Monday, July 18, 2011

Has Anybody Seen the Bridge

Some people may be wondering where I came up with the title View from the Bridge. If you thought perhaps since I live in New York this referred to the splendor of the Hudson Valley as seen from the Tappan Zee or the glorious Manhattan skyline and the cliffs of the Palisades viewed from the George Washington you were sadly mistaken.

Several years ago I started delivering a talk entitled Getting Out of the Engine Room. It drew a parallel between the engine room of a cruise ship and the IT department of most companies. It put forward the simple argument that, like the engine room, the IT department was absolutely critical but largely invisible. During this talk I ask people  who have been on a luxury liner, if during their cruise, they went below deck to pound on the engine room door and thank the crew inside. As you might expect, this generally evokes quite a few giggles from the crowd. But no hands ever go up.

Last August (2010) a cruise ship had a small engine room fire. This enormous ship lost all motive power, had no heat or light, no prepared food, no entertainment and a lot of miserable passengers. Without the engine room the ship was completely crippled.

Whatever your perspective may be from  inside the engine room, the people outside simply expect flawless operations and failures are typically the only thing they will notice. I encourage IT professionals to get out of the engine room. You have to be up on deck with the rest of the crew and your passengers. Understanding what the crew need and what the passengers want is crucial to your success.  In other words, unless you understand the business and know what customers want you cannot add value in any significant way. If you spend your entire day huddled over a keyboard inside the server room you are out of touch and too focused on technology.

I recall a staff meeting where I asked how many of the IT staff had attended a meeting with a customer or visited a production line. When a relatively small number of hands went up I asked the follow on question; how do you support a business when you don't know what they do?

Of course, it is also highly desirable to be on the same course as the captain. In fact, the ultimate achievement is to be on the bridge helping the captain chart a new course. I wonder how many of you have read the most recent annual report or 10K for your company. Do you have a clear view from the bridge or are you busy stoking the engines without knowing where you are headed.

Captain Joe

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  1. Joe, I totally agree with you BUT for one nagging little detail; more often than not 'IT' is 'banned' from meeting customers, or even popping their head above the corn field.

    So as much I would agree that IT, and especially its leading core, should be more visible and more 'part of' the general company structure and direction, I think 'general management' still needs a lot more education on recognizing that without the engine room there is no need for anyone to sit on the bridge. And that means getting these guys involved.

    To me that's a top-down activity and not a bottom-up. Been there, done that, I'm afraid.

    What say you?

  2. François, I think there's an element of "Don't let the engineers talk to the Customers!" in many companies, but that attitude isn't exactly unearned!

    I remember after being with my current company for about 2 or 3 years, I was invited to a senior management meeting, mostly as an observer. Inevitably I was asked my opinion, and had to expand upon a couple of points. I must have done OK, because I remember the COO saying to the lead Business Development manager, something like "He could even speak to our clients!"

    Going to go from the "uninvited" status to "sought after" is a process. We're going to have to be more "familiar" to other corporate functions, understand the terminology, drivers, motivators of others. Speak in a way that doesn't intimidate (tech can be intimidating!).

    I don't want to discount what you're saying - it's an uphill climb, sometimes. If a companies leaders sought to elevate IT leaders, understand the capabilities available, they would be more efficient. But it doesn't always work out that way, and I'm not sure we have time to wait for invitations in the mail!

    Just MHO.

  3. Agreed, one should not 'wait' to be invited. But often it is hard for technical directors to 'get noticed' no matter how hard they try and in my experience more often than not it took one or two insightful 'general managers' to convince their colleagues on the board that it would actually be beneficial to include IT in their overall plans and meetings.

    Mind you, I'm all past that now, so can only try and pass it on to next generations ;-)