by Sharon Florentine

IT Leaders Aren’t All Coming From Tech

Sep 24, 20145 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Today's IT leadership looks a lot different than in years past. Many are climbing the ladder from marketing, sales and other departments.

it leaders from marketing
Credit: ThinkStock

The milestones along the traditional path to IT leadership look a lot like this: Earn a computer science degree, serve an IT internship, take development courses, gain coding experience, obtain certifications and sign up for management training specific to technology. However, as IT increasingly becomes a business strategy enabler, IT leaders are being promoted from places like the sales or marketing department.

Francis Li, vice president of IT at technology solutions and services provider Softchoice is a perfect example. Francis’s early years at Softchoice began in hardware, and he later moved on to roles in the marketing and sales teams.

This initial experience sparked his interest in and aptitude for information systems, giving Francis the ability to segue into more technical projects — and he now leads Softchoice’s IT department and sets strategy around business intelligence, ecommerce and infrastructure, according to Li.

“I started in July 2002 as a hardware operations person, making sure we were ready to sell hardware to our customers, initiating vendor relationships and customers to move hardware,” says Li. “After that, I moved into marketing and eventually to director of marketing; I spent four years in that role. Then, I was given the opportunity to move into telesales and worked up to managing our entire telesales organization,” he says.

How Technology Drives Business

Li says he’s always had an interest in how technology could be leveraged to drive speed and efficiency in business and how technology could improve return on investment for innovative companies wiling to invest. It was this curiosity about the intersection of business and technology that led him to and through roles in very different departments, and that cross-functional experience gives Softchoice a competitive advantage.

[Related: 6 Hot New IT Roles for 2015]

“The multiple perspectives I have on different areas of the business has helped us be much more innovative and ‘self-aware,'” says Li. “Because I’ve been in so many varied roles, I also have the ‘street cred’ when I’m having conversations with marketing and sales. Because I speak from first-hand experience, I can empathize with the challenges they have. I can help them understand how to either better leverage the technology we do have, or to redesign or re-architect the tech, or make smarter purchasing decisions for the business,” he says.

Understanding Internal Customers

It’s also important, Li says, to understand business strategy to help line-of-business managers who are using the cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) to make technology purchases without IT’s guidance.

[Related: How C-Level Execs Can Learn to Speak Digital]

“IT infrastructure and technology has come so far in the last few years. In the past, if a manager wanted to spin up some new technology, or deploy a new software solution, they’d have no choice but to go through IT. With SaaS and the cloud, they can bypass IT totally, and that can lead to integration problems, compatibility problems, even personnel and training issues,” Li says.

Having both technology and sales and marketing experience can help bridge that gap and ensure any technology purchases are beneficial for all aspects of the business —  technology and beyond, he says.

A Big-Picture View

Erika Van Noort, director of consulting at Softchoice, says employees with horizontal experience offer the big-picture view needed to lead a high functioning IT department and a thriving business.

[Related: Top Leadership Quality Isn’t What You’d Expect]

“Our theory is that within leadership roles, folks have to understand the entire business so they can better serve customers — both external and the internal customers, users, that IT supports,” Van Noort says. “Our external clients are facing skills shortages not with technology and certifications, but with business skills and seeing the larger business strategy,” she says.

“Instead of focusing so much on speeds, feeds, technical specifications, what we advise our clients is to treat their internal users as customers. We want them to ask, ‘What does success look like? What does successful business usage look like?’ and that takes a cross-functional, multifaceted approach,” Van Noort says.

With a traditional approach, Van Noort says, most technology deployments are done from the top down and result in employees complaining afterward that the systems and solutions aren’t helping them do their jobs. Instead, she advises, get buy-in from customers and employees first, and then determine from there which technology will best fit those needs.

Van Noort says businesses are beginning to understand this shift in focus, and are increasingly demanding business analysts and DevOps professionals — many of whom have experience similar to Francis Li’s – to better explain business needs and strategies as well as explain how those can be addressed using technology.

An Inclusive Approach

“It’s definitely more inclusive this way; instead of your people saying, ‘I wish I’d had input into this decision, because I never would have done it this way.’ If instead they understand how the technology can help them, understand what a successful adoption looks like, they’ll be much better positioned to do their jobs and your business will be more productive,” she says.

And, Li says, his varied experience has helped him grow in his personal life, as well as in business, as he’s had to reinvent himself so many times to grasp the intricacies of each new role he assumed.

“Cross-functional development has really affected me in a personal way, too,” he says. “I’m a better listener; I’m much more empathetic. I’m humble enough to know that there are instances where I’m not the subject matter expert, I am much more in tune with people, their concerns, their priorities,” Li says. “And that’s made me a much better leader through all these different roles and positions.”