What's Next

Business owners tend to either love or hate their information-technology departments, but they generally don't know why. And if they think that they have good reasons, either way, they might easily be wrong. The truth is that entrepreneurs typically don't know how to even think about IT, much less whether their IT department is helping their business. That makes it very difficult for most companies to manage IT, with the result that there aren't very many good IT departments. But it doesn't have to be that way. If we understand the way IT people actually think and then the way they ought to think, it's possible to save money and at the same time make IT really pull its weight.

That process is a little easier than it used to be, thanks to the current recession, which has cost 400,000 IT jobs to date and made the hiring picture go from absolutely insane to merely competitive. During the Internet bubble we hired anyone who knew certain IT buzzwords. Now we can at least require that someone be able to put those buzzwords into a coherent sentence.

Coherence is not a joke here, since many IT departments are staffed by people who weren't born in the United States. IT staffs are filled with Chinese, East Indians, Koreans, Russians, and the occasional guy from Memphis, all with varying English-language skills. A friend of mine who used to run an Internet company in suburban Washington, D.C., recalls interviewing an IT candidate who kept using the word access in his interview. "I couldn't tell whether he was talking about Microsoft Access [a software product] or the Dulles Access Road," she says. "My IT director, who was also at the interview, said he thought the guy was talking about using Microsoft Access on the Dulles Access Road, but he wasn't completely sure about that."

The candidate got the job.

So the first rule of having a good IT department is that you have to be able to communicate with that department. That doesn't mean avoiding foreign-born help. It means making sure that someone in the department speaks fluent English and can act as a liaison.

Communication is so important because IT people aren't like you and me. They tend to be nerdy and headstrong and often reluctant to communicate at all, much less well. They can appear to be busy and focused, yet the path they're following may or may not be the one you think you have set them on. If they don't agree with you -- and often they won't -- they'll just do it their way without saying anything.

When it comes to making IT pay, products are bad, projects are good. Think in terms of solving a problem, not buying stuff.