IT culture: 10 outdated beliefs to banish in 2020

CIOs and CTOs share the IT culture misconceptions that are holding some IT organizations back. Do people on your teams need to dump any of these?
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A new year is always a good time to look back on past accomplishments and set future goals, but a new decade prompts deeper reflection. How is life today different than it was 10 years ago? What have you learned? What were you doing back then that seems unimaginable in the here and now?

Technology professionals looking back in their careers may remember a very different IT organization than what exists today. What was once the norm – like lone-wolf engineers and IT working in isolation – have become unacceptable as the role of IT has evolved. But culture change takes time, and a few unhelpful ideas may still be lingering in some organizations as IT enters its next decade.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

We asked IT leaders to share their biggest IT culture pet peeves and misconceptions that are still holding IT back. Here are 10 dying notions that leaders say should be left in the past.

1. Great engineers can get away with anything

“Toxic work cultures and toxic employees (including executives and founders) are workplace productivity killers. However, we are still tolerating these behaviors as an industry. What certainly didn’t work last decade was tolerating toxic behavior because it was coming from '10X engineers.' However, the net-negative of those behaviors clearly removes any benefit the toxic employee provides. The truth is that companies that seek out these toxic behaviors and eliminate them will most likely see an increase in retention and productivity.” – Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical

2. Soft skills are nice, but hard tech skills reign supreme

“Technology and culture are inextricably linked, and technology teams need to reinvent themselves over time in order to stay relevant. Inevitably, there’s an amalgam of diversity and personalities that enable a group to function at a high level, and you need a culture that has a degree of humility and self-awareness. Really great teams have team members who know who they are and who they’re not, and they know when to get out of the way and let other team members make their contributions.

“Positivity is also key to a team’s success, because no matter how much we think we’ve got things figured out, we haven’t got things figured out. You need to have a culture that lives by positive principles such as honesty, respect, and fairness even when it’s not easy to do so. Negative leadership styles based on critique and criticism don’t get the best out of people and don’t breed loyalty. You only get the best out of people when you do things in a positive way.” – Paul Chapman, CIO, Box

3. IT is for antisocial people

“The perception that IT workers/jobs are not social and are best-suited for antisocial individuals really irks me. I believe we lose a great many talented candidates because of this common misconception. Truly, IT jobs are well-suited for people who are passionate about the technology industry, regardless of their social patterns.” – Warren Perlman, CIO, Ceridian

4. You can outsource almost any IT work to save money

“While some technical work can be sent offshore successfully, there is a lot of joint business/IT work that requires close collaboration and exploration. IT staff and business staff need to work together and stay in sync, making it very difficult to successfully send this work offshore.” – Matt Mead, CTO, SPR

5. The customer is probably doing something wrong

"One pet peeve I have is when technologists get instantly frustrated with users and automatically assume they did something wrong or aren’t following instructions. Patience is not only a virtue, but a requirement in IT. Issues occur, and IT organizations must be customer-centric in order to build effective partnerships with the business. Shadow IT can occur when users feel they are not getting the support they need out of their own IT departments." – Jason James, CIO, Net Health

6. Bias is part of life in IT

“My biggest pet peeve is seeing non-white, non-male employees get counseled on behavior that their white male counterparts engage in. If I am pushy and difficult in a meeting, I’m a ‘disruptor’ or an ‘iconoclast.’ A woman or person of color does that same and they are viewed negatively. I’m certainly not going to stop being pushy or difficult, but I would very much like to see the same standard applied to all. I thrive on dispute and challenging my ideas, and that should come from all team members, not just the privileged.” – Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical

7. Most senior IT leaders are male

“I hope women will be better represented in tech roles, especially at senior leadership levels. While there has been great progress, there is much work to be done to achieve gender parity. Organizations like #movethedial, a global movement driven to advance the leadership of women in tech, help bring a voice for diversity within the tech industry. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), women employed in computing and mathematical occupations has consistently hovered at about 25 percent since 2007. In order to change this, IT leaders need to encourage more women to enter the field and champion their successes once they are in their roles.” – Warren Perlman, CIO, Ceridian

8. IT is separate from “the business”

“A few of my main pet peeves are the ideas that shadow IT is always bad, that cloud is less secure, and that business functions believe they do not need IT and can make their own independent decisions on technology. It is frustrating that we always use the term ‘IT’ and 'the business.' It implies that IT is not part of business and [is] instead a second-class, subservient function." – Paul Chapman, CIO, Box

9. IT needs to stay focused on the tech

“It’s important for IT culture to adopt a ‘big-picture’ mentality. IT staff need to understand how their work fits in and affects the company at a macro level. They will do better and their deliverables will perform better if they have both a technical and macro-level understanding of the projects they are working on.” – Matt Mead, CTO of digital tech consultancy SPR

10. Failure should be avoided at all costs

“I always say that the learning is in the failure. I think most people want to go back and save themselves from their mistakes, but if I hadn’t made all the mistakes that I’ve made in my career, I don’t know that I would be able to do my job right now. We talk about this a lot on my team. The failures are important but the key thing about failures is reflecting on them, not dwelling on them, because in every failure you’re going to learn something. Just enjoy the ride because it’s going to be messy, but that’s how you learn.” – Rob Zuber, CTO, CircleCI

[ Want advice from top CIOs on solving talent challenges? Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.