Fishing in the data pool

Shawn Mahoney guides business customers to the right information and helps them reel it in.

What's the most important contribution you make, and how do you make it?
We have two responsibilities here, data warehousing and back-end reporting -- business and management reporting. We manage and define data for reporting. That's incredibly important to the organization. We work very diligently to provide meaningful reporting for the business. That includes regulatory reporting. We support finance, claims and certain areas of product, actuary and underwriting. Most of the business looks to us for special reports.

What is the most important IT skill or aptitude you need to do your job?
If you want to be successful in IT, you can't be just a specialist anymore. You have to have a blend of skills to be effective. You need a little programming background, but as a manager, I can't be just the fastest coder; I try not to code. But I need to understand the effort it takes to get useful information out of the box. I also need a strong familiarity with the data and why and how the business uses the data and how it's defined.

What is the most important "soft" skill you need to do your job?
I have 10 direct reports, and I have to have really good people skills to harness their energies, get them focused on a particular agenda, lead them through tough times and get quality information out the door. If I were not a people-oriented person, I don't think I could be very successful. Communication plays an important role here. We spend an awful lot of time bridging the communications gap between business people, who have their own acronyms and language, and the hard-core applications-development side of the business, which is a different area. When the business has needs, we listen intently and restate them in tech terms for the tech counterparts. Everyone has to be in tune so that transfer can take place.

What's the biggest misconception about what you do?
I think the time it takes to do things is the biggest misconception. Business people understand that what we do is difficult, but they say, "It's sort of like this other job." They don't realize that once you get down under it, the required changes take more time than they thought. We want to turn things around quickly, but there's a level of due diligence. We want to be sure we've understood correctly. Everybody's grappling to shrink the time to develop a report, but the level and complexity of reporting in today's environment has only gotten more complicated.

What do you like best about your job?
I have a great team. If I didn't, it would be very frustrating. And I have very supportive management. I've been allowed to take this role and develop it and work with a diverse group and make it all work. It's fun. If I couldn't get up in the morning and know I'm going to have fun, I wouldn't want to be here.

What do you like least?
The volume of regulatory work we have to comply with. It just seems to grow. This is a highly regulated industry, and some of it gets to be so -- you just wonder why they're asking the question. I don't mind doing this, but I would like to know why, other than that the state decided to report this way.

What should other IT people know about your role?
That it's fun to be a manager. You don't always see a lot of people striving to take on management roles in IT, but it can be fun to be a manager, as long as you find ways to cut that work umbilical cord at the end of the day. There's a sense of satisfaction that you get. Even when things go wrong, when you come up with a solution, you derive a lot of satisfaction from that. It's a challenge, and it's rewarding.

What should business people know about your role?
That for this to be a successful partnership, they need to invest a lot of quality time and not just turn something over to IT. It takes commitment from both parties to be successful. You need a business partner [who's] not only willing to help you build a requirements document but also to take the time to educate the team as to why they need this done so everybody buys into the game. There's a better result when everybody understands. We lose that if we're just programming out of a set of specs and have no clue why they want information in that format. We need the business people to be here throughout the whole process. More and more, we see people willing to do that, but there are still a few we need to convert.

What would enable you to do your job better?
More resources are always nice. Bigger, faster, more people is certainly important. All of IT has gone through a real austerity program in the last few years. As businesses look at what they need to do to be competent in this increasingly global marketplace, they have to think where to put their investments. Organizations have a lot of information, and you can do a lot to the data that makes it easy to ask questions and learn something about the business. That takes time, talent and investment, but it pays dividends.

If you weren't a systems and programming manager, what would you be?
My dream job would be fishing guide, but it probably doesn't pay very well. Helping people get at something by putting them in touch with the right resources and the right body of water -- catching fish and catching data aren't all that different.

How does the future look for your role?
I'm pretty positive and excited about it. Because through back-end reporting and data warehousing, we're really tied to the business from an information perspective. It's the information side of information technology that's important. Technology is going to change, and that's exciting, but you really need to remember the core is having knowledge about the data and keeping it where you can get at it and use it.