People not processes - a personal lament

The Art of IT Management Book CoverDr Robina Chatham, author of The Art of IT Management, takes us back to the beginning of her career to reflect on the roots of her success...

My career commenced within the shipbuilding industry. It was the early 80s and I joined a shipyard along with nine other engineering graduates. I spent the first two years on the shop floor as a “fitters mate” in order to complete my training to become a chartered engineer. During this time I learned little about engineering but a lot about people, industrial relations and shop floor survival tactics.

Following my stint on the shop floor I went into the planning department and quickly became involved with putting computers onto the shop floor for the first time. I ended up project managing two major projects; the first was a manufacturing control system which I named COMICS (Computer Oriented Manufacturing Information and Control System) and the second an access control system whereby entry to or exit from the shipyard could only be gained via a bank of 20 computer controlled turnstiles. At this point in my life and career I was naïvely unaware of all the potential problems and pitfalls normally associated with such ground-breaking projects. I was also unaware of the stages a computing project should go through, the development life cycle and development methodologies; nor were there any IT text books to help or guide me. I therefore operated purely on instinct, gut feel and basic common sense. And yet both projects were a huge success. I cannot claim they went in on time, to budget or as specified since there was no budget, plan or detailed specification. The systems however worked, they fulfilled business imperatives, the workforce liked them and the Unions were content. Over the period I was promoted three times, my salary doubled and I became the youngest manager in the history of the shipyard.

As my career progressed I learned how to manage projects and develop systems “properly” - it was at this point in my career that things started to go down hill. Don’t get me wrong I never did a bad job but I could never recapture my early successes. The question is why?

My analysis of the situation is as follows. By now I was a fully-fledged member of the IT community and had moved to the finance sector where money was more plentiful. I was sent on training courses; I learned about methodologies, process and procedures and project management. I watched my peers and bosses; learned from them and tried to emulate their behaviour. However I forgot what came naturally to me - the people side, networking and building relationships! During the early part of my career I had naturally (for me that is) focused on building relationships with people, I did this throughout my two-year stint on the shop floor. Later when I talked to the people on the shop floor and to the Unions they trusted me. When I told them IT wouldn’t threaten their jobs but would ease some of the more mundane aspects they believed me and willingly helped my projects happen. During the middle years of my career I learned to consider the time I had spent on relationship building a luxury rather than a necessity. I therefore stopped doing it because I didn’t feel I had the time; I felt that I should be concentrating on “work”. Lunch breaks became a snatched sandwich whilst catching up with my e-mail rather than dining with, talking to and getting to know my user community and business peers.

I have now re-qualified as a psychologist and reflected on where I went wrong; I understand how I ignored a natural and oh so important talent of mine - that of relationship building. I have recently embarked on a major study of IT professionals who have progressed beyond the ranks of IT and made it to the position of CEO. Such individuals told me that they spent 50% of their time networking and relationship building whilst in that top IT role. In hindsight, I would have handled those middle career years very differently. As one of the CEOs in my study so succinctly put it “IT leadership is about getting the best out of people and not about building processes and procedures”. If only I could have my time again!

About the author
Dr Robina Chatham is former European IT Director of Robert Fleming and currently Visiting Fellow at Cranfield School of Management and founder of Robina Chatham Ltd. Her prime focus is on helping senior managers to develop political acumen, master the art of influencing others and hence increase their personal impact at board level.

The Art of IT Management

In her latest book, Robina draws on her personal experiences to offer practical advice, tools and tips from the real world of IT, providing an essential guide for IT professionals taking their first steps into management and for more seasoned managers who want to become successful leaders of change.

Available from the BCS bookshop and other online bookshops - read more at

About this blog
Our business and IT books cover a variety of topics. Here authors, colleagues and other professionals share their thoughts on related subjects.

See all posts by BCS Books
November 2017

Search this blog