IT has never been an easy department to manage… But if you've just recently been promoted to leading your IT department, and you have no IT background? It can frankly feel overwhelming.
Fortunately, Mike Lyons, of Athena Networks, has a lot of experience helping new managers to learn the ropes on how to lead their IT departments.
- How to lead an IT department with no IT background
- Unique challenges the non-IT native leader
- Building support from your tech team
- Overcoming the steep learning curve
- Knowing when to ask for help.
- Bringing it all together to make a high-performance team
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Tell us a bit about how Athena supports public safety agencies from an IT perspective.
Mike Lyons: Companies, like people, do their best work when they can align their passion with experience and strengths. That’s what we try to do at Athena. There are three primary roles we play in the relationship with our clients.
First, as experts in public safety IT infrastructure, we supplement the efforts of many local government IT shops. Often, these organizations are not equipped and staffed to manage mission critical, high availability systems. There are a lot of challenges delivering high levels of IT support these days. Athena’s goal is to help make this easier and more predictable.
Second, we work closely with our industry partners to support them with IT infrastructure issues. Often CAD and Records application providers are expecting specific hardware and network provisioning which PSAP managers aren’t familiar with. We bridge the gap between the vendor and the client as an extra set of eyes and hands that can design networks and server configurations or just make sure all the right lights are on. This helps cut implementation and services costs for both the vendor and the agency.
Third, our system monitoring service and 24 X 7 Help Desk serve as a safety net for both clients and their vendors. So much of our work is about early failure detection and corrective action to prevent service interruptions. With our monitoring, clients we can see things like CPU utilization, system process issues, storage capacity and network traffic and bandwidth. In turn, Athena can detect problems early, taking appropriate action to solve a problem even before a client experiences symptoms.
Companies, like people, do their best work
when they can align their passion with experience and strengths.
JCH: While some Public Safety IT leaders have IT knowledge – some definitely don’t. When you’ve worked with these justice professionals who are new to their IT supervisor role, what are their biggest concerns or worries?
Mike: The biggest concern or worry, like anyone on a team who has responsibilities, is letting their teammates down or putting their community at risk. In the world of public safety, that often means being surprised by a system failure or having something unexpected go wrong.
All of us are so dependent on technology these days that our success or failure often depends on systems that we don’t fully understand or even know exist. Someone new coming into an IT supervisor role is doubly exposed because there are so many new things to learn. To make this situation even more difficult, learning these systems and technologies takes time, energy and the right frame of mind, things that are often difficult for new supervisors.
JCH: Playing consultant for just a little bit, advise these new IT Supervisors. What are some of the first things they should do to understand their new job?
Taking a big-picture approach, the first things they should do is clearly understand the extent of their operation, responsibilities and the mission of the organization. Knowing this information helps develop assessments, planning, creating tactics and strategies and understanding resources. The temptation often is to dig in and get dirty early in the new job. At the start of my career, I would have taken this approach. But, what I’ve learned is that there will be ample time to get into the details. Understanding the big picture and knowing your mission and what your span of control and responsibilities are, is a much more effective way to start a new job.
Knowing your resources is the second part of understanding a new role or job. As a supervisor, this means understanding your people first. Learning about your team’s strengths individually and collectively is a big part of this effort. Personal interviews and team discussion will be the fastest way to collect this information and learn about the practical situations you face.
By understanding these two macro topics (span of control and people’s strengths) you can begin to create assessments and models that will help you apply your focus and energy in the right places. A great resource for new (and not so new) supervisors is www.Mindtools.com.
Someone new coming into an IT supervisor role is doubly exposed
because there are so many new things to learn.
To make this situation even more difficult, learning these systems and technologies takes time,
energy and the right frame of mind, things that are often difficult for new supervisors.
JCH: A lot of new managers who take on a technical department are often worried about feeling (or looking) inexperienced in IT. How would you coach managers to overcome that?
Mike: There is an interesting concept called “beginners mind.” Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said, "In the Beginner's Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few." A beginner’s mind means putting emphasis on asking questions instead of having answers. Letting go of the idea that you must be an expert early in your new role. It also suggests that you can look to your current teammates, your boss and colleagues to inform you of problems and prepare you for likely risks, if you ask questions and listen to answers.
Another behavior that new supervisors often get tangled up in is the idea that they need to do many tasks themselves. By not trusting and empowering your team to get the job done, you open the door for team dysfunction and invite unnecessary problems into the department. Practicing a beginner’s mind and trusting your teammates may both feel like being vulnerable and showing up as inexperienced. But, worrying about how you look, or worse, pretending to be something you’re not is a poor way to start a new job.
[It means] letting go of the idea that you must be an expert early in your new role.
It also suggests that you can look to your current teammates,
your boss and colleagues to inform you of problems and prepare you for likely risks,
if you ask questions and listen to answers.
JCH: Taking your advice into consideration, what should a new IT supervisor then look for in an IT vender-partner?
Mike: By looking at their span of control and their people, new IT supervisors can begin to evaluate where gaps exist in the execution of their organization’s mission. With this information, the new supervisor can look externally for other resources that may be needed to help. These resources may be in other parts of the organization such as a city or county IT department. Or, they may need to go outside the organization into the private sector.
In either case, as a new supervisor, you’re looking for someone you can work with, an organization that is trustworthy and one that aligns well with your specific needs. For this reason, I wouldn’t look for a vendor, my suggestion is to look for a partner. In the private sector this is like the difference between a customer and a client. Fast food companies have customers. Organizations that are solving complex problems work with clients. The same principles apply to public safety. Ultimately, you want to work with a company that can be trusted, who is willing to be accountable and whose values align with your own organization.
Finally, because public safety is mission critical and has unique requirements such as CJIS compliance, high availability and high response expectations, new IT supervisors should look for partners that understand and incorporate these requirements into their business models.