It’s like a broken record: IT pros must “develop business skills” to succeed. But what we aren’t told is which business skills to develop.
The plain fact is, not all business skills are important for IT, which is just as well, because if we needed them all, we wouldn’t be IT professionals anymore. We’d be too busy learning to be accountants, copywriters, sales reps, recruiters, and purchasing agents.
Ignore all that. Here are the 10 business skills that truly matter to your career in IT. A lot.
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IT business skill No. 1: Listening
If you have to choose just one skill to acquire or improve, make it this one. More than any other single skill, the ability to not just hear what someone else is saying, but to make sure you understand what they’re trying to tell you — regardless of whether they’re explaining it well, or you agree with them — is hard to overstate.
Good listeners have an advantage over everyone else: They’re constantly learning what everyone around them knows, which makes them smarter than those who are busy showing how smart they are.
IT business skill No. 2: Collaboration
Even before Agile became important, collaboration — the ability to work with other people to achieve results no one person can deliver independently — mattered a lot. Agile just makes it more important, because collaboration between developers and business users is central to how Agile works.
Collaboration is how people who are on the same side figure out solutions to shared problems and ways to pursue shared opportunities. How you figure out who’s on your side is a different matter.
IT business skill No. 3: Negotiation
Whereas collaboration is how people who are on the same side work together, negotiation is how people who are on different sides figure out a path forward they can all agree to, even if they don’t see eye-to-eye.
People who don’t know how to negotiate in constructive ways will frequently find themselves stuck in situations with no path forward. When they do, they’ve almost always become the problem — worse, they don’t even know it.
IT business skill No. 4: Basic business finance
IT pros don’t have to understand balance sheets, cash flow statements, or most financial ratios. But they need to know how to interpret profit-and-loss statements. These tell you how the business is doing, and how your department is faring compared to its budget.
IT pros should also be versed in return on investment (ROI) — understanding why a dollar next year is worth less than a dollar today, how depreciation works, and the difference between capital and operating expense. ROI tells you whether you’re working on something worth working on.
IT business skill No. 5: Understanding the company’s business model
“Business model” is the buzzword version of “how the business works.” It’s how the actions the company performs lead to customers deciding to buy what the company has to sell at prices that return a profit.
IT pros who understand the business model are in a position to suggest ways IT can make their company more effective — especially the IT they’re working on right now. IT pros who don’t are limited to talking in glittering generalities that might or might not have any relevance to making the company more successful.
IT business skill No. 6: Understanding the company’s operating model
The business model illuminates how the company competes; the operating model explains how it does it’s work — how the pieces fit together to turn raw materials into finished products.
Understanding the operating model gives you the same benefit that understanding the business model does: It provides the context you need to spot the difference between hypothetical and real improvement.
IT business skill No. 7: Knowing how to use pronouns
When talking to anyone: (1) Use I only to give examples of when you used to do things wrong. (2) You belongs in positive sentences, as in, “You’re way ahead of me on the use of pronouns.” (3) We take on the hard tasks and get them done. Use we to establish buy-in. (4) Attach they to every wrong opinion, attitude, concept, and way of working. These four rules are critical to presenting ideas in ways that maximize acceptance and minimize resistance, unlike those less-enlightened souls who have never figured them out.
IT business skill No. 8: Political power mapping
You’re responsible for your own career, but advancement in the company you work for depends on other people deciding that you deserve an opportunity.
You need to know who those people are — who in the company has actual power, and who their allies and trusted confidants are as well. Knowing this will tell you whom to network with. Even more important, it will tell you whom to avoid to keep from damaging your prospects.
IT business skill No. 9: Managing up
It’s something of a cliché that employees need to be good at managing their boss. Cliché or not, it’s an essential skill.
Without this skill, your chances of being assigned to do bone-headed work are much, much higher. With it you’re in a position to persuade your boss as to what are and aren’t good ideas. Even more important, with it your boss will ask you before forming an opinion.
IT business skill No. 10: Doing your job
No matter how technical your responsibilities are, proficient delivery counts as a business skill for a very simple reason: If you can’t do the job you’re paid to do and do it well, nobody will listen to you on any other subject no matter how brilliant your ideas might be.
Oh, and by the way, doing your job includes understanding how it fits into the big picture (business skills 1 through 9), so you can tailor what you do to have the maximum possible impact.