For some organizations, part of "working your way up the ladder" and getting promoted includes managing different parts of a public safety organization… Which sometimes includes managing IT.
But what do you do when you have absolutely no experience with IT? How do you lead a team when you have little experience or technical expertise?
- 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
- And much, much more!
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Tell us a bit about your role at the Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications Center.
Teresa Murray: I am the Chief Executive Director of the agency- my role is to act as CEO of a company- providing leadership and direction in all aspects of the company. I oversee all divisions of the organization which include Administrative, HR, Accounting, I.T. , Training, Catering, and Operations (9-1-1).
Our center works a little differently (okay, a lot differently) than most. We do not have our money in the treasury, we have it in a bank. We work and act like a Fortune 50 company- thinking entrepreneurially. We process and handle our own payroll, accounts payable/receivables, financials, audits, taxes, budgets, etc.
We are quite unique within the governmental world as we have achieved governmental efficiency. Our organization contracts with 10 fire departments in the County of Sacramento. We dispatch for all fire agencies which make up over 1000 sq miles of area. We answer 500,000 calls a year and respond to approx. 200,000 incidents a year. We have 50 employees total and support over 2500 regionally.
One of the areas I oversee is the IT division. We have 2 GIS (Geographic Information Systems) coordinators, a help desk technician, Network engineer, Radio Frequency (RF) Engineer and a CAD Technician.
One of the challenges is to ensure the technical strategic plan supports the operation and is well forecasted to ensure stability and function for all our constituents today and in the future. Sometimes this role can be challenging especially when one may not have a great deal of background in I.T. How do you determine if the staff knows what they are doing? How do you know when to trust their advice or counter it? How do you know if your investments are sound and reliable? How do you know what additional voids you may have within a technical system if you don’t understand what you are looking at? Technology is the backbone to most system function and one must be aware of what systems are appropriate, what should or shouldn’t work together, laws and requirements within the profession (DOJ, CJIS, Hippa, etc). How do you know if your public safety systems are secure?
It is our responsibility as a leader to make sure we have the ability to answer our questions and feel confident with the answers. Athena is an excellent partner in this capacity. As a leader, you can bring in a team of intelligent, knowledgeable, personal people who, very quickly, can provide an assessment of the environment. It will tell you if you are on solid ground or if you have concerns you will need to address. It can also act as a validation document to confirm what your teams have already told you – thereby inspiring trust and quickly allowing you to move forward with solid business decisions.
I became a student of IT and studied anything that was thrown my way.
I am not an expert but I can hold my own in a technical conversation
and know when I am not being given the entire story or the
individual doesn’t possess the skills to do his/her job.
JCH: What IT experience did you have prior to you taking on this position?
Teresa: I was blessed as I worked for a police department that allowed staff to volunteer on committees- any and all committees. I was a sponge and jumped on every team I could. I worked with the IT staff early in my career to understand CAD, RMS, software programs, applications, servers, sans, clouds, databases, templates, firewalls, VPN tunnels, bandwidth GIS, etc.. I also stuck a toe in the Radio pond, learning conventional and 800 MHz systems. I wrote training manuals for technological changes, radio migrations and started participating with formal organizations such as APCO, NENA, California Advisory Boards and such. I was also fortunate enough to be given the PM job for a $23M Police Communications and Back up Datacenter. I became a student of IT and studied anything that was thrown my way. I am not an expert to be certain but I can hold my own in a technical conversation and know when I am not being given the entire story or the individual doesn’t possess the skills to do his/her job. On the other hand, I also can spot a genius a mile away which means I can rely on them to do the right thing and guide the organization in the appropriate direction.
You must invest, trust and provide the support needed
while learning all that is required to achieve a collective success.
JCH: You’ve mentioned that you came into your role with at least some IT experience. But many people aren’t so lucky! When you’ve spoken to other justice professionals who are new to their IT supervisor role, what are their biggest concerns or worries?
Teresa: Their biggest concerns are some of those I stated in my earlier response. They are responsible for a unit that they don’t understand. They feel they can be ‘managed’ by their IT personnel because of what they don’t know. They don’t have the tools to validate or question their team because it’s not their expertise. They do, however, have the responsibility to find a way to manage the environment and empower themselves with the appropriate tools to achieve their objectives.
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?
Teresa: First and foremost sit down and ask your team to educate you on the environment – I always joke with them and say, “talk to me like I am 12” (it gives them permission to dumb things down for you without the fear of being ridiculed for doing so.) If your team knows you want to learn they will help educate you and form a relationship of respect. This allows you to begin to understand the IT needs (both from a personnel side and from a technical side). Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. Be humble- see them as partners, not employees. These are experts and they will be able to see right through you if you pretend to know something you do not. Again, if you need validation, look to a technical partner in the business such as Athena.
[The most rewarding part of my job] is working,
hand in hand, side by side, with my incredible team.
Watching them succeed, challenge themselves,
take risks and grow is the most rewarding part of my job.
As the team becomes stronger- so follows the organization.
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?
Teresa: Sadly, if the new manager is worried about feeling or looking inexperienced they probably shouldn’t be a manager or promoted in a position with that type of responsibility. You cannot worry about looking inexperienced. It is OKAY if you are. Simply explain to your team where your expertise lies and start asking questions and forming solid relationships. The more questions you ask and the more you are truly interested in their work the faster you will become familiar with the team, their strengths, and weaknesses. Once they trust you they will be honest with you about the needs of the organization which will empower you to fix what is broken- one fix based on their recommendations and you will have partners for life. Listen to your experts and verify when you are unsure.
JCH: Knowing that every job has its challenges, what is your favorite part of your job as an IT leader?
Teresa: Easily it is working, hand in hand, side by side, with my incredible team. Watching them succeed, challenge themselves, take risks and grow is the most rewarding part of my job. As the team becomes stronger- so follows the organization. You must invest, trust and provide the support needed while learning all that is required to achieve a collective success. People are your strongest assets- lead with honor, compassion, humility, and grace. The rest is easy…….