The “IT Guy” Rift

In 2004, my company was being courted by a well-moneyed startup out of New York City. They sent a team of executives up to Boston to speak with us and we spent the morning in a series of 10-person round table conversations – all very cordial. After lunch the visiting CTO and a tech advisor asked to meet with me (VP/Engineering) and our Founder/CTO behind closed doors. Although the rest of their colleagues were dressed in business casual (blazers and slacks) these guys were deliberately dressed in t-shirts and sneakers. Once the door closed they seemed to let out a sigh of relief. The first question they asked: “so tell us about your relationship with the business side of the company.”

My CTO and I exchanged bewildered looks. What did they mean? They laughed, “no, but seriously. How do you handle them?”

I see this mindset everywhere: in many – if not most – companies, “tech” and “business” are perceived to be in opposition to one another. People on both sides view the other with thinly-guarded disdain, as if they are simply a necessary evil.

This past August,  Harvard Business Review called this rift a “dangerous tension”:

At a time when many executives say that improving digital reach will be a significant differentiator for their companies, our research shows that two of the most important digital leaders — the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and the Chief Information Officer (CIO) — do not trust each other, understand each other, or collaborate with each other.

How tech guys view business guys

If you’re “technical,” the “business” guys don’t get it. You’re always having to explain to them how things work, but you have to “dumb it down” so they’ll understand. They make bad assumptions about how long things will take, how hard they will be, how buggy things will be and you’re constantly trying to educate them. They can’t express what they want in detail and can’t tell the difference between the trivial and the impossible. They get hung up on minor things like getting their computer to work or the shade of green in an interface. Sometimes you build something awesome and they can’t sell it. When business guys laugh and say “I’m not technical” you’re tempted to roll your eyes. They call you “IT guys,” even though no one in the tech world has used that term to describe themselves since the nineties. The obvious ones hold you in visible contempt, and you have a sneaking suspicion that even the cooler ones are just tolerating you.

How business guys view tech guys

If you’re “non-technical,” the “IT guys” don’t get it. They’re constantly making unreasonable demands that don’t make sense. They get all excited about weird, esoteric things that don’t matter – new languages or protocols or whatever – and are fond of building things just for the sake of building them. Sometimes they build things that nobody wants, but they don’t seem to care. When confronted with decisions they don’t agree with, they tend to issue dire warnings and grumble about the risks of not doing things right, and then retreat into their corners in a sulk. They spend their time doing god knows what. Things that should be easy take too long. They can never give you a straight answer. Their social skills are legendarily bad, and they seem not to care about appearances or relationships. The worst ones hold you in arrogant contempt and make you feel stupid, and you have a sneaking suspicion that even the better-adapted ones are just humoring you.

Socially the two groups don’t mix, and when they do it’s awkward and tension-filled.

Not a small problem

This rift extends all the way up the stack into the leadership tiers of companies large and small.  Harvard’s research says that marketing sees tech as “execution and delivery” resources, instead of equal partners, while tech sees business as “making promises they can’t keep” and not providing “adequate information on business requirements.” They warn that “when IT and marketing departments work at cross-purposes, the results are inefficiencies and mishaps and it is customers who suffer.”

This is even more relevant for startups, where organizational friction can mean the difference between success and failure.

To be sure, this rift is artificial and unnecessary. But it’s also chronic and longstanding and has its origins in the backgrounds of the players and what they were taught to value during their education and careers:

  • Technologists are trained to solve problems. The nature of the problem is often irrelevant, and the elegance of the solution is worthy of praise on its own.
  • Businesspeople are trained to seek results. How a problem is solved is less important than the fact that a solution occurred. Results are measured in terms of dollars or hours or relationships.

It’s no surprise that people gravitate to one side or the other based on their personalities, which only reinforces the stereotype.

How to fix the rift

On one level, this is an intractable organizational issue based on several generations of cultural and history. On another level, the solution is simple: we’re both right, and we both get a seat at the table.

  • For the tech guys, it starts with acknowledging that business and marketing parameters are valid and simply part of the intellectual problem to solve. If you were designing a database infrastructure, you wouldn’t discard the processing capacity of a server as ‘irrelevant’ – you’d factor it in to your solution. Understanding what the ‘non-technical’ parameters are – by collaborating with people who know them intimately – is the first step. By acknowledging this, you’ll create better solutions and demonstrate your value as a peer, and not “just” an “execution and delivery” resource.

    And try not to make them feel stupid. They hate that.

  • For the business guys, it starts with acknowledging that technologists can help create a better outcome by being part of the conversation. If you were doing a deal, you wouldn’t leave out the influential figure on the other side of the table until the last minute – you’d share whatever information you had and work with them the whole way. You’d take the time to understand what they’re saying and factor that into your thinking. Understanding that technologists are not just people who carry out orders, they’re players critical to the results you want to achieve – that’s the first step. By acknowledging this, you’ll achieve better overall outcomes and have a better relationship for next time. And don’t call them “IT guys.” They hate that.

Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.