Techies told to take 'soft' approach to office success

Insurer relies on IT staff's soft skills to rollout open source apps

Repeated efforts at Nationwide Mutual Insurance to try Linux on the mainframe faced opposition, some of it from IT employees worried that a mainframe-server consolidation would be a threat to their jobs. But their resistance offered James Vincent, a mainframe systems engineering consultant at Nationwide, a lesson that he put into use after the project was approved.

When recommendations for running Linux on a mainframe were made internally in 2000, 2002 and 2004 at the U.S.-based insurer, there were people "who fought tooth and nail to keep it from happening," Vincent said at this week's Share user group conference. Finally, with strong backing from Nationwide's upper IT management, work on the project began in 2005. Part of Vincent's job involved working with the employees who had feared it, including IT staffers who worked on Unix systems.

"At first blush, they feel you are taking away their job from them," Vincent said. But as a result of the prior battles, he developed a better sense of where the opponents were coming from. And Vincent said that with "kinder words," he helped convince them "that this is the right path to take."

The experience that Vincent gained is an example of what George D'Iorio would call "soft skills" -- a catch-all term used to describe the skills needed for developing effective relationships with co-workers and vendors, running meetings and ensuring that ideas and goals are concise and clear.

D'Iorio manages the enterprise server team at a large retailer that he asked not be identified. He also conducts training sessions on topics such as "Getting Your Message Across" and "Influence Tactics," as he did at the IBM-oriented Share conference. In addition, he is one of the organizers of Share's professional development program.

"Effective communication is a necessary skill in any kind of leadership, whether technical leadership or people leadership," D'Iorio said. "And I think sometimes the professional skills [in IT] are so much focused on the technology that the other soft skills get overshadowed."

D'Iorio said he believes that developing better interpersonal capabilities can improve the productivity and efficiency of an IT operation. He said that one thing his employer does to help sharpen such skills is hold what it calls "lunch and learns," where various IT workers give presentations about a particular aspect of their jobs or a project that they're involved in.

People who do well in their careers "tend to have pretty good soft skills," D'Iorio said. "A lot of the professional skills are really fundamental to be effective in an organization, especially if you're going to move into a management role."

Effective communication is something Donald Woodruff, an IT consultant at utility company National Grid USA in Westboro, Mass., tries to practice on the job. He said one technique he uses is establishing "checkpoints," which involves periodically making sure that the person he's explaining a technical concept to understands it before advancing the discussion.

"One of the most difficult issues for technical people is communication," said Woodruff, who added that IT workers need to be able to discuss what they're working on at a level that is clear to anyone.

"In business, you need to be able to talk at all different levels," he said. "You aren't just talking in a peer relationship, engineer to engineer. You have to be able to able to explain yourself."

Nationwide is running about 1,500 Linux-based production applications -- mostly new ones -- on the mainframe, Vincent said. That is helping to hold in check the growth of the insurer's installed base of 6,000-plus servers, and the company expects to save about US$15 million over three years by moving more applications to the mainframe.

In addition, the Unix group has gotten more comfortable with the changes, according to Vincent. Internally, he said, it has reached the point where Nationwide's Unix and mainframe staffers "are now part of the Linux/Unix team."

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