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.

By Tom Kaneshige
Tue, April 08, 2008

CIO — 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.

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