Technology Managers Need to Learn How to Putt

At the beginning of our careers back in 1989 as programmers, a colleague and I decided to learn how to play golf. This was at a time when computer gaming was still in its infancy so we actually preferred spending time outdoors. Anyway, we took a group lesson geared towards beginners for 6 weeks. We spent 2 lessons on learning how to “drive” and the remaining two-thirds of the course on pitching and putting. One of the other participants asked why we didn’t spend more time on driving and our instructor replied, “Drive for Show. Putt for dough.” He expounded on his statement by explaining that on every hole we only drive once. However, people typically spend 2 or more strokes on putting. In my case, the number of putts was usually “or more.”
As I progressed in my career and moved from tactical programming into technology management, I realized that I was guilty of the “driving for show” syndrome. Whenever I had time and the inclination to practice, I would usually hit the driving range. The only time I ever practiced putting was when the green had a windmill or a clown face in which to aim. I was more concerned about how I looked teeing off in front of all the people typically waiting at the first hole than I was at actually reducing my overall score in the game.
I think those of us in technology management fall into a metaphorically similar trap. The difference is that we should “learn technology for show and understand the business for dough.” As technologists at heart, we gravitate towards wanting to learn about newer technologies. We tend to spend our time attending technology conferences and dialing into web conference for some product overview. But how often do we spend time with the leadership and our peers in the business? Do we know what their professional drivers are? Do we understand what they expect of IT? Do we even know if they like to play golf, mini or otherwise?
Staying abreast of technology is still an important part of a technology manager’s job. We want to make sure we can recommend the solutions that meet business requirements and are cost effective to implement as well as to maintain. However, I would suggest that we should be spending equal if not more time meeting with our business counterparts in order to understand their needs. What are the key pain points in the parts of the business in which they are responsible? What do they need in order to improve their department’s productivity? What risks are they trying to mitigate and what new rules or regulations are they trying to meet? What keeps them up at night? Ultimately, we need to spend more time understanding how IT can help the business meet their needs.

This does not mean we need to become experts in accounting or warehouse management.  We need to be better listeners versus technology proselytizers. Technology within the context of solving a business problem can sometimes sell itself.

I can guess what you are all thinking; “I do not have that much time in the day.” My first suggestion is that you try not to go to lunch alone. I try to schedule lunches with someone from the business side a week or two in advance…typically with a peer or someone identified as the formal liaison with IT. When I was the CTO of a startup in the late 2000’s, I had bi-weekly lunches set up with the head of marketing, operations, accounting and customer service. They were our primary users. I especially enjoyed my conversations with the head of marketing. During the winter, we would get falafels and during the summers we would meet at Baskin Robbins.

My second suggestion would be to change your philosophy toward what your job is. Communicating with the business is an integral part of technology management’s responsibilities. You typically do not have time for something when you consider it an option or ancillary part of your job. If you view the need to communicate with and learn about the business as a critical aspect of your job, then you will find it much easier to make the time. Other activities could be delegated. Until you change your mindset that meeting with the business is important, you will rarely find time for it.

As for my golf instructor’s comment of “Drive for Show, Putt for Dough,” hitting the long drives provide less overall benefits compared to what you do on the green. It is the finer details of the game, such as understanding the business, which will get you the low scores and big wins. So the next time you are thinking of eating alone, I would encourage you to grab your putter and take someone from the business to lunch.