Changing IT's Rep Through Small Talk

I just saw another one of those commercials that make fun of the unprofessional IT worker. I'm sure you've seen this one: The Suit comes into the Techie's work area and asks if something can be done by Tuesday, to which the Techie responds unprofessionally. The Suit offers to negotiate for the Techie, and the Techie snaps to and says he'll call a vendor, the commercial's sponsor. The Suit is left confused, the Techie gloating, and the Sponsor looking great. And IT workers everywhere are left with an image problem.

This month, we also heard from Gartner that CIOs are the lowest of the C-level executives, with a record number of CIOs reporting to non-CEO-level managers. Meanwhile, our trade magazines are filled with IT managers bemoaning how miserable it is to be in the profession. If you get a chance to read magazines aimed at other C-level positions, you'll find that they present a much more positive outlook to their readers. What is it that makes the difference? I know that most of us act like professionals, and for the most part we like our jobs. But like trial lawyers, we have a stereotypical reputation that is damaging to our profession.

I believe this is the best time to be in IT. Technology is everywhere, and there are more opportunities than ever before. The challenge is finding them.

I came across a great article by Susan RoAne titled "How to Create Your Own Luck: The 'You Never Know' Approach for Turning Serendipity into Success." RoAne is a speaker whose specialty is motivating people to mingle. Don't laugh; I'll explain why this is an important skill. She has spoken at Oracle, Autodesk and other technical and engineering companies.

She lists 10 behaviors for creating your own luck; here are a few that I have found the most challenging.

The first and second behaviors are to be open and positive and to observe people who are open, imitating their behaviors, including both what they say and don't say. Open doesn't mean blabbing company secrets. It means using positive storytelling as a way to motivate, connect and share experiences with staff, peers and colleagues. When I first tried this, I found it extremely difficult. It was so much easier to be ironic.

Another behavior is to make small talk. RoAne notes that through small talk, we find out about areas of commonality, which form connections that in turn form business relationships. When RoAne and I spoke last week, she shared a story about two Boeing engineers who worked together for nine years before finding out that they lived in the same neighborhood. Too often, we concentrate on the work at hand and miss opportunities to learn about one another. I wonder how much more we could communicate if we used those few minutes before or after a meeting to find out how the business owner's weekend was or whether he has children.

I'll leave you to read the rest of RoAne's article at Even if you don't agree with all of her recommendations, try one or two that you don't normally do and see whether it makes a difference. I'm not sure this is the answer, but I do know that we need to improve our reputation and create our own opportunities.

Virginia Robbins is CIO and managing director at Chela Education Financing in San Francisco. Contact her at

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