan works inside a cramped office of the old Hildebrand Chemistry Library. He's steeped in a network backbone upgrade from coaxial to fiber, as well as a build-up of a high-intensity computing lab. Technical books line yellowed cement walls. Paperwork clutters a desk that takes up half the room.

But on the far end of the rectangular room hangs a dazzling poster of a real-life action figure—it's Yau-Man the Survivor, of course, Chan's alter ego.

After his stint in Micronesia ended in February, Chan received an e-mail from a network engineer. It read: "You make us geeks proud."

Tom Kaneshige is site editor for InfoWorld.com, a sister publication of CIO.

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